The word alone causes a distinct physical reaction that some doctor would argue is directly connected to emotion. You hear “cancer” and get that sick feeling in your stomach. We all know cancer doesn’t play favorites. It’s an equal-opportunity disease. It lacks a conscience.
My immediate reaction upon hearing Rick Jeanneret was diagnosed with throat cancer wasn’t necessarily sadness or empathy or fear or anger, although all four quickly kicked into gear. My first thought was about inequity, that cancer was looking to perform one of its signature injustices.
Of all things from which a play-by-play man may be made to suffer, did it really need to be throat cancer?
Jeanneret’s throat isn’t just anyone’s throat. It’s what made him a good living and led him to become a communal treasure. Cancer shouldn’t be allowed to mess with his voice. It’s like damaging Yo-Yo Ma’s fingers or Albert Einstein’s brain. In a perfect world, fate would leave certain gifts alone.
If he’s reading this, he’s laughing. He’s finding great amusement in anyone comparing him to world icons and thinking it’s absurd. But I’m guessing a large population of hockey fans would argue that Rick Jeanneret had a much greater impact on their lives than Yo-Yo Ma or Albert Einstein.
For more than four decades, he has displayed his innate ability to bring the action to us while making it seem as if he planted himself on our couches or in the car or the bar stool. Sons who grew up listening to him have since become fathers and now listen with their sons.
It goes beyond hockey.
And it matters.
Understand, I need to be careful here. R.J. had enough laughs at my expense from my early days of covering the Sabres, when beat writers traveled with the team and stayed at the same hotels. The last thing I need is him accusing me of prematurely writing his obituary and pouncing with his trademark sense of humor.
I can almost hear him say, “Geez, Jackie, how about letting me die first?”
He always called me Jackie or Jack, and a few other names, but never Bucky.
It was a reference to Jackie Gleason, the overweight actor who had an affinity for the nightlife back in the day. To him, it was just a nickname. To me, it was a term of endearment, a form of acceptance. Spend time with him and you realize R.J. really is a kid stuffed into an older man’s body.
He would often insist that he wasn’t a broadcaster; he was an entertainer. He made it look easy, but he cared deeply about his craft and was far more interested in being right than being loud. It still amazes me how names of players on both teams roll off his tongue, especially with so many Europeans in the NHL.
Anyway, who else could make icing sound compelling? He’s the reason “where mama hides the cookies” has an entirely different meaning in Western New York than anywhere else. You know a play-by-play man is good when his calls become part of the vernacular. How good? Scary good, of course.
There are only a few broadcasters, and fewer play-by-play announcers, who are more popular than players they cover. Vin Scully comes to mind. Scully and Jeanneret and, well, that’s about it. Players for years quietly have been in awe of him, as if it’s an honor for him to call their games, let alone say their names.
His rock-star status extends beyond Buffalo. Anyone who has been with R.J. on the road has heard random cries of “May Day, May Day” and “La-la-la-la-la-Fontaine” from people in the streets. If they only knew they were interrupting a conversation about “Cupcake” or his sons or his grandchildren.
“Cupcake” is his wife, Sandra. I’ve known Jeanneret for 25 years but never knew his wife’s name until I saw it written in the newspaper Wednesday. He spoke of Cupcake in reverent tones and talked about how she ran the house. He made her sound like a sweet woman and a tough cookie.
Cancer should know that he’s no pushover, either. It has been at least a decade since he first told me he was thinking about retiring. He doesn’t know how to give up. He keeps coming back because he loves the game. He loves the fans. He loves his job. And, yes, he loves the attention.
For him to wish to be left alone while he battled the disease, which left a golf ball-sized tumor in his throat, confirmed he was bracing for difficult months ahead. Cancer treatment is certain to test his will. He’ll draw strength from his family and fans sending him emails, via GetWellRJ@sabres.com.
I’m among thousands of friends letting him know that I’m thinking of him and wishing him a speedy recovery. Knowing him, he’ll approach cancer like a minor nuisance before returning to work. He may be back with a different voice but, mark his words, he will be back.
And we’ll be listening.