He Shoots, He Scores!

By Kevin McKay


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Chances are most people have heard his rich, deep baritone voice, and likely on more than one occasion. After all, he has worked on British Columbia radio stations for nearly five decades, and still does promotional spots. Despite this, and all the air time over the years, the man with the golden voice is perhaps best known for public address announcements like, "Vancouver Canucks goal, his 13th of the season, scored by number 33, Henrik Sedin. Assists to number 17 Ryan Kesler and number 38 Pavel Demitra. Time of the goal, 8:44."

Hockey fans across British Columbia, and even casual observers, will have heard his announcements, but how many can put the name John Ashbridge to the voice? Fewer still can put a face to it. Regardless, John is front and centre at all home games of the Vancouver Canucks, and he still manages to maintain a relatively low profile. This suits the radioman fine. While he is perfectly at ease behind a microphone, he has never shown any inclination to make himself "the show."

John is a member of an exclusive club. When the Vancouver Canucks entered the National Hockey League in 1970, they kept the same PA announcer who had commentated their games in the Western Hockey League, Tom Peacock. Some time in the early 1980s, Tom gave the job up, and a number of people filled in for a few years, primarily Sterling Faux. Eventually, the team settled on Jon McComb and he held the position for a few seasons, until John took over in 1987.

"In 1986, I ran the CKNW operations at Expo '86 for our live broadcasts from the site," says John. "At this time, Jon was doing the announcing for the Canucks. When Expo ended, Jon and I wound up switching shifts at CKNW. This meant Jon was no longer available most games as he was working evenings now. I had already filled in for him a couple of times, announcing games when he wasn't available, so the team asked me if I would like to do that. I told them sure."

In addition to announcing at Canucks games, John had a long distinguished career in local radio, starting out at CJVI in Victoria at the age of 13! He was not on the air, at this time, but hung out around the radio station and at their remote broadcasts making sure they knew who he was.

"I worked behind the scenes doing all the minimal odd jobs that needed to be done, unpaid and almost certainly unsanctioned," John recalls.

When he was around 15, John started being paid in his chosen field.

"I wound up at CFAX, the smallest of Victoria's three stations," he says. "I hung around, helping out, and then the manager started paying me $50 a month. I started getting on the air. It was a good music station focusing on classical music and some pop standards. There were some small bits of live announcing that had to be done, so I did them, which meant I was on the air a couple of times an hour."

John realized the limitations of working on Vancouver Island, so headed over to the Lower Mainland to find work prior to graduation. He got an interview with CJOR in Vancouver and was hired on the spot in March 1964.

"When they offered me the job, I advised them that I couldn't start working for them until June," says John. "They asked me if I had to finish my university, and they were surprised when I told them I needed to finish high school!"

Less than a year later, Hal Davis, the Program Director at CKNW became aware of John and was convinced he could do many different types of work. They offered him a position, and he accepted. After several months of doing some news, some remote work and even some on-air shifts, John went to the manager and asked if he could be put on the news where he felt more comfortable. It was at this point John started to appreciate doing the news.

"At the time, Warren Barker was news director at CKNW. I learned most, if not all, of what I know about doing the news from him."

For the better part of the next 40 years, John worked at CKNW until his retirement in 2005. There were, however, a few notable times he left the station briefly. The first time was in 1967 when John departed for CFUN for what turned out to be a three-month stint running their news department. John left so quickly because the station changed its format soon after he arrived. He landed on his feet back at CKNW. From 1970 to 1973, John served as the original News Director at CJCI in Prince George, where he also served as assistant manager of the station prior to his return to the Vancouver area.

His last chance to "run away from home" came in 1980 when he moved to Australia for a year-and-a-half to work on news there. When he returned to CKNW that final time, he stayed for nearly 25 years, and became their senior newsman and Manager of Network Operations. His work for the station and his years of charitable work culminated in the Radio Television News Broadcasters Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

Even though John continues to do on-air spots for the Vancouver Giants and others, and is the regular voice for the popular Crime Stoppers segments, hockey fans know him as the voice that announces the goals and penalties at the Canucks games. One of his announcements is the last minute of play in any period. "I have occasionally missed the call over the years, but usually only by a second or less," he says. "You try not to let it happen, but sometimes you miss. I also am responsible for blowing the horn after the goals have been scored and as of now, knock on wood, I have not once had it go off in error during the past two seasons."

John is proud that of the more than 20 years he has served as public address announcer at the Canucks games; he's only had to miss four. Twice, he had assignments from the radio station helping cover elections and, another time, he was the station's point man covering the signing of the Nisga'a Treaty. "They needed someone who could produce a talk show, do the engineering, file the news reports, and much more," says John. "They needed a multi-tasker, and that was me. We had the only phone line in town and the only hotel was 90 miles away. To make things even more complicated, there is no airport nearby."

The only other game John missed was October 9, 1999 when Wendy, one of his daughters, got married. In retrospect, he is grateful he had his priorities straight as Wendy succumbed to cancer two years ago.

For his first few years as the announcer, John sat in the penalty box alongside the other game officials, and even found himself working the visiting teams penalty box some nights when they were short-handed.

"After their fights, sometimes some of the heavyweights would get talking to each other. Often I would leave the microphone open so the crew upstairs could listen along and have a laugh."

In the early 1990s, the National Hockey League decided it needed to have a person in the penalty box to signal for television commercials and make sure the TV interests were looked after. The PA announcer became the odd man out, and John was moved upstairs to commentate from much higher in the building. This arrangement continued, of course, when the team moved into GM Place in 1995 and, to this day, John does his announcing five storeys up in the rafters.

Over the years, John has noticed a big change in how the games are presented. "Hockey has become far more of a television event these days and far less of a spectator event like it was before," he says. "Certainly, you could not have moved into modern age of game presentation in the Pacific Coliseum." The Canucks' game presentation is consistently honoured by their peers as one of the best game presentations in the league. "One year, our team was given a mini plastic Stanley Cup in recognition of our achievement. I am proud of the show we put on. People pay good money to attend the games and it is a passionate market. Our fans deserve a good show."

In 2003, John started working for the Vancouver Giants as well as the Canucks. "Late 2003, CKNW was holding its annual Orphans Fund pledge day. The man who had been doing the announcing at the Giants game knew he'd be working late, and asked me to do the Giants game that night. I did, and the Giants asked me to do some more. I told them I had a job with the Canucks, but offered to help them out as a back up for games and with their promotions. Then, the Giants called during the NHL lockout season of 2004-2005. I told them I would do it with the understanding I had a prior commitment to the Canucks if the lockout ended and they came back. The Giants understood my commitment, but asked me to do what I could. They have been good about games I have to miss. I also do some on-air promotions for them."

John is also actively involved with the Canucks Alumni, which he calls, "one of the largest and most active alumni organizations in the league." Since 1999, the National Hockey League Alumni Association has handed out awards for their alumnus of the year, as well as a Seventh Man award, given to someone who never played the game, but has worked on its behalf behind the scenes. Two Vancouver men have won the award: Norm Jewison in 2003, and John in 2001. He was presented with this prestigious honour at the All Star Game in Los Angeles that year.

In addition to all his charitable work with the Canucks alumni, John also finds time to serve as the Vice-Chair of the Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation.

"I am most happy with all of [my duties]... I do them because they are fun to do," he says. "I love being able to put something back in. I stay in it because I can do it and because it is fun to do."

SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER - April 2009


 

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