George Retzlaff (1922-2003)

George Retzlaff
George Retzlaff

Year Born: 1922

Year Died: 2003

George Retzlaff was 30 when he was appointed head of CBC Sports and producer of Hockey Night in Canada. That was in early 1953, just months after CBC-TV started broadcasting. He produced and directed HNIC for the next 20 years and with his Montreal counterpart, Gerald Renaud, devised many of the techniques and camera angles still used 50 years after HNIC’s 1952 television debut.

George was born in Kiel, Germany. His father immigrated to Canada in 1925 and had established a small farm in Saskatchewan by the time George and his mother joined him in 1927. Within two years, the family moved to Winnipeg where George grew up.

He attended Daniel McIntyre Collegiate, where he played football and some hockey, but was forced to leave school before graduating and work in a warehouse after his father lost his job in the Depression. George was fascinated by broadcasting and took drama lessons at night from Esse Ljungh and Beth Lockerbie, both of whom later made their names in the CBC.

It was through Ljungh that George was hired as a radio control room operator at radio station CJRC Winnipeg, working on football and hockey games among other tasks. In the mid-40s he moved east and got a job as an operator at CFRB Toronto. He married Nina and his first child, Judy, was born. Lack of housing sent the family back to Winnipeg where George found work with CBC radio and did some of everything, including acting and directing dramas.

In 1951, CBC began recruiting for television and George applied. He was one of two Winnipeg employees chosen for training in Toronto and the family, including newborn daughter Jan, moved back east.

The CBC sent George to Ryerson Institute of Technology, later Ryerson University, and gave him a great deal of hands-on studio time at CBC. As television was new, most staff were able to try their hands at just about everything and George developed a talent with cameras. When televised HNIC went on the air, George was initially the switcher. It rapidly became apparent that he had a clear, almost intuitive grasp of both the game and how best to televise it. Half way through the season he was promoted to producer/director.

Bob Gordon, who worked for many years on HNIC for MacLaren Advertising and then for Canadian Sports Network, (an arm of MacLaren, which owned the rights) summed up George’s skill this way: “George had the ability to look into the future. What he saw and what he did turned into the handbook of television sports coverage. Even the Americans watched how he did football and said “we can apply this guy’s thinking to what we’re doing”. That in the States is not normal. George’s thinking was to tie the person who was watching at home on TV to the person who had the best seat in the house. He loved sports.  He had vision and he made it work.”

George was an innovator who anticipated instant replay long before video cameras were invented and turned the technique into a regular feature. In the mid-50s he experimented with a processor that could develop film within 30 seconds. He used it in one game but failed to forewarn MacLaren Advertising. The agency was aggrieved at having been unable to promote the new feature – and Montreal didn’t have it. There was a rule that hockey productions from both centres had to look alike. George didn’t use the technique again.

George became a legend. In The Boys of Saturday Night, Scott Young writes: “What Retzlaff had produced in 1950s television action was so seamless that whole generations of viewers hated to go to the toilet in case they missed something.”

One Saturday in the ’60s, George televised both an afternoon New York Rangers game in New York and an evening Toronto Maple Leafs game in Toronto. During his years with CBC Sports he produced and/or directed everything from football, including many Grey Cup games, to horse racing, including the Queen’s Plate, to golf, including a number of Canadian Opens, to bowling, to special events such as several Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games – he did it all.

In 1973, George became the original recipient of hockey’s Foster Hewitt Award for excellence in sports broadcasting. The award at that time was not connected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

George retired from the CBC in 1984.

He was married twice: to Nina who died in 1974 and then to Wanda, who predeceased him in 2001.

George died in Simcoe, Ont. on August 5, 2003, survived by seven children from his two families, 20 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.