Game On: Rick Jeanneret reflects
Broadcaster, fan, Hall of Famer
To hear the legendary announcer describe himself, Rick Jeanneret is just an everyday hockey fanatic. He’s the guy at the end of the bar who’s perfectly content to quietly watch Hockey Night In Canada while enjoying a beer. Labatt Blue Light is his choice, but he’s not picky; his favorite lager is “any port in the storm.”
Those accustomed to his stirring goal calls and exhilarating way with words might be surprised to learn that Jeanneret is quite comfortable in the role of anonymous observer. The voice that’s called Sabres games for more than forty years and is set for dual honors this fall—induction into both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame—considers himself an incredibly fortunate fan of the team. “The game has been incredibly good to John Richard Jeanneret,” the play-by-play man says. “Absolutely it has been. It’s treated me very well, and I’m very grateful.”
Jeanneret was raised in Terrace Bay, Ontario, after being born in St. Catharines in 1942. Terrace Bay sits on the north side of Lake Superior and its climate is “ten months of winter and two months of heavy sledding,” according to Jeanneret. It was there that he found his passion for the puck. Hockey was the main sport for Jeanneret, who also played baseball among other games, and it also drove the small population of just 1,800.
It’s a sixteen-hour drive from Terrace Bay to the place Jeanneret finds “hog heaven”: the Ted Darling Memorial Press Box inside the First Niagara Center. There, and previously, in the press box at the Memorial Auditorium, Jeanneret’s taglines have made single moments unforgettable (“May Day! May Day!”), average careers appear Hall-worthy (“Dawesome!”), and dropped the cherry on top of the careers of the game’s best (“La-La-La-La-La-La-La-La-Fon-Taine!”). They are cries of enthusiasm that seemingly could not come from someone who didn’t bleed blue and gold. Though many broadcasters’ claims of unbiased performance would shy from admitting fandom, Jeanneret couldn’t care less if you label him a Sabres fan.
“Do I want the Buffalo Sabres to win? Damn right, I do,” he says. “Do I have anything to do with it? No, no, no. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see them win the Stanley Cup. I’d like them to win every night. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You’re a homer,’ and I say, ‘So, what’s your next point?’”
The calls are great, but it’s Jeanneret’s skill as a storyteller that makes him such an invaluable asset to his beloved sport. That ability carries over to his life away from the game. He easily drops memorable details into any tale from a story about longtime broadcast partner Jim Lorentz’s easy fishing nature at Lake Placid (“He’s out there in the middle of the stream in his hip waders, just catching his fish and throwing them back—cause that’s what he did, he never kept any”) to a yarn about spending two days in a pub during the Blizzard of ’77 (“At one point, the barkeeper said, ‘Last call,’ and two Ontario Provincial Police officers stood up and said, ‘We’ll tell you when last call is’”).
This knowledge of the necessary is what makes Jeanneret and the Sabres a winning combination. He knows that his words carry weight with fans, whether it’s the description of a single play or his tone when Buffalo had to play a hockey game just after the tragic accident of Flight 3407. Jeanneret has lived in Western New York through every storm and every season. “I think it comes part and parcel with the package,” Jeanneret says of his responsibility as a voice for the fans. “It does especially now that I’ve been there for more than forty years. I think people expect me to say something, whatever the issue is at the time. I’ve always tried to do that the best I could.”
Sabres play-by-play man is a job Jeanneret has held in five different decades over thousands of games with hundreds of players and fifteen head coaches. Thanks to the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, given for outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster, Jeanneret will take his rightful place among those who’ve made ice hockey such a vibrant experience for fans. Though he hesitates to imagine what it’ll feel like to become a Hockey Hall of Famer, Jeanneret doesn’t hesitate when asked what else he wants to see later in life.
“I am totally satisfied with the way my career has gone and the only thing that’s missing is the same thing that’s missing from every Buffalo Sabres fan’s heart: the Stanley Cup,” Jeanneret says. “And no, I’m not saying I’d be finished if they won the Cup. But I do hope they win the Cup.”
Nick Mendola tweets at twitter.com/nicholasmendola.