Ex-Detroit Red Wings voice Bruce Martyn on why Gordie Howe was greater than Wayne Gretzky

Detroit Free Press
Bill Dow |  Special to the Detroit Free Press

As part of his series on former Detroit sports figures, Bill Dow caught up with former Detroit Red Wings broadcaster Bruce Martyn.

How we remember him

For 31 years as the play-by-play voice of Red Wings hockey — from 1964-65 through the 1994-95 Stanley Cup Final —Bruce Martyn called the shots. He started in Olympia Stadium in the Original Six era, lasted through the dreadful “Darkness with Harkness” and “Dead Wings” years, all the way to the eve of Detroit’s Stanley Cup championship teams at Joe Louis Arena.  Along the way, rabid Wings fans became loyal followers of the beloved broadcaster who called goals — from Gordie Howe to Steve Yzerman —with his famous “He shoots………(in a higher pitch) HE SCORES” call.

After attending what would become Lake Superior State University, then dropping out of the University of Michigan, the Sault Ste. Marie native pursued his dream of radio broadcasting when he broke into the business in 1950 at hometown WSOO-AM, hosting a music show, providing news and sports reports, and announcing minor league hockey games. In 1953, he left for WCAR-AM in Pontiac — where he stayed until 1962 — doing sportscasts and hosting a weekday music show. For a short time in the early 1960s, he also announced games for Michigan State football, the Pistons, and Lions before becoming, in 1964, the first sports director of WKBD-TV (Channel 50) television. That was also when he began his Wings play-by-play work, splitting the duties on television and radio with Budd Lynch. Following the ’72-’73 season, Martyn did all of the play-by-play on radio until he retired. He dropped doing telecasts in 1985. From 1976-86, Red Wing legend Sid Abel provided color commentary. For the final seven years of Martyn’s career, former Wing Paul Woods provided the color, a role he still has with current play-by-play broadcaster Ken Kal.

Martyn retired at 65, and his last official broadcast occurred when New Jersey swept the Wings to win the 1995 Stanley Cup. At Ken Kal’s invitation two years later, Martyn did the play-by-play in the second period of Game 4 of the ’97 Finals against Philadelphia, when Darren McCarty scored the Cup-winning goal. In 1991, Martyn received the prestigious Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame for his contributions to hockey broadcasting. In 1996, he was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. From 1972-92, Martyn also worked as a manufacturer’s representative as a partner at Fred Harris and Associates in the Detroit area.

Where’s Martyn now?

Martyn, 91, lives in Venice, Florida, with his wife Donna. The couple, who married just four months after they met while working at WSOO radio, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last year. They have three sons — Daniel, David, and Scott — five grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren.

On chasing a boyhood dream

“When I was very young, I would listen with my Uncle John to Foster Hewitt’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. He always made the games so exciting, and I really wanted to be a radio announcer. One day, I went to the woodshop and carved myself a little microphone that I painted black and silver and put on my bedroom desk where I would read the newspaper into it. When I was 16, I worked at a Texaco station and saved money to buy a recorder that had a wax disc. I would read into it and enjoyed listening to the playback, which was really exciting for me.”

On his first radio broadcasting job

“My mom always thought I should be an accountant and work for the government, where I would get a good pension, but I dropped out of the University of Michigan after struggling with two very hard math classes the same semester and hitchhiked home to Sault Ste. Marie in April of 1950. When I walked by the WSOO radio station, I went in and asked if I could work there. Someone had just left and they needed an announcer so I was hired at minimum wage of 75 cents an hour, $35 a week. I had a music show in the morning, did newscasts, and eventually announced games for the Sault Ste. Marie Indians hockey team in the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. The Wings were training there, and one time I announced a game between the Wings and their farm club. One of my biggest thrills was interviewing the Production Line (Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Sid Abel) at center ice. I was so nervous, I couldn’t believe it, but once I started, they sort of took over. It was unbelievable. Years later, the station sent me a cassette tape of the interview, and I treasure that.”

