Fred Cusick, 90, velvety voice of the Bruins for nearly 5 decades

Fred Cusick began calling Boston Bruins games in 1952. Fred Cusick began calling Boston Bruins games in 1952. (File 2005)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 16, 2009

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With a voice that rose from velvety to victorious in the time it took Bobby Orr to slap a puck into the goal, Fred Cusick brought radio listeners and television viewers onto the ice with the Boston Bruins from 1952 until 1997 and was famous for stretching out the word score until it seemed as if it had as many vowels as there were players.

A broadcasting legend for Boston sports who called the Bruins’ last game at the old Boston Garden and the Patriots first football game, Mr. Cusick died in his Barnstable home yesterday of complications from bladder cancer. He was 90 and will be inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame tonight.

“He was a pioneer in the broadcasting of televised hockey games, no question about it,’’ said Harry Sinden, former general manager and president of the Bruins.

“The thing you remember about him was his style,’’ said Dave Goucher, the play-by-play announcer for the Bruins on WBZ radio. “He wasn’t someone who yelled and screamed for the whole game. Some moments in games are bigger than others, and he was the master of that, knowing when the big moment was there and how to call it. When a goal was scored, you knew something had happened.’’

Mr. Cusick was the first American broadcaster inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and in 1988 received the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding contributions to hockey in the United States.

Through the years, Mr. Cusick broadcast on radio and television stations that included WBZ-AM, WSBK-TV (Channel 38), and NESN, with such on-air partners as former Bruins player Derek Sanderson. He also did a stint broadcasting NHL games for CBS television.

In a statement, Jack Edwards, the Bruins’ play-by-play announcer on NESN TV, said: “Those fortunate enough to inherit the position Fred Cusick created are merely playing on the land he cleared. None of us ever will have the impact he had in generating the fan base for this team.’’

Part of his impact was simply opening television’s door to the Bruins. In the early 1960s, Mr. Cusick personally got the team on the air by watching a game in Toronto on a Saturday night, then driving the videotape to Manchester, N.H., stopping en route in Concord, N.H., for a few hours of sleep. At 11 a.m., the taped game was broadcast on WMUR-TV.

Prophetically, he convinced the broadcast television community that the team’s fortunes were soon to change, and they did a couple of years later with the arrival of Orr. As the devotion of fans intensified during the team’s Stanley Cup victories and beyond in the 1970s, Mr. Cusick’s voice became as recognizable as a Bruins jersey, his name as familiar as Orr’s or Phil Esposito’s.

“That voice is unmistakable, full and husky, like a tenor saxophone,’’ Stu Hackel wrote in a Sports Illustrated profile in 1994. “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.’’

For Mr. Cusick, who could turn “Score, Bobby Orr!’’ into a poetic couplet, looking down at the ice from the booth was like being paid for having fun.

“Broadcasting from the Boston Garden for 1,500 games surrounded by the passionate Boston fans made my job easy,’’ he wrote in an e-mail to the Globe two weeks ago in response to interview questions. “I never felt like I was working - I had the greatest job in the world and the best seat in the house. The Boston Garden was the best place to broadcast a hockey game.’’

Born in Brighton, Frederick Michael Cusick was one of three sons born to Irish immigrants from Galway. He was the baby of the family and treated as such.

“I always thought my father was an example of the idea that you should slightly spoil your children,’’ said his son, Ted of Lancaster, Pa. “It not only gives them an enhanced sense of self worth, but also a sense of sweetness. He had this very benign kind air about him, combined with a little shyness.’’

Mr. Cusick began his love affair with hockey by playing with friends on a pond or the Charles River when it froze.

“We’d start in the morning and play until the sun went down,’’ he told Sports Illustrated. “Wouldn’t even take lunch.’’

At Northeastern University, from which he graduated in 1942, Mr. Cusick excelled at hockey and also played football and baseball. Then he joined the Navy, commanding sub chasers during World War II and staying in the Naval Reserves until 1946, when he left as a captain.

His first taste of radio came in 1941, when he was paid with passes to Fenway Park for a nightly sportscast on WCOP, but he really began his 51-year career in 1946 at WOCB on Cape Cod. While there he met Barbara Mullin, a teacher who worked as a waitress on the Cape in the summer. They married in 1947.

Mr. Cusick moved through the radio ranks quickly, to WBET in Brockton and WVOM in Brookline, where he created a popular “Irish Hour’’ program. He broadcast “just about every sport imaginable,’’ he told the Globe in the e-mail, a list that ranged from tennis to bowling. In 1952, he began broadcasting Bruins games on the radio for WHDH.

Though fans knew his voice, players and team executives saw another side of Mr. Cusick.

“He liked to play the piano, too,’’ Sinden said. “A number of times over the years we would arrive at a hotel early in the morning. As we waited in the lobby for our rooms, there would be a piano in the lobby, and he’d play us a few tunes.’’

Ken London, a producer and director who worked for a decade with Mr. Cusick at Channel 38, said Canadian audiences “loved Fred because he understood the tempo and flavor of the game.’’

“He’d start out broadcasting with his velvety voice, in perfect rhythm and cadence with the game,’’ London said. “By the end, he would have the same rhythm and cadence, but would be screaming like a wild banshee.’’

When the game was over, London said, Mr. Cusick “would be on the bus, his coat on, reading a book as if he had been sitting in the library all night long, and the game was a million miles away at that point. It was strange to think that minutes before, he had been broadcasting the game at the top of lungs.’’

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Cusick leaves three daughters, Sarah and Martha of Barnstable and Mary of Brookline; and three granddaughters.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Saturday in Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville.