Random Cities: Billy Jaffe
November 21, 2011 1 Comment
Puck the Media’s bi-weekly feature, Random Cities, takes you inside the world of broadcasting from an angle you might not have seen before. We take each personality through various cities that have impacted their life and/or career, and let them elaborate with stories and memories about each. Enjoy.
This Week’s Subject: Billy Jaffe, currently a studio analyst for (deep breath) NHL Network, Rogers Sportsnet, NESN and MSG Network. He’s also worked with Fox College Sports, NHL Radio and CSTV, among many others.
City #1: Chicago (1997-2000)
Billy Jaffe: Back in 1997, I fell into it with the Chicago Blackhawks organization, doing their radio analysis – not in-game but pre-game, intermission, post-game, and doing the coach’s show – with no previous experience, and then it started picking up that year. I did two games on TV, one for the Wolves, one for Fox. Then the next year I fell into full time, I was able to do the Hawks full time on radio, and then I did the Chicago Wolves full-time, and college hockey.
PTM: Was that part of the era when, at times, the Wolves were a little more exciting than the Blackhawks?
BJ: Yeah, no question about it [laughs]. I have the honor of knowing that in my first year in broadcasting was the first time in 28 years that the Hawks didn’t make the playoffs. They had some streak going, and my first year I fell into broadcasting, completely ass-backwards falling into it, they don’t make the playoffs, but it’s alright. I was really proud of that [laughs].
The Wolves were the younger brother in town, so to speak, but they were coming on. They were big then, they were huge. I’ll never forget this, my first full year with them, I think it was the 98-99 season, they won the Turner Cup in the IHL. I’ll never forget, it was Game 5 of the Turner Cup at the Rosemont Horizon (now the Allstate Arena) – it was Grand Rapids and Chicago, the Wolves were up 3-1 – and they have a chance to win it at home. The game was supposed to start at seven. The game didn’t start until almost 7:40, because there were 5,000 people lined up outside the building for tickets. There was over 17-18,000 people in that building. It was unbelievable, and the place was literally rocking. It was great because there were seven goals scored in the first period, 4-3 Wolves, and they ended up losing the game, it was kind of a buzzkill. They ended up winning it in Grand Rapids the next game.
Puck the Media: You’re from Chicago, worked with the Blackhawks, so do you appreciate just how big a turn-around they made once Rocky Wirtz and John McDounough took over the franchise, just how far they fell out and how far they came back?
BJ: No question. They were unfortunately irrelevant it many areas of Chicago. It’s one thing to be on the low end of the popularity chain, it’s another thing to be irrelevant. That’s the worst thing you can be. On many levels they were, and it was very sad to see that. I can only tell you that I’ve gotten to know the people with the Hawks organization now and they’re tremendous. They miss no detail, it’s unbelievable how thorough, organized, prepared, everything they are.
Secondly, I can only tell you this: I have a lot of friends that for years, the crowd that’s a little older than I am, in their late 40’s/early 50’s, were like “Eh, I go to Bulls games, I don’t really go to hockey games.” And now, in the last five years, oh my God, they’re all going to hockey. They’re all back, they’re all Hawk fans. I don’t know, they probably all have the Indian Head tattooed on their backsides [laughs]. It’s the hottest thing, it’s the greatest thing, and they put on such a good show, such a good product, it’s great.
City #2: Atlanta, GA (2001-2006)
PTM: I talked to Pete Weber last time I did this, and I talked about having to – as a broadcaster – get out in the community and be an ambassador for the franchise. Did you experience some of that working for the Thrashers?
BJ: Yeah, a lot of it, I loved that. I went to the Thrashers in their second year, and it was made clear that the Thrashers broadcasters, all four of us, it was – I won’t say expected, it wasn’t an order – like “Hey, you know we want you to help build the brand down there.” I loved that, I absolutely loved that. I loved being involved, whether it was through hockey school, playing a lot of golf outings in little places in Georgia, where they didn’t know an awful lot about hockey. As far as I’m concerned, that is a part of the responsibility of broadcasters, especially for – and I think Pete would say the same thing – new teams a lot of times, broadcasters are the voices people become familiar with more than players right away. I think it’s important to do and I love it.
