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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Remembering the life and legacy of Essex native Ralph Mellanby 

Updated: Feb 10, 2022


by Garrett Fodor

photos courtesy of the Mellanby family.

“No matter where he went, whether it was Toronto or Montreal, Ralph Mellanby would order a copy of the Essex Free Press each week to see what was happening in his hometown,” Jim Mellanby, Ralph’s brother, recalled.

  Friends, family, and colleagues are paying their respects and sharing their memories of the late broadcaster, Ralph Mellanby, who passed away on January 29 at the age of 87.

  Originally from Hamilton, Mellanby moved to Essex with his family when he was 12. Ralph’s father, Ed, became the Editor of the Windsor Star at that time. Ralph quickly become one with the community, attending Essex District High School (EDHS), where he’d play football, volleyball, soccer, and basketball.

  In 1954, led by Coach Roy Battagello, Essex won the 1954 Senior ‘A’ Basketball title, with help from Mellanby. He would go on to work at CKLW, while attending Wayne State University, before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications.

  Upon graduation, Mellanby moved onto Detroit’s WXYZ-TV, then CFCF-TV in Montreal, and later the CBC, serving as the executive producer for 19-years, working on Hockey Night in Canada.

  “He was very proud of his roots, there was no question about it,” Mellanby’s younger brother, Jim Mellanby, said. “We’d come back to visit a few times, and even when we’d call, he’d often mention Essex and talk about some of his old classmates and just what was happening in town. Essex was always in his heart. He made sure to treat everyone the same, whether it be stage hands on set or the doormen in the buildings.”

  During his time at Hockey Night in Canada, Mellanby helped instill more than 20 innovations on the Hockey Night broadcasts, many of which are still in the broadcast industry today and help bring the viewers closer to the action. Those innovations included putting cameras behind the bench and behind the net, the first program to employ slow-motion replay, use of aerial shots, along with transferring between games via satellite. HNIC also was the first Canadian program to use an animated opening sequence in 1975. Mellanby also helped produce the CBC feature series Peter Puck. 

  “I think every show that we see now as a foundation, somewhere in the corner, there’s a brick with Ralph Mellanby’s initials on it,” John Shannon said, who was hired by Mellanby at Hockey Night in Canada. Shannon worked with Mellanby for over a decade and would remain in contact with him. “I would tell you that Ralph Mellanby didn’t invent Hockey Night in Canada, he modernized it. He made Hockey Night in Canada the show that we all remember. Whether that be the music, the powder blue jackets, or whether it be the structure of the intermissions, that is what most people remember because that’s what Hockey Night in Canada stood for. And it’s Ralph’s Hockey Night in Canada that most people remember.”

  During his time at CBC, Mellanby introduced several notable names in the sports broadcasting world including: Dick Irvin, Dave Hodge, Don Cherry, John Shannon, Mickey Redmond, and Howie Meeker, among others. Mellanby’s brother, Jim, recalls him coming back to Essex a few times with Foster Hewitt and Dave Hodge, showing him the area, including a garage Mellanby worked at after class while in high school, showing how proud of his town he was. 

  “All of his hirings brought so many different things you hear a lot today, kind of the mantra of the modern world is to be unapologetically yourself and Ralph championed that notion back in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Ron MacLean, host of Hockey Night in Canada, described. “If it was your analyst, his first rule was you don’t think, you know. He wants you to trust your opinions, that they were the result of your life’s work and but without them, you’re not bringing yourself and so he was great with the analysts and as far as the journalists, he just really encouraged them to stand by their work and be themselves.”

  Outside of his work, Shannon and MacLean both note how proud Mellanby was of his children, Scott and Laura. Scott would go onto suit up in over 1400 NHL games, while dressing for five teams, across 20 seasons before joining the hockey operations side, most recently serving as the assistant general manager with the Montreal Canadiens. Laura followed in Mellanby’s footsteps, in the TV production and media industry, receiving various awards and recognition for her work in the industry as well. 

  “He was very proud of his children. Even early on in my career, when Laura and Scott were kids, they would come to Maple Leaf Gardens for some games with their dad and we were introduced to them at that point and he was very proud of both of them,” Shannon recounted. “Ralph made a real effort to make sure that Laura got as much credit and accolades as Scott did. It was very important to him that Laura, who followed his footsteps more than Scott did, got the same attention that Scott did and that was important to him.”

  Aside from hockey, Mellanby helped produce coverage for the MLB, including the Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays, Canadian Football League, along with golf and tennis coverage as well. Topping it off, Mellanby featured the Olympic coverage as well, winning five Emmy awards for his work, including directing ABC’s 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ telecast from Lake Placid. Mellanby worked in some capacity across 13 Olympics, including both summer and winter. 

  For his work, Mellanby is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Canadian Film and Television Association Hall of Fame, and was Canada’s Broadcaster of the Year in 1990. He received an Honourary Doctor of Laws from the University in 1991. 

  His daughter, Laura, noted that many years ago, Mellanby wanted to move back to Essex and open a McDonalds franchise in the town, a move which did not go over well with the family and they all quickly vetoed. She noted her dad really did enjoy the small-town life compared to the big city living, for the fact that everyone knew everyone. It was this value, she noted, that Mellanby took with him, getting to know everyone’s first names, including the doormen and cleaning staff at Maple Leaf Gardens. Scott, Ralph’s son, started to refer to him as “the mayor” when he’d stop and say hello to everyone.

  “He was the voice of God. When Ralph spoke, it was fact and it was authoritative and you did everything you could in your power to do what he wanted and prayed you never let him down,” Shannon said. “I think the one lesson that Ralph taught me was never be comfortable. Don’t be afraid to take chances or afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. That’s the way we approached the show and HNIC when I took it over in 1994. That’s where Ralph’s imprint re-emerged, because a lot of that philosophy he taught me and things I still hold today.”

  Shannon noted that he believes there’s more than a dozen people Mellanby had touched, who have gone on to win the acclaimed Foster Hewitt Award, speaking to the volumes he was at understanding talent and teaching his philosophy. 

  As he passed away on January 29, which was Hockey Day in Canada, tributes began to pour in. On social media and on the HNIC broadcast as well, featuring MacLean.

“There is some irony in the fact that Ralph passed away on a Saturday on a day that he touched so many Canadians for so many years,” Shannon said. “He was one of our great mentors. There’s no question about that. He touched so many of us as well as the viewers that watch the games. Anytime that I’m in the broadcast industry, anytime I’m doing anything, there’s lots of the lessons that Ralph taught me that are in the back of my mind when I’m working behind the scenes or in front of the camera.”

  Shannon noted Mellanby would still mentor him, following his Friday episodes where he’d feature on Bob McGowan’s Prime Time Sports. He noted that he would receive a phone call from Mellanby with a critique of his work from the night before. 

  “He never stopped mentoring and he never was shy to give his opinions, which is something that I will treasure,” Shannon said.

  “Ralph understood that the true payoff isn’t the Emmy or the Canadian screen award, and it isn’t the salary-- it’s the simple joy of doing it and that… is such a gift,” MacLean said. “We always say in hockey every shift is a gift and Ralph understood that and every frame is the game.”

  Mellanby leaves behind his wife, Gillian, along with his son, Scott, and daughter, Laura. 

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