BY KEITH LACEY
As the clock strikes two this afternoon, the voice of Berk Keaney Sr. will boom down from his perch over the fans assembled at the Sudbury Arena asking them to please stand for CanadaÂ?s national anthem.
As the Sudbury Wolves wrap up a disappointing 2002-2003 OHL season, Keaney is marking a milestone as this game marks the completion of an amazing 50th year as the voice of the Wolves at the Sudbury Arena.
Keaney, 81, spent an hour with Northern Life last week looking back at his part-time job and labour of love over the past five decades as the announcer at Sudbury Wolves home games.
Well into his golden years, Keaney possesses a truly amazing ability to recall names, events and players from years gone by. Keaney says heÂ?s been blessed to watch the likes of Don Cherry, Harry Sinden and Orval Tessier perform for the Wolves in the old Eastern Professional Hockey League.
He fondly remembers the early OHL days when the Wolves came so close to winning the league championship with future NHL players Ron Duguay, Rod Schutt, Dave Farrish, Randy Carlyle, Alex McKendry, Hector Marini, Ron Bedard and Richie Hansen all on the same squad.
Hockey has been such a big part of his life, he couldnÂ?t think of a better way to remain close to the game he loves over these many long years.
Â?IÂ?ve really, really enjoyed myself over these past 50 years,Â? said the gracious Keaney. Â?I really love the game, but the best part of my job has always been before and after the games when I get to talk to the fans.
Â?I can say without hesitation Sudbury hockey fans are the most passionate and knowledgeable fans IÂ?ve ever come across. They share the same love of the game I do.Â?
Born in Arnprior near Ottawa, Keaney moved with his parents, three older brothers and four sisters to the Sudbury area in 1935.
His father was an accountant and found work managing the old Balmoral Hotel, three brothers found work in the mines and the entire family decided to make the big move more than 65 years ago.
Â?IÂ?ve been here ever since and I just never considered leaving because I love the place, Â? said the proud Sudburian, who worked for 43 years at Inco before retiring.
Hockey bloodlines run deep in the Keaney clan.
His motherÂ?s brother Marty Walsh played for Ottawa Â?back in the days of Cyclone TaylorÂ? at the turn of the century in the old National Hockey Association (NHA).
Walsh still holds the modern-day record for professional hockey by scoring 10 goals in one game in March 1908, said Keaney proudly.
His older brother Jack played junior in Arnprior and Kirkland Lake, while brother Des played in the old semi-professional mine league here in Sudbury.
Â?Des was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and they wanted him to start in the minors in Pittsburgh,Â? he said. Â?Des had just started a good job at Inco and made the decision to stay with the mines and never did play pro.Â?
His other brother, Morris, whom he affectionately calls Â?Moe the ProÂ? was a talented juvenile player, but was a better golfer and eventually became the golf professional at the Idylwylde Golf and Country Club.
Keaney himself played for Frood Mine in the mine league before joining the Canadian Navy in 1942.
After the Second World War was over, Keaney was a key member of the Sudbury Royal Canadian Legion Branch 76 team which captured the 1947 provincial intermediate championship.
In his playing career, Keaney battled against the likes of future NHLers Jerry Toppazzini and Tim Horton.
Â?The hardest body check I ever took was from Tim HortonÂ?I was 23 and he was this 16-year-old kid,Â? said Keaney smiling. Â?It happened at the old Stanley Stadium in Copper Cliff when Horton was a hot shot with the Copper Cliff Redmen.
Â?I can still remember that hit as if it happened yesterday. He rocked me good.Â?
After getting married in 1949, Keaney and his wife Nora started a family and his oldest son, Sudbury lawyer Berk Jr., was born in 1950.
He kept playing intermediate hockey while working at Inco, but decided to pack it in after two more children, Danny and Cathy, were born. Youngest daughter Maureen was born after his playing career ended.
When hockey season was over, Keaney turned to baseball and golf and was an avid competitor in both summer sports.
His love of sports eventually led to his gig as Wolves announcer.
Â?I used to do a little part-time sports announcing at CHNO when a fella named Joe Spence was the sports director,Â? said Keaney. Â?When Joe went on the road with the Wolves, IÂ?d go in and read the sportscasts on the radio.Â?
In 1953, Spence informed him a full-time broadcaster who doubled as Wolves announcer at the Sudbury Arena was leaving for another job in Kingston.
Spence asked Keaney if he had any interest in trying out. He was and the rest, as they say, is Sudbury hockey history.
Keaney vividly remembers his first game calling out goals, assists and penalties.
The date was Nov. 16, 1953 as the Wolves battled the Caruso Pontiacs in the old Northern Ontario senior hockey league.
Â?I was really, really nervous, so arena manager George Panter stood behind me for the first two periods and helped me out,Â? said Keaney. Â?I turned around for the third period and George was gone. He left me all alone, but I managed to make my way through it.
Since 1953, Keaney estimates heÂ?s missed less than 60 Wolves home games.
