Hockey Night in Canada is the longest running program in the history of the world. Starting on radio in 1931, it adopted its current moniker in 1936. It moved to television with separate broadcasts in French and English in 1952 and has remained on the air ever since. Hockey Night in Canada managed to unite an enormous, sprawling landmass in a way Confederation never could. While Canada struggled for decades to establish a show business culture it could call its own, Hockey Night in Canada stood as its only competent showcase in the entertainment world. Thus, it was only natural that this avidly consumed broadcast would take its first announcer - a bland, nasal-voiced play-by-play man - and catapult him to the position of Canada's biggest celebrity.
Foster Hewitt is a name that all Canadians know. He was a gentlemen that, for several decades, was one of its most adored characters. His fame came by default. He never possesed sonorous larynx. He had no charisma. And he had no peer. His flat, everyman delivery was accepted; it was simply a factual account of what he saw on the ice - with little else added. It was as if a random man had walked in off the street to broadcast the game. This is perhaps what gave him his greatest appeal.
Having built a one-man empire as the only hockey broadcaster in the world, Foster Hewitt made sure to groom his son to take over the family business. Foster shared trade secrets with his son like an aging cobler passing his shop on to junior. He taught him well. The voice and observations of Bill Hewitt were considered even more flat and bland than those of his father. Once established as the new voice of Hockey Night in Canada, Bill Hewitt's talent was summarized by respected journalist Peter Gzowski. "Bill Hewitt not only fails to improve the game with his commentary - he makes it slightly less interesting."
Regardless, the Hewitt family was the voice and sound of Hockey Night in Canada for a total of forty-eight consecutive years. It wasn't until September 28, 1981 that the broadcast would air without a Hewitt. Some contemporaries blamed the demise of the legacy on the elder Hewitt and the pressure he instilled on his son. Some said it was booze. Others said it was pills. However, in retrospect, it would seem it was a combination of all three. The night Bill Hewitt fell apart on the air remains one of the stranger stories of Canadian broadcasting. In an instant, a broadcasting dynasty collapsed. It was an instant that, for those working alongside him that evening, felt like a lifetime.
What follows is a chapter excerpt from the unpublished Oral History of Hockey Night in Canada by Kliph Nesteroff.
During the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties - Foster Hewitt was the biggest celebrity in Canada. As the voice of the most popular program on radio, he was in high demand for endorsements, fundraisers, and interviews, constantly courted to be Grand Marshal of every small town parade. To the lexicon he introduced “dipsy-doodle” to describe a player’s elusive maneuvering. He created an exclamation which lives on as the most familiar of sports clichés: “He shoots, he scores!” He coined much of the phraseology that hockey broadcasters use to this day.
The Hewitt family was associated with Canadian sports well before Foster's pubescence. Foster’s father, W.A. Hewitt, became sports editor of The Toronto Star in 1900 and remained at that post for thirty years. When the new state-of-the-art Maple Leaf Gardens arena opened in 1931, W.A. left The Star for a fulltime position as “general manager of all attractions other than professional hockey.” Fully immersed in Canadian sports, he held titles as secretary of the Ontario Hockey Association (1903-1966) and as an officer for the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (1915-1961). W.A. was able to leverage those titles for familial gain. Both W.A. and Foster Hewitt became staples of Maple Leaf Gardens during its first decade. Foster was “near the beginning of his national fame,” says official biographer Scott Young. “In the next decades he became simply the most famous Canadian of his time … no one was surprised to read that six million Canadians, out of a population then numbering eighteen million, had been in Foster’s audience on a certain Saturday night. [There was] a year that he received ninety thousand fan letters.” Foster Hewitt, using the most basic of communication skills, devoid of any glitz, became King of Canada.
Foster Hewitt’s broadcasts, beamed across the country, not only made him a giant celebrity, but helped bolster the reputation of the entire Maple Leafs organization. Thanks to Foster’s enthusiastic voice they were no longer a regional team, but national heroes. The so-called “Kid Line” of Joe Primeau, Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson was built up in Foster’s broadcasts to be the greatest of all NHL combinations. However, club owner Conn Smythe would write in his autobiography that “the Kid Line wasn’t really that good [but] Foster made them national heroes.” Smythe wanted to break up the line as he felt they weren’t working together, but he couldn’t. Young explained that “because of Foster’s broadcasts he didn’t have the nerve.”
