Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/9/2020 (630 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You’ll have to excuse Bob Irving, the longtime radio voice of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, if he’s feeling a bit out of sorts this weekend.
With the 2020 Canadian Football League season having been shelved owing to COVID-19, Sunday will mark just the third time since 1975 — the year he was named CJOB 68’s play-by-play announcer for Blue Bomber games at the tender age of 25 — that Irving won’t be in Regina covering the annual Labour Day clash against the arch-rival Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Bombers and Riders didn’t hook up on Labour Day in 1981 due to a scheduling glitch, Irving recalls, seated in his sunroom on a picture-perfect afternoon, steps away from where one of his and wife Daye’s seven grandchildren is cavorting in the shallow end of a backyard swimming pool. As to why he missed the 2002 "Classic," well, he had a pretty good excuse: he was in the hospital recuperating from open-heart surgery.
"That was the year Rocky Butler filled in for the Riders at QB," he says, turning off his phone so as not to be interrupted. "Doug Brown, my on-air partner, played in that game and likes to joke how he still can’t believe the Bombers got beat by (bad word) Rocky Butler."
Irving, who turned 70 in mid-August, 23 years after he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, admits the last several months have definitely taken some getting used to with no football on the docket. In a typical CFL campaign the father of three is at IG Field — home of the Bob Irving Media Centre, no less — as often as six days a week for close to six months in a row, observing practice or interviewing team personnel. This summer he had July and August completely off for the first time in his career.
In May and June, when it had yet to be determined whether there would be a football season, Irving — who retired from his full-time sports director’s position in 2014 — kept busy co-hosting the first hour of ’OB’s weekday evening sports show with Christian Aumell.
"Not having to work has been nice in the sense that I’ve had more time to golf and get away to the cottage. But at the end of the day I’m a huge fan of the CFL, one who misses the game terribly," he says, showing off his personalized 2019 Grey Cup ring, which came as "a complete and utter surprise" when Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea presented it to him at the tail end of the team’s championship ring ceremony held in late July.
"It’s hard to describe but when you’re calling a game and the crowd’s going crazy it almost feels like you’re a part of the action. Plus you have to remember: there are only nine professional football play-by-play jobs in this country and I’m fortunate enough to have one of ’em. If that doesn’t make you feel privileged, I don’t know what would."
Irving, a Regina native, grew up "bleeding" green and white. When he wasn’t cheering on Riders stars such as Ron Lancaster and George Reed — "the sun rose and set on those two guys," he says, gushing — he was like every other boy his age, participating in hockey, football, baseball… "every sport pretty much."
Born with a congenital heart defect, he underwent his first open-heart surgery at age 18, a procedure that shut down any dreams he harboured of one day leading the Riders to a Grey Cup victory. Long a fan of Ron Barnett, Saskatchewan’s play-by-play announcer, he often thought how great it would to be to cover sports for a living. That seemed to be a pipe dream at best, however — when he graduated high school in 1968 there were no academies or technical colleges in Regina teaching radio — so he enrolled in the University of Regina’s business administration program, instead.
Stopping short of calling it an epiphany, Irving, the younger of two brothers, realized early in his second year at UR that he was never going to make it as an economist. He informed his parents he had quit school — in the middle of a math class, no less — and that his revised plan was to give sports journalism a shot, after all. Their joint reaction: "Oh, really?"
In the spring of 1969 Irving paid a visit to Doug Alexander, the program director at CKCK, the top-rated radio station in Regina. Brimming with confidence, he informed Alexander he wanted to be a radio announcer. "Jeez, kid, who wouldn’t?" came the response. Alexander didn’t offer Irving a job on the spot, that’s true, but he did allow the 19-year-old to come to the station after hours and use an empty studio to practise by recording himself reading wire copy or old newscasts.
Irving chuckles, recalling Alexander’s words of "encouragement" that emboldened him to mail audition tapes to every radio station in Saskatchewan. "I’d been at it for about three months and one day while he was going over my tapes with me, offering a few tips, he said, ‘Well, you still don’t sound very good but hey, you never know. Maybe somebody out there will hire you.’"
That "somebody" turned out to be CJSL, a 1,000-watt station in Estevan, some 185 kilometres away.
Irving’s starting wage at CJSL was $200 per month. The deal he’d struck with his boss was that if everything went well he would get a $25 per month bump in pay after 90 days. The three-month mark came and went. Without any mention of a salary hike. Irving, whose chief duty there was covering city hall, decided to take matters into his own hands.
"One afternoon I gave my boss a call saying I was kind of wondering about my raise to which he shot back, ‘What raise? I don’t have any record of that,’" he says, shaking his head. "I was like, ‘C’mon man, that extra $25 would make a big difference.’ We basically got into a shouting match on the phone — either he fired me or I quit, it’s still open to debate — and that was the end of that."
