An Interview With Joe Bowen, Maple Leafs Play-By-Play Man

Derek HarmsworthSenior Writer IJuly 14, 2008

Late last week I had the absolute honour and privilege to sit down and talk hockey with the legendary Joe Bowen. 

Having called Maple Leafs games for over 25 years and being a lifelong fan of the Blue and White, it was fascinating to get the chance to go one-on-one with the man who has possibly the coolest catchphrase in all of sports broadcasting. 

Admit it, there has been one point in your life at a family function where you tried to slip in your own "Holy Mackinaw!"

Derek: As a broadcaster you have had the privilege to call over 2,000 Toronto Maple Leafs games.  You have seen a lot of great ones and it is probably hard to narrow it down to one answer, but in your opinion what was the most memorable Maple Leafs game you've ever gotten to call?

Joe: I would have to think it was the seventh game in Detroit in 1993 with Nicky Borschevsky scoring the goal because it was really a turning point in the franchise's history.  Cliff Fletcher had taken over the year before and really with Harold Ballard's regime we never had a chance of winning so that was really a turning point in the franchise and it turned out to be a jump off point for a pretty exciting run that went to the semi-finals and a seventh game loss to Gretzky and the Kings, but that goal, and that whole game was as exciting as I've ever had.

Derek: We are approaching the middle of July and the Maple Leafs have about 25 players under contract with a payroll of about $50 million.  However, Mats Sundin remains out there.  What are your thoughts on the current situation with Mats and do you believe he will be back in Toronto come October?

Joe: Well I think it's Mats' situation, and I think what he is weighing right now is whether or not he wants to come back and play at all.  I think the longer this goes on, the chances are he will be here in Toronto.  Other teams can't sit and wait for Mats and since the Leafs are in such a rebuilding mode that at this time they certainly can sit and wait.  With all the things Cliff has done and wants to do, he still has some room under the cap to accommodate Mats if he does decide to come back.

Now having said that, Mats walks to a different drummer.  He certainly has enough money to put him on easy street for the rest of his life and he is going to get married this year or next, and he just may decide you know what?  I don't know need it any more and I'm going to kick my feet up at my cottage in Sweden off the ocean and enjoy life.  That is what Mats is battling most I think.  It's a twelve month job to be in shape and train and condition and things like that, especially the older you get.

In fact he is probably going through the same thing that Brett Favre is going through with the Packers and now we're hearing that he is getting that itch to come back and play because he still thinks he can play at a very high level and that is the same situation Mats is in.

Derek:  You are a big Packers fan, a little off topic here, do you think Brett Favre is coming back?

Joe: He might, but I doubt very strongly he'll come back as a Packer.  I think the Packers have decided that they have to move on and go in a different direction and I am not sure Brett Favre could come back at that age and play for another team because he would have to go through the learning process of a whole new system and everything else, but it will be interesting to see how this situation goes.

Derek:  If Mats was to sign with a different team, I mean Montreal, Vancouver, are still in the mix, you have been here for Mats' whole tenure in Toronto, will you look at his legacy any different?

Joe:  Oh no, absolutely not.  I mean you wouldn't look at it any different than Borje Salming or Darryl Sittler leaving.  I don't think there is any question when it's all said and done, like in baseball when a player goes into the hall of fame they ask him what hat he wants to wear in the hall when it goes on the plaque, Mats Sundin will always be a Maple Leafs I don't think there is any question about that.

Derek: Barring any trades it appears the Maple Leafs roster for the most part has been finalized.  What are your thought and expectations for the group that Cliff has assembled so far?

Joe:  Well we're going to be different.  I think we're going to be a more miserable team to play against which I think is something that we lost.  If you look back to Pat Quinn's team they were a miserable bunch.  They were physical, in your face, and they had an identity.  I think that is something Cliff is trying to pursue and I think you'll see we'll be a more physical group. 

Will that translate to more wins and better defensive play?  That's the key that Ron Wilson has to work at and I think if they do play miserable and with an identity and if their defensive system is better they may be in the mix for the playoffs.  They certainly aren't going to be Stanley Cup favourites but, attitude and atmosphere are huge in the dressing room.  You also have to look at injuries and things of that nature, but I wouldn't be so quick to count them out of the playoffs, and if they can make it, who knows what could happen.