His son Berk Jr. has filled in as announcer almost every time heÂ?s had to miss a game over the past 15 years, he said.
ItÂ?s through Â?pure coincidenceÂ? Keaney was away on vacation in Las Vegas during the 1992 playoffs when one of the most controversial moments in Wolves history took place at the Sudbury Arena.
ThatÂ?s when captain Paul DiPietro appeared to score the winning goal in overtime in Game 7 against Owen Sound, apparently advancing the Wolves the league semi-finals.
However, referee Paul Coleman waved off the goal for no apparent reason, and Owen Sound scored a couple of minutes later to win the series.
Many fans reacted angrily. Coleman had to be escorted by police guard out of the arena. That referee never returned to Sudbury again to officiate an OHL contest.
Â?My son called to give me the details about the goal and before he finished his sentence, I told him Â?it was Paul Coleman wasnÂ?t itÂ? and he couldnÂ?t believe I knew which referee had blown the series,Â? said Keaney.
In all his years, the Â?best hockeyÂ? he ever witnessed was the 1974-75 semi-final series between the Toronto Marlboros and Wolves, said Keaney.
The Sudbury Arena was packed beyond capacity with a crowd many estimate at more than 8,000 as the Wolves and Marlies battled in the final game of a thrilling series.
Despite dominating play, the Wolves, with the likes of Duguay, Schutt and Carlyle leading the way, lost in overtime on a goal by John Anderson. The Marlies went on the win the Memorial Cup championship.
Â?That series was the best hockey ever played in this arena. It was some of the best hockey IÂ?ve ever since anywhere,Â? said Keaney. Â?I had to announce there were 6,666 in the building because thatÂ?s all the fire marshal would allow, but anyone who was there that night will tell you there were a lot more than that.
Â?The level of hockey and intensity was incredible. When I had to announce the John Anderson overtime goal, it broke my heart.Â?
Most of his favourite all-time Wolves players came from that era, said Keaney. He says Mike Foligno was the best player he ever witnessed in a Wolves uniform.
Rounding out his other favourite players through the years are Duguay, Carlyle, Paul DiPietro, Glen Murray, Mario Â?TigerÂ? Chitaroni, Norm Milley and Mike Fisher.
From the late 1980s until late 1990s, the Wolves went more than a decade without making the playoffs. Sometimes crowds were less than 1,000.
Â?That was easily the low point for this franchise,Â? said Keaney. Â?It was really bad going to the games.Â?
Back then, drafted players simply refused to report, management was a mess and the fans stayed away in droves, but that all changed when Ken Burgess and his family bought the team prior to the 1987 season, said Keaney.
Since then, the Wolves have been one of the best organizations in the OHL always near the top in attendance and corporate support.
As an announcer, Keaney said heÂ?s always taken great pride in speaking with a clear, loud voice and trying to pronounce names properly.
Â?I figure out the spelling and if I donÂ?t know the proper pronunciation, I have it spelled out phonetically,Â? he said. Â?I donÂ?t like getting the names wrong.Â?
While todayÂ?s game marks a major milestone officially completing 50 years of service, Keaney isnÂ?t ready to call it quits.
Â?If the Wolves want me back, IÂ?d be glad to come back,Â? said Keaney getting emotional. Â?I used to golf before my knees fell apart so it makes for a very long summer.
Â?Once hockey season comes around and I know IÂ?ll be back announcing, it really gets me going again.Â?
His wife has been a huge supporter and doesnÂ?t mind one bit he has spent so many years as the Wolves announcer, said Keaney.
Â?My wife is an avid, avid bridge player and we came to an agreement,Â? he said. Â?She plays bridge when she wants and she never bothers me about this.Â?
Earlier this year, the Wolves organization presented Keaney with his own special night marking 50 years of work well done.
Â?I rented a tuxedo and everything, but the big problem was IÂ?d never worn one before and didnÂ?t know how to put it on,Â? he said smiling. Â?That was a real special night. The fans and organization have always been so good to me.Â?
Blaine Smith, Wolves vice-president of marketing, said KeaneyÂ?s career as team announcer is far from over.
Â?Berk is a real charming person who has always remained very loyal to the organization and Sudbury Arena,Â? he said. Â?HeÂ?s very dedicated and takes his job very seriously having missed so few games in all these years.
Â?As far as the Wolves are concerned, Berk will be back announcing next year and for many, many more years to come.Â?
Berk Jr. agrees his fatherÂ?s announcing career has been a labour of love and concurs his ability to recall names, events and moments in Sudbury sports history is uncanny.
Â?That competitive fire still burns inside him and thatÂ?s why he takes so much pride in this job,Â? he said.
He still smiles when his father uses intonation indicating he doesnÂ?t necessarily agree with a call against the Wolves.
Â?There have been some officials who let it be known they didnÂ?t like the way Dad made some calls, but I know for sure he doesnÂ?t care one bit about how they feel,Â? he said.