Longtime Alberta broadcaster Peter Watts dies at 68

Click to play video: 'Peter Watts, 770 CHQR Alberta Morning News host, passes away'
Peter Watts, 770 CHQR Alberta Morning News host, passes away
Peter Watts passed away peacefully at a Calgary hospital on Friday. He ended every show with the signoff "go out and make it a safe and happy day.” He is remembered by his brother Paul and sister Linda. He was 68-years-young – Jan 18, 2019

Longtime broadcaster Peter Watts — whose work included sports as well as local and provincial news — has signed off for the last time. Watts died in a Calgary hospital Friday morning at the age of 68.

In a statement, Watts’ family said he “peacefully passed away.”

“We have learned a lot about Peter in the last month through your visits, notes, posts and tweets — that he was a mentor to some, a colleague to others and a friend to all,” the statement continued. “This has brought us great comfort, and we thank you for your time.

Watts, the 20-year host of Alberta Morning News on the Corus Radio Network, was a voice heard across the province on weekday mornings.

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“To say Peter will be profoundly missed seems insufficient and doesn’t truly capture his impact on all of us,” said John Vos, director of talk and talent at 770 CHQR.

“In the coming hours and days, I’m certain the accolades and fond memories will wash over us.”

The new sports network

Watts found his way into living rooms nationwide as one of the original anchors on TSN’s SportsDesk during the network’s earliest years, starting in 1984. He is credited with bringing a strong work ethic and journalistic integrity to the beginning of the sports network.

TSN senior vice-president and general manager Mark Milliere — who started writing highlights at TSN in 1987 — remembers the tenacity Watts brought to a newsroom full of young sports journalists.

WATCH: Peter Watts reports from the CODA Cup in Calgary

Courtesy TSN / Bell Media

“Peter was seen as this veteran news journalist who was constantly hammering ‘it’s journalism’ and ‘get it right’ and ‘find the story, get the story,’” Milliere said. “And I think that was a really important message for all of us to be digesting on a daily basis from Peter as we were finding our way and building our careers.”

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“Peter really helped hold that thing together,” said Gord Miller, another of Watts’ mentees.

“He was the one that taught all those young kids to do it,” he said. “I know it wouldn’t have been as successful without him.”

Miller’s time under Watts did not start in the old TSN studios on Leslie Street in Toronto — it started at CBC Edmonton when Watts hired Miller to help curate sports highlights for a burgeoning and eventually profitable nationwide syndication service.

“When you’re starting out, [you’re] doing highlights and watching things and learning how to do it,” Miller said of his experience as a 17-year-old beginning his career under Watts’ guidance. “He has an endless reserve of patience for teaching and for helping you understand things. Like I said, he was demanding but in a good way. He expected you to work hard, to show up on time.

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“As a producer, as a broadcaster, as a reporter — virtually anything that had to do with broadcasting — he was the guy that people turned to at all times,” said John Wells, Watts’ colleague at CBC Edmonton and, later, TSN.

“And as a result, he has a great many friends. And I’ll always remember his Rolodex.”

The Rolodex

Because of his ability to connect with a wide range of people and show genuine interest in the lives of the people with whom he crossed paths, Watts was able to amass a significant list of contacts. Watts’ Rolodex was legendary in the offices where he worked.

The Rolodex on Peter Watts’ desk. Adam Toy / 770 CHQR

“The joke in the newsroom was whenever a story broke and we needed to gather reaction, all we had to do was check Peter’s Rolodex,” said longtime TSN anchor Gino Reda.

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“Sure enough, the name and number of some of the world’s most famous athletes and leaders in sports were all right there in Wattsie’s Rolodex.”

“We would sometimes flip through it, and there would be Muhammad Ali in there, John Madden, Michael J. Fox. It always astonished us,” said Milliere.

Watts’ work ethic and memory are remembered as being just as astonishing.

A tribute for Peter Watts in the Calgary Flames press box at Scotiabank Saddledome.

Early start in Edmonton

When the Queen’s University history and politics graduate arrived in Edmonton in 1977 to join CBC’s English-language sports department, he made an impression on Wells, his new colleague.

“The first time he came to the house and visited with us, he went around to explore Edmonton as he was brand new to town,” Wells said. “He came back about four hours later and knew more about the city than I had learned in the previous seven or so years that I had been there.

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“He knew all of the streets and he was just a sponge to remember everything that was going on. And he could talk the numbered street system of Edmonton so much more clearly than I ever figured out.