I really got involved with it there, with the Atlanta Thrashers hockey schools with Darren Eliot, a dear friend and wonderful broadcaster. Darren really did a lot, and I helped out as one of the instructors. Then I did my own adult hockey camp down there. There was a program that the Atlanta Spirit group ran, where we went to schools. During the season it was hard to do, but during the off-season and even during the lockout – I was going to schools once a week – it was a great learning to read program, incorporating hockey and basketball. It was a lot of fun, very important, and I just think that if you’re with a team, you’re part of it. If you can help out in any way, especially Atlanta in that kind of market, I’m willing to do it.
PTM: Obviously, the Thrashers had to move after last season. Did that affect you in a big way, having been there from almost the start?
BJ: You know, it affected me because the guys that were still there working as broadcasters and especially the hockey ops. people and the trainers, equipment managers, people that were involved on a day-to-day basis, I know what that meant for them, it meant no more work. That’s hard. We’re such a small industry. When you lose an opportunity, and everybody’s going to at some point, it happens to all of us, some times more than once. But when it happens, it’s really hard, and you think to yourself, “Oh my God, how am I going to get myself back in.” It’s a really small industry. When I saw that happen to my friends – thankfully they’re all still working – but right away that really bothered me the most, the people who were going to have issues with work.
I’m disappointed that the team isn’t there, but there were indications for a few years that there were issues, and they never rectified, and because of that they had to make a move. It’s a shame, I know there’s a hardcore fanbase there, but any business knows you need more than just a hardcore fanbase to survive. Any business, in any industry.
PTM: With Winnipeg, it just seems like there’s not merely a hardcore fanbase, it’s just “the thing” to do there. Hockey has sort of an advantage in Canada and the Northern parts of the U.S. where it’s not just part of the lifeblood, it’s also cool.
BJ: Well, in Atlanta for the first few years it was extremely cool to go there. I mean, it was the in thing, and Atlanta’s a very trendy… there’s a lot of people there that follow the trends. It was very hip and hot, and then the team not winning obviously makes a big difference. I would argue that, yes, Canada has an obvious advantage for it’s inheritance of their game and everything, but even the Canadian teams who are selling out 99% of the time, they still have to make it kind of the hip, fun thing to do. They have to. It’s just the way we are now in the school. They need to have the fun thing to do, you need a good product, but you need a good product in many ways.
I think with better ownership, and better result, I think Atlanta could have survived. It was taking hold, but then there were some major mistakes made.
City #3: East Lansing, MI (The Cold War, 2001)
PTM: You worked the first ever outdoor hockey game – The Cold War, with Michigan and Michigan State – 1. How was that as an experience, and 2. When you working it, did you say to yourself “Oh, this could be the biggest thing ever if they figure out how to do this in the NHL”?
BJ: First of all, when I got asked to do it by Fox Sports Detroit, it was very flattering and very exciting obviously, having played in college at Michigan, and having been involved with college hockey as a broadcaster. Second of all, when I walked there the first time, when I got into the Michigan State football stadium, I thought “This is gonna’ be weird.” [laughs] I’d heard about outdoor hockey, but how’s this gonna’ play out?
I remember getting there the Friday before the game, and it was 50-something degrees and rainy. The temperature was dropping, but I’m like, “How the hell are they gonna’ do this?” I remember walking in and seeing there were little pellets on the ice, because when it rains that’s how it forms on smooth surfaces. But the people doing the ice said “No, it’s gonna’ be okay. We’re gonna’ be alright.” Sure enough, Saturday comes and it’s still a little warm – like 44 degrees – but I remember it continuously dropping and finally, when we got just after the first period, maybe 38 degrees. It turned out to be a magical night.
To sit there and say that I thought it was going to be the next great event regularly? No, I didn’t, but I thought “If they can figure out how to continue to make the ice better and everything, this could be something fun.” You have to give a lot of credit to the guys at Michigan State – that’s not easy for a Wolverine to do – you gotta’ give ’em a lot of credit at Michigan State. I think it was David McAuliffe, an assistant coach at Michigan State, that came up with the idea and brought it up to Ron Mason and the other guys. They brought it to their Athletic Director, and really that’s where it came from.
It was such a cool event. To see 74,500 people in one place, and to hear the roar when the teams walked out the first time, it was phenomenal.
City #4: Uniondale, NY (2006-2010)
PTM: When you talk about New York, it’s completely the opposite of working for an expansion franchise. Do you think it’s more of a challenge, do you change your analysis from one market to another?