The Maple Leafs manager throughout the nineteen sixties was Punch Imlach. Punch was appalled at the way team owners Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard eventually treated Hewitt. “It was my experience, being there in the middle of it, that Stafford and Ballard never appreciated Foster. All that he had done, of course, was do more than any other one man to build the franchise into a gold mine for them.” Imlach is accurate. Foster Hewitt’s florid descriptions, embellished as they might have been, helped propagate the Toronto Maple Leafs and turn them into an icon. "Harold Ballard hated him," says producer Ralph Mellanby. "He'd scream, 'That fucking rich millionaire! He's made more fucking money out of this place than I ever have!"
Foster’s son Bill would join him in the broadcast gondola from time to time. Bill remembered, “In those days, you know, we’d get up there about eight and the broadcast wouldn’t start until nine. One night he said to me, ‘You want to work?’ I said, ‘Sure, you bet.’ And he said, ‘Well, get down beside me here.’ A microphone in those days was like some kind of toy sitting in front of me and I’d begin to call the game in my squeaky voice. He’d correct me, tell me I was repeating myself too often, tell me how to identify different parts of the ice … When it got to maybe fifteen minutes before airtime he’d take over and start calling the game himself, so that when the broadcast did start he’d be all warmed up. He always had done this himself right from the start of the game, but now he got me doing the first part of it.”
Bill called his first game for Hockey Night in Canada in 1955, filling in when Foster went overseas to broadcast the World Ice Hockey Championship in Krefeld, Germany. Bill had been born with a similar vocal timbre, and had been under his father’s tutelage for so long, that most people didn’t notice the difference. Foster took back the reigns upon his return, but not for long. In 1957, Foster stepped away from the television microphone and Bill Hewitt became the permanent voice of the Toronto telecasts, with contemporaries Danny Gallivan and Rene Lecavalier continuing the English and French duties in Montreal.
Those that knew Bill Hewitt felt he was a reluctant heir to his father’s broadcasting throne. Many doubt that Bill would have entered the broadcasting field if not for the pressures of his famous father. Howie Meeker sums up the sentiment in this chapter. “He didn’t want what his old man had … No more suited to be an announcer than to be out in the general public. He was scared of people.” Bill Hewitt himself had heard people say this about him. He contradicted the notion in 1985 when he said, “I read all these books by people who can’t wait to tell about what jerks their famous parents were. Mine would be a little different – about how to grow up in the shadow of a famous father and love every minute of it.”
There is no question that the father-son bond between Foster and Bill was very strong. Although they both had guarded, stand-offish personalities, they were close with each other. Regardless, the pressure placed upon the younger Hewitt did create a level of stress. Bill’s co-workers knew that he struggled with some kind of problem - exactly what it was remained vague. Bill Hewitt’s health problems would always be a clandestine matter, even when they resulted in his broadcasting demise.
Once Bill took over the television duties in the mid-fifties, Foster focused his energies on radio station CKFH, which he owned and operated. CKFH had the radio rights for all Toronto Maple Leafs bouts and Foster continued to call those games himself, simultaneously immersing himself in the day-to-day operations of the station. In subsequent years he would occasionally appear on Saturday night television broadcasts, sporting his new horn-rimmed glasses, rarely speaking for long, before throwing it over to Bill for third period action. Foster wouldn’t have had time to do much else on the program. With a keen business sense, he was investing his already handsome fortune in a variety of elaborate projects. He became a partner in the inception of CFTO, Toronto’s first private television station, soon to be the most profitable in the country. He had a large stake in the Madsen Red Lake Mine near Kenora, Ontario, which turned him into a multimillionaire. Foster Hewitt was not only one of the most famous men in all of Canada, he was one of the wealthiest. There was also a controversial side to Foster Hewitt that few listeners were aware of, but that too many of his colleagues were subjected to. “One other side of Foster’s character," explained Young, "was a thinly veiled prejudice against minorities.”
