Friday, 6 November 2009

TBC: Walking With Legends

Some people tell stories based on what they have heard. And that's a fine way of recalling the events of certain situations. However, I have a respect for those people who tell the story from a first-hand perspective simply because they lived and breathed those situations. Teebz's Book Club is proud to present a collection of stories from one of those people who tell it as he saw it in Walking with Legends, written by Ralph Mellanby and published by HB Fenn and Company in 2007. Mr. Mellanby spent a long time in television, most notably producing and directing Hockey Night in Canada, and through his job he has collected a myriad of stories about about a number of influential people in the world of hockey. Walking with Legends is an autobiographical account of Mr. Mellanby's interactions with these legends of hockey.

Ralph Mellanby was born on August 22, 1934 in Hamilton, Ontario, and grew up in Essex County in the Windsor, Ontario area. Being that the area was settled by French colonists, Mellanby grew up as a Montreal Canadiens fan rather than a Detroit Red Wings fan. However, his schooling took him to Wayne State in Detroit where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication in 1958. Ralph had worked as a prop boy in Windsor, and, once he had his degree, a stagehand, a cameraman, and a floor director in Detroit. This opened new doors, and he landed in Chicago with WGN early 1960 where he started directing baseball and football telecasts.

Bud Hayward, President of newly-licensed CFCF-TV in Montreal, was tipped off to hire the up-and-coming Canadian director. Hayward hired Ralph, and Mr. Mellanby directed everything from CFL football broadcasts to variety shows. When CTV began airing Wednesday night NHL games in the mid-1960s, Mellanby got his first taste of NHL action - an association that would remain intact for the next two decades. Because of his "showbiz" background, Hockey Night in Canada would see unparalleled success right through to the new millenium, and Mr. Mellanby would earn several Emmy awards for his work with American networks on their Olympic broadcasts.

Ralph Mellanby is married to a wonderful woman named Janet, and they have two children: a fairly well-known son named Scott, and a daughter named Laura, following in dad's TV footsteps, who is now the director of pay-per-view programming with DirecTV.

As stated above, Walking with Legends is a collection of stories about the men and players who essentially formed the history of Hockey Night in Canada. Mellanby speaks about all of the biggest names in hockey broadcasting: Foster Hewitt, Bill Hewitt, Brian McFarlane, Dick Irvin, Danny Gallivan, Howie Meeker, Bob Cole, Harry Neale, Ron MacLean, Don Cherry, Don Wittman, and a pile of other men who have worked under the Hockey Night in Canada name. This book might be one of the best looks at the men behind the world's premiere hockey broadcast, Mellanby brings it all together by presenting it in a first-person, tell-it-as-it-happened format.

You can honestly feel that Mellanby has a deep respect for the men he put in front of the camera every game, and that all of them together as a team were better than they were as individuals. That collection of skills is a credit to Mellanby's leadership, and I cannot stress that enough.

From the Hewitts' distinct calls to McFarlane's warm welcome on each broadcast to Howie Meeker's telestrator work to Dave Hodge's intellectual conversations with players, all of it is covered in this book. Mr. Mellanby also speaks about the players he hired as analysts, and he has a fondness for all of those NHL players who moved from the ice to the broadcast booth. Even those that didn't work as well as they should have in the analyst role. The stories are warm and respectful, and Mr. Mellanby highlights the highs and lows of the relationships and friendships forged over hockey.

A quotation from Malcolm G. Kelly's book, Hanging It Out on Camera 3, is featured in Mike Brophy's introduction, and I think it goes to show exactly how important Ralph Mellanby was and is to hockey broadcasting. From the following quote, it appears that today's hockey telecasts are the result of Mr. Mellanby's involvement with the game of hockey:

"You know those dramatic openings that are a regular feature of Hockey Night and most other sports shows these days? The shots of scalpers and chestnut salesmen outside the arena, the wide look at the skyline, the people coming in through the turnstiles while a sonorous voice imparts to the television audience expository wisdom about the battle to come?

"That's Ralph Mellanby.

"How about the sound of bone-crunching hits along the boards, or the puck dinging off the goalpost?

"That's Ralph Mellanby."
Without a doubt, Mr. Mellanby's book is an excellent resource about all of hockey's non-ice personalities and innovations introduced to hockey, and he does an excellent job in relating the stories with humour and respect about the men (and one woman) who appeared on Hockey Night in Canada. The Dave Hodge chapter is particularly interesting, especially when it comes to Hodge's dismissal from the program, and I commend Mr. Mellanby for handling it as well as he did in his retelling of that story.

While there is some PG-language in the book, I fully recommend Walking with Legends to all readers as it really brings a personal perspective to Hockey Night in Canada, and the stories told by Mr. Mellanby makes these larger-than-life on-air personalities a lot more real. Walking with Legends is recommended by Teebz's Book Club, and is certainly worthy of Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval.

Just before I sign off on this entry, here is a look at 50 years of Hockey Night in Canada personalities. As you're watching this, remember that the men seen on the video wearing the powder blue HNIC jackets were hired by Mr. Mellanby, and a very large number of them have gone on to impressive careers after their time on the program. All of the men featured in this video, however, are associated with Mr. Mellanby's time in television. Enjoy!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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