Versatile Canadian-born ESPN sportscaster John Saunders dies at 61

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Sports caster John Saunders

Tributes poured in Wednesday for Canadian-born sportscaster John Saunders, the original voice of the Toronto Raptors and a fixture for nearly 30 years on ESPN in the U.S., after the network announced that he had died.

He was 61.

Saunders, who was born in Toronto and grew up near Montreal, joined ESPN in 1986 after working for a variety of stations in central and eastern Canada. He was the play-by-play announcer on Raptors games from 1995 to 2001.

The former college hockey player who was at ease broadcasting a variety of subjects hosted “The Sports Reporters” on Sunday for ESPN for the last 15 years.

“I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone to say anything bad about John,” said Leo Rautins, the former NBA player who worked with Saunders on Raptors broadcasts. “He was very giving, very caring, very intelligent.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement saying he was “deeply saddened” by the news.

“John was a vital member of the NBA family for more than two decades and was a friendly and familiar face to our players and fans,” Silver said.

An NHL statement said the league “mourns the passing of John Saunders, a genuine friend of hockey.”

Saunders, an original member of ESPN’s SportsCenter crew, called play-by-play for U.S. college and WNBA games, hosted NHL playoff games from 1993 to 2004, Baseball Tonight from 1990 to 1993 and the World Series from 1990 to 1992.

He also hosted the Rendez-Vous ’87 hockey series in Quebec City between the NHL and the Soviets.

His work with ABC televison included hosting NCAA basketball and football and contributing to Wide World of Sports.

Saunders got his start as news director at CKNS Radio in Espanola, Ont., in 1978. He worked as sports anchor at CKNY-TV in North Bay, Ont., from 1978 to 1979 and at ATV News in New Brunswick in 1979-80 before he became sports anchor for CITY-TV in Toronto from 1980 to 1982.

“He was very proud to be Canadian,” said Rautins. “He’d mention it every time he could.”

Saunders worked as a sports anchor at WMAR-TV in Baltimore from 1982 to 1986 before joining ESPN.

As a youth, his sport was hockey. Saunders earned a scholarship from Western Michigan University, where he played defence from 1974-76, before transferring to Ryerson in Toronto, where he was an OUAA all-star. His younger brother, Bernie, played 10 NHL games as a forward for the Quebec Nordiques from 1979 to 1981.

Saunders lived in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., with his wife, Wanda. They had two daughters, Aleah and Jenna. Jenna Saunders recently graduated from Ryerson, while Aleah issued a tweet that said: “How are you supposed to process something like this? I’ll tell you. By hearing the world cry with you. RIP Daddy. Your girl loves you.”

No cause of death was given by the network.

Rautins said it was widely known that Saunders suffered from diabetes.

He recalled how his broadcast partner would say “if I don’t call you, don’t worry” when he had a bout of low blood sugar. While it drove producers crazy, he always managed to turn up on time, ready to work.

Rautins said Saunders once left just before a game to get his medication.

“He disappeared just before we were going on air,” said Rautins. “They were literally counting down the seconds” before Saunders made it back in the nick of time, saying with complete calm: “My blood sugar was low, don’t worry.”

It seems it was less known that he also suffered from depression.

A book Saunders co-authored with John U. Bacon on his life and struggles with depression is scheduled for publication by Da Capo Press in April 2017. A summary on Amazon.ca of “Playing Hurt: My Journey From Despair To Hope” said the book was about “a leading figure in the sports world—the quintessential ‘man’s man’ who seems to have it all—confesses his constant battle with depression and how it nearly cost him his life. John Saunders — stellar athlete and respected sportscaster — welcomes readers into the heart of his desperate struggle against depression.”

ESPN president John Skipper said in a statement that “John was an extraordinary talent and his friendly, informative style has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades. His wide range of accomplishments across numerous sports and championship events is among the most impressive this industry has ever seen.”

Former New York Rangers president and general manager Neil Smith tweeted: “One of saddest days of my life today as I grieve suddenly losing my best friend of 42 years, John Saunders. Life will never be the same.”

Saunders was a founding member of the board of directors for The V Foundation for Cancer Research, a charity started by ESPN after former college basketball coach and announcer Jim Valvano died of cancer in 1993. He also promoted efforts against juvenile diabetes.

— With files from The AP

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