2020 was a very different year for Gord Wilson. Before 2020, the TSN 1200 reporter known for calling Ottawa Senators games had missed only 5 games in his entire 28 year career with Bell Media. But after suffering a minor heart attack in February and working through the changes to sports media that came with COVID lockdowns (and contracting COVID himself), things certainly shifted, and Gord has been delivering hockey news and calling games in a completely different way ever since.
Among the changes, what remains is Gord’s passion and commitment to the world of sports broadcasting, and the Ottawa Senators. Gord was with CFRA during the early 90’s and covered the bid process for the Senators when they came to town. He has been the familiar voice for Bell Media calling Senators games ever since.
We sat down with Gord to discuss his early years at Bell Media, his favourite career moments, and some of his greatest lessons during the changes of 2020.
Photography by Sean Sisk
You were born in Montreal. Did you grow up there? Did you have dreams of playing professional hockey as a kid?
I was born in Montreal, but lived there only 2 months. My father was in the military so we bounced around a bit. I lived in Winnipeg, Toronto for a year, then settled here in Ottawa when I was 6. Hockey was in my blood from an early age, starting out on the outdoor rinks. I wanted to be a goalie because the equipment looked great. But looks aren’t everything. The puck hurt a lot more in -20 degree temperatures, so I knew at an early age that pro hockey would not be in cards.
You studied Radio Broadcasting at Algonquin College. When did you first start to think of a career in broadcasting?
I started thinking about a broadcasting career as early as grade 6, when I was about 12. I just loved listening to hockey on the radio. I’d lie awake at night trying to get WBZ AM 1000 out of Boston, to listen to Bruins games. When I finished high school, I had a choice to become a full time employee with the City of Nepean, Ice Maintenance at the Nepean Sportsplex, or go to broadcasting school. I chose the Algonquin route.
How did you get the job calling the Senators games (originally with CFRA) and then onto TSN 1200?
My sports broadcasting career took a turn for the better when I got hired by 580 CFRA in 1988. I was pretty much doing full time sports for the station, reporting, anchoring and covering the Ottawa Rough Riders, when the plan to bid for an NHL team for the city was unveiled. I was in the right place at the right time. I was fortunate to have been sent to West Palm Beach to cover the bid process. CFRA would have the rights to broadcast the games, so Dean Brown and I would travel to Montreal several times to call Montreal Canadiens games into a tape recorder. We’d bring the tape back and let station manager Don Holtby listen to the demos. Dean was very strong at PXP, and was announced as the Senators PXP Voice. The colour position was still up for grabs, but Dean really went to bat for me, because of the chemistry we had shown together. I’ll always be grateful for his behind the scenes work to get me the gig.
Take us back to that first (and historic) game against the Canadiens at the Civic Centre. What were you feeling before you went live? Were you too nervous to enjoy the moment?
I’m a fairly emotional person, so getting the chance to broadcast the first Senators game was quite simply a dream come true. The energy in the old Civic Center was unbelievable. Dean and I had done some exhibition games prior to the season opener, but nothing compared to that excitement. It’s safe to say that not many anticipated the Senators to pull off an upset of the Canadiens, so when they did, it was tough to control emotions. I still get goosebumps thinking about that night.
What is an average game day like for you? Any pre-game rituals? How much preparation has to go into every game?
My game day routine got established very quickly. Depth charts had to be built on a game by game basis, player interviews transcribed for broadcast purposes. Coaches’ comments would be written down. I wanted to make sure I would be as prepared as possible. I pretty much have the same routine today, as I had 29 years ago. That thing called the internet has helped game day prep quite a bit as well (laughs).
Your co-host, Dean Brown, has been by your side since the beginning. How did you guys meet? What was your first impression of him?
Dean and I first met back in the mid 80’s, working for rival radio stations. We’d cover the same press conferences. My first impressions of him are quite interesting. I had always enjoyed his style on the air. But the first time I met him I was amazed at how wide he was. He was in great shape and had massive shoulders. (Laughs) Kinda weird, eh?
Dean is both extremely intelligent and highly tolerant. He’s put up with my dumbness for a long time… thank goodness. He’s very caring and extremely generous. Also very loyal to his family and friends. He’s an extremely natural broadcaster. A fantastic talent.
What has been your favourite moment to call in Senators history?
I have a few favourite calls in Sens history, including the first ever game. But I would have to say the Stanley Cup run of 2007 was pretty cool. Alfie’s overtime winner in Buffalo that sent the team to the Cup final is one goal I’ll never forget. Being in the locker room and watching the likes of Daniel, Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza, who I had watched from the start of their careers, celebrate that moment was pretty special.
