Tommy Banks, the star who helped others shine

Tommy Banks, at home anywhere, but mostly at his piano.

The show always started the same way. At the top of the clock – 7 p.m. on Wednesday – there was a jazz fanfare, a flourish of trumpets and saxes and a drum roll, as the title flashed across the screen. The audience in the studio began whistling and applauding, just as the CBC voice-over announcer, Larry Langley, introduced the show.

“From Edmonton,” he called out enthusiastically, “It’s Tommy Banks Live!”

Just off-stage, out of the range of cameras and microphones, the two writers of the weekly show – Colin MacLean and I – used to stand, joining the audience’s applause in anticipation of the next hour of live-to-air television. Inevitably, as Tommy entered the studio to acknowledge the studio audience’s applause, either Colin or I anticipating the start of another show would lean to the other and say rhetorically, “Does TV get any better than this?”

Hammers, nails and words

Writer’s garret.

It was a few weeks after summer had officially begun. I was up in my writing roost – a.k.a. my upstairs office. With the start of summer, I had just started writing a book. I’m not being presumptuous. It’s often what I’ve done over the past 15 or 20 years – I’ve taken the summer to complete a manuscript, I hope for publication soon after the summer is done. Anyway, I heard an SUV pull up next door and a man stepped out and began assembling his survey equipment. I asked him what was going on.

“They’re going to start building here,” he said. “They’re just waiting for this survey.”

Father’s Day gifts

My father Alex Barris at his Toronto newspaper office desk – writing to dealine.

My back was to the wall. Eleventh hour. Up against it. All those clichés applied. My Grade 8 history essay – on the causes and effects of the War of 1812 – was due Monday morning. It was Sunday night and the essay was done in every way but one. I pleaded with Dad to help me, not to compose the essay, but to type it for me. And he did, but not without an important provision.

“This is the last time,” he said. “From now on, you’re on your own. You’ve got to type it yourself!”

I nodded, not really understanding what had just happened. All I cared about was that my history paper would be delivered in class, on time and looking spotlessly professional. Why? Because my dad was a professional writer and he would never submit anything short of perfect.

Do not blame the defender

Calgary Flames celebrate a goal accidentally scored by Edmonton Oilers defence man Steve Smith (who's collapsed in background).
Calgary Flames celebrate a goal accidentally scored by Edmonton Oilers defence man Steve Smith (who’s collapsed in background).

I remember the moment, yes, as if it were yesterday. Those of us who were Edmonton Oilers fans back then will always remember. It was early in the third period in Game 7 of the Smyth Division final between arch Alberta rivals – the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers – in the 1985-86 season. And I remember stalwart CBC TV play-by-play announcer Don Whitman’s call vividly. His surprise and shock spoke for us all.

“Grant Fuhr clears, behind his own net,” he described rather calmly. But then, reacting to Oilers’ defenceman Steve Smith taking the puck, looking up ice and attempting a pass, Whitman continued, “They scored! Oh! Steve Smith, attempting to clear the puck out of his own zone, put it in his own net.”

Add water and stir imagination

Flooding a backyard ice rink the old-fashioned way.
Flooding a backyard ice rink the old-fashioned way.

It was like that 1981 movie, “Cannonball Run,” in which a bunch of fast-car addicts get a telephone call and immediately drop what they’re doing to join a cross-country auto race. Well, even if you don’t know the movie, suffice to say a couple of Saturdays ago I got a phone call from one of my hockey pals to assemble a work party.

“My house,” Mike MacDonald texted, “about 10 a.m.”

When I first arrived at Mike’s place, just after 10, nobody was there. But within seconds several of Mike’s neighbours, Kirk Buchanan, Scott Clayworth, Jamie Steele and Jim Sproxton emerged from their homes and converged on Mike’s garage. In seconds, they’d rolled up the door and were rifling through a pile of wood in the garage. Since this was my first time, I just offered to assist.

The plastic brain

Dr. Norman Doidge
Dr. Norman Doidge

At Centennial College where I work in Toronto, this past week, I faced new students, people with different destinations than my students last fall. As I asked them about their aspirations for the course I was about to teach, one asked about what I do. In passing, I mentioned I’d be interviewing a doctor who believes the human brain can change, adapt, and even heal itself. Curious, I asked the class if anyone had ever had a traumatic brain experience.

“When I was young, I had a stroke,” one student said. “It took away my speech. I couldn’t talk.”

I nodded that her current speech suggested a full recovery. “What happened? How did your speech come back?”

“They taught me Italian,” she said. “I didn’t know a word of it. But in learning the Italian I got my English speech back.”

Why is it news?

With all that celebrity around, it's possible nobody noticed the football game that took place in Indianapolis.

I don’t know which was worse: the hype over last weekend’s so-called sporting match in Indianapolis, the anticipation over the new 30-second commercials (reportedly costing US$3.6 million each for the airtime), or the guessing about what Madonna would do during her half-time show at the Super Bowl. The newspapers, magazines and TV commentators were all atwitter all week.

“Would she employ her thin veneer English accent?” one asked.

“Would she be naked?” hoped another.

My answer was a resounding: “Who cares?”

Gretzky at 50

The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, as seen on a hockey collectors' card in the Edmonton Oiliers' heyday during the 1970s.
The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, as seen on a hockey collectors' card in the Edmonton Oiliers' heyday during the 1970s.

All last week, they remembered his 50th. Hockey commentators waxed eloquent. His on-ice peers remembered their brushes with him as teammates or opponents. Most columnists had at plenty of anecdotes about his goal-scoring prowess, his record number of records and his so-called sixth sense on skates. Well, I was there for his 50th too. Not his 50th birthday. I was there to witness the final seconds of the game of games:

“Anderson gets it to Gretzky. He’s got the open net!” shouted Rod Phillips, the Oilers’ play-by-play announcer that night. “Will he shoot? He does. He scores! He has broken the record. Wayne Gretzky’s 50th goal in 39 games. Gretzky has done the unbelievable.”