CBC Sports’ Don Wittman dies
Don Wittman, synonymous with CBC Sports for nearly a half-century, died early Saturday after a battle with cancer. He was 71.
Wittman passed away in a Winnipeg hospital surrounded by his family.
Don Wittman joined CBC Sports in 1961 and went on to call some of the most vicious, arresting and triumphant moments in Canadian sports history.
“The family wishes to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support Don received from friends, colleagues and fans. Thanks to everyone for respecting our privacy at this time,” his son, David, said in a statement.
Wittman joined CBC Sports on the first day of 1961 and embarked on a career that saw him do the play-by-play for or report on Grey Cups, Stanley Cups, curling’s Brier and Tournament of Hearts, the Canadian Open of golf and several exhilarating, disappointing and grave moments at 18 Summer and Winter Olympics.
“To suggest that Don was versatile does not begin to describe his ability, and his impressive accomplishments,” CBC Sports executive director Scott Moore said on Saturday.
To his colleagues, Wittman maintained a balance, renowned for both his sense of humour and dedication.
“On the Saturday mornings of every telecast I worked with Don, I recall him spending a couple of hours talking to players, coaches, writers and broadcasters, gathering as much information as possible, far more than he could ever use on the air,” Scott Oake of CBC Sports said. “But, in Don’s mind, better that than being unprepared.”
Wittman was born in Herbert, Sask., and attended the University of Saskatchewan. He began his broadcasting career in 1955 and worked as a radio news reporter and disc jockey at stations in Saskatoon and North Battleford.
That early background proved invaluable in being able to adjust to the unpredictable nature of live sports, he told the Winnipeg Free Press in 1977.
“I’ve been accused of having a photographic memory, but it’s nothing I’ve ever been consciously aware of,” he said. “I used to adlib a 10-minute sportscast. That was before the strong reliance on VTR [videotape recording] and film. I could give the runs batted in, runs scored, pitchers, the whole thing.”
Wittman would report on a litany of memorable Olympic moments, beginning with the 1964 Innsbruck Games. Wittman interviewed Canadian skier Nancy Greene after she won gold in the 1968 Olympics and said Sandra Schmirler’s 1998 gold medal win in curling for Team Canada was one of his favourite moments.
His experiences at the Summer Olympics were undoubtedly characterized by a wider range of human emotion.
His voice appears on perhaps the most replayed sports clip in Canadian history, Ben Johnson’s apparent win in the 100-metre sprint at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a result overturned days later after Johnson tested positive for a steroid. More recently, he expressed the shock so many viewers felt when favourite Perdita Felicien crashed into the first hurdle at the 2004 Athens Games.
Covering a calamity more sobering than any sporting event could ever be, Wittman was near the scene in Munich in 1972 after gunmen attacked and held hostage members of Israel’s Olympic team, with 11 eventually killed.
During the standoff, Wittman and producer Bob Moir crawled under a fence to get into the Olympic Village and the evacuated Canadian quarters. They were positioned directly across a courtyard from the Israeli dormitory.
There were plenty of joyous Summer Olympic moments, of course, that Wittman left his indelible mark on. He deemed Donovan Bailey’s gold medal in the 100m and the Canadian men’s 4X100 sprint gold days later at the 1996 Atlanta Games as highlights of his career.
Part of Canadiana
Wittman played a huge part in broadcasting the most distinctly Canadian of sports.
He covered his first Grey Cup in 1961 alongside Steve Douglas and Ted Reynolds, and went on to call an amazing 36 more. Wittman ranked Winnipeg’s 1961 overtime win and Saskatchewan ending its 23-year championship drought in 1989 atop his list.
He recalled the 1961 Brier in Calgary as the first national event he covered for CBC Sports, and he would be at 30 more by the time he was inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame in 2003.
Wittman joined Hockey Night in Canada in 1979 and continued to work on the program into this season. Based in his hometown of Winnipeg, he came on board as the Jets entered the NHL and would report firsthand as the Battle of Alberta between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames heated up.
He was also there as CBC Sports helped increase the profile of the world junior hockey championship, calling the infamous 1987 brawl between Canada and Russia, the 20th anniversary of which took place on Jan. 4.
Wittman would be best known late in his career for his work on track and field with colleagues such as Geoff Gowan and Michael Smith. He was present for all but one world track and field championships since 1983 and at numerous Commonwealth and Pan American Games.
He was still up for new challenges, however, calling Canadian Open tennis for the first time in 2004. It joined a list of sports that also included baseball, basketball and even cricket, his versatility only rivalled by former CBC and CTV broadcaster Don Chevrier, who died at his Florida home on Dec. 17.
Wittman, a two-time ACTRA award winner, was also a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Manitobaís provincial Hall of Fame.
Wittman was inducted into the new CBC Sports Hall of Fame on Jan. 9 in front of family, friends and colleagues in Winnipeg.
In addition to his son, Wittman is survived by his wife, Judy, and two daughters, Karen and Kristen.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
CBC Sports’ Don Wittman dies