Bud Turner of MacLaren Advertising said that Foster’s opinions “offended me personally on many occasions. He was highly prejudiced, awful, yet obviously he had some sense of propriety in that what he said depended a lot on who his audience was.” Foster Hewitt never openly displayed his racist streak if, say, his waiter in a restaurant was black. He would wait until they were out of earshot before making his disparaging remark. “But other times,” said Young, “he seemed reckless of consequences. Once, entering the Flame Showbar in Detroit after a hockey game, he stepped inside the door and exclaimed loudly enough for at least those nearby to hear, ‘Geez, the place is full of [racial slur]s!’ … Foster left.” Many years later, Canadian Sports Network’s number one man, Ted Hough, tried to coerce Hewitt into removing the controversial blackface lawn jockey imagery he displayed in his yard. It was the politicized seventies and the last thing CSN needed was an explosive news story about Foster Hewitt and race relations. Hewitt refused to remove the items as a matter of principle(!). Foster never conveyed racism during the broadcast - with the exception, says Young, “when Foster said ‘Japs’ on the air. For that one instant he must have had a flashback to the days when Japan was the enemy and headlines consistently used the term.”
Foster Hewitt’s relationship with Le Soirée du Hockey, the French-language counterpart to Hockey Night in Canada, was also strained. The Soirée crew held Hewitt in contempt and apparently the feeling was quite mutual. “He hated the French,” said Bud Turner, indicating that the disdain went far beyond his struggles trying to pronounce “Yvon Cournoyer.” The legendary 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union came to television courtesy of reluctant cooperation between CBC and CTV. Both had broadcast deals with MacLaren Advertising’s Canadian Sports Network. A compromise to use broadcasters from both networks was drafted for the Cold War battle. Johnny Esaw, legendary broadcaster turned vice-president of CTV Sports, brought Foster Hewitt out of retirement to be the television voice of the series. A member of the media asked him if it was appropriate to bring in a seventy-year-old man to broadcast a series of this magnitude. Esaw was confident in the decision. “Who else is there for a series like this?” The Quebec media had some ideas. Montreal sportswriter Nick Auf der Maur ranted on Peter Gzowski’s This Country in the Morning on the eve of game one. “First of all in Quebec, English Canadians are up in arms over the selection of Foster Hewitt as the broadcaster of these games … Toronto imagines that all Canadians were brought up with Foster Hewitt but … English Canadians in Quebec were brought up with Danny Gallivan … They also feel that their hometown announcer Danny Gallivan should have, at least, been given the radio assignment, but Bill Hewitt … is broadcasting it on the radio.” Bill Hewitt, in reality, did not do the radio call. Instead it would be the first major play-by-play assignment for a young Bob Cole, with Fred Sgambatti at his side. Auf der Maur continued, “In the English taverns where they would normally watch the games in English, the fans here have voted to [protest by watching] the games in French with Rene Lecavalier.” When asked by Gzowksi what the justification was for the controversial selection of the retired Foster Hewitt, Auf der Maur answered, “Well, the argument is that it’s a historic event and Foster Hewitt is a historic figure or something. A fossil. That’s what they say he is.”
In September 1981, Bill Hewitt called his last game. The disturbing evening, fortunately for Hewitt’s sake, occurred during an inconsequential, pre-season exhibition game. Scott Young’s synopsis was that “He could not distinguish one player from another. He had been losing weight for weeks and was to lose fifty pounds in total before the weight loss was stopped. Some reports were … that he suffered a form of breakdown.” Executive producer Ralph Mellanby wrote in his memoirs, “His final night was an absolute disaster. He had a nervous breakdown on the air ... It was one of the saddest nights of my life. There was a lot of speculation about Bill – that he was drunk or on drugs. I don’t believe that was the case. That night, Bill left the Gardens and never came back."
The Hewitt family dynasty, so very influential, important and familiar, ended that night. The enduring torch that passed from legendary sportswriter W.A. Hewitt to broadcasting ground breaker Foster Hewitt, and down to his sound-alike son Bill, after more than eighty years, had been extinguished.
HOWIE MEEKER, ANALYST: I got to know [Foster Hewitt] extremely well … the year I was coach [of the 1956-57 Toronto Maple Leafs] he did some games on the road … I invited him to stay and sleep in the cubicle that I had - as we traveled by train. He would, quite often, come and stay. So we talked and talked and talked and talked. He was a great guy. He had a great talent, but beside that, his personality with other people was just great … So, I had this cubicle when we traveled and I asked him in over time. We got to know each other – to trust each other.
MURRAY WESTGATE, SPOKESMAN: He was a very nice guy, but he was somewhat of an enigma … very private.
