TORONTO – If things had worked out as Rick Jeanneret originally planned, he might have spent Monday alongside Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler and Paul McCartney. As it was, the Buffalo Sabres’ broadcaster was surrounded by hockey legends such as Joe Sakic, Paul Coffey and Pavel Bure.
For a man who has spent the last 45 years in ice rinks and arenas, it was the ideal trade-off.
Jeanneret earned a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, joining Mats Sundin, Adam Oates, Sakic, Bure and Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor as the 2012 honorees. Jeanneret received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, given for excellence in broadcasting, during an afternoon luncheon in a Toronto museum and spent the evening at the players’ gala inside the Hall.
“My career will always be defined by hockey,” said Jeanneret, who got into the sport in the late 1960s after his original plan for using a microphone changed. “I was more interested in being a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey than anything else. Am I glad that didn’t pan out.”
So are generations of hockey fans. They have listened to Jeanneret’s unique style during Buffalo’s radio and television broadcasts since 1971.
“It’s the honor of a lifetime,” Jeanneret said after slipping on his Hockey Hall of Fame blazer. “You know how they used to say, ‘Win one for the Gipper?’ I think I won one for the fans of the Buffalo Sabres. That makes it even better for me.”
Jeanneret was joined in Toronto by his wife, three children and all but one grandchild. Also in attendance was his 92-year-old mother, Kay, who has been by Jeanneret’s side as he joined the Sabres Hall of Fame, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame during the past year.
“I’m proud. I haven’t words to express it,” Kay Jeanneret said. “Words really escape me today, and they have been since we started with the first one last November.”
Jeanneret used to decline Hall invites, saying he wanted to be honored only after he retired, but the prospect of having his mother around to enjoy the moments caused him to change his mind. Once he did, the honors poured in.
“He is a phenomenal, passionate broadcaster,” said Chuck Kaiton, the Carolina Hurricanes announcer and president of the NHL Broadcasters Association who handed Jeanneret his award. “It is certainly very, very appropriate and long overdue.”
Jeanneret joins legends such as Buffalo’s Ted Darling, Montreal’s Danny Gallivan and Bob Cole of “Hockey Night in Canada” as winners of the Foster Hewitt.
The honored broadcasters get a plaque inside the hall.
“When you look at the people who are in the broadcast department, he should be in,” said Sabres analyst Harry Neale. “I have had a chance to work with some real good ones, and he’s right at the top of the list.”
Jeanneret said one of the best things about his tenure is no one ever instructed him on how to call a game.
“I was allowed to do my own thing,” he said. “I do know that my own thing can be somewhat off the wall, but I was never told to change. I was never told to adapt.”
He quickly added a caveat and used his booming telecast voice to tell the story.
“It was suggested to me once I might want to go in a different direction,” Jeanneret said. “It happened in my first year in Buffalo. It was during a game, and I said something like, ‘Whoa! And [Gilbert] Perreault deked him right out of his jock strap!’
“The next day, my mail slot held a note from Northrup Knox, the vice president and co-owner of the team. Ever the gentleman, he referenced my jock strap line and wrote that while he personally found it hilarious, we should all remember that our audience consists of many women and children.”
While acknowledging his family, Jeanneret counted down all the time he’s had to spend away from them through the decades. He looked back at the nights on the road and examined whether it’s been worth it.
“It’s been a trek for a guy who grew up in a little [Ontario] town called Terrace Bay, then on to Niagara Falls and cutting my teeth on junior games about a half-century ago,” Jeanneret said. “Through that to where I stand today, the journey has been fun, educational and fulfilling. The destination, flat-out exotic.
“So is it all worth it? RJ, FH. Rick Jeanneret, Foster Hewitt. You’re damn right it was worth it.”