On broadcasting hockey games

“(Former Tiger/Reds broadcaster) Ray Lane asked me how I was able to do hockey play-by-play because the game is so fast. It just came easy for me. I told him that if I was doing baseball games, like him, it would be hard for me to fill up that dead time because it is so much slower. Hockey has something going every minute to talk about. I guess I learned to do it from listening as a kid to Foster Hewitt. Foster’s voice didn’t go up as high as mine when I said, ‘He scores’. I think that just happened naturally from my excitement. When I started, the Wings didn’t score a lot of goals because there were more low-scoring games back then, so that was part of the excitement of it. It was very difficult to do the games during the ‘Darkness with Harkness’ and ‘Dead Wings’ eras, but I tried my best to make the games as exciting as I could. It also got a little harder when the league grew from the Original Six to 26 teams and more foreign players came into the league. Once the players were required to wear helmets, it wasn’t quite as easy to tell them apart. “

On his relationship with fellow broadcaster Budd Lynch

“Although we were right near each other in the broadcast booth, we were never together on the same broadcast because we alternated with each other on radio and television. We got along famously and were like two very close brothers who laughed a lot and had a great time together. I have a lot of Budd stories. Although he lost his right arm in World War II, he used to make cracks about it and so did others, good-naturedly.  One time, we were on the bus with the team after a big loss and it was dead quiet. All of a sudden, from the back, Alex Delvecchio says, ‘Hey, Budd, we have a question for you. How do you wind your watch?’ Of course, Budd and the whole team cracked up. Budd was a pretty good golfer, but I always told him that he couldn’t keep score because he couldn’t count past five fingers.”

On doing broadcasts with Sid Abel

“Sid was also one of the greatest persons I ever knew. He was famous for his lack of the real English language. I never tried to straighten him out, because it was just a part of him and fans liked it. He knew everything there was to know about hockey, and it was great for me because I learned from him. If I had a question on a play, he explained things really well and we never cut in on each other. We did everything together and, along with our wives, the four of us became very close. When Paul Woods became the color man, he fit right in.”

On the greatest hockey player he eer saw

“Wayne Gretzky was probably the best offensive player I saw, but Gordie Howe was the greatest all-around player. Gretzky had two or three protectors around him, but Gordie took care of his own people. If you got near Howe, there was a good chance you would get an elbow in the face. I’ve always said that I would play five Gordie Howes on my team against five Wayne Gretzkys any day. The Gretzkys would all be laying around the ice, and the Howes would still be going.”


On receiving the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Foster Hewitt Memorial Award in 1991

Dick Irvin called and told me that I was to receive the award, and it was very nice. It was also great to be recognized at the same time Scotty Bowman was inducted. I wish my Uncle John could have been there, since we had spent so much time listening to Foster Hewitt. The first time I broadcast a game in Toronto, I went up into the gondola where Hewitt called the games. I was excited just to sit there. All of a sudden, there’s a tap on my shoulder, and it was Foster Hewitt, who wanted to ask me about the Wings and any injuries. I could hardly talk to him. It was such a thrill.”

On his decision to retire in 1995

““I retired because I found myself having to work harder and keeping my concentration on it, but mostly I was tired of looking up at hotel room ceilings and being on the road so much. I announced my retirement because the Wings had won the (Presidents’ Trophy) and I really thought that was the year we would win the Stanley Cup. But in the (Final), Jacques Lemaire put up that defense for the New Jersey Devils that Scotty Bowman never solved and we were swept.  Maybe it was a good thing to get out of there, because soon after I started, we lost the Cup to Montreal when we won the first two games in Montreal and then lost the next four. In 31 years, I never got a Cup, and Ken Kal replaces me and he gets three of them, boom, boom, boom.”

On announcing the second period of the 1997 Stanley Cup-clinching game

“It was so nice of Ken Kal to invite me two years later to do the play-by-play for the second period of Game 4 when I got to call Darren McCarty’s goal, which turned out to be the game-winner when we swept the Flyers to win the Cup. It is one of my top memories and I have to thank Ken for that. It was great to finally have a drink out of the Stanley Cup in the locker room after 31 years.”

On enjoying his retirement

“Donna and I live in a gated community at the Venice Golf and Country Club and we have really enjoyed living in Florida. I use my exercise bike every morning for 10 or 15 minutes and we both play golf with our own groups on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We get into our pool at 4:30 p.m. and get out at 5 for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for an hour. She cooks one night, and I cook the next night, and it’s kind of fun. Our community has been very careful with the pandemic, and we feel very safe. We just got our first vaccinations, and, for now, we don’t go out to eat. Occasionally, I will listen to Ken and Paul on a livestream on my computer. It has to be very difficult for them calling those games off of a television screen. They’re still doing a heckuva job.”

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