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Foster Hewitt or Danny Gallivan: who was the “best”?

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were only six NHL teams.  Like nowadays, every club had their local radio play-by-play “crew”, but there was not a lot in the way of “local” television. Most games in the U.S. (including the market I lived near, Detroit) simply weren't on television.

In Canada, Foster Hewitt was the broadcasting pioneer, because he was the first guy to do hockey broadcasts on the radio way back in the early 1930s, I believe it was.  For thousands of Canadians, he was ‘the guy’, the voice who created mental pictures of Toronto Maple Leaf hockey—and their individual players— for fans from coast to coast every Saturday night.

TV became a “thing” in the 1950s, and Foster made the transition to calling the games on TV, as well, for “Hockey Night in Canada” on the CBC.  He integrated his son Bill into the broadcasts, such that Bill took over the TV side by the late ‘50s and Foster focused on the Maple Leaf radio broadcasts.  Some of the Leaf games, if I’m not mistaken, were carried on the Toronto radio station that Hewitt owned, CKFH, and some on CBC radio (on Sunday nights).

In many ways Foster was as, or even more famous, than many of the NHL players.  It makes sense, because his was the voice folks heard on a regular basis, whereas fans would hear only the occasional interview or comment from the players on the radio or a TV newscast.  They were the stars, the “heroes”, but Foster was the man who told their story.

Interestingly, Foster did not have a classic broadcast “voice”.  It wasn’t deep or resonant.  If anything, it was a bit on the nasal, high-pitched side.  But it became a familiar voice, and as best I can recall, people generally loved him.  In addition to his work on Leaf games, he handled the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union on the TV side.  I believe he continued broadcasting until the mid-late 1970s or thereabouts.  His son Bill retired quite young, in the early 1980s. (Foster sold CKFH radio  in the 1980s to Telemedia, I think it was, which is now a sports talk station, the Fan 590.)

Up the road in Montreal, there were two voices that mattered when it came to hockey.  Rene Lecavalier was the French voice of “Les Habitants”, while Danny Gallivan (see the photo of a very young Gallivan at right) manned the mike for the English radio and TV broadcasts.

My Dad was a deeply intense and proud Habs fan in those days, growing up as he did a hockey fan in the 1920s and '30s. Given his heritage  he listened as often as he could to the local French-language radio affiliate where we lived in southwestern Ontario.  He loved to hear Lecavalier’s call of Montreal games in the 1960s whenever possible on the radio dial.  What I seem to recall of Lecavalier (I could speak and understand French reasonably well as a youngster, though I struggle a bit more now…) is that he was conversational in his approach, but had a tremendous way of rising to the key moments in the game.

Gallivan, for me, was simply an amazing play-by-play guy.  He had an outstanding command of the English language, which set, in a sense, a higher standard for his broadcasts.  He created words or expressions (Serge Savard’s “spinorama” and the classic “cannonading drive” from the point by a hard-shooting defenseman, for example) to suit hockey.

But more than his choice of words, his ability to capture the ebb and flow, the back and forth rushes of a good hockey game stand out for me.  He somehow brought you into the game, and he knew how to call the really big moments.  I hated the Canadiens in those days, but Danny was peerless as a TV guy.

For me, Foster was the best ever on the radio side.  There was just something to his approach on the radio that was exciting and dramatic. You really did feel like you were almost there.  I would listen to Foster on Sunday nights when the Leafs were on the road in the 1960s and into the ‘70s.  How many times I remember Dave Keon missing a breakaway, and Foster calling out…”He’s in alone….oh…. what a save by (Glenn) Hall…Keon tried to pull him out of position, but Hall made brilliant save…” in that pitched voice that just jumped out of that broken-down old radio I listened to the games on.  Then, Foster would pause just long enough to, as a Leaf fan, let you hang your head, and then he'd get back to the action.

Broadcasts, not surprisingly, were very different in those days.  Now the color commentators have a lot more to say- there’s way more detailed analysis. (Too much for my liking, sometimes.)  I prefer just hearing what happens in the game, but that’s just me. As I posted a few days ago, I don’t need the analysts, for example,  yelling at me all game long as though every play in the regular season meant the Stanley Cup.

We all have our favorite broadcasters.  There are many fine hockey play-by-play guys today.  In the olden days, in baseball, I loved “Dizzy” Dean and “Pee Wee” Reese back in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Both were former playing greats, and they had a natural rapport in the broadcast booth.  There was a lot of jocularity and it was fun to listen to.  That works in baseball.  Baseball is pastoral game, and it allows for conversation, stories, more so than a fast-paced, intense hockey game.  Vin Scully is in his 80s and still doing LA Dodger games.  Detroit Tiger radio legend Ernie Harwell died just a few months ago.  He was a marvelous broadcaster, too.

But to me, Danny Gallivan was the best play-by-play television guy ever in any sport, though Foster was brilliant on the radio.  Just recalling their names brings back wonderful memories of great times, great games and outstanding players. 

It also reminds me of how much they both contributed to my love of hockey, and of sports.  I’m sure I’m not alone.

For those who follow this site and are old enough to remember both men, who did you like more, Foster or Danny?


  1. I don't remember Foster Hewitt (I didn't become a hockey fan until the late 60s) as much as I remember his son Bill who I did enjoy. I do remember Foster in the '72 Summit Series as he butchered many of the Russian names as well as Yvan Cournoyer's name. I vote for Danny Gallivan as the best - as you said he had a way to bring you out of your seat just listening to his call of the game. I recall reading long ago that he once received a letter from a viewer who complained that "cannonading" wasn't a word. He wrote back and said "It is now".

    Gene M.

  2. I preferred Bill Hewitt's more matter of fact style "cooler heads prevail" than the flowery excesses of Danny Gallivan.

  3. To be honest I didn't really care either. The best to me was the late great Dan Kelly. He could make watching paint dry on the wall exciting!

  4. If I'm not mistaken, Dan Kelly did some work with Hockey Night in Canada before he was hired away by the expansion St. Louis Blues in 1967. Classic voice, a fine broadcaster. As a teenager, I used to listen often to Blues games on KMOX in St. Louis, I think it was. So I had the opportunity to listen to Dan quite often on my crackly old radio. He did a great job, too, on the Sunday afternoon CBS games in the early 1970s. Like you, I enjoyed his work.

  5. Great article, right on the money. Hewitt was more of a homer, though. Galivan was brilliant. I can hear him now...

    "Now then Tremblay stepping gingerly over the blue line with big Beliveau..."

  6. Gallivan was great. Probably also a bit of a Habs homer. Foster calling "The Goal" to win the 1972 Summit Series from Moscow wasn't a classic call (hard of what was essentially a broken play) but anyone who heard it remembers it -- sounded like it was coming from the moon with the technology of the time.