It didn’t take long for Irving to land on his feet. In the fall of 1970 he was hired to spin Top 40 hits at CKX in Brandon for the princely sum of $300 per month. Two things occurred during his three years in the Wheat City that shaped his life greatly. First, he met Daye, an X-ray technician originally from Ingelow, near Carberry. Secondly, during his third year there he was provided the opportunity to do colour commentary for a Western Canada Hockey League game between the hometown Wheat Kings and the Winnipeg (junior) Jets. Ken (Friar) Nicholson, CJOB’s sports director at the time, was the voice of the Winnipeg squad and one evening when he was stuck for a colour commentator somebody at the rink suggested Irving.
Months later — "this is probably the story of my career," he says, clasping his hands behind his head — he bumped into Nicholson by accident in the parking lot at Clear Lake Golf Course in Wasagaming, where both men were competing in the annual Grey Owl tournament. The two spent a few minutes catching up. During the course of their conversation Irving mentioned he was still hoping to land a full-time sports gig somewhere. Nicholson said as luck would have it, a member of ‘OB’s sports department had recently quit. He told Irving to get in touch with John Cochrane, the station’s program director, if he was interested in applying.
In September 1973, having accepted a position that paid double what he was pulling in at CKX, he and Daye packed a car full of their belongings and drove to Winnipeg, settling into a tiny apartment on Setter Street, near Grace Hospital.
"I’ve often said if I don’t bump into Ken at the golf course that day there would have been no way of me knowing there was an opening at ‘OB. Thank God I was in the right place at the right time, otherwise it’s highly likely none of this ever happens."
When Irving joined CJOB, Nicholson was the play-by-play announcer for both the World Hockey Association Jets and the Blue Bombers. Because there were often overlaps in the two teams’ seasons, Nicholson sat down with Irving in the summer of 1975, informing him that going forward he would be assuming the football duties. Irving, who had helped Nicholson out in the booth a few times already, including the 1974 Labour Day game, after which quarterback Don Jonas was traded to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the flight home, politely informed his boss that while he was moderately comfortable doing colour commentary, play-by-play was a different ballgame altogether. Nicholson’s response: "Don’t worry, you’ll be fine."
Irving’s first game as the new voice of the Bombers occurred Oct. 4, 1975 at Montreal’s Autostade stadium. Though he can’t recall the outcome — according to the Internet, the Bombers edged the Als 26-21 — he does remember having more than a few butterflies in his stomach as he settled into the booth alongside the rest of the broadcast team, which included local legends Jack Matheson, Ken Ploen and (Cactus) Jack Wells.
"I was definitely nervous but everybody kept telling me play-by-play is simply describing what you’re seeing on the field in front of you. I called the plays the best I could, I got comfortable with the job fairly quickly and everything kind of took off from there."
Irving laughs when a reporter credits him as the reason his wife knows what a hash mark is, given the fact he always makes a point of letting listeners know what side of the field the pigskin has been placed prior to the snap. That’s all part of painting a picture, he says, adding that’s also why he tries to point out whether a punted ball is travelling end-over-end or if a pass was thrown hard or softly. "I try to be as descriptive as I can because for obvious reasons radio is nothing like TV. I’m basically the listeners’ eyes."
About that; a few years ago Irving was at a banquet featuring former Manitoba premier Gary Doer as the keynote speaker. Noticing Irving, an Order of Manitoba inductee, in the crowd, Doer broke into a story about camping with his family one summer evening while the Bombers were playing. Everybody’s radio must have been tuned into the game, Doer said, because no matter where you were, you could hear Irving’s voice echoing throughout the campground. (How recognizable is that voice? A few weeks ago Irving was at the beach tossing the football around with some of his grandchildren when a woman waded up to him, whispering, "I’m sorry for interrupting but I couldn’t help overhearing you calling out to the kids. You’re Bob Irving, right?")
Doug Brown has been Irving’s game-day partner since 2012. The eight-time CFL all-star and 2001 winner of the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian award says he’s been fortunate in his career to work alongside a number of outstanding people, on and off the field.
"When I was a rookie in pro football, I met (former Buffalo Bills defensive end) Bruce Smith, the NFL’s all-time sack leader. I carried the tips and tricks he shared with me for my entire career," Brown says when reached at home. "Similarly, in my first year of doing colour on CJOB I got paired with Bob Irving who, in my opinion, is just as elite in his field. It’s never short of astonishing watching the all-time greats work their craft, whether it’s sacking a quarterback (Smith) or detailing an Andrew Harris touchdown run (Irving)."