Derek: Going back quickly to Mats Sundin for a second, there has been a lot of talk about the team in transition, in a rebuild.  They do have a few veteran guys who will help out with the leadership along the way, but if Mats doesn't return, what are your thoughts on the captain's C?  Do the Maple Leafs go with three or four A's for the season, or do you see someone who can carry the C in Toronto?

Joe: Well, a number of years ago I said I thought Matt Stajan would eventually end up in the mix to be the next captain.  He's been with this team for a long time, and under the circumstances he is a very responsible man.  He is their NHLPA player rep, and I really wouldn't be surprised that if Mats doesn't come back, that the captain C would go to Matt Stajan. 

Now having said that; if Mats hasn't come back by the time training camp has started, the Maple Leafs may hold out hope that he will join them mid-season, so maybe they will go with three A's until then, but I would not be surprised at all if Matt Stajan ended up with a C on his jersey sometime here in Toronto.

Derek:  You have been around for both of Cliff Fletcher's eras in Toronto.  Do you see any similarities from his first term with the Maple Leafs to his current time here?

Joe:  Yeah his hair is still Grey (laughs).  It's a different league now and it's a different situation.  When Cliff arrived here the first time there was no cap, and you could do a lot of things very quickly.  The one thing about Cliff Fletcher is he has a tremendous hockey mind and the thing I am very pleased about is that he is hiring a very key group of personnel to assist him right now.  Just looking at the signing of Joe Nieuwendyk, which is a huge, huge step in the right direction as far as the Maple Leafs are concerned.  Nieuwendyk is going to be a general manager in this league in the not too distant future and it may even be in Toronto as Cliff's replacement.

Add to that Al Coates, who is another experienced hockey mind who has been in this league a long time.  You really do need the people that will play the devils advocate and say 'no I don't think this guy is a good character guy for our team' and speak up about other organizations and other players, and that is something that any successful organization has, a wealth of hockey minds that can be pried open by the GM and get contributions from.

I don't think you have to look much further than the press box in Detroit as the Red Wings were about to win the Stanley Cup.  Guys like Steve Yzerman, and Scotty Bowman, and the others who are sitting there along with the existing staff that is going to provide them with an awful lot of input of things that go on in the hockey world.  It's not something you can see on the ice, but I think in the Maple Leafs future this is going to be something very big for them.

Derek: Switching gears just a little bit to focus more on you, who or what inspired you to get involved in sports and eventually the world of sports broadcasting?

Joe:  Well my favourite player was and still is Johnny Bower and growing up I was a goalie but I wasn't good enough to even think of playing in an original six where there were only six jobs. 

My father passed away when I was just going into high school and he always wanted me to go to university, so when I was in high school deciding to get involved in sports and sports broadcasting, I ended up in the University of Windsor where I took communications Arts and fortunately for me when I did graduate my father's good friend was the owner of the television and radio station in Sudbury and also a part owner of the Sudbury Wolves hockey team, so I went back there to work for about eight months, got into broadcasting the Wolves, and that is how I got my career started.

Derek:  You have openly called yourself a fan and claim that to be a big reason for your longevity in this business.  What is the best part of your job?

Joe:  Well, that's tough, but the best part of my job is that it really isn't a job at all, it's a labour of love.  Every night is different, the people that you work with are all tremendous individuals. 

The worst part about the job is the travel, which takes you away from family and friends and important dates and hockey games and tournaments that your  kids are in and things like that.  The actual job part is really just a whole lot of fun and not a lot of people can say they are in a job they love to do.  I am very fortunate to be able to do that and I thank everyone around me every day for the fact that I am able to do it.

Derek:  If you weren't broadcasting hockey games, what would you be doing right now?

Joe:  I love history.  I think I would probably be a teacher of history and I would certainly be much more active in coaching minor hockey and minor baseball because I really enjoy that but my travel in the winter precludes me from being a part of that very often.


Derek:  You're a well known broadcaster throughout the entire NHL, and you have also coined perhaps one of the most famous catchphrases ever said.  What is the story behind "Holy Mackinaw"?

