Saturday, 19 January 2008

A Broadcasting Icon Lost

One of the greatest men in Canadian sports broadcasting history passed away today. Don Wittman, pictured to the left, passed on in a Winnipeg hospital surrounded by his family at the age of 71 after succumbing to a battle with cancer. Mr. Wittman was literally the voice of CBC's broadcasts for much of the last 50 years, and he will be remembered by this writer for his generosity, his professionalism, and his kindness. Across Canada, he'll be remembered as the voice of CBC's coverage of the Olympic Games, the CFL, Hockey Night In Canada, and many other sporting events.

CBC broadcaster Scott Russell, who worked with Wittman at several Olympic and Canada Games, called him "the most unselfish broadcaster I've ever worked with".

"Don always believed that his job was to be the guide of a sporting event," Russell said in Vancouver. "He took us through, he introduced us to the characters, then he let the athletes shine. Don was the guide, he was the storyteller. That's what made him great."

Indeed, he was a voice that was recognizable to most Canadians. He was far more content in describing the atmosphere of the sporting event he was covering than describing his personal feelings.

"It was his ability to be a wonderful storyteller and weave the stories that he was so strong at," said Canadian curling icon and CBC broadcaster Colleen Jones from her Halifax home. "And the creating drama, and his voice obviously was fantastic. All of that just lent itself to just being the best."

His involvement in the sporting world has made him a part of sports history as well. Mr. Wittman worked the 1987 World Junior Championships in Piestany, Czechoslovakia as the play-by-play man during the famous bench-clearing brawl between the Soviets and the Canadians. He worked the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich where terrorists had captured nine Israeli athletes, and looked into the face of one of the masked men.

Mr. Wittman also made the call on one of the most replayed and most infamous moments in Canadian sports. Disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's 100-metre gold medal and world-record win at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, all of which was later nullified by a positive doping test. He was in Atlanta for the Olympics as well. It was there where he called the gold medal and world-record performance of Canada's Donovan Bailey in the 100-metre sprint.

Mr. Wittman was born in Herbert, Sasakatchewan on April 10, 1936. Mr. Wittman attended the University of Saskatchewan where he received his degree in journalism. He began his career in broadcasting as a news reporter with CFQC radio in Saskatoon in 1955. He also worked for CJNB radio in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. He was a mere 24 years old when he joined CBC Winnipeg on New Year's Day 1961. Mr. Wittman joined CBWT's supper-hour news program, called 24Hours, in 1970 as sports anchor alternating with another broadcasting legend in Bob Picken. He also worked on Winnipeg Jets radio broadcasts.

In speaking to the Winnipeg Free Press' Gordon Sinclair Jr. this past December, Mr. Wittman informed us all of what would eventually be his last battle. "'I've got cancer and it metastasized,' the 71-year-old national sports broadcasting icon said from his Headingley-area home. 'This could be the end of the line. They've told me the prognosis is not good.'

"Originally, the melanoma was noticed on a ear and removed in 2001.

"But six year later it returned, disguised initially as a backache.

"It was diagnosed again around Grey Cup time after Don started having back pain, when it was still golf season at the St. Charles Country Club where he's a member".

Mr. Wittman was well-decorated as a broadcaster, and it certainly was deserved. Mr. Wittman won two ACTRA awards and in 2002 was named Broadcaster of the Year by Sports Media Canada. He also was a member of the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame, the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame and Manitoba's provincial Sports Hall of Fame.

His colleagues speak of his dedication to the profession - how his tireless work ethic and his commitment to being the best and most professionally-prepared broadcaster made him the best in the business.

"He always was available to you," Scott Russell said. "He was somebody you learned from, the proper way to do things, the right way to announce. He was meticulous in the research he did. What was great about Don too, was he believed in all things Canadian in sport. The Grey Cup, curling...."

"You always knew he was a legend and I learned a lot from him," Colleen Jones said. "He never just mailed it in, he always wanted to be just so professional, so prepared and so ready, so wanting to do a great show.