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“He was a real explorer and a very, very knowledgeable guy in so many ways. I don’t think there’s anybody that I’ve ever know in Canadian sports that knew more about all areas, all levels of Canadian sports than Peter Watts did.”

While in Edmonton, Watts reported on the dynastic run of Grey Cup championships won by the Edmonton Eskimos between 1978 and 1982, the arrival of Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers and the start of the Oilers’ Stanley Cup run.

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Watts would go on to cover a pair of Olympic Games — Los Angeles in 1984 and Calgary in 1988 — as well as two Commonwealth Games — Edmonton in 1978 and Brisbane in 1982 — and a Universiade in Edmonton in 1983. Watts also covered numerous international tennis events and was a champion of amateur sports.

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LISTEN: A tribute to broadcaster Peter Watts from his colleagues at 770 CHQR

Watts’ love of sports and broadcasting started young with the sport of hockey.

“We would get a ball hockey game started at the side of the house with a dozen guys, and Peter would do play by play,” said his brother, Paul Watts.

“Sometimes, he’d play goal so he would get more time to talk and broadcast the game.”

But his love of sport would expand beyond hockey to include nearly all sports.

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“He worked to give a lot of coverage to the stuff that was outside of the mainstream,” said 770 CHQR sports anchor Dave Rowe. “The World Cup of Skiing was always big with him, the Calgary Roughnecks when they were first here and getting established, the Calgary Hitmen when they were looking to grow junior hockey in Calgary during a time when a lot of people said it wouldn’t work.”

A young Peter Watts (top row, second from left) at CFRC, Queen’s University student radio, from a 1975 yearbook. Queen's University Archives, Marg Bartlett

Watts would spend the ‘90s serving in public relations capacities for the Calgary Stampeders and Calgary Vipers, an independent professional baseball team. The Kingston, Ont., native was also a fan of horse racing and wrote for the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association late in his life.

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A nose for news

But sports wasn’t Watts’ only broadcasting pursuit. He turned his interest in local news and politics into a 20-year run on Alberta Morning News.

Watts joined 770 CHQR in July 1998, to produce and host the provincewide weekend morning show, which aired on 770 CHQR and 630 CHED.

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In his time as host of Alberta Morning News, Watts covered events like the 2013 Alberta floods, the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, the 1999 Hub Oil explosion, the 2000 Pine Lake tornado, five Grey Cups in Alberta cities, Stanley Cup Final appearances by the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, the rise and fall of provincial political parties and a historic election that saw the end of 40 years of Conservative rule in the Alberta legislature.

In addition to hosting the morning news show, Watts also joined 770 CHQR’s Calgary Stampeders broadcast team.

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A mentor and friend

From those early years at CBC Edmonton until his final broadcast at 770 CHQR, Watts always expressed interest in helping the nascent careers of broadcasters and journalists. Given his 40-year career in the industry, that’s a lot of people.

“It’s almost incalculable,” Miller said. “It’s almost impossible to count the number of people whose careers he’s impacted and the number of young people he’s helped.”

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“When I began my career as a volunteer at the University of Alberta radio station in the early ’80s and began attending news conferences and games as a member of the media, Peter was one of the guys that made me feel like one of the guys,” said Eskimos play-by-play announcer Morley Scott.

“He always had a kind word and encouragement for me and always had the time to answer any questions I had about the business.”

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Calgary sportscaster and author Lisa Bowes credits Watts with mentoring her during her career.

“Pete was a one-of-a-kind mentor — a true gentleman who was the epitome of old-school values and work ethic,” Bowes said.

“He genuinely cared about people, both professionally and personally. His legacy will continue on in the people he touched, both in broadcasting and out.”

Watts’ interest in his coworkers often proved distracting.

“Peter was the most distracting co-worker that I had,” said 770 CHQR producer Andrea Montgomery. “There were times that I was so busy that I had to avoid eye contact because otherwise, he would sit down and he would want to chat about everything.

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“He was so helpful. He always had a suggestion for whatever problem I was facing, be it professional or personal.”

Watts also had a knack for picking up where he left off with past colleagues and friends.

“I left the broadcast biz for more than 25 years,” said longtime Edmonton radio host and news anchor Randy Kilburn. “But upon my return to the 630 CHED newsroom to work weekends, guess who I was able to reconnect with? Peter, of course! There was that voice again! He was hosting the Alberta Morning News.

“We rarely missed exchanging a ‘good morning, how are ya?’ email on Saturday morning.”

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“Most of all, Wattsie taught us to treat everyone exactly the same because everyone is special. And Wattsie, there was none more special than you,” said Reda.

Peter Watts is remembered by his brother Paul and sister Linda.

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