BJ: Well, obviously, there were sophisticated hockey fans it Atlanta, but not as many as there are in New York. You come in and, yeah, I think you try and be less basic with some things, but you’d also be surprised with how, sometimes, what you think is basic really isn’t that basic. Sometimes basic is still good. In the New York market, it was a wonderful, wonderful challenge originally to expand perhaps a little bit on what I did in Atlanta, and for me to develop as an analyst.
I worked with awesome people at MSG Network, a wonderful production crew, just the best. These guys, especially the Islander crew, is top notch. They don’t have a lot to work with, it’s an old building, tough arena to sometimes work out. It’s intimate, it’s a wonderful building when a lot of people are there, but it’s tough sometimes, physically to do things there. You did the best you can, and I learned so much working with those people. Can’t say enough about what the people at the MSG television network are like.
PTM: How hard is it to do the job when a team isn’t very good?
BJ: There’s an old saying that I learned in the business early on. Basically, anybody can broadcast a good team. It’s the bad teams that make a real good broadcaster. That’s the challenge. It’s tough when the team isn’t winning, there’s no doubt about it. I’m a big believer in being honest, but fair, and I understand that when you’re part of a team, as a broadcaster, you lean towards your home team, but you can’t do it without giving up your integrity. Your role as a broadcaster is to promote, help market, but it’s not to be blind and not point out there are deficiencies, and that things need to be better.
I would love, love the challenge of working a team that was great [laughs]. I went from Atlanta, where they got better a little bit each year. The year I left they made the playoffs, again, just like my Chicago story. I felt great about that. But then I went to the Island the first year, they made the playoffs. With that last game of the season against the Devils. But yeah, I would love the challenge of a year-in, year-out great team. I would accept that easy challenge.
PTM: Where does that game (April 8, 2007, Isles win in a shootout over New Jersey to make the post-season on the season’s final day) rank as far as exciting games you’ve worked?
BJ: Well, it was up there, exciting-wise. It was Sergei Brylin who was the last one to go, and Wade Dubliewicz made the save, and then did the light-sabres as I liked to call them with his stick. Fans from Long Island still talk to me about when John Madden scored with like two seconds left, I said “Oh no!” on the air. Most Islander fans love that. I remember Mike Bossy coming up to me and saying, “Oh my God, Billy, I was saying the exact same thing when you said that.” Look, there were a few people that chided me for it and I loved that too, because they were Devil fans [laughs].
PTM: I thought it was appropriate. I’m a Devil fan, and I’m pretty sure I said “Oh no.” [laughs]
BJ: I couldn’t believe that it happened. If you’re sitting at home or at a bar, you might say “Oh, no. Are you freaking kidding me?” But I can’t say that on the air, so I said “Oh no.” That’s just how I felt. It was very exciting, I don’t have a rank as far as exciting, but it’s up there. Exciting games that I’ve done? I mean, I’ve done the outdoor games, Michigan and Michigan State, and I’ll be part of the one this year in Cleveland, too. I’ve done Winter Classics. To be in between the benches at Wrigley Field for NHL Radio, was pretty damn cool. I’ve done Stanley Cups for NHL Network and big games for Versus, and Game 7’s and playoff series.
I did Game 7 for Versus when the Bruins had a 3-0 lead and then lost to the Flyers. I don’t know if there’s one game, but there’s been a collection of games and experiences that I’m very lucky, very fortunate and proud of having done.
PTM: Does one just stick out in your mind the most as an experience?
BJ: Tough one. I mean, a lot of those games I mentioned all have their own uniqueness. Hearing the roar the first time when the players came out at Spartan Stadium was pretty special. That’s a “wow” moment. Being in Ann Arbor last year, where there were 100,000 people and having been at Michigan and graduated from there, that was special. Half my family’s from Boston, originally, on my maternal side, and they’re all big Bruins fans. I remember going there my first time as a radio analyst and a TV analyst, going there for that Game 7. I mean, it’s little and it’s only a personal thing, but I remember it a lot because it’s so personal. It’s cool, I’m here in this city doing that.
Covering the Stanley Cup for a few years with NHL Radio. Being on the ice in Anaheim, doing interviews when they won it. Last year with the NHL Network, being in Vancouver with the Bruins, was very special, doing post stuff there. Can’t really tell you that one stands out over another.
