‘Jiggs’ cut his teeth at CFOR radio
Jiggs McDonald is shown at the CFOR microphone circa 1963. The talented broadcaster with the golden voice went on to a Hall of Fame career as an NHL broadcaster and continues to work television games for the Florida Panthers several years after “retiring.” (Submitted photo)
A young Ken McDonald was one of 118 applicants who wanted to become the television voice of the expansion Los Angeles Kings when they entered the NHL in 1967. As part of that process, he was summoned to a meeting with the team’s bombastic owner, Jack Kent Cooke.
With McDonald sweating in a seat nearby, Cooke listened to the wannabe broadcaster’s audition tape.
“Do the players not have first names?” Cooke asked McDonald, pausing the tape in disdain. “You say they’re in the corner. Which corner? Aren’t there four corners?”
And so it went; McDonald left the Royal York in Toronto that day defeated.
“I remember when I got back home in Orillia, I said to (wife) Marilyn, ‘I can’t do it.’ I was full of doubts,” he said.
But Cooke extended him a second chance, telling the cherub-faced youngster to try again and send in a new tape.
“The next night, in Kingston, I did a game and, magically, everything just fell into place,” said McDonald, whose new tape of that game was a big hit with Cooke.
But there was still one thing standing between McDonald and success.
“John Kenneth McDonald — nobody’s going to remember that name,” Cooke said, visiting McDonald’s room after he called his first preseason game for the NHL’s newest team.
He demanded McDonald come up with a moniker.
“I remember he pounded the table. ‘Damn it, every kid has a nickname!’ he thundered. ‘What’s yours?’”
McDonald stammered. Quietly, barely audible, he said, “Jiggs.”
“‘Jiggs McDonald? Perfect. I love it,’ Cooke said. I hated it,” McDonald admitted.
As a youngster growing up in Ayr, his friends had dubbed him Jiggs because his father resembled a character of that name in the comic strip Bringing Up Father.
“I had never used it on the air before and I didn’t want to start. I was upset about it, but Jack was insistent.”
Ironically, when McDonald left L.A. to become the television voice of the new Atlanta Flames franchise in 1972, he was offered a chance to lose the nickname.
“Cliff Fletcher (the general manager at the time) knew how I felt about the name and he told me when I took the job that I could drop it,” said McDonald. “But by that time, I had kind of grown into it, so I decided to keep it. It worked out well.”
That was an understatement. The man known as Jiggs to hockey fans in the deep south grew into the job like few others. He went on to lend his golden voice to the New York Islanders, calling games on Long Island for 15 years, including three of the team’s four Stanley Cup seasons. He also went on to work for the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs before briefly retiring after the 2003-04 season.
He won the coveted Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the NHL’s Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990 — a highlight of an incredible career that saw him call more NHL games than any other man, at least at the time of his retirement. And, he tells anyone who listens, it was all thanks to what he learned in Orillia.
McDonald hit the airwaves in Orillia in 1958, taking up a microphone at CFOR, a 10,000-watt radio station owned by Gordon E. Smith. It was a small but talented crew that included George Franks, Dick McFarland and Pete McGarvey. Barry Norman would also soon join the staff.
“When George left, I took over sports,” McDonald recalled from his winter home in Fort Myers, Fla. “I also took over his morning show and, every Friday, did the Rolling North show from a mobile studio we would set up in the parking lot of the Sundial (hotel).”
At the time, Rolling North was sponsored by Maple Leaf meats; listeners who dropped by with the correct answers to trivia questions received a package of wieners, he recalled with a smile.
“Gord Sinclair would drive by in his Rolls Royce and flash his lights at us,” said McDonald.
Soon, he began to turn his attention to sports, broadcasting Orillia Majors games from the Lions Oval, hockey games from the Community Centre. He recalls getting a bonus ($7.50 or $8) for calling those games. During the playoffs, he would even travel with the team and broadcast from the road.
“I remember going to Leamington for a peewee all-Ontario hockey game,” McDonald said. “I went to Belleville when the Majors went to the provincials in 1967.
Gord Smith and Pete McGarvey really gave us the freedom and flexibility to do those things. I can’t give enough credit to them and to what I learned in Orillia.”
McDonald was also an energetic go-getter. For three years, he organized sports celebrity dinners at The Pav, to which sports fans flocked to meet the sports stars of that era.
“I was able to bring people like Rudy Pilous, Ernie Richardson, Bob Pulford, Sal Maglie, Carmen Basillio and so many others to Orillia and raised money that went to youth sports back then,” McDonald said of one of his favourite Orillia memories.
All of it was possible, he said, because of the culture of the station and the talent of the staff.
“(McGarvey) was as talented a broadcaster as you will ever find,” said McDonald. “He was a mentor; just being around him made you better.”
Back then, radio was the thing. “If it was going on in town, we were there,” said McDonald. “If you really wanted to be in touch with the city, you tuned to CFOR.”
However, it wasn’t all serious stuff. McDonald said the “Craziest Fools On Radio” lived up to their name.
“We had a lot of laughs. I remember we did this segment called ‘Let’s Swap,’” he recalled of the Kijiji of its day. “We would slip in lines for whoever was announcing. ‘Free fencepost holes; must dig yourself,’” he laughed. “The whole place would be in an uproar.”
From those early moments, McDonald knew being on the air was akin to being alive. That’s why, while he retired at the end of the 2003-04 season, he hasn’t been able to walk away from his calling.
He is the go-to guy for the Panthers and Islanders when they need someone to fill in.
In fact, when Howie Rose, the longtime voice of the Islanders, negotiated his most recent contract, he agreed to call 70 of the team’s 82 games; the other games continue to be called by McDonald.
“I just love the game,” he said. “I never minded the travel.”
Working part-time has its advantages. In 1996, he bought a piece of property near Orkney Beach, where he built his dream home. He and Marilyn, who recently celebrated their 50th anniversary, live there in the summer.
“I play golf Monday mornings with the Rama Seniors and on Wednesday night, I play men’s night at Cooch,” he said. “We love it there.”
In the winter, they reside in Fort Myers, enjoy the pool at their complex, play golf and travel.
This month, the whole McDonald clan — including daughter Kelly, who lives in New Jersey, and Susan and husband and their two kids, who live in Minnesota — are going on a Caribbean cruise.
“One of our retirement goals is to travel,” said McDonald, who will turn 74 later this month. “We love to travel.”
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