Harry Neale can’t go five minutes without telling a joke or funny story. The affable broadcaster has thousands stored away.
“About 98 percent of them are stolen,” he said Tuesday.
The Buffalo Sabres’ television analyst assumed a friend was out to get a similar laugh when his phone rang and the caller told Neale he was being honored with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award and its accompanying recognition by the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The call, like Neale’s 28-year on-air career, was no joke. He has earned hockey broadcasting immortality.
“I can’t ever remember feeling as different as I did when I got the call,” said Neale, who welled up with emotion. “It was a humbling moment to be in a group as celebrity-filled as the Foster Hewitt Award.”
The Foster Hewitt is awarded annually by the NHL Broadcasters’ Association to members of the radio and television industry who make outstanding contributions to their profession and the game of hockey. Neale attended the banquet last year when the Sabres’ Rick Jeanneret earned the honor, and he’s headed back to Toronto on Nov. 11 as the featured guest.
“It’s Remembrance Day, and it sure as hell will be for me,” Neale said in First Niagara Center.
Neale will become the third Sabres broadcaster to have a plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining Jeanneret and Ted Darling (1984). Neale’s longtime partner on CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” Bob Cole, won the award in 1996.
“It makes it even a more glorious occurrence to share it with people that you have worked with or admire,” Neale said.
Neale, who coached the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings, started in the booth in 1986 after getting fired by Detroit.
“I just wanted to make sure I did a good enough job to get the next game,” he said. “I don’t know how many people who do my job had experience coaching. A lot them had experience playing, so you get another look from a different angle at the game. I think that helps you dissect or describe or analyze the plays that go on on the ice.”
In addition to his knowledge, Neale brought a folksy style with jokes galore. He and Cole became the premier pairing on “Hockey Night in Canada.”
“I didn’t think it was nuclear physics I was involved in, so we had to have a few laughs if I could probably come up with them and make it an enjoyable situation,” Neale said.
He joined the Sabres in 2007 and spent five years alongside Jeanneret before becoming a studio analyst this season. Neale also has called three Olympics and two World Cups of Hockey.
“There has never been a hockey broadcaster quite like Harry,” Sabres President Ted Black said. “He blends his vast knowledge of the game with his own brand of humor, and it has obviously resonated with hockey fans for years.”
The native of Sarnia, Ont., has lived in Amherst for almost two decades.
“Once I found out you could get 30 beers for $18.95, I moved here very quickly from Toronto,” Neale said. “It was a real break for me to do games here. I don’t hate the QEW as much as I used to. It’s like working for the home team. How can you possibly beat that?”