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Inside the Sabres: At age 80, hockey is still funny business for Harry Neale

Harry Neale recently turned 80, so I wished him happy birthday.

“Thanks,” he said. “I just wish the funeral homes would stop calling me.”

Then he told another joke. Then another.

Every place needs someone to provide comic relief. In the Sabres’ press box, Neale is the man.

The freshly minted octogenarian and Hall of Fame announcer still blesses Buffalo’s arena with his recognizable voice. He’s not behind a microphone anymore, but he’s a fixture near the broadcast booth. Announcers, scouts, former coaches and current players stop by his seat in KeyBank Center for chats and laughs.

“I’ve made a lot of good friends,” he said. “I know there must be some bad apples in the league, but when I was in the league or broadcasting, I didn’t meet very many.”

He also never met a banquet table he didn’t like. As a marquee figure for “Hockey Night in Canada” during the 1980s and ’90s, he’d often get invited to big events. That’s where he filled his never-ending joke book.

“Whenever I went to a banquet and I wasn’t speaking, I’d steal two of the guy’s good jokes,” Neale said.

He loves to tell them. The jovial and avuncular Neale remains in high spirits because he feels he’s never worked a day in his life.

Ever since he was 7 and skating on the outdoor rink his dad built in Sarnia, Ont., Neale knew he wanted to be in hockey. He didn’t play in the NHL like he dreamed, but he won championships in junior, college and senior leagues. He coached in high school, college and the pros, helping guide the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup finals in 1982 before becoming general manager.

Neale began his broadcasting career in 1986 and it continued for 28 years, including the final six with the Sabres.

“I’ve often thought how lucky I was that I never really thought I had a ‘job’ job once I got into hockey because of my passion for the game and enjoying the players,” Neale said. “I still like going to the home games. I go up to Toronto occasionally and go to games.”

The home games, as they’ve been since 1987, are in Buffalo. He moved to East Amherst for a couple of reasons. The secondary one was to be close to the “Hockey Night” hub of Toronto and his other job as Maple Leafs announcer.

“The real reason I came to Buffalo was I found out that you get 24 beers for half the price that you could in Canada,” he said.

Thankfully, the jokes don’t stop. He worked them in while recalling every phase of his life:

*Neale was a high school teacher during the early 1960s in Hamilton, Ont.

“I thought I was going to be a teacher for the rest of my life. I enjoyed teaching nuclear physics,” he said. “No, I enjoyed teaching physical education and social studies.”

*He coached at Ohio State from 1966 to 1970.

“Woody Hayes and I won two Rose Bowls as I recall,” Neale said, referring to the legendary football leader.

*Neale’s final coaching stop was in 1985 with the Detroit Red Wings, who fired him at midseason.

“Then I was harder to find than Jimmy Hoffa,” Neale said.

*He spends these nights watching games and listening to other announcers.

“Guys like you got me fired in Buffalo, so now I’m just a fan,” he said.

In all seriousness, he’s glad he got to spend his final working years with the Sabres. Five of the six were spent next to Rick Jeanneret in the booth. Both have won the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, an honor presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame to outstanding announcers. Jeanneret won it in 2012, and Neale was honored in 2013.

“That was a bonus beyond belief that I didn’t have to travel and I got a chance to work with Rick, which was a pleasure, to say the least,” Neale said. “I’ve got some great memories of every team I’ve been with. I feel very fortunate that I was able to make a good living doing something that I was able to do since I was 10 years old.”

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