BUFFALO – Harry Neale said he couldn’t believe the news, so when Chuck Kaiton informed the longtime NHL color analyst the Hockey Hall of Fame would be honoring him with the 2013 Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, Neale told the Carolina Hurricanes’ play-by-play announcer to ring him again.
“It had never even crossed my mind that it was a possibility, and so I said, ‘Call me back in five minutes and reconfirm this, would you?’” an emotional Neale said Tuesday inside the First Niagara Center, “because I thought he might be pulling my leg.”
It wasn’t a joke, though. Neale, the quick-witted broadcaster for CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” and the Toronto Maple Leafs before joining the Sabres in 2007, will be honored Nov. 11 in Toronto.
“It was a glorious moment my family has really enjoyed,” Neale said about receiving the news Monday.
Immediately, Neale’s mind flashed to the Sabres’ Rick Jeanneret, last year’s Hewitt honoree, and CBC’s Bob Cole, the two legendary play-by-play men he has spent the most time calling games beside.
“It makes it even a more glorious occurrence to share it with the people you admire,” Neale said. “I can’t ever remember feeling as different as I did when I got the call, thinking, ‘Are you kidding? Is this one of my friends that likes to play jokes?’ So it was a humbling moment to be in a group as celebrity-filled as the Foster Hewitt Award.”
Neale added: “To go in the year after Jeanneret doubles the pleasure because I know how thrilled he was.”
For Neale, an NHL coach and general manager before moving to the broadcast booth in 1985-86, receiving an award with Hewitt’s name is surreal. As a boy in Sarnia, Ont., Neale did whatever he could to listen to Hewitt, a Canadian icon.
“I can remember begging my father, ‘Can I stay up and at least listen to the first period of the 8:30 game?’” Neale said as he became choked up and his eyes filled with tears. “And then sometimes I’d sneak the radio upstairs and have that radio to listen to Foster Hewitt. So to be a winner of the Foster Hewitt Award is even more special.”
The 76-year-old, who moved to a pregame analyst role this season, was quick to credit his producers, directors and the television crews for his honor, saying, “This award has got all kinds of fingerprints on it. It’s not just mine.”
Neale fell into broadcasting. He coached Ohio State before moving to the World Hockey Association, where he led the Minnesota Fighting Saints and Gordie Howe and the New England Whalers in the 1970s.
He coached the Vancouver Canucks for four years, including most of their 1981-82 Stanley Cup final season, before moving to a management role in the organization. But when the Detroit Red Wings fired him in 1985-86, he knew his coaching career was likely over.
Within days, CBC Sports’ Don Wallace called Neale, who went to Montreal to watch how a broadcast worked. He started analyzing “Hockey Night in Canada” games shortly after.
“I just wanted to make sure I did a good enough job to get the next game,” Neale said.
Neale began working on CBC’s second or third game. When John Davidson joined the New York Rangers, he moved to the top broadcast team beside Cole. The two became synonymous with each other, spending 20 years together.
Clearly, Neale’s everyman personality resonated with viewers. One-liners and those colorful stories – he said he researched them and joked “about 98 percent of them are stolen” – filled each telecast.
“I didn’t think it was nuclear physics I was involved in, so we had to have a few laughs … and make it an enjoyable situation,” Neale said. “And I remember hearing John Madden say once 15 years ago, he said, ‘I want to the people around to make it feel like we’re in a bar and I’m the only guy that knows anything about what’s going on. But they’re here having a good time, and so I’m pointing some things out.’
“So I could never get the people I work for to bring the beer up so I could get the same feeling.”
Neale believes no sport in the world has better people than hockey. He said his words during a telecast have never angered a player.
“They might not have liked it, but they understood, or most of them did, and the ones that didn’t, they never came up and talked to me because they know how tough I am,” Neale cracked.
Neale, who called the Stanley Cup final until 2007, acknowledged the “sin of envy showed up big time” whenever he watched the trophy being awarded.
“I knew what the players must be thinking when I watched the New York Islanders beat my Vancouver Canucks in 1982 in the finals,” he said.
He added: “Any of the Stanley Cup final games where they presented the Cup was really a glorious moment, especially when I knew some of the people involved.”
Neale had been living in Buffalo about 20 years – “Once I found out you could get 30 beers for $18.95, I moved very quickly from Toronto,” he joked – when the Sabres recruited him to be their color analyst. He called himself a Sabres fan and said he had always wanted to do a game with Jeanneret.
“It’s like working for the home team,” Neale said. “How can you possibly beat that?”
Jeanneret and Cole gave Neale congratulatory phone calls. You can bet they’ll both be in Toronto when Neale accepts his honor.
“Nov. 11 is Remembrance Day,” Neale said, “and it sure as hell will be for me.”