MORLEY KELLS, CREATIVE DIRECTOR: He was very private. I don’t pretend to be close to Foster. I think [Canadian Sports Netowrk President] Ted Hough might have pretended he was close to Foster, but [producer] Bob Gordon would travel with Foster however many days – and never knew anything about Foster. Anybody that claimed they were close to Foster – I think they were making a false claim … I bet the guy closest to him was [advertising executive] Bud Turner. Bud Turner was the boss. Conn Smythe was close, but there was a reason for that – that I will not reveal. Foster Hewitt had something on Conn Smythe that you wouldn’t believe. There was nothing that was ever going to happen to Foster, I tell you that.
HOWIE MEEKER: He told me a lot of stories about (laughs) how he got what he got. Everybody thought that Foster and Smythe were friends. That’s total unadulterated bullshit. Smythe hated him. Absolutely hated him. Foster made more money out of Maple Leaf Gardens than Smythe ever did. How he got the job – Foster’s old man blackmailed Smythe. Why sure! The Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t selling out. Maple Leaf Gardens wasn’t making any money. Smythe wanted the Allen Cup and Memorial Cup Finals played at Maple Leaf Gardens. So they went to Foster’s dad who was president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and said, “Here. Is this at all possible?” And Foster’s dad said, “Sure, it’s possible. All you have to do is sign all broadcast rights out of Maple Leaf Gardens to my son.” Which he did.
FRANK SELKE JR, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT: I know that Foster and his father, W.A. Hewitt, had some kind of an agreement with the Gardens on the sale of signage and advertising and that kind of thing. In fact, W.A. for quite some years, his title was Marketing Director … He was the one that really ran the building in that sense. Foster certainly made money. He was a very keen investor. He was, to put it mildly, cheap. He didn’t spend any of his own money on anything. The boys that traveled on the road said, more than once, that if you could get Foster to buy a round of drinks after the game, it was a miracle.
JIM ROBSON, PLAY-BY-PLAY: He wasn’t the first to do a hockey game, but the terminology was all basically started by Foster Hewitt ... It was accepted that Foster was the starter of a lot of the terminology that was used. He was a pleasant enough man. I guess he didn’t have many friends in the business. He had the rights to Maple Leaf Gardens for his station. I always had pleasant visits when I talked to Mr. Hewitt, [but] I guess he was a tough guy to work with or something. I just sort of felt that. He was respected because he was Foster Hewitt.
DICK IRVIN, COLOR COMMENTATOR: The first game that was ever on radio was in 1923, in Regina. A man named Pete Parker did the broadcast. A lot of people think that Foster Hewitt was the first. But he was not the first. He came a couple weeks later in Toronto.
FRANK SELKE JR: I had a conversation with a gentleman about the Pete Parker broadcast years and years ago. He gave me all the details of Parker’s broadcast and so on. Foster was still alive. I spoke to him about it and he said, “I never claimed that I was the first [to do a hockey broadcast]. I was the first that I’m aware of, but I’ve never claimed that I was the first guy to do the play-by-play because I didn’t know whether I was or not.” He said, “This is a story that has been perpetuated over the years and there’s not much I can do about it, but if Mr. Parker did a game before I did, well, good for him.”
MORLEY KELLS: The guy – the eminent grease behind everything was Foster Hewitt. He never wanted to control anything but he was a powerhouse. Just a powerhouse. Bud would go to him before he ever made any major decision.
DICK IRVIN: He never seemed to know who I was. He knew my dad, for gosh sakes. I’ve got a book downstairs by Foster Hewitt, has got to be one of the first hockey books written in Canada, certainly by a broadcaster, and it’s signed to my dad. In the early thirties that book was written - Down the Ice. When I got hired, he would come in and he would pick “The Three Stars.” That’s all he would ever do. Maybe analyze a game between periods once in a while. I did a couple of those interviews on the road with him, but he never seemed to… he always called me “kid.” “Oh, hi, kid.” Never called me Dick or made any reference to my folks … he just never seemed to know who I was … Whenever I talked to him, he would answer, but he was kind of strange.
RALPH MELLANBY, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Foster was God. He did radio and then did "The Three Stars" on television. In those days when you directed you never even met Foster. He was just up in the booth, he did his "Three Stars" and that was it.
DOUG BEEFORTH, PRODUCER: By the time I met Foster, he was in the later days of his career … and [by] then Foster was also the guy who chose “The Three Stars.” We’d have to make sure with five minutes to go in the third to go to Foster and say, “Who are your picks, Foster?” He was in the later years of his career and he was an elder statesman. I’m not sure he ever really knew who I was.
