DETROIT – Before famed writer George Plimpton tightened the chin strap to his helmet to chronicle life as an NFL quarterback in Detroit, there was Sonny Eliot, the acclaimed local weatherman, who already knew what it was like to practice with the pros.
Occasionally invited by GM Jack Adams to suit-up in goalie gear at Red Wings’ practices, Eliot, who was a fixture around Olympia Stadium for decades, died Friday morning at his home in Farmington Hills. He was 91.
Known by the players as a jokester with a quick, corny wit, Eliot was always welcomed around the Wings’ players, coaches and management.
“To me, he just wanted to be around the guys. Period,” legendary Wings forward Gordie Howe said. “He just liked to have fun, and everybody respected him.”
But as a goaltender? Well, the Wings often took their on-ice liberties with the clown prince of local television personalities.
“He was on his knees scoping the pucks out of the net half of the time,” Howe said.
When he wasn’t at Olympia Stadium practicing with the guys or playing Santa Claus for the team’s Christmas parties, Eliot was busy at being the city's most well-known and well-liked TV personality for more than a half century. His longest-lasting TV job was as a weathercaster, first on WWJ radio in 1947, as well as on local TV stations.
Born Marvin Eliot Schlossberg, he was a World War II hero, who survived 18-months of imprisonment in a German POW camp after the B-24 bomber that he piloted, was shot down over Germany.
An entertainer, and a terrific storyteller, the lifelong Detroiter brought fun and laughter to local newscasts and to the Wings, though he couldn’t skate. Eliot recanted his time with the Wings in a book entitled, “The Glory of Their Game,” where he spoke of his less-than stellar skating skills. In fact, he was so bad that he needed to prop himself against the crossbar and pray.
“I was the first outsider to work with the club,” Eliot said. “I did it because I really liked hockey. I liked getting out on the ice.”
So how did Eliot rate himself as a goalie? His answer was shrouded in typical Eliot tomfoolery.
“I was sensational, stupendous, colossal, gigantic, in fact, I couldn’t skate. I had trouble standing up on skates,” he said. “But it was fun. I always felt if someone shot at me with a fair amount of speed, I could catch the puck like a first baseman. I could catch them if they were at my body. If they shot at my head or feet, I was in trouble.”
He later introduced Detroit TV audiences to his comedic brand of weathercasting while at Channel 4, scribbling spellings like “phog” and “no phog”, and contractions like “clainy” for “cloudy and rainy” and “smild” for “sunny and mild” on a green chalkboard.
Even after the Wings moved from Olympia to Joe Louis Arena in the late 70s, Eliot was often seen around the team. For the last 10 years or so, he recorded a special Thanksgiving weathercast that Ken Kal shared with his radio audience on 97.1 The Ticket.
Eliot finished his hall-of-fame broadcasting career in 2010 and back where it all began – at WWJ radio. It was at the Southfield studios that Eliot and a former producer shared a profound kinship for the Red Wings.
“When I started working in the WWJ newsroom, Sonny of course came up and started talking,” said Pete Barkey, now the director of public relations for the University of Michigan Health System. “He had such a genuine interest in people. We started talking Wings and telling stories, an instant bond that endured.”
Their binding friendship initiated something that would punctuate Eliot’s daily radio weather reports for many hockey seasons to come.
“One day on his way into the studio, he came to me and said, ‘What's the score of the Wings’ game tonight?’” Barkey said. “I said 4-2 and he used it on air, dubbing it ‘The Barkey Report’. Lo and behold, the score was 4-2, so an institution that I am humbled and honored to be associated with was born.”
The winner was never predicted in the segment, just the final score. But over the years, even after Barkey left WWJ in 1997, ‘The Barkey Report’ lived on.
“It always amazed me how many times people asked me if I knew ‘The Barkey Report,’ he said. “When they found out it was me, they would call people around and introduce me as ‘The Barkey Report’ and invariably, I would be bombarded by a barrage of question about what Sonny, the person, was like. He had that kind of pull on generations. He was that very rare person for whom ‘bigger than life’ is not a cliche.”
Undoubtedly, Eliot’s charisma and charm warmed everyone he met. But it was that overwhelming sense of humor – however cheesy – that captivated everyone.
“He’s an A-student in corny,” Howe said. “It was fun for us to be around him.”
Eliot is survived by his wife, Annette.
According to The Dorfman Chapel web site, a private funeral service, interment and shiva will be held Sunday. A public service to celebrate Sonny Eliot’s life is being planned for a later date.
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