04/07/2013 03:17 EDT | Updated 06/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Canadian sportscasting pioneer Johnny Esaw dies at 87

TORONTO - The man considered Canada's ambassador of amateur sports, who brought football, figure skating and the Olympic Games into the nation's living rooms, has died.

Johnny Esaw died Saturday in Toronto after suffering from respiratory problems, his former employer CTV said Sunday.

Rick Brace, president of CTV's specialty channels and CTV Productions, said Esaw's innovation in covering sports "is legendary around the world."

"He had the rare combination of being a brilliant business man and incredibly creative. To me he was a mentor and an icon. Canada and the sports world today mourn the loss of a great man,” Brace, who is also the former president of TSN, said in a statement.

The award-winning sportscaster was a longtime member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, which describes him as "a pioneer, an innovator, and a fervent supporter of our nation’s sporting achievements."

Esaw "was at the forefront of sports broadcasting in Canada and around the world for more than 40 years," the organization says.

He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2004.

Born in North Battleford, Sask., Esaw started his radio career in his home province before moving east.

He made the switch to TV in the 1960s, becoming sports director for CTV's Toronto station.

The first colour telecast of a hockey game — from Vienna — was produced by Esaw in 1967.

The beloved broadcaster also convinced the network to carry figure skating at a time when hockey was king, saying the sport would appeal to viewers.

The move earned him the recognition of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, which continues to dole out a bursary in his name.

Esaw rose through the ranks until landing the role of vice-president of CTV Sports in 1974, a job he held for 16 years before he retired.

He was also well known as a CFL broadcaster and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

"The name Johnny Esaw was synonymous with the best of Canadian sport, and particularly with the biggest event in our country, the Grey Cup," said CFL commissioner Mark Cohon in a statement.

"His ascendancy to the top of the ladder in broadcasting paralleled the growth of the Canadian Football League. Those who built our league, and all of us in it today, mourn his passing today, and pay tribute to his legacy."