RALPH MELLANBY: He looked like a ragbag on television. This was pre-blue jackets, pre-all the branding of the show. I had lunch with him at the Westbury Hotel ... it was an interesting lunch. Morley Kells and Brian McFarlane had told me, "Oh, no one talks to Foster!"
FRANK SELKE JR: I can give you a bit of an insight. I [used to watch] the games from one of the light booths at the Gardens. I used to sit up in this booth with two of the Gardens’ electricians. They had a radio in the booth. This was before television. They would listen to Foster while they were watching the game. That’s when I realized that Foster had created a unique style of game coverage to match how he wanted it to sound. What struck us sitting in there was that he was always behind the play. If the puck was at the blueline, listening to him, you would think it was at the other blueline. This would give him the opportunity to wind up, “He shoots, he scores!” He would be able to bring it all together in one rush of speech and create this exciting aspect to the game as a real spectacle… that wasn’t happening! We used to laugh, these two guys and me, that Foster was looking at a different game than we were.
HOWIE MEEKER: He embellished the story – he made the story great.
RALPH MELLANBY: I wanted to help him. I said, "Lookit. I've got certain plans for you and I want to try them out on you, but I need your permission."
HOWIE MEEKER: You couldn’t compare him to anybody, because at that time there wasn’t anybody [else] doing the game.
RALPH MELLANBY: I said, "You're my boyhood idol" and all that bullshit. He said, "You're the first guy that's talked to me since I started [on television] in 1952."
BOB AULD, STUDIO ASSISTANT: Foster was very serious in his role. He was more outgoing when he opened up his radio station because then he was really going from Mr. Hockey to Mr. Broadcasting.
AUDREY PHILLIPS, LOGISTICS COORDINATOR: We used to laugh that Foster would go out and the most exciting thing that he would do was watch the barber give haircuts.
FRANK SELKE JR: As far as radio was concerned it didn’t matter. He was tremendously exciting and he was accurate. He didn’t make mistakes, but you will recall, when television came in, he couldn’t do it. His style didn’t match the picture. So they tried Foster for one year, and that’s how Bill got into the television end of things. He was the answer because Foster couldn’t do it...
RALPH MELLANBY: I said [to Foster], "When you're talking - don't look at the camera - look at the guy you're talking with, Brian McFarlane. Don't look at the camera! Where you looking? You're staring into outer space and you look like shit!"
FRANK SELKE JR: Foster, of course, continued on radio with his own station that had been covering the Leafs for years and years.
DICK IRVIN: The last year my dad coached the Leafs, we’d sit in box four. We’d be there early because he had to be there early. Before the game would start, Foster used to walk by in front of us. That was almost a bigger thrill for me than watching the hockey game … Foster would walk by and Bill would be with him. He used to take him up to the gondola with him. Who knew, hey? Both of us seven or eight years old and we’d be working together in the years to come.
BRIAN MCFARLANE, COLOR COMMENTATOR: I suspect [Foster] said, “Bill, you’re going to do what I do when you get to be an adult.”
STEVE ARMITAGE, HOST: Given his own [volition] I don’t think that would have been his first choice of career, but I think there was a lot of pressure from his dad. His dad owned a radio station that eventually got the Leafs broadcast rights. It was kind of a custom-made job and there was a certain amount of family pressure to take over the family business kind of thing. He came from a family that was, by then, quite wealthy. He didn’t really need the job so-to-speak … He didn’t need the money. Everybody else did it because they needed the job and the passion for hockey and for Hockey Night in Canada. Yes, you kind of got the impression with Bill that it was something that he was doing, but not by choice.
JIM ROBSON: Bill sort of stepped in there. He started as a little boy. One night a year there was “Young Canada Night” and Foster would have Bill do a period when he was about eight years old. He grew into it. He was a private, quiet guy.
DOUG BEEFORTH: All he wanted to do was the best job that he could do. The good news for Bill was his dad was Foster. The bad news for Bill was his dad was Foster.
RALPH MELLANBY: Foster had done the first years on television with his son Bill. He also knew that Bill wasn't the brightest post on the block.
DICK IRVIN: Bill had a lot of critics as you might know.
DON WALLACE, PRODUCER: Bill. Oh, Jesus Christ.
DAVE HODGE, HOST: Well, Bill, you know, Bill was... um... was... uh... how would I describe Bill?