You’ve interviewed many players over the years. Is there any particular player or interview that stands out in your memory, good or bad?Interestingly enough, this will be the first season I won’t actually come face to face with players, pre or post game, or during practice. The COVID world we live in, in my business, can be summed up with one four-letter word…. ZOOM! (laughs). Over the years, there have been some wonderful characters and always very respectful interview subjects. I can count on one hand the number of players I never really enjoyed talking to. Chris Phillips always had a signature ending to my interviews with him…”always a pleasure Gord”. Alfredsson was always brutally honest. Andre Roy kept me on my toes with his comedic answers. What stands out the most is how players are unchanged in how they’ve dealt with me, or most other long timers. The young players being interviewed today are as respectful as those 29 years ago. Hockey players are just wonderful people.
Tell us about the day you met your wife, CTV Ottawa’s Patricia Boal. Was it love at first sight for you, for her? Or did you have some work to do to win her over?
I met Trish at CFRA, and yes, for me it was love at first sight. For her, I highly doubt the feeling was mutual. It’s why I scheduled several of our first dates, at dimly lit establishments (laughs).
Where did you go on your first date? What is something that you admire about her?
She probably has a different answer to this than mine, and likely the correct answer, but I consider our first date to be at the Prescott! I remember it like it was yesterday. She is one of the most intelligent women I know. Well versed in so many things. A huge benefit to our kids.
Tell us about your children. What do you enjoy most about being a father? And now a grandfather?
My kids are everything to me…along with our two golden retrievers. I love just being myself around them…they’re like Dean, very tolerant. It would be nice to think I’ve had some sort of influence on them, but they’re all very well balanced and caring people. My family is very close. And what’s nice is we truly enjoy each other’s company. At least I do, theirs. They make me laugh every day. And as far as being a grandfather is concerned…what a circle of life I’ve experienced. I lost my mom about two weeks before Kenton was born. I can’t wait for him to get older so I can teach him things, good and bad…
What do you think of the current Ottawa Senators team? Are you optimistic that the playoffs are a realistic possibility either this year or next?
The current Senators team is made up of some very talented young players. I can’t help but think the future looks very bright. The nice thing about this rebuild is, it’s begun before a lot of other teams are going to have to go through their own. Senators are ahead of the pack in that regard. A playoff appearance is a long shot at best this year, but the learning curve has been a good one and this team is headed in the right direction. Next year they should challenge for a spot.
What do you think Eugene Melnyk and the Senators need to do in order to win back the Ottawa fanbase and go back to big crowds (when we’re allowed, hopefully, next season)?
Winning can cure a lot and the Senators and their fans are no different. Mr. Melnyk’s commitment to staying the course will be huge. But in my humble opinion, Brady Tkachuk needs to get signed long term. He holds the key.
When you look back at your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
My 29 years in the broadcast booth have been an honour and absolute blast. What am I most proud of? I think the answer is simple. My longevity. Not even I expected to be doing this for as long as I have. Prior to a minor heart attack last February, I had missed only 5 games over 28 years. I have clearly been blessed, and am hoping to squeeze out another 15 years or so.
What are some of your favourite restaurants in Ottawa that you would recommend to our readers?
I honestly consider myself a Foodie but regretfully, don’t get to enough restaurants here in Ottawa. I do love the quaintness of some local establishments in nearby Manotick, and love Babbos Cucina. I highly recommend the Peperonata.
You’ve had a few health scares recently, including a minor heart attack and contracting COVID-19. What has going through, and surviving, health scares taught you about life? Is there any advice you would give to someone reading this about life in general based on your experiences?
My 2020 health scares were just that, scary. You can cruise along feeling good every day and then one day something happens. Heart disease is hereditary in my family, so at least I was prepared to let my kids know what to expect. Then, a month later, the great unknown, COVID came along. The whole family shared in the anxiety that came with it. Trish and the kids were rocks. Leaning on family was huge.
What is something positive that has come out of the last year for you? If you had to find a silver lining from the pandemic, what would you say it was?
The silver lining for me during the pandemic was the time spent with my kids. I’ve travelled for my job for the past 29 years.
This past year I’ve been home. I’ve probably driven them nuts, but with school schedules out of whack, it’s been a blast. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
When you one day choose to retire and call your final game, what do you see yourself doing in retirement?
Sorry, retirement is not in my vocabulary. But when I’m not behind the mic anymore, there will be lots more hockey to watch. Likely from the cottage or somewhere close to my kids. A glass of red, the BBQ, and plenty of family time will be enough for me.
Finally, for anyone reading this who wants to follow in your footsteps and get into broadcasting, what is the best piece of advice you could give them?
The best piece of advice I could offer to anyone wanting to get into broadcasting is don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone. If the job takes you to a different city, take it. If the boss says cover something you’re not used to covering, say sure. In the end, we regret the chances we didn’t take. Don’t be afraid to take chances.