INSTANT REPLAY: Tom Larscheid’s first NHL game
Tom Larscheid lived on the North Shore – including a home on Camelot Road in West Vancouver – during much of his colourful 45-year radio and television broadcasting career which earned him induction into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
But his Camelot-like career as the colour commentator for Vancouver Canucks’ games for almost 30 of those years from 1977-83 and then 1988-2010 (with play-by-play announcers Jim Robson, Jim Hughson and John Shorthouse) began with a rather difficult opening game to say the very least.
It’s a story that Larscheid can laugh about now. But at the time it was anything but funny.
Larscheid had arrived in Vancouver as a 22-year-old in 1962 via his Milwaukee birthplace, California upbringing and a Utah State University hall-of-fame football career to play running back for the BC Lions.
That first season he tallied nine touchdowns on 597 rushing yards and 496 more on 29 pass receptions. The nine TDs ranked ninth in the entire Canadian Football League and were second on the Lions only to the 14 recorded by the incomparable Willie Fleming.
However, Larscheid’s gridiron-playing days with BC were put on hold after a knee injury in 1963 prevented him from suiting up for the Leos’ first two Grey Cup appearances in ’63 and ’64. And they ended permanently on July 15, 1965, while on a comeback attempt during an unusual exhibition tripleheader at Empire Stadium involving BC, Calgary and Edmonton. Larscheid at 170 pounds was tackled by the Stampeders’ 260-pound Don Luzzi and Tom’s knee gave out for the final time.
Larscheid did some part-time colour commentary for Lions games that season and eventually turned to broadcasting football as a full-time occupation.
Then in 1977, while he was still doing Lions’ games, CKNW decided to pair him with the already legendary Jim Robson on hockey games of all things. Robson had almost always worked alone to that point. Larscheid had never broadcast hockey. Surely, this was an extraordinarily bizarre plan and it was scoffed at by plenty of observers.
So you can imagine the pressure on Larscheid when the Canucks opened the regular season with a game against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, arguably the world’s most famous arena. It was Oct. 12, 1977, exactly 35 years ago this weekend.
“My first game with Jim Robson,” Larscheid confirms, “was back in 1977 at Madison Square Garden in New York. “Now can you imagine this? It’s my first game and the microphones aren’t working. We actually broadcast the game on a telephone. Jim would hold it, do the play by play and then put the phone in front of my mouth and I’d do the colour.
“Then between periods I would interview my guest. I had to interview him the same way with a telephone and that was the very first [hockey] game I ever did. We had to do the game that way until the third period when the operator found out what was wrong.
“First of all, there was the anxiety and the pressure and the butterflies just going in to do the game and then compound all that with the technical problems. It made it a stressful night. It was bizarre.”
His guest between periods was John Ferguson, the Rangers’ Vancouver-born general manager, who had won five Stanley Cups in his eight seasons as a player with the Montreal Canadiens.
Larscheid introduced Ferguson as having won five Grey Cup rings. Oops.
“It was a Freudian slip, you know,” he acknowledges. “I was a football guy, right? It was an honest mistake. But certainly everybody jumped on it. I think it was afterwards somebody mentioned it to me. I didn’t even realize it at the time.”
To make it worse, New York won 6-3.
Ignominious a beginning as this was, Larscheid soon overcame his detractors big time. And it turns out that he did have some hockey knowledge.
Had he ever skated before coming to Canada?
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he responds. “I skated when I was a kid in Milwaukee. When the Milwaukee River used to freeze over that’s when we all went and skated. And we did tobogganing and sleighing and things like that. But I moved to California when I was 11 years old.
“But I can tell you this: when I came to Canada I went to the old Forum to watch the Canucks in the Western Hockey League and I can still remember many of the players. I took to the game immediately. I loved it. I was so impressed with what a hockey player could do on skates. You know, the skill level of having a stick in your hand to handle the puck, skate at 25 to 30 miles per hour, or whatever it is, and combine that artistry and high skill level to play the game with bodily contact. That’s why I call it the best spectator sport in the world. I mean, really, think about it.”
Unfortunately, thinking about it is all we can do right now while NHL players and owners attempt to stickhandle their way through yet another stalemate during labour negotiations.
According to reports, following a face-to-face meeting last weekend, the two sides “are expected to keep in touch by phone over the coming days.” Perhaps they need Larscheid to get on the line. He’s had that experience on the phone. And he’ll tell it like it is. Plus he’s a hockey guy now so there won’t be any mention of Grey Cup rings.
This is episode 468 from Len Corben’s treasure chest of stories – the great events and the quirky – that bring to life the North Shore’s rich sports history.