DOUG BEEFORTH: Because Bill was who he was, he was able to get some opportunities in his career that others wouldn’t necessarily have gotten. But then that also meant that he would get compared to Foster. Foster was an icon; is an icon. Those are pretty big shoes to fill. Bill, I think, did a good job of taking the reigns from his dad. But I think he always sort of operated in the shadow of Foster … I got the sense from Bill that he was happiest when things were the simplest ... As TV became more and more complex, as it always does, I think Bill felt more and more like a fish out of water. Because it was getting further away from the purity of just calling a hockey game, which is where he came from and what he felt the most comfortable with.
JIM ROBSON: When we worked in the gondola up there, the visiting radio worked at one end, and the Toronto radio worked at the other end and in-between were the television people. We used to see them when I went in to Toronto and I would say hello. I would go in and offer the information on the Vancouver team, but they never seemed to be – Bill especially didn’t seem to be interested.
FRANK SELKE JR: I could picture Jim Robson doing Maple Leaf telecasts instead of Bill Hewitt and how much better they would have been.
JIM ROBSON: Bill Hewitt was not very good. I mean, that’s my opinion. For years in Toronto they accepted Bill Hewitt. I remember going into the booth in Toronto. I was working a game. Bill Hewitt was working. Bill was a pleasant enough guy. I’d say, “Well, Vancouver’s Bob Daily isn’t in the lineup tonight, he got hurt two nights ago in Philly.” “Oh, I won’t bother [talking about] that.” You know? They’d never mention things like that. And it’d be a key defenseman on the team, but they’d never mention it because he wasn’t playing. He didn’t do homework. He just got the program out, looked at the centerfold of the program and sat there. He didn’t go to morning skates or practice. I don’t think he really had his heart in it. Yet, Bill went into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Bill had done a lot of key, historic things in television, but for a lot of the key things he happened to be in the right place at the right time.
DON WALLACE: Good thing [for him] his last name was Hewitt.
RALPH MELLANBY: He wasn't the sharpest guy on the block. He was a brilliant announcer and he was predestined to take his dad's job. I spent a lot of time with Bill and I had to kind of nurse him. The guys were always playing practical jokes on him.
DON WALLACE: There's not much to say, really. I don't want to be negative.
RALPH MELLANBY: He was kinda funny, y'know? This one time we're walking into a hotel and he's checking in with this girl. We walk up to him and he said, "I want you to meet my wife." We knew he wasn't married!
HOWIE MEEKER: Bill was just a little bit different, that’s all. He didn’t want what his old man had.
RALPH MELLANBY: That's why he went out to the farm when he had his nervous breakdown and stuff. It was very sad. Very sad.
HOWIE MEEKER: Christ, his old man was probably the second or third best-known person in the country. Made all kinds of money. Had all kinds of influence – if he wanted to use it. He was hard to get to know. He was a different kind of dude. No more suited to be an announcer than to be out in the general public. He was scared of people. But a good guy. No one, y’know, the viewer or the listener on the street – I didn’t hear any complaints whether he was good or bad. He was a different kind of a dude, but a good guy … He was scared of something. All he wanted in life was this gorgeous girl that he was looking at all the time and a little old farm by himself. The two of them lived together. He got it, apparently, so what the hell? No, he was a good fellow. In our day there wasn’t near the amount of people criticizing who thought they were experts and thought you didn’t know what the hell you were doing or thought you sounded terrible.
DAVE HODGE: Bill struggled with being Foster's son. Bill wasn't as confident as he should have been because I think he always had his dad's legend to live up to ... he was always going to be considered less than the best Hewitt. I don't know that I knew Bill all that well. He was Bill Hewitt. That was enough.
RALPH MELLANBY: I always had the feeling he didn't want to be there. He didn't mix with the other guys.
BRIAN MCFARLANE: I worked with Bill for seventeen years and I think I had two meals with him in that time on the road trips. He ordinarily took a different flight to the city, stayed at a different hotel, showed up for the games, went home after the games, didn’t stay around to have a beer with the fellows.
DON WALLACE: I knew him, but not really. He more came in. Did the job. Went home. Never really sat around and had drinks with or had dinner with him.
