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Sunday, January 20, 2008

CBC broadcaster Don Wittman dies


To appreciate the range and ability of sports broadcaster Don Wittman, who died Saturday morning of cancer, you need to look no further than his role as a reporter for the CBC at the Munich Olympic hostage tragedy in 1972.

Don Wittman has died of cancer. He was 71. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)Wittman, who was at the Games to call the sporting events, snuck into the athletes' village along with producer Bob Moir — they both posed as team doctors - and reported live for to the television audience in Canada.

In addition to his versatility, Wittman, 71, was remembered today as enormously skilled at his job and personally courageous.

A long-time Winnipeg resident, Wittman, 71, is survived by his wife, Judy, and two daughters, Karen and Kristen. On Saturday night, Hockey Night In Canada will dedicate its telecast to him.

His former curling broadcast partner and friend for 40 years, Don Duguid, said Wittman showed enormous bravery when he learned in September that he had lymphoma.

In the early stages of the illness, he continued to work. His last assignment Oct. 13, when he called an Ottawa Senators-New York Rangers game.

Duguid, who lives in Winnipeg, drove Wittman to the hospital for treatments. The cancer quickly spread to his lungs, liver and brain.

"I could see him sliding every day," Duguid said. "It was a terrible thing to see."

Before Christmas, Wittman chose to be admitted to hospital rather than stay at home.

"He didn't want to be a burden to his family during the Christmas season," Duguid said. "He was a very thoughtful man and very courageous man."

On Jan. 8, the CBC arranged a retirement luncheon in Winnipeg, during which Wittman was also inducted into the CBC Sports Hall of Fame. He was in poor condition and Duguid told him he didn't have to attend.

"I said, 'You know Don, it you don't feel like going, you don't need to go. They can make a tape of it and bring the tapes here.'

"He said, 'No, a lot of people are coming from all over. I'll go.' He was in a wheelchair and he was a trooper through the whole thing."

Those in attendance at the luncheon included Peter Mansbridge, the anchor of the CBC's National, New York Ranger president Glen Sather and St. Louis Blues president John Davidson, a former broadcast partner of Wittman.

Scott Moore, the head of CBC Sports, today described Wittman as a pioneer in TV sports. His career in broadcasting started in radio in 1955 when he was 18. He joined the CBC in 1961.

"I grew up listening to Don as did many Canadian sports fans," Moore said. "He was the voice of football to me, as well as curling. But as good as he was at those sports, he and [analyst] Geoff Gowan were the best ever at track and field. His talent is irreplaceable at CBC Sports."

Wittman's most famous calls were in the 100-metre sprint events at the Olympics. He announced victories by Ben Johnson at Seoul in 1988 (overturned hours later after he tested positive for steroids) and Donovan Bailey at Atlanta in 1996.

"He was a world class broadcaster," Davidson said. "For four decades he was at the top of his field in curling, in track and field, in the CFL and NHL and Olympics. I don't know anybody else in any country who has done that."

With Davidson, Wittman called the famous NHL battles of Alberta in the 1980s between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. He was involved in the CBC's curling telecasts for 35 years, first as a host and then as the play caller.

The only hint of controversy in his career occurred in 1996 when the CBC removed himDon Whitman as play by play voice of Grey Cup. He was later taken off the network's CFL telecasts entirely. The move was made because the CBC wanted to bring in younger broadcasters. Wittman, known for years at the pre-eminent football voice in Canada, was deeply hurt, but didn't complain.

"In an ego-driven business, this guy had no ego," said John Shannon, the head of broadcasting for the NHL who worked with Wittman at the CBC's Hockey Night In Canada in the 1980s and 1990s. "He was a veteran who called a multitude of Grey Cups and multitude of Olympics.

"In the early 1980s us kids were walking around thinking we knew everything about the game of hockey. We were the young guns of Hockey Night in Canada. And this guy was a friend to us. There was never an angry word. He was the consummate professional."

Duguid said Wittman loved to work. In 2001, he underwent two operations to have a melanoma removed from an ear, but he didn't miss an assignment.

"He loved his job and his career with the CBC," Duguid said. "He had chances to go to other places. NBC courted him for a while, but he loved working at CBC."

Duguid said one of Wittman's strengths was his memory.

"He could recall events," he said. "Some use cue cards or a monitor. Not him. He never missed a name. He had a photography memory and a big powerful voice.

"And he was great person. He had tremendous integrity. He was a really good family man, loved his wife and children."

Wittman is the second veteran of Canadian sports broadcasting to die inside a month. Before Christmas, Don Chevrier, 69, died suddenly. He suffered from a low platelets count (a bleeding disorder), but his family refused to divulge the cause of his death.

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