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    Mistake on historic Leafs radio call shows the trouble with broadcasting from 2,200 km away

    Joe Bowen made the wrong call. On Saturday night, when Maple Leafs captain John Tavares scored the goal that secured Toronto’s first playoff series victory in two decades, the team’s long-time play-by-play voice boomed instead to his radio audience about the heroics of defenceman Morgan Rielly.

    It was not his fault.

    As the Leafs swarmed the ice at Amalie Arena, in Tampa, Fla., after eliminating the Lightning from the first-round playoff series in six games, Bowen and colour voice Jim Ralph were back in Toronto. They were calling the game from a studio approximately 2,200 kilometres from the ice surface.

    Neither TSN nor Sportsnet have sent them on the road with the team for the playoffs, meaning the two of them call the action from television screens inside the studio. So when the camera focused on Rielly in those chaotic moments of victory, Bowen was led to believe the defenceman was the overtime hero.

    “When the tv shot doesn’t show the Tavares celebration until well after the fact it’s rather difficult to make the call off the TV monitor,” Bowen wrote on Twitter two hours after the final buzzer. “By the initial celebration it appeared Morgan (Rielly) had scored. My bad!”

    In an email to The Athletic on Sunday, a Sportsnet spokesperson said the network was still finalizing its broadcast plans for the second round. A message to TSN was not immediately returned. It is not clear if the companies will send Bowen and Ralph on the road for the second round of the playoffs.


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    Bowen and Ralph have been working from home for three years. Travel restrictions — and concern over health during the pandemic — have led to what radio veterans such as Nelson Millman, a former program director at The Fan 590, have described as evident cost-cutting measures.

    The Leafs, one of the wealthiest teams in hockey, located in Canada’s most populous city, do not have a radio crew on site for playoff games. And Bowen, who has been calling games in Toronto for four decades, was left to describe the reasons behind his error on social media.

    It was a call he has been waiting to make for 19 years. Toronto had not won a playoff series since 2004, when Mats Sundin and Ed Belfour were still on the roster. Having endured the intervening years of loss and heartbreak on the ice, Bowen finally had another chance to call a winner.

    “Tavares coming out, sends it in on goal,” he said on the air. “They score! They score! Holy Mackinaw, they score! Morgan Rielly! Mo, Mo, Mo Rielly!”

    Rielly, who was in the area but did not score, was the focus of a camera that beamed images back to the viewing audience in Canada. Bowen had the same perspective as anyone who happened to be watching “Hockey Night in Canada,” with the notable exception that he also had to narrate the play in real-time.

    It is almost impossible for a listener to know where the play-by-play voice is working. The stations can splice in ambient noise from the rink, making it sound as though Bowen and Ralph are in the building, even if they have a clearer view of Lake Ontario for a game in Colorado.

    The plan has backfired before. Sometimes, the local feed can cut out, or reduce the number of camera angles available to Bowen and Ralph. Once, during a game last season, they briefly only had access to a camera that showed the action from high above the ice, making it impossible to see who was actually making the plays they were supposed to be describing.

    At least once, they have described the feed disappearing entirely. For a few fleeting moments, they had a soccer game on the screens in their studio, rather than the hockey game.

    Millman suggested it might have cost the station, which shares the rights with rival TSN 1050, $10,000 to send the two voices on the road for the first-round series. In exchange, he said, they would be able to provide content across multiple shows.

    Neither network budged. In separate — but identical — email statements to The Athletic earlier this month, Sportsnet and TSN said: “Our radio broadcast plans for the playoffs will be consistent with the regular season, with games being called remotely through Round 1.”

    For a long time, the Toronto radio crew traveled with the team on its charter. That changed during the 2015-16 season, when Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello pulled them from the seating plan. The idea, it was said, was to make the charter flight an extension of the dressing room.

    At first, Bowen and Ralph were grounded. They were going to call road games off television. Waves of indignant listeners ultimately forced the station to send them back on the road.

    A 2015 report in The Globe and Mail suggested it would cost the radio stations $130,000 to put Bowen and Ralph on the road for the season. (According to a report in The Canadian Press in April, Rogers reported a profit of $511 million in its most recent quarter.)

    “I grew up being a Leaf fan,” Bowen said in a 2016 interview with The Athletic. “I take great exception to people saying that you’re a homer, because I don’t know what the actual derivation of that term is.

    “I’m broadcasting Toronto Maple Leaf hockey games on the Toronto Maple Leaf radio network to Toronto Maple Leaf fans, who I am assuming want the team to do well. Guess what? So do I.”

    It is not clear what will happen this time, even as the Leafs enter the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004, in an era before Twitter and Facebook. Ben Wagner, the radio play-by-play voice of the Blue Jays, has also been working from home despite the fact the same company (Rogers) owns the radio station (Sportsnet 590 The Fan) and the baseball team.

    On Saturday night, as the Leafs celebrated across the border, Ralph gently corrected his long-time radio partner. It might have been Tavares who scored, he said, and not Rielly.

    “At this point,” Ralph said, “who cares?”

    Bowen responded: “Who cares?”

    About who scored? No one. About getting the broadcast right? In truth, they both care deeply.


    What finally winning means to Morgan Rielly

    (Photo of the Leafs celebrating Friday’s win: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)



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