Joe:  Well, I used to sit on my dad's lap and we would watch the Friday Night Fights or the hockey game, and I was very young, probably seven or eight years old, and he would blurt it out every once in a while when something exciting would happen or somebody would get knocked out in a boxing match.  I never got the chance to ask him where he got it from, he passed away before I even thought of using it, but it may have been so he didn't swear in front of his seven or eight year old (laughs.) 

I didn't use it in junior hockey or the American Hockey League.  About five years into doing the Leafs games, we were in Chicago and I was calling the game with Bill Watters.  Something exciting happened, like a big save or something, and I just blurted it out.  I probably would have never used it again, but Bill just about fell off his chair laughing, so I thought if I can get that reaction from him, maybe I'll use it again. 

The thing I am most proud about the catchphrase is that I have been able to utilize it selling t-shirts and various other things in support of Leukemia research, which we have been doing for about the last fifteen years.  I try not to overuse it, and I don't plan on making sure I use it either.  I don't say I have to use one a night, or two a night.  Some nights I go without saying it at all.  It's an interesting little phrase, but I am ultimately very glad I have been able to use it in other areas.

Derek:  You have been calling Maple Leafs games for over 25 years.  In that time you've seen a lot of players come and go, both with Toronto and with the league in general.  You have gotten to see some real greats play, who has been the most exciting player you have ever gotten to see on the Maple Leafs, and in general?

Joe:  Well, NHL players you've got Gretzky, and Lemieux, Bourque and Sakic, Mats, all kinds of people like that.  The 1993 run here in Toronto that turned the team around was really built on one cornerstone and that was Cliff's trade with Calgary that brought Douggy Gilmour to the Leafs.  And although he didn't win the Hart, I don't think for two years there was a better player in the National Hockey League.  I loved watching Wendel Clark play a big man's game in a small man's body.  I also loved watching Rick Vaive score 50 goals on a team that should have been a lot better had it been handled better by management and coaching.

The greatest athletes in the world play in the NHL there is no question about that. 

Derek:  Your job is a lot of fun, but there is a lot of preparation that goes into your work, not only as it relates to the Maple Leafs but for the other twenty nine teams as well.  What is a typical game day like for you and how much work goes into getting ready to call an NHL game?

Joe:  Well you know the computer and the internet has changed a lot of that, I used to have to do all of this by hand and research was all done by paper and phone calls. 

Home games we go down to the morning skate and talk to teams and players from both teams.  Then I come home and do a few hours of work on the computer and preparing my game notes and lineup sheets.  Around 4 PM we head down to the Air Canada Centre.  We have a meal and then do some pre-game radio voice over work, or tape some things for TV, do a little bit of a rehearsal.  The game starts at around 7:30 and by 11:30 I'm home so it's a full day.

Derek:  Since the lockout you have been quite opposed to the NHL's post lockout division schedule.  Late last season the league announced they would make a change to a more balanced schedule.  This makes a lot of people, including yourself I'm sure, quite happy.  In a time when the NHL is trying to be so fan friendly, how important is it to have a more balanced schedule?

Joe: We're very fortunate in the East that most of the game's young stars are here, Crosby, Malkin, Richards, and Ovechkin are all in this conference.  If I am a Western conference team season ticket holder, I bloody well want to see these guys more than once every three years! 

I know they wanted to build some sort of a rivalry based schedule by playing your own division an absorbent amount of times, but rivalries are only made when you play a team in the playoffs.  That's where the bad blood, bragging rights, and the finger pointing comes from.  It doesn't come from playing eight times a year in the regular season, except when teams get sick and tired of seeing the same team all the time.  But if I am a season ticket holder I want to see every team once a year.  I want to see Dion Phaneuf more often.  I want to see Joe Thornton come to Toronto.  I think it's important to make a more balanced regular season schedule and the rivalries will be created in the playoffs. 

Derek:  As a broadcaster calling games in a very famous hockey market, what does it mean to you that your career path has led you to calling games in a booth named after one of sports best broadcasters,Foster Hewitt?

Joe: It's great, and there are others.  Ted Darling was a great broadcaster in Buffalo and the booth is named in his honour, Gene Hart also in Philadelphia.  I grew up listening to hockey games on Hockey Night In Canada when Foster and Bill Hewitt were calling the games, and it is a tremendous honour, and well deserved on his behalf.  Foster Hewitt was a pioneer, a builder for this sport and is recognized as much in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  it was his voice across Canada that had people riveted to their radios back in the days where there was no television.  It really helped to build the name of the Toronto Maple Leafs across Canada, so it is a great honour for Foster, and it is well deserved.

