Canadian broadcasting pioneer and Niagara resident Ralph Mellanby passed away Saturday at age 87.
From 1966 to 1985 he guided CBC Television’s Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) through its golden years, ushering in game-changing innovations that changed the way hockey and all sports was aired around the world.
As executive producer, he was at the helm of HNIC while Canadians followed the plays being called by the likes of Howie Meeker, Dick Irvin Jr., Bob Cole and Harry Neale. As well, he was largely responsible for giving HNIC hosts Dave Hodge, Ron McLean and Don Cherry their platforms on national television.
The broadcaster was born in Hamilton and attended Wayne State College in Detroit after high school, attaining a degree in communications and playing semi-pro baseball. He also worked part time at CKLW-TV in Windsor.
From there, he made stops at WXYZ in Detroit, Chicago’s WGN and in 1961 at CFCF TV in Montreal, where he directed sports, entertainment and news broadcasts.
Soon he was recruited by Maclaren Advertising Agency to bring new ideas to Hockey Night in Canada. At the time, the agency was working in conjunction with CBC to present games on both television and radio on behalf of their clients Imperial Oil and Molson Breweries.
His two decades in the business were marked by an amazing series of innovations and technological advancements that still influence today’s hockey broadcasts.
Upon learning of Mellanby’s death, Cherry tweeted, “Sad to hear (of) the passing of my good friend Ralph Mellanby. He was a good friend and one of the most important men in Canadian television history. God Speed Ralph.”
Hodge also took to Twitter, posting “I, and the large HNIC family, past and present, are saddened by the death of Ralph Mellanby. As long-time exec. producer, Ralph took a chance on this untested 26-year-old in 1971 and showed confidence in my ability to fill the host’s role properly for 16 yrs. Forever grateful to Ralph. Sincere condolences to the Mellanby family.”
Saturday night’s broadcast of the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings was dedicated to Mellanby’s memory.
“He had a greater influence on this show than anyone else,” broadcaster Chris Cuthbert said while images of Mellanby working behind the scenes appeared on screen. “Ralph was an innovator, (who) enhanced the viewing experience with his use of instant replay, robotic cameras, net cams, ref cams, wireless mics and computer animation. And he changed the way hockey was presented.”
Cuthbert went on to advocate for Mellanby’s future enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame based on his importance in bringing the game to the nation. He also worked behind the scenes for other important sporting events, including the ‘Miracle on Ice’ at the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1980, the Calgary Olympics in 1988, tennis, golf, Major League Baseball and Canadian Football League broadcasts. He won five Emmy Awards for his work on Olympics coverage.
Mellanby and his wife Gillian lived in Niagara since the early 2000s. The avid tennis player was a fixture for many years at White Oaks, and often strolled to nearby Eagle Valley Golf Club where owner Délia Iafrate and countless golfers through the years got to know him well.
“He was the resident celebrity here,” Iafrate told The Local. “He had time for everyone. He would walk over, usually with only one club, and hit balls on the driving range or hang around the putting green. It was more like a social hour for Ralph. A great excuse to schmooze, have a glass of wine and tell a story. Or listen to yours. He was truly interested in everybody”
Iafrate described Ralph as a beautiful man who adored his wife, often enthusiastically inviting her over to the golf course to meet his new friends. He was persistent in urging Iafrate to install a tennis court at Eagle Valley so he could combine his favourite athletic pursuit with his social network at the golf club.
“Ralph’s eyes would light up when he had some good news to tell you,” she continued. “He was always excited about his friends. He made sure I met (retired NHL player and coach) Steve Ludzik when he moved back to Niagara. He came to Eagle Valley excited like a kid showing off his friend. And he made sure I got to meet Don Cherry.”
Mellanby sat on the board of directors of the Steve Ludzik Foundation, an organization that raises funds for a Parkinson’s Disease clinic at Hotel Dieu Shaver Health and Rehabilitation Hospital. Ludzik, who himself is fighting Parkinson’s, said Mellanby was a driving force behind many of the foundation’s fundraisers, helping him to line up guests such as Cherry for his events.
Ludzik is adamant that Mellanby was as much a friend as he was a colleague and supporter.
“He was very humble,” Ludzik told The Local. “He was a great partner to go to lunch with. Always kind to everybody. He was old-school, a smile in the morning, a glass of wine for lunch, and story-telling after dinner. He loved his life.”
A consummate storyteller, Mellanby put his experiences to paper with the writing of two books, Walking With Legends and Let the Games Begin: My Life with Olympians, Hockey Heroes and Other Good Sports. Iafrate hosted Mellanby for book signings at Eagle Valley that were highlights in her relationship with him.
Rich Merlino of Niagara Falls, former general manager of White Oaks, had the pleasure of being the emcee for some of Mellanby’s book signings at the hotel and tennis club.
“He was really down to earth, a great guy,” Merlino said. “He had some amazing stories. Some of the people he had rubbed shoulders with over the years were amazing. It brought me back to my chaildhood, all these people that I looked up to when I was a kid watching hockey. Red Kelly, Marcel Dionne, Brain McFarlane, every one of them talks very highly about Ralph.”
Besides his wife Gillian, Mellanby leaves behind his daughter Laura and son Scott from his marriage to his first wife, Janet, who died of cancer in 2001.
Laura followed her father into broadcasting before moving into the executive ranks at Bell Canada. Currently she is senior director, new market development at Rogers Communications. Scott is a former NHL player who also served as assistant general manager of the Montreal Canadiens after retirement.
Both Iafrate and Merlino mentioned how obviously proud Mellanby was of his children.
“What struck me was that it always came back to his kids,” Merlino said. “Someone who was so famous in his own right always spoke about Scott, and how proud he was of his and Laura’s accomplishments. I always admired that about Ralph.”
“It was an honour to call him my friend,” Iafrate said, “and to meet his son Scott, who is just as wonderful a father as Ralph, and could amuse me and my daughter just like his dad did.”
“He’s a legend, but for Ralph, it was about the people who lived here in Niagara,” Iafrate added, summing up Mellanby’s life in the region. “These people, this community made him feel good. We knew who he was and we respected him for what he did. He loved the Niagara community and the Niagara community loved him.”