FRANK SELKE JR: Bill was quite unique in that sense. Foster on the other hand was a friendly type who would be happy to have dinner with you any time… as long as you picked up the tab. Bill was very much his own guy. I think I can understand it a little bit because I understand how a father’s reputation can create pressures. I know that ninety-percent of Stafford Smythe’s problems were created by his father. Stafford could not, in his own mind, live up to Conn’s expectations; he as much as told me that in Montreal one night. He just couldn’t do what he felt he should do. I think that lead to his demise and I’m quite certain that was part of Bill’s problem too.
JOHN SHANNON, PRODUCER: Bill did a solid job for a long time and there are a lot of people that still think of him as the voice of the Maple Leafs. Bill came from an era where the play-by-play guy had one job: do the game. He wasn’t really involved in pre-production. He wasn’t really involved in any of the meetings. What he needed to know was that there were six commercials and he did the play-by-play and stopped and let Brian McFarlane talk and go from there. And that’s really what Bill was.
AUDREY PHILLIPS: Billy hated coming to meetings, but he would come to meetings... but he just sort of sat there. He just sort of sat in the corner.
BOB AULD: The Bill Hewitt I knew [in the fifties] I remember differently than the others [who knew him in the seventies]. He seemed to me, in those days, to be a very young gregarious happy-go-lucky guy … Bill was full of fire … He was ready to have a drink with you. He was ready to have a laugh. We went up on the train to Sudbury one year, we must have laughed all the way up to Sudbury. He was always ready for a party and he was always ready to talk to you. He was far more down to earth than Foster was … Something must have changed him.
BRIAN MCFARLANE: I found it hard to work with him because he tended not to listen to what I had to say. He was so focused on the play-by-play. The people that were around me were aware of this and made little jokes about it from time to time.
RALPH MELLANBY: He was the butt of a lot of jokes, but he never got that he was the butt of the joke.
FRANK SELKE JR: He didn’t know how to work with a color man. He just couldn’t do it. If Brian, in the booth, would say something to him, Bill’s answer would be, “That’s right Brian.”
BRIAN MCFARLANE: They were unique individuals and went their own way … I think Bill was a very shy individual and whatever Foster did or asked Bill to do – he would do. For instance, I think Bill told his dad, “When you quit, I’m going to quit.” They had father – son talks in the gondola that mostly rotated around programming at the radio station ... We had a big game, I think it was Chicago and Toronto – a minute until the opening face-off. I heard Foster say to Bill, “Bill, we’ve changed the music policy on our station to country music and driving in tonight I heard the goddamndest music on there. Who the hell is Conway Twitty?” And Bill very seriously said, “Dad, Conway Twitty is a big name in country music. We’ve got to play his records if we’re going to be number one.” The referee is getting ready to drop the puck and we’re ready to go and they’re arguing about Conway Twitty!
BOB AULD: Both Hewitts were not easy to get to know immediately. They were reserved, there’s no doubt about it. They both had serious expressions. They looked like they were growling at you … He didn’t show that to me. Certainly, I wasn’t with him for a long time ... It could have been his home life too. I have no idea. I do know that Foster was very private. I don’t know of anybody who ever met Mrs. Foster Hewitt. I don’t know of anywhere I ever saw a photo of Mrs. Foster Hewitt. I may be entirely wrong, but in the years that I was at MacLaren, I never heard her name mentioned and I never saw her.
RALPH MELLANBY: If we were going to Chicago, Bill had to go the Playboy Club. We did it year after year after year. He was a creature of habit. He did the same thing over and over. "Ralph, we going to the Playboy Club!?" He was like a kid.
DICK IRVIN: I think it was during the exhibition season that Bill was not well and he decided that he shouldn’t do the games anymore, but what exactly the situation was, I don’t know.
STEVE ARMITAGE: I don’t think it was a very happy ending. I don’t think he was very happy with the way things drew to a close.
MURRAY WESTGATE: He was a bit of a… he was a pretty good guy, but I think he drank a lot. I think there was some problem there.
MARK ASKIN, PRODUCER: In 1981, he had his last broadcast. I don’t know what happened on that show. I don’t think anybody has ever really said what happened, but I know Bill had had some health issues. I don’t know what they were.
RALPH MELLANBY: I was in the building. Yes.
DOUG BEEFORTH: I was in the building. I was with Don Wallace.
RALPH MELLANBY: Don Wallace was the producer. It was an exhibition game. We very seldom telecast exhibition games, but we did for that one. I don't know why we did it.
DON WALLACE: Yup. It was really... that was very difficult.
