Max Jackson was the voice of the Kingston Canadians

Legendary Kingston sports broadcaster Max Jackson was known for two things – his famous signoff line and his willingness to give young people a chance behind the mike.

“If you can’t play a sport, be one,” Jackson would urge listeners at the end of his reports on radio and later television. One of his marquee events was calling the play-by-play for the Kingston Canadians, hanging so far out of the press box at the Memorial Centre that fans worried he might fall out.

Hockey moms and dads loved the signoff and many still remember it to this day – even though Jackson retired 40 years ago. While future Toronto Maple Leaf Doug Gilmour appreciated hearing about his goals on Kingston radio, he wasn’t a fan of the catchy sentence. Gilmour was a hard-nosed player who was determined to prove local armchair hockey coaches wrong when they said he was too small to make the NHL.

A few years ago, Gilmour told hockey author Damien Cox that the “be a sport” signoff was too cute for him. “Well, I was a poor sport. I hated losing more than anything.”

Over the years, Jackson would announce youth bowling scores, chat with harness racing drivers and report on softball games. He interviewed wrestling stars like Andre the Giant – Jackson had to stand on a box to be face-to-face with him. On the Wolfe Island Ferry, he cornered golfing great Jack Nicklaus, who was duck hunting on the island, for a story.

It seemed that he was everywhere. In fact, he was. He would arrive at the radio station at 6 am in order to prepare for his first sports report of the day at 7:25 am. That would be followed by another broadcast at 8:10 am and a lunch hour report.

He usually took a break in the afternoon but was on CKWS television at suppertime and delivering the Sports Final at 11:25 pm. The weekend scoreboard was presented at 11:10 pm. In between the supper hour and late night news, he would call a Canadians game or take in another sporting event.

Then he would catch a few hours sleep and do it all over again.

It’s no wonder that the radio and TV stations promoted him as: “Mr. Sports Himself – Max Jackson”

Mentoring young journalists

In 2010, broadcaster Chris Cuthbert was announcing the play-by-play at the gold medal hockey game at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The entire nation was on the edge of their seats as the match between Canada and archrival United States went into overtime. Then Sidney Crosby fired a shot past American goalie Ryan Miller. “Crosby scores,” yelled Cuthbert. “Sidney Crosby! The golden goal!”

The Rogers SportsNet’s Cuthbert is at the pinnacle of Canadian sports broadcasting, having covered the Olympics and numerous Stanley Cup and Grey Cup games.

He got his start thanks to Max Jackson.

A student at Queen’s University in the late 1970s, Cuthbert was pondering becoming a history teacher. Then he decided to volunteer at the campus radio station, CFRC. He delivered the play by play for Queen’s football in 1978. His timing was lucky – the team got national attention that year by capturing the Vanier Cup championship.

Cuthbert approached Jackson about doing a sportscast. Jackson loved giving young people a shot and quickly agreed. Decades later, Cuthbert tweeted that the moment was lifechanging.

“Forty years ago today I did my first sportscast on CKWS in Kingston. Thanks to Kingston legend Max Jackson for giving me a chance. He said ‘You’ll never forget that.’ I haven’t.”

Cuthbert worked at CKWS for a year before moving on to a Montreal station. Mark Potter, a 20-year-old Portsmouth village native who had just graduated in journalism from Loyalist College, was given an opportunity by Jackson to take over the sportscast.

Potter was in awe. “When I was a kid growing up in Portsmouth, Max was your window to sports in Kingston. If you wanted to know the score in last night’s Montreal Canadiens game, you turned on the radio and listened to Max,” Potter recalls.

“Max stuck his neck out for me. I think he hired me because I had a genuine enthusiasm for local sports and overlooked the fact that I was just 20 years old and really didn’t know what I was doing,” Potter says.

Other young broadcasters got their start with Jackson. Kingston-born Ted Darling would go on to Hockey Night in Canada and became the longtime voice of the Buffalo Sabres. Peter Watts joined Queen’s CFRC radio before coming to CKWS and then moving to The Sports Network.

Jim Gilchrist, the Kingston Frontenacs play by play announcer since 1980, recalls that he was working with the Oshawa Generals when Jackson approached him at an awards banquet. “He said he was retiring and thought I would be a good replacement in Kingston,” Gilchrist recalls. “When I started at the station, I realized that he had a huge amount of respect there and in the community. He would do anything for anybody.”

From sports fan to broadcaster

Jackson had to cover all these sports with just one eye. When he was a kid, he was playing with bows and arrows with a group of boys and he was struck in the eye by an arrow.

Max Jackson didn’t get started in broadcasting until he was 40. In the 1940s, he had a sports store on Princess Street, but he often gave away hockey sticks if kids didn’t have the money to pay. Needless to say, the venture failed. He got a job in a dry cleaning firm run by Stanley Cup champion Wally Elmer.

But his love of sports proved to be an entrée into broadcasting. From 1940 to 1955, he served as coach of the Junior B Kingston Victorias, which included players like Don Cherry. In addition, he did the play by play for the Kingston Ponies baseball team.

In those days, there was no journalism school. You just learned by trial and error. When television came to Kingston in 1956, Jackson joined as sports director. The Kingston Canadians franchise was established in 1973 – and Jackson never missed a broadcast, even when he could barely speak due to a cold.

“He wasn’t a polished broadcaster by any stretch,” Potter says. “He was over the top when announcing the Canadians games. If there was a Kingston penalty, he would exclaim ‘terrible call.’ He was very much a homer.”

Jackson did it all for a pittance. For most of his career he only earned $18,000 a year – despite the hectic morning, noon and night broadcast schedule. It was only in 1975 that he got a raise and a second broadcaster was hired to handle the late night sports report.

He founded the Kingston Lions Club Amateur Baseball League in the 1950s. Later he created the Max Jackson/CKWS Junior Golf Classic to allow youths an opportunity to try their hand at tournament golf.

After his wife died, Jackson quit calling the Canadians games in 1980. He retired from the station in 1982.

After Jackson hung up his mike, Potter recalls being overwhelmed that he was now responsible for covering all sports at the station. “You can never find a bigger pair of shoes to fill than Max Jackson’s,” he says.

Jackson moved to Florida and faded from the limelight. However, he was back in town in 1997 to be inducted into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame. And a local park has been named in his honour, located in the Kingscourt neighborhood where he lived for most of his life.

Jackson died in 2001. But to this day, Kingston sports fans still recall his signoff: “If you can’t play a sport, be one.”