Cities #5-7: Boston, MA, Toronto, ON, and New York, NY (2010-present)
PTM: Right now, you’re kind of a traveler, though you’re based in New York, right?
BJ: Yeah, this year I have a deal with MSG Network and every Saturday I do Hockey Night Live. Then I have a deal with the NHL Network to do On the Fly, and a deal with NESN to do the Boston Bruins for 23 games, plus their Instigators shows. I’ve also signed on to do some Sportsnet when I’m available up in Toronto.
PTM: How is just juggling all of that stuff?
BJ: Well, you need to remember to be organized, if that makes sense. You just have to plan ahead and hopefully, you have people that play along, schedule-wise. I base a lot around my NHL Network schedule, it seems to me that I’m up there an awful lot during the week, Sunday through Thursday. Then you just plan ahead. Almost every day or two, I check my schedule for the next month. I keep going over it just to make sure that I’ve got all my flights and all my hotels right, where I’m supposed to be, just to make sure it’s planned out. It’s just a part of it for me.
It’s really only last year and this year where I’m all over the place. It might’ve seemed like it before when I was with MSG and the Islanders, but I was always based out of the network and the Island, doing all their games, but then I was doing VERSUS on the side, too. It just seemed like I was all over. Then, because I lived in New York, I was able to do NHL Live during the day when it used to be the 12-2 show.
PTM: When you do On the Fly – and I know it’s more in three-hour shifts now – but sometimes that’s just six hours a day in a studio watching hockey. What’s that like?
BJ: That’s tough. I mean, it’s hard to explain until you actually do it. Talk to players that they bring in on cameos during the playoffs. Every one of them leaves after their two or three days saying, “Wow, I had no idea what it was really like.” Thankfully, this year it’s been wonderful, they’ve had split schedule. That has made a major difference for both the quality of the show production and for the analyst and the host. Hosts don’t split as much but when they do, it makes such a difference.
It used to be we’d get in at 4:30/4:45 and sometimes leave at 2/2:30 in the morning, during the playoffs sometimes you’d leave at 3/3:15 in the morning. That’s tough – it sounds funny because you’re sitting there, watching TV – but it’s not like you’re sitting on the couch, sipping a beverage. You’re sitting there, and it’s tough, but I’m not complaining. It’s just, the next thing you know you’re going to bed at four in the morning, when you’re going to wake up at seven or eight anyways, because you can’t sleep until two, you’re prepping for the next day. How do you describe it? It’s just like, during the playoffs it’s usually the most exciting time of the year, but when you’re doing those 8-to-10 hour shifts, it just feels like you don’t see the light of day.
PTM: Is it hard not to get burned out. I mean, it’s impossible to imagine getting burned out on hockey, but it is it possible to get tired of it sometimes?
BJ: You don’t get tired of hockey, you get physically get tired of it. You’re talking a lot, first of all, and you’re watching all these different games, and then you’re trying to put together the best telecast, and you’re also sedentary. You’re just in a spot for a long time, and that’s tough. I mean, it sounds funny, but the hardest part is leaving, and your knees or back are sore, just from sitting there [laughs]. Again, it sounds funny, and I’m not complaining, but you do get burned out. The management is very congnizant of that, and during the playoffs they really try and watch how many days in a row they schedule people because there is a burn-out factor.
City #8: Lincoln, NE (2001)
BJ: My first game, really, was an audition for Atlanta. They pretty much said they’d like to work something out, we’re negotiating, but you come in and do our exhibition game. I said, “Sure.” So I met the team in Atlanta, I didn’t do the game there, I jumped on the charter with them, and flew to Lincoln, Nebraska. You wanna talk about random cities, there’s a random city. I get on the charter and I’m flying with the Atlanta Thrashers to an exhibition game with the St. Louis Blues. I remember getting in on the plane, talking to Don Waddell, talking to my partner-to-be Dan Kamal. Just talking to a few people.