Derek:  There is a very funny story with how you got your job with the Toronto Maple Leafs, relating to your audition and a what you thought was a prank from a fellow colleague.  Tell me about that?

Joe:  Yeah.  Len Bramson, who unfortunately just passed away this week.  He phoned me and I assumed it was a co-worker yanking my chain, and I had just bought a house in Halifax that I was very busy with, and thinking it was a co-worker, I inadvertently told Mr. Bramson what he could do with his job because I was pretty busy with my new home (laughs.)  Then when he didn't say anything for a bit I said "You're not Alan Davis are you?"  and he said "Well no I am not" and that had me going hummina hummina trying to apologize as fast as I could, and to explain to him what had happened. 

When i finally explained it we had a laugh about it and about twenty minutes later he phoned me back saying they didn't need the audition and I had the job, a rather strange way to get my foot in the door for sure.

Derek:  Early last season there was a change in the Maple Leafs broadcast booth as your long time broadcast partner Harry Neale left to call games in Buffalo, which no doubt was going to be a lot easier for him.  You worked together for so long, it must have been weird and a little difficult to call Leafs games without him?

Joe: Yeah it was.  But we're still very close friends.  When he told me about his decision, I told him there was no decision.  I told him "you got a three year deal, you're 70 years old, and you're going to be able to work out of your house."  It was something he had to do. 

You become very comfortable with the people you work with.  I've been fortunate enough to work with some real talented people throughout the course of my career; guys like Gord Stellick, Bill Watters, Jim Ralph and Harry.  Eventually you read each others minds so you know where they are going, what you can do to get a chuckle out of them, or if it's you who is going to be the brunt of a good natured jab.  It was disappointing that he was going, but we certainly understood why he was going and fully supported it. 

Greg Millen stepped in and has done a great job.  Our chemistry clicked very quickly and it will continue to grow as we continue to do games together.  It is a partnership for sure, and as a play-by-play man you have to appreciate that and I have been fortunate to have worked with some great people.

Derek:  Like you said earlier, your job takes you on the road a lot.  When you are home I am sure you spend as much time as you can with your family.  When at home, do you ever watch NHL games and try to catch up with the other teams

Joe:  Yeah for sure, and the NHL Centre Ice package which wasn't available a number of years ago is very much in our house (laughs.)  We will sit down and watch a game that maybe has a team the Leafs will be playing in the near future.  I have a little seven or eight year old, he keeps me busy with hockey when I am home, with his games and stuff.  You try and balance it as much as you can though.  For instance I may only catch the first twenty minutes of the game, or the last twenty.  Something where I can make a note or two, but it is a busy household when we are home that's for sure.

Derek:  What other colour commentators do you enjoy listening to, be in in hockey or any sport in general?

Joe:  All kinds.  Ray Scott used to do NFL games for the Packers back in the '60's was one I really enjoyed listening to.  Rick Jeanneret from Buffalo, Bob Cole is a real icon.  I have always enjoyed his work.  But there really are all kinds.  Vin Skully for baseball, Tom Cheek I also enjoyed very much.  Jerry Howard as well.  They are all professionals and the best part about them is they are all very different. 

I think the biggest mistake anyone can make is trying to be the next someone, and try to mimic or copy someone who is already out there because you have to produce your own personality and your own sound, and go from there.  That is something all great broadcasters have been able to do.

Derek:  Aside from what you just talked about, what advice would you give young up and comers who are trying to cut their teeth in this business?

Joe:  Well, you have to do games.  You have to go to places where you are going to get the chance to call the action, or do some sports broadcasting of some sort.  There are so many opportunities now with TSN and Sportsnet and the Score, and even Rogers calling games, that weren't there when I was getting started.  There is a lot bigger avenue to take nowadays but you've got to do some things.  Not only play-by-play but you have to do some newscasts and sell yourself.  Do whatever you have to do to get yourself out there, broaden your scope.

Derek:  The Maple Leafs are one of few sports teams who do not retire numbers, instead choosing to honour them.  This gives players the chance to wear these famous numbers as a tribute to the older players.  Some people say a team like Toronto should have numbers retired.  What do you think?

