I always felt lucky after spending time with Ralph Mellanby at his home above St. Davids.
He enjoyed visitors and warmly shared his memories and memorabilia. His wife Gillian would sometimes remind me that he wasn’t name dropping when he mentioned the Rocket, the Hulls, Ballard, Orr, Eagleson, John Denver and Anne Murray.
These were people he worked with during his long broadcasting career, bringing a dream world to the people of Canada. He was innovative, determined and visionary
The title of one of his books was “Let the Games Begin: My life with Olympians, hockey heroes and other good sports.”
Ralph was always a good sport. When he and Gillian moved to Niagara, they quickly involved themselves in the sporting community. I nicknamed him The Commissioner, because when he said something should happen, it happened.
Gillian was soon a central figure on the women’s tennis scene. A strong player and a good sport.
When Ralph and I watched sports on television, it was so interesting sharing time with a man who had won five Emmy Awards, had helped broadcast nearly a dozen Olympic Games and graced countless head tables.
He was a broadcasting pioneer and innovator, who produced Hockey Night in Canada, Stanley Cups, the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid, numerous Grey Cups and Briers, the Blue Jays, nos Expos, and the Summit Series in 1972. And more. How about executive producer of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, overseeing the worldwide feed?
Growing up in western Ontario, he had been taught by his parents and coaches that sports should be a place to compete, to have fun and to earn the respect of other athletes.
Ralph was an outstanding athlete and learned to play within the rules, to be a good sport. His goal was to make sports fairer, more interesting and more fun for everyone. And to win!
He was pleased to share fun stories and precious memories from his broadcasting career and he was always thinking about ways to modify the rules. While advocating for changes, he was never afraid to upset people if those people needed upsetting.
Often, we would discuss how games could be improved for spectators. In his business, if the game was better to watch, more people would watch on television – and then more advertisers would spend more money to buy more ads. Voila! Ralph was paid to figger this out, eh?
A few years ago, I asked Ralph to explain his “Rules Evolution Philosophy” to participants in the World Premiere Men’s One-Serve Tennis Tournament here in NOTL. He happily showed up at 8:30 a.m. to speak.
“The rules and strategies must evolve as talent levels improve. Aces are boring. Get the ball in play and let fans watch rallies and great shot-making. Then, they cheer.”
For another NOTL club tournament, the late Don Goodwin, longtime voice of the Rogers Cup, and an important Tennis Canada personality, volunteered to be our distinguished and efficient emcee. How lucky are we in our little town? So much talent.
The three-point arc and the 24-second shot clock in basketball, a few timely rule changes in rugby, and shorter versions of cricket. Even curling has made some changes.
To quote Ralph, “Five sets in men’s Grand Slam tennis? Cruel and unusual punishment for the players and presumptuous to ask fans to watch one match for over four hours.”
Several times over the years, I asked Ralph for his thoughts about fighting and violence in hockey.
He always reiterated his statement to the members of then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s task force on fair play in sports, more than 35 years ago: “Until the NHL totally bans fighting, it will never have a meaningful television contract in the United States. Americans think of hockey as just one step above roller derby.” Yes, sports fans, 35 years ago.
“Watch the world juniors, college and university hockey, Olympic hockey. They love it. And no fighting!”
Yes, Ralph Mellanby has passed away at age 87. The world of sports broadcasting has lost a great man, who was always a good sport and was always thinking of ways to make sports better.
As Gillian Mellanby told me, “Ralph loved making new friends. Ralph never met a stranger.”