This all came up so quickly. My job in Atlanta, I didn’t get my first phone call until September 26th of that year, so training camp had already gotten started. I literally get a phone call in Chicago, all prepared to do the Wolves games again, all 80 of them on TV, and do Fox Sports Detroit. I was all signed up to do all these games on TV, and I was literally in a meeting with my checkbook, I was about to put $1,000 in earnest money down on a condo in Chicago. I’m talking with the people there and looking at different units on paper and everything, and I get the phone call, and it’s a 404 area code. I’m like, “Who the hell is calling me?” Long story short, it was the Vice President of Sales & Marketing for the Atlanta Thrashers, Derek Schiller.
He asks if I’d be interested. They had an opening, analyst for radio, and they were going to use me on the TV broadcast. I look at my phone after saying all this, I’m like “Yeah, I’d be interested, are you serious though? Are you serious about this, because I’m seriously considering putting money down on a condo right now.” He said, “I wouldn’t be calling if I wasn’t that serious.”
In a few days I had gotten a plane ticket from them, I was on my way down five days later to meet up with the team, get on the plane, to go to Lincoln. I was staying in some tiny, old hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska in the middle of nowhere. We get up, we have an afternoon game against St. Louis, and my partner and I are doing a mock broadcast in the corner of a USHL arena. We’re doing this mock broadcast that were putting into a record that, I guarantee you is not as nice as the one you’re using right now. You’re using a digital recorder, we were using a cassette tape recorder back in 2001.
We did it for about a period, or a period and a half, when Dan said “I think that’s enough. I think we’ve got enough” [laughs] I’ll say this, too, I treated it like a regular broadcast and I will never forget Curt Fraser, one of the true, absolute best people in our sport. I said to Curt, and this was before I knew him, and I said “Hey, Coach Fraser, can I talk to you for 10 minutes before the game about this and that?” and he was such a mensch, such a good man, he treated it – and he knew what we were up to – the right way, he gave us the best. He was, and is, absolutely one of the best people in the business, one of the best people ever. Because of that, he made me feel relaxed, and we had this fun broadcast for a period, period and a half. A day or two later, I got the official offer and that was it, and literally a week later, I’m moving down to Atlanta for opening night. I drove down there from Chicago with my then girlfriend, now wife.
City #9: Vancouver, BC (2011)
PTM: We’re there any difficulties getting out of there on that particular night?
BJ: No, there weren’t. I did the interviews on the ice, and a little bit of post, but my role on the NHL Network last year was the East insider, I think they called it. I did a bunch of interviews, I was probably out there 30 minutes, we banked a bunch of them. Then I was pretty much done, because they had the [studio] set working, and because I fed them at least 10 interviews of things, they could run them at different times and work ’em in and my job was pretty much done.
When I walked out of there, I don’t remember the time – and you gotta’ remember something too, it was late but it wasn’t late at night because it was Pacific Time Zone – but there were people that were rioting. I remember walking past – we’d heard somebody had fallen off an overpass there – I think he ended up being okay, his fall was broken by hitting an awning or something like that. We ended up getting a ride – I was with Bob Harwood – and we somehow avoided it before it moved the area of the hotel where we were staying. Once we got to the hotel, we didn’t leave the hotel, and once we got to the hotel, across the street there was this area where a bunch of car fires ended up starting.
It was very surreal. You’re watching on TV what you’re seeing from the restaurant lounge, getting something to eat and having a beer and we’re like, “Really?” I go up to my room after two hours, and I’m looking out the window of my room and I can see cars burning and people mobbing. Just kind of doing what they did. It was very unfortunate. It was unsettling. We made it back to the hotel before some other people did just because of our job responsibilities. Thankfully, everybody I knew there was safe when all was said and done.
City #10: Metulla, Israel (1997)
PTM: Finally, what’s the most random, out there city hockey has taken you to in your life?
BJ: Metulla, Israel is the most random place it’s taken me to. I was the captain of the one and only US team that played in the World Maccabiah Games in 1997. There have been other US teams that have gone there, but not for the world games. It was an extremely surreal experience in general, playing over there. Literally, you’re a quarter-to-a-half-mile from the Lebanese border, up in Metulla in the northern part of Israel. At that time, I believe it was the only hockey rink in Israel, it still might be. Just to know that you’re playing in that area is wild. I would go out at night to the back of our hotel, and they had these lounge chairs or hammocks and you could hang out there at night, you could kind of hear in the distance these helicopters flying. You know what they are. There was, at the time, you know there was military presence. It was an awesome experience. Awesome and different, but it’s definitely the most unique place I’ve been.