Brown concedes that during his playing days he wasn’t overly familiar with Irving’s on-air prowess, given the fact he was a bit preoccupied on game day, chasing down quarterbacks and ball carriers. Nonetheless, whenever he interacted with Irving during a pre- or post-game interview, he could tell right away his inquisitor was both insightful and passionate about the game. "Even when the situation called for hard questions, he had a way of always being professional and non-confrontational about it. He was always a pleasure to speak with — win, lose or draw."
Brown goes on, describing Irving as "all the mentor you could hope for." In regards to the pair’s season off, he says one of the things he misses most isn’t so much the action on the field as the ability to sit down with "Knuckles" — a nickname Jack Wells hung on Irving in the mid-1970s due to his fear of flying — after a game to "rehydrate" and kibitz about whatever is going on each other’s life outside of football. "Not only has he helped me immensely with broadcasting but he’s got some pretty good parenting experiences and advice to share, too," Brown says.
Give him a minute to ponder that question, Irving says when asked whether any of the 900 or so games he’s worked during the last 45 years — not counting the 20 NHL games he’s also called — stick out more than any others. In his experience, it’s always been easier to recall specific plays versus entire, 60-minute games, he explains. Like the moment late in the 1982 Western Final when Bombers D-lineman John Helton was flagged for roughing Edmonton quarterback Warren Moon, all but sealing Edmonton’s 24-21 victory and a trip to that year’s Grey Cup. Or the point in the game on July 27, 2007 when Milt Stegall accepted a one-yard shovel pass from Kevin Glenn for the 138th touchdown of his Hall of Fame career, breaking the CFL record set by Saskatchewan’s George Reed 32 years earlier.
"Not only was it historic but I had never heard the old stadium as loud as it was that night. The building actually shook during what must have been a four-minute standing ovation."
After thinking about it, there are a few games that were particularly memorable, he allows. First was the Aug. 8, 1981 tilt between the Bombers and the Montreal Alouettes. That was the year the Als were owned by Nelson Skalbania, a businessman from British Columbia best remembered for signing a then-17-year-old Wayne Gretzky to his first professional contract with the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers. The Als came to town with a slew of big names, including ex-L.A. Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo, ex-Houston Oilers receiver Billy (White Shoes) Johnson plus a first-round NFL pick (Miami Dolphins) in the form of running back David Overstreet, he says. "Not only did the Bombers win, they annihilated them 58-2. It was absolutely incredible."
Another noteworthy affair took place at Winnipeg Stadium (later Canad Inns Stadium) July 14, 1994. That was the evening Bombers quarterback Matt Dunigan threw for 713 yards to set a professional record for most yards completed by a QB in a single game. "That game wasn’t televised," he says, "so the mythology of what took place — how Matt was in this absolute zone — has grown a bit through the years. But it was an incredible thing to see in person."
Thirdly, Irving says he would be remiss if he didn’t cite the momentous three-game run the Bombers went on last fall, which led to the team’s first Grey Cup title in 29 years.
"First there was the last regular-season game of the year, home to Calgary," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "It was a key game as the team had been struggling a bit leading up to it, plus they had (Zach) Collaros in at quarterback for the first time. There was a lot of stuff going on.
"They win that game then it’s on to Calgary where they’re underdogs, not huge underdogs, but underdogs nonetheless. They mop the floor with the Stamps and away they go to Saskatchewan, a game they win by the skin of their teeth. People say there’s no luck in sports, but give me a break. That (Cody) Fajardo pass that hit the upright in the dying seconds? You can’t write that stuff.
"Then comes the Grey Cup game against Hamilton, where once again they’re sizable underdogs. Except they burst out of the locker room absolutely on fire and win it going away, 33-12."
At this point Irving pauses to reflect not only on what that victory meant to Bomber fans all over the world — from time to time during broadcasts he invites listeners to let him know where they’re tuning in from via the internet; last summer, people from 75 separate locations all over the world did just that — but to the people who assembled the team in the first place.
"I couldn’t have been happier for (CEO and president) Wade Miller, (general manager) Kyle Walters and Mike O’Shea, who, despite his gruff exterior is just a wonderful human being and one of the finest people I’ve ever dealt with in all my years of covering sports. The three of them worked so hard on changing the team culture and creating an atmosphere where players wanted to be in Winnipeg. They did everything right and it was great to see them rewarded for their efforts."
Ed Tait is the senior writer/reporter at bluebombers.com, the club’s official website. Like Irving, he’s also a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, having been inducted into the Football Reporters of Canada media wing in 2011, 21 years after he began covering the Bombers for the Winnipeg Sun. Tait, who also wrote about the Big Blue for the Free Press from 1999 to 2016, recalls the conversation he had with his parents a week or two into his first Bombers training camp in June 1990.
"I went over to their place for dinner and since we were all big fans of the team — I grew up listening to games on the radio with the two of them — the topic naturally turned to football," Tait says when reached at home.