Joe:  I agree with the current players getting to wear the numbers but I do think there should be a change. 

On each of the numbered jerseys should be some sort of patch, with a description, saying something like number 21 was Borje Salming.  And maybe a small crest, like say if the number was Mats Sundin's number 13, the jersey would have a C, but on the left side of it or something that would conotate that these were numbers worn by these Maple Leafs greats.  One I think it would be a very nice selling point for the Maple Leafs and the league as far as jersey sales would go.  More importantly, each time that person pulled on the jersey, say number 14, they would say "wow, Dave Keon used to wear this jersey, and that's pretty important, and I should live up to that type of player and style.  To wear the number with pride.  I don't know if the Leafs could do that without the NHL having a problem with it or not. 

It is a unique way of honouring numbers, and I think the uniqueness should be shown in the jersey itself.

Derek: You talked a little earlier about your work with various charities, maybe none closer to home than your work with Leukemia research, specifically the UFCW Celebrity Golf Classic.  Talk a little bit about why it is so important to you, and how people like myself and other fans can get involved?

Joe:  My son Sean, was diagnosed with Leukemia at one years of age.  He is now eighteen and doing exceptionally well.  We got involved very quickly in trying to do some fund raising for that, which led us to be involved with the United Food and Commercial Workers union who have chosen Leukemia research as their charity of choice across Canada. 

Back then they were raising $300,000 a year which is still a fantastic amount.  This past June we tabled $1.4 million from various different drives, included in that was a $647,000 that was raised from the Beer Store and the UFCW on a bottle drive from one weekend.  We have been very active in that and doing as much as we can to help them in the cause.  As I mentioned we do sell "Holy Mackinaw" t-shirts which you can find on the Maple Leafs official website.  It's something we have worked very hard on but we have a young boy who is very healthy because of all the spadework which was done before we got involved. 

Derek:  You're a big fan of Irish/Celtic music.  Was it your idea to have the Maple Leafs victory song "Heave Away" by the Fables?

Joe: No that wasn't me.  It was interesting though, we had Michael Burgess in town for a golf tournament and he has been working on some new words for the song "Maple Leaf Forever"  that has more of a hockey connotation and I would love to see that done, I think it would be great to hear in the arena. 

Derek:  There has been a lot of talk and some people have been up in arms this summer over a song.  I am talking of course about the Hockey Night In Canada theme.  You work for TSN calling Maple Leafs games, are you excited the song has been brought to TSN?  Is it a big deal to you?

Joe: No (laughs.)  I don't work with it, it's going to be on the station and that's too bad, the CBC handled it badly in my opinion.  Trust me that is not the Hockey  Night In Canada song for me.  The Hockey Night song for me is that Esso motoring jingle they used to play in the 1960's when I watched it.  I don't know what TSN is going to do with it, or how they're going to get their money back or what they're doing with it, other than it being a PR stunt. 

Derek:  Of Maple Leafs fans young and old, one of their favourite arguments is who is the best Maple Leafs captain of all time.  What's your thoughts in that?

Joe: Oh boy.  That's hard to say.  George Armstrong was the most successful Leafs captain.  Syl Apps was a great captain.  Teeter Kennedy, all of the greats from way back when that we weren't fortunate enough to see live. 

I don't think I could ever pinpoint one and say he is the best, because in my mind, they have all been outstanding.  To wear that C on your sweater is a very important event, especially in Toronto.  The captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs carries a lot more weight on it's shoulders than say the captain of the Dallas Stars.

Derek:  Just quickly if I can get your thoughts on some of the buyouts that Cliff made.  I know a lot of the guys were players who were here for a while, or pretty big parts of the team.  Let's first talk about Darcy Tucker.  Can he rebound and become the player he once was?

Joe:  Darcy has to get back to playing the type of game that made him hated by all other teams except for the one he was on.  He got a lot of criticism here for being Sideshow Bob like.  Well, Sideshow Bob is Darcy Tucker.  He has to be a miserable, in your face, chirping, yapping kind of a hockey player to be real effective.  Other teams try to take extra opportunities to take runs at him, and soon enough he is getting his chances to score, and I hope he can get back to that.