DOUG BEEFORTH: At the Gardens there was the studio where the guys would come in to get interviewed and then … beside the studio, there was the client room where the executives could sit during the games and watch the show and watch the intermissions. I was in the client room with Don Wallace for Bill’s last game.
DON WALLACE: Ted Hough was in the stands with his wife.
DOUG BEEFORTH: It was apparent very quickly that there was something not quite right because he was misidentifying players.
RALPH MELLANBY: He had [misidentified] everyone on the ice as being [retired players] Doug Harvey to Eddie Shore.
DON WALLACE: We got started and he just didn't... he got all confused. He had no concept of who #22 was. I'm just using that as an example. He should have known that. That's just a routine thing. Everybody brought it to my attention. "What's going on? [He's not announcing] the right guys." So I grabbed Hough. Brought him in. "What do we do, Ted?"
DAVE HODGE: People were running around wondering what was going on and I certainly knew pretty quickly he wasn't right. While it was other people's responsibility to decide what to do and get answers to those questions, it was my job to do my job. I thought it was wise to stay out of it and not know a whole lot more other than what was evident. So I remained that way. I would still have questions about what exactly went on and what the actual version was or should be. It wasn't my position to pry.
DOUG BEEFORTH: There was something out of whack … I believe that he was replaced during the game because it had progressed to the point where it was obvious something wasn’t right.
DON WALLACE: I went upstairs and sat down beside Brian.
BOB GOLDHAM, COMMENTATOR: I was in the booth with him.
DON WALLACE: I watched Bill. I could see he was way off.
BOB GOLDHAM: He got very disoriented.
DOUG BEEFORTH: I’m in the client room sort of watching as an observer here, so I wasn’t privy to all of the conversations that may have been going on. But my take on it was that there was concern about the show, but there was also significant concern about Billy’s health. “What’s going on?”
DON WALLACE: I guess. I mean, I just was more concerned about handling it in the right fashion. That was more my concern than anything. He had been there forever.
BOB GOLDHAM: We were all on headsets. Everyone was going, "What's wrong with Billy! What's wrong with Billy!"
RALPH MELLANBY: I called the producer. "Have McFarlane take over! Get him out of the booth!"
DON WALLACE: We called a commercial quite quickly. I said, "How you feeling? How are things, Bill?" He was disoriented. I said, "Why don't you take a break here and we'll get Brian to do this." We moved Bob Goldham up as the color guy. Brian moved up and Goldie moved in.
DOUG BEEFORTH: I think Brian took over play-by-play for the rest of the game as of the second period.
BOB GOLDHAM: Brian picked it up and got us through it ... it was fairly embarrassing, to put it kindly.
RALPH MELLANBY: He came down and I got the doctor - the team doctor.
DON WALLACE: I think Bill went home. That was the end of it.
RALPH MELLANBY: He never came back. Never came back to Maple Leaf Gardens.
FRANK SELKE JR: It was a health issue. Definitely. He had a health problem and I can’t tell you precisely what it was because it was heavily guarded, but he was on a pretty hefty dose of medication for his health issue and it turned out that any alcohol that he might imbibe would turn him into a very different person. He did a couple games where he had been out the night before. That night he couldn’t remember who some of the players were. It was obvious that the medication, the mix, had created this problem for him that, I guess, couldn’t be helped. He had to have the medication. There was even some uncertainty if he would be able to carry on anyway, beyond booze. Occasionally, he would fall back to memories from years before. Like taking the number from a particular player from ten years ago and seeing that number on the ice and indicating that that was who the guy was. So it was very, very difficult.
RALPH MELLANBY: No one ever saw him again.
FRANK SELKE JR: To be honest, those of us that were around at the time, never really got the full story because Ted Hough simply would not let the full story to be told.
DON WALLACE: We were never too sure.
FRANK SELKE JR: Hough protected Bill and had a good conversation with him, to the point where, “Bill you should stop broadcasting while you still have your reputation.” That’s what happened.
RALPH MELLANBY: He went to his farm.
DON WALLACE: And that was it.
RALPH MELLANBY: He just had a total nervous breakdown. There was no way to explain it to the public.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This excerpt comes from an enormous undertaking, the Oral History of Hockey Night in Canada. The content within was culled from interviews conducted for the project in book form originally for Harper Collins, later for Penguin Books. The subjects were not interviewed for WFMU.