"I was sitting at the table, going on about how I was getting the opportunity to talk to all these great characters like Chris Walby, James Murphy and Rick House when my mom stopped me in mid-sentence. ‘Never mind them,’ she said. ‘What’s Bob Irving like?’"
Tait, 14 years Irving’s junior, says their relationship was forged at "the old stadium" when, during a typical football season, it was safe to say he spent more time talking with Irving than his wife. "I was this young buck when I started, he was close to 40, and our relationship kind of evolved through the years, from him being like a big brother in a lot of ways to now being one of my very best friends on the planet."
Tait says there was a period in the early 2000s when CJOB didn’t always send a colour analyst on the road to call games with Irving. From time to time his pal asked him to lend a hand, jokingly letting him know that if he wanted to perform the job correctly, he should begin each sentence with, "That’s right, Bob."
Tait recalls one Labour Day game in particular. Irving was getting mad at the Bombers because there were only a few minutes left, they were trailing by 10 points and the players on the field weren’t managing the clock very well.
"Sounding all pissed off, Bob said over the air that the Bombers were lollygagging to the line of scrimmage like the New Christy Minstrels. Not only did I start laughing my head off in the booth, after the game I immediately Googled New Christy Minstrels (a popular folk music act in the early ‘60s) to see what the hell he was even talking about."
Winnipeg journalist Kim Babij-Gesell first met Irving in 1999 when she joined the CJOB news team to help cover the Pan Am Games. Initially she tried to conceal how much of a fan of his work she was but one day, following an exchange between the two of them over a sports report she’d just delivered, she let him know she’d been listening to Bomber games on the radio with her parents since she was a kid. And that she couldn’t believe she was standing in the presence of, in her words, royalty. "Oh, pshaw," he replied.
"Bob is the most professional, most well-prepared person I’ve ever met in this business but at the same time, the most humble and down-to-earth," Babij-Gesell says. "A few years ago I worked in the Bombers’ communications department. Whenever I’d introduce him on the Jumbotron during our pregame interview as the ‘legendary’ Bob Irving, he would just stand there, rolling his eyes."
Five years ago, when Babij-Gesell was hosting The Fabulous Blue Bombers Show on Shaw-TV, she had the opportunity to shadow Irving during the course of an entire broadcast for a segment on the next week’s show. His attention to detail that day blew her away, she says.
"My camera person and I were up in the booth with him and he showed us all these sheets of notes — a set of hieroglyphics I wouldn’t have been able to decipher to save my life. Seriously, to be that prepared after 30 or 40 years of calling CFL games? That’s the reason he makes a very difficult job sound so easy," she says.
"This may sound excessive, but as a huge Bombers fan, I always watch the games on TV then, because it’s hard to sync radio up with the TV, listen to the broadcast on the CJOB audio vault later that week. Just because I want to hear Bob’s call, and what he had to say in regards to this play or that."
Earlier this summer Irving was fairly outspoken on social media, arguing that the federal government should have been doing everything in its power to ensure the CFL staged some semblance of a season in 2020. Calling the league a "peak" Canadian institution due to rules that stipulate almost half of the players on the roster must be Canadian, he says while he understands there are a lot of taxpayers who aren’t sports fans and don’t believe the Prime Minister’s Office should be bailing out wealthy team owners, he still doesn’t understand why the notion of an interest-free loan was quashed.
"Since March the government has been throwing billions of dollars around and they couldn’t give these guys a $30-million loan? Not a grant but a loan. Of course, I don’t know what the terms were — perhaps it’s one of those loans you kind of never pay back — but whatever. That’s the way things turned out."
When asked his opinion on the long-term viability of the league, whether it can bounce back after being shut down completely for 12 months, he adjusts his glasses and leans forward.
"Absolutely, 100 per cent," he says, speaking directly into a reporter’s digital recorder so as not to be misunderstood. "This is a huge setback for the CFL, there’s no denying that, but after seeing some of the things I’ve seen through the years – the U.S. expansion in the ‘90s, the past ownership problems in Ottawa and Montreal — I’m convinced that not only will the league be around next year, it’ll be around for another 100 besides. There’s no doubt in my mind that when I retire, I’ll be able to go to Bomber games with my wife and grandkids."
All right, since he’s the one who brought up the R-word, not us, what about that? Has Irving, a 45-year resident of Charleswood, given any serious thought to turning off his microphone for good, and standing in line at the Rum Hut with the rest of us commoners come game day?
"If you’re looking for a scoop, I’m sorry but I’m not going to give you one," he says with a laugh. "I just turned 70 and even though I feel pretty good, I have had some health issues over the years that will ultimately play a role in whatever it is I decide to do. Right now though, with the fact the season was only just cancelled a couple of weeks ago, the wound is still fresh. You and everyone else will just have wait to see what the future holds."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.