Derek:  What about Kyle Wellwood?  People in Toronto didn't get to see a whole lot of him because of injuries, but he seemed to have almost a meteoric rise from junior, to the AHL and finally the NHL.  We seen flashes that he could be a brilliant player, but it appears right now his head isn't where it should be?

Joe:  He does have that ability.  But Kyle Wellwood has to be more conscientious off the ice.  He has to have a much better physical presence in the gym and be a much more determined off ice worker.  He did have his groin problems, but really he has never gotten himself into fantastic shape.  In this league you have to work at your game, especially off the ice, or others will pass you by, and that's the problem Kyle is going to find himself in.  He is a delightful young man, but he has a lot of work ahead of him this off season to get back to where he should be.

Derek:  Finally Andrew Raycroft.  He tied the franchise record for most wins one year, and then the next it appeared the wheels fell off.  It seemed he never felt comfortable with the media spotlight here.  Did Raycroft get sort of a bad deal in Toronto with them bringing in Vesa, and do you think he can return to form in Colorado?

Joe:  Well you know, Andrew Raycroft is one of my favourite people, and I always hoped he would do well.  When a bad goal would go in I would just cringe and you would shake your head.  I would feel bad for him.  He won the rookie of the year award in Boston, and he has shown he is capable of playing extremely well, but he was under the microscope in Toronto, and it never really worked out for him.  I really do hope that under less scrutiny and in a less intense hockey market, that isn't as prone to eating it's young so to speak, that he can get his game back. 

He really is an outstanding individual, and never once did he shadow away from answering questions after the game or anything like that.  He is a quality individual and I hope the best for him.

Derek:  You said a pretty key phrase there "eating their young."  Does that worry you with the rebuild.  Clearly there are some veterans in the dressing room who will be able to take some heat off the youngsters.  But do you worry about the young guys like Kulemin, Tlusty, and Stralman who will see increased ice time, and responsibility this year?

Joe:  Well, that is the nature of the beast.  One day some in Toronto say they have to play with the young guys, and then the next day will rip those young guys a new one because they made a bad pass up the middle or something.  Really the whole idea is that some in the media in Toronto think it's a big game.  It's fun to make fun of the Maple Leafs they think, and really couldn't care less about the impact it has on individuals.  

A lot of people are able to look at it though and take it for what it's worth.  They look at something negative someone may have wrote and say "why did he write that?  Who cares!"  And these players need to adopt that sort of mentality too.  You do need that supporting staff.  Not only veteran players in the room, but guys like Paul Dennis who have to pull these young guys aside and warn them about the media, explain to them how it works.  You have to be cautious of what you say because the media will take it and spin it around on you. 

More and more in Toronto, especially, athletes just do their thing with the media because that's part of their job, and then when they're done talking, completely disregard them, because usually that reporter uses it for their own vendetta.  But there is no doubt the experience in the dressing room is going to help these youngsters.

Derek:  Like we have said before it is a young team that does have some veteran presence on it.  One of those veterans is someone who in my mind was one of the most popular Maple Leafs of the past twenty years, speaking of course about Curtis Joseph.  How important will Cujo be in calming the young defenseman, and how happy are you that Joseph is back in Toronto?

Joe:  I'm thrilled Curtis is back.  He will be excellent for the young guys.  He is at a point in his career that he knows he will be a backup for Vesa Toskala.  I think he is and will be great with the media, and will also be a good mentor not only for Vesa, but for the younger guys as well.  When he gets the chance to play, I know he can play at a high level.  I think the fans are real excited about having Cujo back and I'll certainly enjoy it as well.

Derek:  Ron Wilson brings a lot of respectibility to this team.  In your mind, what does Wilson bring to the team that was missing last season?

Joe:  Well he is going to make the defensive system a lot better that's for sure.  He is also great when it comes to working with youth and turning them into solid NHL players.  Those are the two key ingredients he brings and when you combine that with the way he handles the media, I think he'll be a good fit in Toronto.


Once again I would like to thank Joe Bowen for taking time out of his busy schedule to take some time to sit down with me.  As a life long Leafs fan it was a real honour for me.

Those wishing to order "Holy Mackinaw" T-Shirts in support of Leukemia Research can do so by sending $25.00 to the following address:

Joe Bowen
P.O. Box 64705
Unionville Ontario L3R 0M9



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