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Barrie sports broadcaster living his dream calling for NHL

Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster cut his teeth calling Barrie Colts games; Bartlett will call his 500th NHL game later this month

John Bartlett is approaching his 500th NHL career game in the broadcast booth, but the Rogers Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play man admits he still gets excited before games.

"Big time," said Bartlett, who cut his teeth in the profession over calling Barrie Colts games for Rogers Television.

"If you know it's a big game, you can feel it," he said. "There's certain buildings ahead of time you're already excited to be in the building and feel the energy. You get into it. Just like a player when they know the game that night is a big match up, you feel the same way, the same energy."

"Some nights it's going to be. 'Oh, it's in this building and this team tonight and this should be a good one.' You get wrapped up the same way a fan would. You get excited for big matchups, so I think there's always a little buzz off that."

Especially come playoff time. Bartlett got to call the New York Islanders opening two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season on CBC when they pulled off an upset and swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round, before being swept themselves by the Carolina Hurricanes in the next round.

"The atmosphere in Long Island there in the first round in the old barn was just incredible," said Bartlett, who also got to work Game 7 of the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars series when Patrick Maroon scored in double overtime to send the Blues to the Western Conference final.

"It was a ton of fun. It's the Stanley Cup playoffs and when you're out there and you feel what other markets are, they're just as excited and engaged with their teams being there," he added. "You get wrapped up in the excitement of it."

None of this is lost on Bartlett, who realizes he is getting the opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream, just like any player, of reaching the NHL. He knows the history and tradition of Hockey Night in Canada and what those Saturday nights mean to Canadians.

"Every night you get a chance to go in the booth, it's a lot of fun," explained the Newmarket native, who was brought back to Rogers last year to call Toronto Maple Leafs games after three-years of working Montreal Canadiens games for TSN. "It's a real treat when you do it, especially when it's a Saturday night and it's Hockey Night In Canada."

What Hockey Night in Canada means to the nation isn't lost on Bartlett. 

"I have a lot of respect for the history of the show and for all those that carried the torch ahead," he said. "I sit in the same chair as Bob Cole, Dick Irvin and Danny Gallivan and Foster Hewitt to that extent. That's something that I don't take lightly.

"It's a real honour, but also a responsibility to be sort of a good care taker to what is Hockey Night in Canada. That's something I certainly enjoy and take to heart every game I do."

Bartlett is also appreciative of all the steps it has taken him to get here. In his 25 years of calling hockey, he's gone from working minor hockey to the OHL's Barrie Colts and the AHL's Toronto Marlies. 

"I wouldn't have got to where I am if it wasn't doing all those games in Barrie and all those games in the American Hockey League with the Marlies," he said. "Every step along the way, I look upon those days very fondly. That's all part of the journey.

"I don't get where I am without having the opportunity to start in Barrie the way I did. Once a Colt, always a Colt."

Bartlett's career in the broadcast booth started by what he calls a "fluke" at the age of 15 in Newmarket when he was hired to work the music in the rink for a minor 'AAA' hockey game between the York-Simcoe Express and Barrie Flyers. Rogers Television was on hand to cover the game, but when their play-by-play man never showed, they asked Bartlett to fill in.

"I said OK and slid down to the booth and called the game," he said of his first game on Oct. 1, 1995. "That's how it started, just like that. I said, 'This is fun'."

He was soon calling the annual Newmarket house league tournament during the March Break for Rogers.

"Just like a player I worked my way from Junior 'C' games in Bradford, to Junior 'A' in Newmarket and Aurora, then on to Barrie and then Montreal, Toronto and Hockey Night in Canada and everything else," Bartlett said. "That was the path."

One that has led to him working games all across Canada and the United States. Back from calling Toronto stops in New Jersey last Friday and in Minnesota last night, Bartlett will normally work two to three games a week.

The travel is extensive, but he doesn't mind it one bit. Actually, he says he enjoys it.

"I get a chance to experience all 31 cities in the NHL, which is a ton of fun," said Bartlett, whose 500th game will come later this month. "I don't mind the travel, but there is a lot. For sure you're well over 100 hotel nights a year.

"At the start of the year you're on the road. You're over a 100 flights, but it's awesome. It doesn't feel like work when you enjoy it that much," he added. 

The trick, he says, is managing that winter weather which could wreak havoc on anyone's travel schedule.

Bartlett admits he's pretty much seen it all with flights getting delayed, so having a Plan B and even Plan C is a must. That means sometimes buying a train ticket or having a rental car on standby, just in case.

"You always have a backup plan ready to go," he said. "You get to be a well-versed traveller with many ideas of how to get to places. Planes, trains and automobiles when you need to."

There's a lot of work to be done before Bartlett even steps in a broadcast booth for that night's game. Getting all the different name pronunciations is, of course, key, but the play-by-play announcer will spend hours studying up oncoming teams, getting up to date on rosters and the stories surrounding the team.

"Right now I'm talking to you and I'm watching two games just to prep for the week coming up," he said. "There is a lot of time, whether it's conscious or subconscious, that goes into preparing for a game before it happens. There's actual homework and actual prep that needs to be done, but some of it is just through osmosis.

"You're watching other games and keeping an eye to what's going on with other teams, especially if whatever team is coming up that week I'll generally keep an eye on the teams I have. You end up watching a lot of hockey, which is never a bad thing, I guess."

Having a good rapport with your partners in the booth is also key and Bartlett says he's fortunate he gets the opportunity to work with professionals such as Greg Millen, Garry Galley and Jason York, the father of current Barrie Colts defenceman Jack York.

For the Toronto games, he has Millen at his side, as well for most HNIC games.

"Part of it is your relationship off ice and it translates over and we get along pretty well of air as well," he said. "You bring that relationship on air and viewers recognize that and it gives you a good program. It certainly makes it easier to work with different partners when you're moving around like that."

All important when you spend so much time together and away from your families.

"There's definitely a sacrifice everybody makes on the broadcast side of things in hockey and it's not just announcers," Bartlett explained. "It's the production crew, the people that work the cameras and all the gang that works in the truck. There's a lot of hours, a lot of time on the road away from families, so I think everybody's families are really good for supporting us when we do that.

"That's why in the summer, in the offseason everyone wants some time to try and make up for that. There's a lot that comes with it, but we all enjoy it. We're sort of a family on the road, a second family, because we spend so much time together away from everyone so you end up hanging out."

Watching superstars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Jonathan Toews show their immense talent every night is a treat, but to this day Bartlett really enjoys watching others who have worked their way up to realize their dream.

"I really enjoy it because of the way I came up through all of those leagues," he said. "I like seeing how guys have progressed and made it to the NHL."

He points to the Leafs win he called in New Jersey last week. In one net was former Barrie goaltender Michael Hutchinson and in the other was former Colt Mackenzie Blackwood. Also behind the bench was Sheldon Keefe, a former Colt himself.

"As much as the superstars are great to watch every night, I really enjoy seeing the success stories of NHL players maybe I've had a chance to call through their career," Bartlett said.

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Gene Pereira

About the Author: Gene Pereira

An award-winning journalist, Gene is former sports editor of the Barrie Examiner and his byline has appeared in several newspapers. He is also the longtime colour analyst of the OHL Barrie Colts on Rogers TV
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