"He loved all the sports and he loved broadcasting. He was always thrilled to be such an eyewitness to all of the big events."

On January 8, 2008, Don Wittman was honoured by his colleagues and friends as he was inducted to the CBC Sports Hall of Fame, and was paid tribute in a speech by Peter Mansbridge.

"It was 1971 and Mansbridge's first day with the CBC.

"Wittman was the only person to walk up and greet the 'scared stiff' rookie when he ventured into the Winnipeg newsroom 37 years ago this week."

That wasn't what had the noticeably weaker Don Wittman smiling all night, though. The who's-who of Canadian television broadcasting and Canadian sports history was on-hand to honour Mr. Wittman.

CBC's Scott Oake handled a tough assignment as emcee, but did it flawlessly. CBC's Terry Ludwick and Denis Lavoie presented film clips of Mr. Wittman's storied 47-year CBC career. Broadcaster Brian Williams bestowed the title of "Mr. Olympics" on his long-time pal for the 18 Olympic Games that "Witt" had covered. Retired CBC Vancouver sports broadcaster and buddy Ted Reynolds was there. New York Rangers GM Glen Sather made the trip from New York to honour Mr. Wittman. Calgary Flames GM Darryl Sutter and former Winnipeg Jets and current Ottawa Senators coach John Paddock also made the trip to Winnipeg to honour Mr. Wittman. Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean, Bob Cole, Kelly Hrudey, Steve Armitage and Mark Lee all attended the celebration of Mr. Wittman's career. CTV President Rick Brace joined the party. TSN's Chris Cuthbert and Ray Turnbull made their way to Mr. Wittman's celebration.

For those that couldn't be there, they sent video and telegrams in their places. Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky and Calgary Flames coach Mike Keenan sent video tributes. Former Winnipeg Jet and current NBC broadcaster Ed Olczyk also sent along a video tribute. Canadian Olympic star sprinter Donovan Bailey sent a telegram.

Local sports and journalism icons also were strong in attendance. Former Winnipeg Tribune sports editor Jack Matheson, former CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bomber coach Cal Murphy, Bomber GM Lyle Bauer, Bomber alumni members Paul Robson, Joe Poplawski, and John Shanski and his wife, Maureen, all joined the party. NHL player agent Don Baizley, CJOB's Garth Buchko, Vic Grant and John Wells, former radio play-by-play man of the Jets Curt Keilback, Free Press sports reporter Tim Campbell, and veteran sports broadcaster Bob Picken all paid their respects as well.

"And, among the dearest of all his friends, longtime curling broadcast sidekick Don Duguid, who was there for 'Witt' late last year when he needed to be driven to radiation treatments."

It was at St. Charles Golf and Country Club where I got to meet Mr. Wittman for the first time. He was always joking with friends, and never seemed to frown. His positive attitude was evident after bad golf games in inclement weather when he would start cracking jokes in the locker room.

It was always a pleasure to be around him, and he was always polite and humble. I am honoured and humbled to have met and known Mr. Wittman a little bit in my life. I will always remember his distinctive voice and outgoing, positive personality. He is everything that anyone should aspire to be in life.

When the honours at his CBC Hall of Fame induction ceremnoy were over, the only words he could say were, "I'm humbled". I think the entire country of Canada is honoured to have had a national broadcasting treasure in Don Wittman calling so many historical and monumental sporting events.

Rest in peace, Mr. Wittman. You'll be remembered by me, and you will never go unforgotten. Here is a video tribute from Hockey Night In Canada.

If you'd like to send your wishes and prayers along to his wife, Judy, his two daughters and his son, please send your cards and wishes to CBC Manitoba, 541 Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3B 2G1. Every card and wish will go a long way to helping a family cope with the loss of an amazing man.

Until next time, raise your sticks in honour of the remarkable man.

- With files from the Winnipeg Free Press and TSN.

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