I didn’t know John Saunders, the popular ESPN broadcaster who recently passed away, particularly well. But every time I saw him, it felt like running into an old friend.
We were in Baltimore together in the 1980s- Saunders a popular sports anchor for WMAR-TV and me a reporter for the late, great Evening Sun newspaper. When we saw each other at functions or games, we’d speak a language that few, if any other, black folks in Baltimore spoke: hockey.
We’d briefly chat about what was going on in the National Hockey League, even talk about the doings of the minor league Baltimore Skipjacks hockey team.
Saunders knew his hockey history because he was part of it. Born in Canada, he was an all-star defenseman in Montreal’s junior hockey leagues. He played for Western Michigan University in the 1970s before he transferred to what’s now called Ryerson University in Toronto.
Hockey helped lead John Saunders to Ryerson, the place where he fell in love with broadcasting. He developed into one of broadcasting’s best with an easily recognizable voice and easy on-air style that made TV viewers feel as comfortable as their favorite couch.
He was a versatile, knowledgeable presence on-air whether it was anchoring ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” working NCAA college basketball contests, doing WNBA games, hosting Stanley Cup Playoffs coverage, or moderating ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” show.
“John was an extraordinary talent and his friendly, informative style has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades,” John Skipper, president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, said in a statement. “He was one of the most significant and influential members of the ESPN family, as a colleague and mentor, and he will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this extremely difficult time.”
NHL Network analyst and former New York Rangers General Manager Neil Smith – the mustachioed hockey player pictured with John and Bernie Saunders in the Western Michigan hockey photo -took John Saunders’ death especially hard, tweeting that “Life will never be the same” with his passing.
“One of the saddest days of my life today as I grieve suddenly losing my best friend of 42 years, John Saunders,” Smith tweeted.
The cause of Saunders’ death was unknown Wednesday. Although he traveled to Washington last week for the National Association of Black Journalists convention, the Saunders family said in a statement that “John wasn’t feeling well physically in recent days and sadly, he was unresponsive earlier this morning.”
“We appreciate all of the thoughts and prayers for our cherished father, husband, brother and uncle,” his family said.