After 44 years and 2,300 games, Al Formo has decided to hang up his headset.
Providing colour on Penticton junior hockey radio broadcasts was a hobby. When that changed near the end of last season, he knew it was time to go.
“It was starting to become work,” said Formo, who plans to watch Vees home games and maybe take the odd road trip.
“It might be a bad year to retire,” said Formo of the group the Vees assembled. “They have a good club.”
Yet he feels it’s time for a new voice, despite pleas from fans. His last partner, Ryan Pinder, has moved on to the American Hockey League to call games for the Abbotsford Heat.
The Penticton native started providing colour commentary in the fall of 1967 with the Penticton-Summerland Combines. He worked alongside Mike Shaneline, who initially had Morley Hays. The latter left for a golfing gig. Shaneline asked Formo if he would join. Talking hockey on the air came natural to him.
“It’s two guys describing action in simple ways,” said Formo, whose voice is reminiscent of old school hockey.
“The faster the pace of the game, the slower you have to go,” said Pinder of Formo’s advice that didn’t immediately make sense, but later took to heart. “I wouldn’t be where I am without Al. There is no question about that.”
“It was never hard,” said Formo, adding he never thought he’d last this long.
Following Shaneline, Formo worked with Hockey Night in Canada’s Jim Hughson for a year, Fred Straw, Ian Michaud, Fred Steele, Rich Hopson (18 years), including calling the Silver Bullets, Jay Longpre, Dan Marshall and finally Pinder.
His favourites to work with were Marshall, who he considers his best friend, Hopson because of their longevity and the championships they called, and Pinder.
“How good he became,” said Formo of Pinder, who made an impression on him. “He went from a rookie to veteran.”
“That means a lot especially because Jim Hughson he worked with,” said Pinder. “I think what began as an acquaintance in a working relationship, is a guy that is going to be a good pal of mine forever.”
Pinder learned a lot from the local icon.
“To have Al there was like a security blanket in the sense no matter how I was doing he would be able to add so much colour, character, information, historical references and implications,” said Pinder. “It was just like having an encyclopedia of the team history standing to your left for four years.”
Sporting a beat-up Skaha Meadows Golf course hat and golf tee, the father of two talks about how Game 7 in 1973 between Kamloops and Penticton was the best game he watched. The Broncos had Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson as its captain along with Chad Campbell among others. Penticton wasn’t expected to win the series. Also among his favourite memories is the Knights’ 1986 Centennial Cup win and the Vees’ 2007-08 BCHL championship as they swept the Nanaimo Clippers in convincing fashion.
Behind his love for covering the game is a passion, which began with the championship V’s senior team.
“They were heroes to us kids,” said Formo, who is good friends with V’s goalie Ivan McLelland. “We’d run up to get autographs. All the senior teams. It was a big deal. We wanted to be like them when they won the world championship.”
Formo would strap on the pads in minor hockey from the ages of 10 to 14, but admits to being a weak player.
Many who know him say Formo is good because he understands the game. Campbell respects him because of his honesty, integrity and that he calls a spade a spade.
“He usually has a reason for his opinion,” said Campbell. “He’s very fair. Officials were his bone of contention. Al was never afraid to point out their mistakes.”
Formo, who once managed a carpet store and his own business, has always been a fan of junior hockey.
“I like the fact players play with hearts instead of the pocket-book,” he said. “There are more mistakes creating chances.”
He likes to see improvement in players. He doesn’t watch many NHL games except for the Vancouver Canucks and is a fan of Don Cherry.
Formo never considered working at the pro level though Hopson wanted him to join him in Texas in the Central Hockey League.
“I didn’t have those aspirations,” said Formo, who admits his dedication took away time from his family, though his son Allen accompanied him on some trips. “I was always a Penticton Vee.”
“Penticton was the spot for him,” said Marshall, who worked with him for seven years. “It would mean more for him to be part of a championship year in Penticton than to be working in pro somewhere else. That’s what made him special.”
Marshall, who is the voice of the Nanaimo Clippers, said they were fans of the Panthers and Vees together.
“Al had just a tremendous amount of passion towards Penticton junior hockey and you can hear that,” he said. “It came across the radio that he loved the team. He loved the players. If he felt that the team was going well you could hear it in his voice. If he felt the team was being hard done by the officials, by the other team, he was passionate that way too.”
Marshall felt Formo was a great mentor, a friend, one of the more passionate hockey guys.
The duo were more than broadcasting partners, they were friends first and foremost.
“On the road, we roomed together a lot,” said Marshall. “He used to make fun of me because I kind of have a permanent smile going. Al did this great impression of my smile. Everybody got it and it was pretty funny. I used to do an impression of him. We’d sit around playing cards and we got into some really great battles round the card table with some of the old coaches. He used to pit his lips together making a smacking sound. He was thinking at the card table. I used to mimick him doing that. When he’d realize it, we all had a very good laugh.”
Marshall chuckled when asked about the level of the loss.
“There will never be another Al Formo,” he said. “Quite rightfully, the team has named the broadcast booth the Al Formo Broadcast Gondola at old Memorial Arena. I don’t know if you’d see another person in junior hockey that will put in 40 years of service like Al has. He is going to be missed. He’s a legend and a great broadcaster and a great friend.”
Formo had an easy voice to listen and developed a solid working relationship with Pinder. The two communicated so well, they were similar to a married couple completing each other’s sentence. Whether it was in Memorial Arena or the South Okanagan Events Centre, fans could be spotted in the arena listening to the broadcast with earphones. Campbell, who was an analyst during Vees broadcasts, said he was familiar and comfortable as well as sensible and fair.
“He’s opinionated and he’s passionate you know,” said Campbell. “He is Penticton junior hockey really. There will never be another one like him.”
Nicholson said that Formo was an unbelievable person for junior when he played. Nicholson described him as a great friend and special guy.
“The name Al Formo is synonymous with junior hockey in this city and was a dedicated broadcaster,” said Vees coach and general manager Fred Harbinson. “It was a pleasure working with Al over the past four years and his professionalism and passion for junior hockey will not be forgotten.”
“I don’t think I will have a colour guy of that sort of stature,” said Pinder. “Gonna miss him. It’s the end of an era.”
“I’m really going to miss it,” said Formo, who loved the camaraderie that came with his role. “If they go to the RBC Cup, I will be (jokingly) upset. I will have to find a way to go.”