Saturday, January 19, 2008

Don Wittman

Longtime CBC broadcaster Don Wittman dies of cancer at age 71

By The Canadian Press

WINNIPEG - Don Wittman, whose smooth baritone voice called some of Canada's most significant sports, has died of cancer. He was 71.

For more than 40 years, Wittman was a familiar face on CBC television. He did the play-by-play for Grey Cups and Stanley Cups, plus covered curling, golf and track and field. He was a fixture at both summer and winter Olympics.

"He is truly a first-generation television sports legend. He's one of the pioneers of our industry," Scott Moore, executive director of CBC Sports, said in January.

"He has done almost everything and done it all well."

Wittman died early Saturday morning in a Winnipeg hospital surrounded by his family.

"The family wishes to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support Don received from friends, colleagues and fans. Thanks to everyone for respecting our privacy at this time," Wittman's family said in a statement on the CBC's website.

It was Wittman who called Ben Johnson's steroid-fuelled 100-metre victory at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and he was on hand when Donovan Bailey sprinted to gold in the same event in 1996 at Atlanta.

CBC broadcaster Scott Russell, who worked with Wittman at several Olympic and Canada Games, called him "the most unselfish broadcaster I've ever worked with."

"Don always believed that his job was to be the guide of a sporting event," Russell said in Vancouver, where he is covering the Canadian figure skating championships. "He took us through, he introduced us to the characters, then he let the athletes shine. Don was the guide, he was the storyteller. That's what made him great."

Wittman saw Wayne Gretzky win Stanley Cups and was in Czechoslovakia in 1987 for the Canada-USSR brawl at the world junior hockey championships.

During the 1972 Olympics in Munich he stood on a balcony and looked into the masked face of one of the terrorists who kidnapped nine Israeli athletes.

"It was then the reality of it really struck me," Wittman said in a 1984 interview about the incident. "Here was this man with a hood over his face standing there."

Colleen Jones, a two-time women's world curling champion and a broadcasting colleague, credits Wittman for the rise in popularity of her sport.

"It was his ability to be a wonderful storyteller and weave the stories that he was so strong at," Jones said from her Halifax home. "And the creating drama, and his voice obviously was fantastic. All of that just lent itself to just being the best."

Born in Herbert, Sask., Wittman got his start as a news reporter with CFQC radio in Saskatoon in 1955. He also worked for CJNB radio in North Battleford. He was only 24 when he joined CBC Winnipeg on New Year's Day 1961.

During his career, Wittman won two ACTRA awards and in 2002 was named Broadcaster of the Year by Sports Media Canada. He also was a member of the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame, the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame and Manitoba's provincial sports hall of fame.

"He is the voice of football in Canada in my mind," said Moore, who grew up in Montreal watching Wittman call Alouettes games.

Both Russell and Jones will remember Wittman for his willingness to teach younger reporters.

"He always was available to you," said Russell. "He was somebody you learned from, the proper way to do things, the right way to announce. He was meticulous in the research he did. What was great about Don too, was he believed in all things Canadian in sport. The Grey Cup, curling . . ."

Jones, who first worked with Wittman at the 1987 Scott Tournament of Hearts, said he taught her much in his painstaking preparation for his broadcasts.

"You always knew he was a legend and I learned a lot from him," Jones said. "He never just mailed it in, he always wanted to be just so professional, so prepared and so ready, so wanting to do a great show.

"He loved all the sports and he loved broadcasting. He was always thrilled to be such an eyewitness to all of the big events."

The respect held for Wittman was evident at a ceremony in January, when he was inducted into the CBC Sports Hall of Fame. The guest list was a who's-who of the sports world. Hockey Night In Canada's Ron McLean, Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Lyle Bauer and New York Rangers GM Glen Sather were among those on hand. Wayne Gretzky and others sent video tributes.

Wittman was choked with emotion, saying he was humbled by the tributes.

Wittman is survived by his wife Judy, two daughters and a son.

It is truly a sad day in the world of Canadian sports broadcasting. The Olympics will never be the same.

We will miss you Don.

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