Remembering Johnny Esaw

Figure skating has lost a legend.

Johnny Esaw, the dynamic commentator with CTV from the 1970s to 1989 died on April 6, 2013. He was 87 years old.

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.

Esaw knew figure skating belonged on television, and he drew viewers – and he did it with class. Esaw had kind words for everyone, not just world or Olympic champions.

Skaters’ names would be followed by Esaw’s praise of their strongest technical or artistic assets. For example, at the 1987 Canadians, 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.

Esaw brought figure skating into the home, the first person anywhere in the world to do so, according to pairs skater Debbi Wilkes.

Wilkes was on Esaw’s commentating team until Esaw’s retirement.

While in Saskatchewan, Esaw was approached by Bert Penfold, a skating enthusiast, who from 1965 to 1967 was president of Canadian Figure Skating Association, now called Skate Canada.

” …and he (Penfold) said (to Esaw) ‘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 because it 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, who won the pairs silver medal with the late Guy Revell at the 1964 Winter Games, joined Esaw’s team in the mid-70s, which also included the late 1982 World bronze medallist Brian Pockar.

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

Wilkes said she never wanted to be on television, however, Esaw encouraged her.

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

Wilkes, now the Director of Business Development for Skate Canada, said Esaw was a very “dynamic” person with a “gruff business exterior. Esaw had a humorous side, evident when certain skaters would pull out peppy footwork.

According to Wilkes, there were two sides to Esaw. The businessman and the family man. The year his son, Patrick, graduated, Esaw started him out with a job at CFTO. However, Patrick wasn’t going to get a corner office with a view. Instead, he ended up cutting the lawn at 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 insisted the sponsors were interviewed during the competition, even though that practice was frowned upon. People urged 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 a broadcast, 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 as Ewas carried on. “And he did address the issue.”

“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,’ ” said Wilkes. “‘The stars are the skaters. You’re just the voice,’ ”

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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