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.