In the hockey-mad hamlets around Boston the Bruins remain, as their team insignia reflects, the hub of the area. For decades that hub has been ruled by its own holy triumvirate.
There is the godfather, 61-year-old Bruin president and G.M. Harry Sinden, perhaps the most astute executive in the NHL. His blend of hockey intelligence and cunning has helped his clubs reach the playoffs for 21 consecutive seasons. There is the holy spirit, Bobby Orr, possibly the best player ever. Orr's greatness still hovers over the ice at Boston Garden—just as it did when he scored the 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal—even though he hasn't been a Bruin for (can it really be?) 17 seasons.
And then there is the vocal authority of Fred Cusick. Though he is not as well known as Sinden and Orr outside New England, Cusick has brought the Bruins into the region's homes for 41 years, first on radio and then on television. With WSBK TV-38 now available on cable TV in the northeast U.S. and much of English-speaking Canada, millions can listen to the man who has been synonymous with the club for generations.
"He's the Voice," says Lou Lamoriello, president of the New Jersey Devils. Lamoriello, who grew up in Providence, recalls "many nights being in bed, listening to him do the games on radio. He's always been, to me, the Voice of the Bruins."
That voice is unmistakable, full and husky, like a tenor saxophone. At some moments it is smooth, and at others, when play nears the goal, for instance, it is gritty. Each word is distinct. Listeners hear the final k in Kirk before the M in Muller. When the action is rough, Cusick gives each word a special punch. In moments of excitement—"Saaave, Caaseeeey!"—he sustains the tension by elongating vowels. His energy and enthusiasm are all the more remarkable when you consider that he recently turned 75.
"People ask why I still do it," he says. "Well, I enjoy it. I saw Mike Wallace on the 60 Minutes anniversary program. He's 75. Maybe there's something in the water, because he grew up in Brookline and I grew up in Brighton, and they're only a few miles apart."
On Chandler's Pond, in the Brighton of his youth, Cusick's love for hockey was fused with his immense energy. "We'd start in the morning and play until the sun went down. Wouldn't even take lunch," he says. Later, at nearby Northeastern University, he lugged his gear through the snow on dark, frigid mornings to the 6:15 practice of the varsity hockey team, even though he hadn't made the squad. The coach took notice of Cusick's dedication and changed his mind. By his final year of eligibility, Cusick had become Northeastern's top scorer.
Six decades later those who travel with Cusick marvel at his vigor. "He walks everywhere," says Mark Quenzel, who produced Bruin telecasts during the 1980s. "If you're going to dinner and the restaurant is anywhere under a mile away, Fred hoofs it. Even in Montreal in January."
He'll also hoof it around golf courses about 100 times annually, occasionally in the company of Barbara, his wife of 46 years. The Cusicks live on Cape Cod with one of their four children. They also have three grandchildren, who live in Philadelphia and sit beside their grandfather in the broadcast booth when the Bruins visit the Flyers.
Cusick began chasing his career while at Northeastern. A 1941 magazine feature about Tom Harmon, the Michigan All-America football star, going into radio sparked an idea. Cusick's hockey credentials might have similar appeal in the local job market, he thought, so he approached the manager of a small Boston station and introduced himself.
"The guy's reaction was, 'Well, who the hell are you?' " he says. But Cusick talked the man into a daily 15-minute sports program, for which he received no pay. It was a start, the first in a string of jobs that included newsman, disc jockey and sports-caster. His specialty was the area's passion—hockey. Calling four high school games in a row on Saturdays from the Garden was not uncommon in the '40s.
When the Bruins started looking for their first full-time play-by-play man in 1952, Cusick was the obvious choice, although he claims modestly today, "There were no other candidates. I got it by process of elimination."
CBS recognized Cusick's talent, and he joined the network's NHL matinee telecasts in the 1950s. "When they found out I could skate, they flipped," he says. Wearing a wireless microphone, he gave viewers live, on-ice hockey tutorials between periods: how to tie skates, tape sticks and stay onside. In one segment Bobby Hull, who had just begun his career with the Chicago Blackhawks, fired pucks at a car door. In another (perhaps the inspiration for the opening scene of the film Slap Shot), Leapin' Louie Fontinato, a defenseman for the New York Rangers, demonstrated penalties using Cusick as his victim. "It was primitive, it was awful," says Cusick of those early segments. "I wouldn't want to look at it now."
Bruin veteran John Pierson, a notorious stick doctor, was Cusick's expert for a stick-taping segment. That one actually worked well. In 1969, WBZ radio teamed Cusick with Pierson for the Bruins' Stanley Cup campaign. Thanks to Cusick's descriptions and Pierson's insightful commentary, the two developed a near-perfect chemistry that lasted 18 seasons.
The Fred and John Show avoided histrionics that would put them, not the players, in the spotlight. Even today Cusick's aversion to self-promotion deflects attention to others. "His ego would fit into a thimble," says Pierson, who is now a sales representative for a furniture business outside Boston. "That's what made me better than I might have been. A lot of play-by-play guys try to steal the thunder from the analyst by giving their own views. Not Fred. He grew up in the game, and he knows it as well as anyone. But he lets the analyst do his job."
"Johnny and Fred never looked at each other," says Quenzel, who joined them well into their partnership. "When the play stopped, Fred just pointed to Johnny and Johnny talked. Fred started again when the puck was dropped, no matter what Johnny was saying."
Pierson switched to intermission chalk-talk in 1985, and two years later Derek Sanderson, the popular former Bruin, became Cusick's sidekick. Sanderson's personality on the air was only slightly less abrasive than it had been on the ice. Cusick helped him ease into his new job, but Sanderson maintained his admittedly pro-Bruin bias, providing effective counterpoint to Cusick's reportage.
During a January 1991 telecast from Montreal, Shayne Corson of the hated Canadiens plowed into Boston goalie Andy Moog. When no penalty was assessed, Sanderson launched a typical comment. "There's two sets of rules here, Fred," Sanderson said. "One for the Canadiens, and one for everyone else."
Cusick watched the replay and replied, "But Derek, look, Corson was pushed into Moog by a Bruin."
Sanderson wouldn't let up on Corson or the noncall. "Derek," Cusick said finally, "you're out of control."
"Oh, Fred," replied Sanderson, "you're a Canadien fan."
"He keeps me young," Cusick says with a chuckle. "He understands every facet of hockey. But we disagree sometimes, and I let him know it. Derek will say to me, 'What do you know about it? You're just a pond skater.' "
Cusick responds in kind. "He sets me up at least once a game," says Sanderson. "Once in Chicago, on the air, he said to me, 'You think this [play-by-play] is easy? You try it.' For 20 seconds I was speechless."
"They squabble like an old married couple," says Heidi Holland, the Bruins' media relations director. But there is also genuine affection. They golf together regularly, often with Sinden and Bruin vice president Tom Johnson, and sponsor a celebrity golf tournament on the Cape.
In 1988, Fred's acceptance speech for the Lester Patrick Award, given for outstanding service to hockey in the U.S., became a tribute to Sanderson's remarkable turnaround from years and years of drug and alcohol abuse.
Sanderson says of Cusick, "He's like a father to me. I've got metal hips. They can ache, and I have to limp. You've got those long lines at customs in Montreal and Toronto or the long walk in the L.A. airport. And Fred carries my bags. You're on a two-week road trip, and you've got lots of stuff in there. But he just goes to the bus and grabs my bags, and I carry his briefcase.
"He's a very classy guy."
Stu Hackel is the former director of broadcasting, publishing and video for the NHL.