Bob Wolff is a legend among sportscasters. To list all of his accomplishments and awards, as well as the many historic moments in sports that he has covered, would more than fill this column. It has also been noted that Wolff has always been very generous with his time, and I was grateful that he gave me the opportunity to speak with him about his years broadcasting Rangers games on television.
Q: What was your first hockey experience?
A: As a kid growing up I played roller hockey in our backyard, and it was a big treat every once in a while to go to the Garden to see what these guys could do on ice and how fast they could skate.
But when I was in Washington they had a team called the Washington Hockey Lions in the Eastern Hockey League. They played in the Uline arena where I worked for the Washington Capitols, one of the original teams in the Basketball Association of America.
I watched the hockey team and got to know some of the players They didn’t make a lot of money in those days. One of my first realizations was that the players were living on “stitch money”. They had insurance policies that paid them $10 a stitch. So they used to line up and tell the doctor or trainer, ‘Give me a couple more stitches doc. I want to eat well tonight.’ That’s the first I knew about hockey wages in those days.
Q: When did you start working for Madison Square Garden?
A: In 1954 I became the Garden announcer. I did the Rangers on TV, the Knicks, tennis, gymnastics, horse shows, dog shows. I did the play-by-play for everything except wrestling.
I always thought hockey was a great game to watch but hard to televise because you couldn’t feel the quickness or see the colors back then.
Q: How did you go about gaining credibility as a hockey announcer?
A: I had to start recognizing the nuances of the game so I could sound like an authority and not just a guy describing the game. So I started palling around with my good friend Andy Bathgate, who was just a learned, brilliant hockey guy. When we’d go on road trips, I’d sit beside Andy and ask him questions, and I kept a book of my questions and his answers. Over time I just accumulated more and more books, and I think he appreciated my interest in the sport. So one day I asked him, ‘Andy, all these things you’ve been telling me about hockey, does everyone know these things?’ He said ‘No Bob, this is just what I do.’ So I said maybe it might be fun to see if we could get this published, your secrets of hockey so kids could learn from you. So I went out to a couple of publishers and Prentice Hall said, ‘Sure we’ll publish it.’ So there I am, co-author with Andy of “Andy Bathgate’s Hockey Secrets”. And Andy went out with an amateur camera man, and we took some shots of how you hold the stick, how you get the shot off correctly, all the techniques of the sport. Lo and behold that became the best selling hockey book in Canada. And when they saw my name on the book, they thought boy I was the authority on the sport, when all I knew was what Andy had been telling me and what I picked up watching games.
But the book got big in the United States, it even got big in Sweden. So I became very well known for my hockey expertise via Andy Bathgate. A funny thing happened with that. I thought a great cover would be a picture if Andy in a Ranger uniform. He was the captain of the team and a very popular player, good looking guy and just a whiz on the ice. That worked well for sales until he was traded to Toronto. But the publisher was very kind to me. They changed the cover of all the books they had left to a picture of Andy in a Maple Leaf uniform. And that did well until he was traded to Detroit. Then they said they’d be going with the old cover for the books they had left. So our sales stopped shortly thereafter.
Q: What were your favorite arenas to broadcast from?
A: I liked doing games from Montreal, Toronto and Detroit because there was so much history in those places. The Garden always had the roar of the crowd. I was in Chicago when Bobby Hull first passed the 50 goal mark. I did an interview with him on the ice after the game. I did the Stanley Cup Final in Detroit. That was a thrill because I had previously done the World Series, NFL Championship, NBA Championship and then I was able to add the Stanley Cup Final to make it the four major sports. And my color commentator was one of my very best friends, Emile Francis, who was a real pepper pot. He was always up for every game. He gets really passionate about it. He was a lot of fun to be with.
Q: You did a lot of commuting between Washington, D.C. and New York in those days. Did you ever worry about missing a game?
A: My heart was always in my throat because if the plane was late or anything I’d miss the game and they’d fire me because I was the only announcer on the game, they didn’t use a color man back then. I’d usually stay over in New York, so I had a bag with my game notes, some clothes and I always asked to bring my bag on the plane with me because then I could go directly to the game. If the plane was late and I had to check my bag I’d be in trouble.
But they always made a big fuss that the bag wouldn’t fit under the seat. They had this little box and if the bag fit in the box it was okay. So I said I’ll prove to you that it can fit in that little space under the seat. I opened the bag and opened all the compartments and put my shirts in one, my socks in another, my shaving kit etc. So then my entire bag was depleted and I could just pack it down under the seat. So they said, ‘OK you win,’ and I got to bring the bag on the plane with me.
One time when the Rangers were in Boston, I did a Penn State college football game in the afternoon and rented a single engine plane to fly me into Boston. I called for a taxi to meet me at the gate to get me to the Boston Garden and got to the broadcast booth one minute before the game started.
Q: Do you have any funny stories you’d like to pass along?
A: Well, in the early 1960s the Rangers were asked to come down to Washington for a benefit game for a local reporter who got hit with a puck and lost an eye. So since I was doing all these events at Uline arena, I offered to help out. I got a bus company to donate a bus to pick them up at the airport. I told my wife we’d be having a few people over for lunch today, so we have to order something from a catering service. She asked how many, I said at least 25. So that afternoon before the game we had the whole team and all the officials for dinner. Then after lunch they wanted to take their pregame naps. So there they were. One was in the bathtub, some were on the floor, three were in my bed. Some were in the back yard on lounge chairs. They were sleeping all over the house. It was an unusual experience and I think it really cemented my relationship with the Rangers.
Wolff’s career has spanned more than seven decades. Now in his early 90s, he can still be seen on News 12 Long Island, where he is the senior sports correspondent and commentator.