Remembering Johnny Esaw

Johnny Esaw was already an established football and hockey reporter when he brought figure skating to the forefront. At a time when skating was all glitz and glamour, he saw through the glitter and saw the technical difficulty. He knew our sport deserved to be on television. And he did it, and he did it with class.

With true enthusiasm and genuine emotion, Esaw drew the viewer in, and kept them interested and entertained. Esaw had kind words for everyone, not reserved only for world or Olympic champions. Everyone was treated with dignity and praised.

Esaw would often follow the skater’s names with their strongest technical or artistic asset, worded as “possibly the best….”  For example, in 1987 Patricia Schmidt was “probably the most balletic skate in Canada today.”   In 1989, Dianne Takeuchi was “possibly the best spinner in all of ladies figure skating.” With an eye and ear for details, Esaw complimented skaters’ performance be for their hand gestures, choreography, music, etc.

I taped the 1989 Canadian Figure Skating Championships from Chicoutimi, Quebec and watched it over the years I skated, over and over again – and listened to commentary. The team of Johnny Esaw, and his commentating team of Debbi Wilkes and the late Brian Pockar. It was the sheer professionalism.

Johnny Esaw died on April 6 at the age of 87. Esaw brought figure skating into the home, the first person anywhere in the world to do so, according to Wilkes. While in Saskatchewan, Esaw was approached by Bert Penfold, a skating enthusiast, who from 1965-67 was president of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, or Skate Canada as it’s referred to today.

“…and he said (to Johnny) ‘I want you to put figure skating on radio,’” said Wilkes in a phone interview.

Esaw didn’t know what he would say about figure skating. It was radio not TV, and figure skating was a spectator sport. Penfold invited Esaw to an ice show – and he loved it said Wilkes. Esaw saw how the artistic and athletic sides meshed, and couples skating together – and needless to say the sport won him over. Esaw knew this sported needed to be on TV, not radio.

Wilkes joined Esaw’s team in the mid-70s. She skated pairs with Guy Revell, and is a silver medallist from the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics.

“At first I have to say it was terrifying.” Wilkes said. “Johnny was already a legend and ran a pretty tight ship,”

Wilkes said she never wanted to be on television, however, Esaw would just say “You go do this.”

“I don’t know how I would have gotten anywhere else,” said Wilkes.

Wilkes, now the Director Business Development for Skate Canada, said Esaw was a very “dynamic” person with a “gruff business exterior.”

Wilkes said Esaw had a humourous side, one the viewers could hear during the broadcast when certain skaters would pull out peppy footwork.

There were two sides to Esaw, according to Wilkes: the business man, and the family man.

The year his son, Patrick, graduated, Esaw started him out with a job at CFTO in Toronto. However, Patrick wasn’t going to get a corner office with a view. Instead, he ended up cutting the lawn at CFTO all summer.

Esaw didn’t believe in special treatment, said Wilkes.

Esaw had a knack for putting deals together. He found sponsorship for the skaters, such a Clairol, Canadian Tire and Centrum Vitamins. Esaw was a generous man, according to Wilkes, and anonymously sponsored individual athletes.

Esaw always insisted the sponsors were interviewed during the competition, even though the practice that was frowned upon. People urged to him to stop.

“Johnny would say to them ‘How do you propose we pay the bills,’” Wilkes said.

The money wasn’t going towards the television station, it was going towards the figure skaters – in those days a trust fund.

Wilkes said Esaw was also a “tremendous professional.”

During one competition, a mouse ran across the table during the commentary. While the other commentators shrieked and turned off their mics, Esaw acted as though all was calm.

“I just thought…the professionalism,” said Wilkes, of Esaw being able to carry on.

And he did address the issue, said Wilkes.

“He’d say ‘look, we have a responsibility to the viewer…come on, straighten up.’”

That was the key: the responsibility. Esaw would remind his team about one simple fact:

“He’d say ‘You aren’t the star…the stars are the skaters…you’re just the voice,’” said Wilkes.

After Esaw retired in 1990, he was brought back to the booth, so to speak, in 2011, when CTV regained the rights to domestic figure skating.

Esaw spoke about the history of the sport with Brian Williams. He was still enthusiastic, and still professional. Esaw had an outstanding knowledge of figure skating, according to Wilkes, and that’s something she’ll miss the most.

“Just knowing that wealth of information is no longer there.”

[Originally published on the Edmonton Journal website]


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