Canadian sports broadcasting pioneer Johnny Esaw left a major mark on the CFL

Andrew Bucholtz
April 7, 2013

Famed Canadian sports broadcaster and executive Johnny Esaw passed away at the age of 87 Saturday in Toronto, and he'll be remembered for contributions that spanned the sports world. Esaw started his career on the radio in Saskatchewan, then moved to Toronto in the 1960s to become the sports director for CTV's local station and quickly worked his way into many critical positions. He produced the first colour broadcast of a hockey game in 1967 (from Vienna, Austria), was influential in getting figure skating widely televised in Canada, did the famed 1972 Summit Series interview with Phil Esposito, and eventually became vice-president of CTV Sports in 1974, a position he held until his 1990 retirement. While there, he managed to broadcast the Indy 500 live in Canada almost 10 years before it was shown live south of the border, both securing the rights and then calling the race himself. Esaw's CFL contributions will be particularly remembered, as he was a key force in broadcasting and promoting the game, announcing games from 1962 to 1973 and continuing to host broadcasts from 1974 to 1986 despite his duties in the CTV office. Here's what CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said about Esaw in a statement Sunday:

"The name Johnny Esaw was synonymous with the best of Canadian sport, and particularly with the biggest event in our country, the Grey Cup. ... His ascendancy to the top of the ladder in broadcasting paralleled the growth of the Canadian Football League. Those who built our league, and all of us in it today, mourn his passing today, and pay tribute to his legacy."

Esaw was inducted into the Football Reporters of Canada section of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1984 primarily for his work as a broadcaster, but he was also a key behind-the-scenes force. He served as the FRC president in 1969 and played a significant role in media coverage of the CFL. For many, it may be his Grey Cup broadcasts that are remembered most, though. Here's footage of him setting up the broadcast of the 1967 Grey Cup at Ottawa's Landsdowne Park:

Esaw will be missed by football fans and media types across the country.