For Oilers Fans, Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Stars

As the media landscape changes, the old-school medium still has Oilers fans tuning in.

Illustration by Andrew Benson

It definitely marks me as a greybeard, but I came of age as an Edmonton Oilers fan listening to Rod Phillips call World Hockey Association games on the radio. Well before the Great One arrived and decades ahead of McJesus, our heroes were journeymen like Jim Harrison and Al Hamilton.

To this day, nobody has ever made a breathless malapropism sound more exciting on a frigid winter’s night on the prairies than Phillips could: “Oh…and there’s another horrendous save!” It’s a memory that still makes me smile.

Way back then, TV was not an option. I watched exactly one Oilers WHA game on television, their first as a franchise — a 7-4 victory over the Ottawa Nationals. Even after the team joined the NHL in time for the 1979-80 season and began to assemble the juggernaut that hoisted five Stanley Cups in seven seasons, Edmonton fans never saw more than a dozen games each year on the small screen before the playoffs. Absent season tickets, radio was it for anyone who wanted — or, like me, needed — that hit-by-hit, goal-by-goal account of the local squad’s fortunes every night.

Today, every Oilers regular season game, most of the exhibition schedule and even much of the action by their farm club in Bakersfield is just a click away through one screen or another. We can see it all. But don’t shed a tear for radio; radio is doing just fine.

Ask Bob Stauffer. Oilers Now, the weekday talk show (noon – 2 p.m., Monday through Friday) he hosts on Corus-owned 630 CHED, is far and away the most popular radio program of any sort in this city. It draws between 38,000 and 42,000 listeners a day during the NHL season, and 33,000 to 35,000 throughout the summer, plus some 200,000 podcast downloads each month. “I have two and a half to three times the (Twitter) followers of guys [talking Flames hockey] on Calgary radio,” Stauffer says. “It’s not because I’m that much better, believe me. It’s because our market is that much better, that much more engaged.”

The loquacious Stauffer could debate hockey all day long, and so can his audience. Their analysis of different players’ strengths and weaknesses, current and potential line combinations and defence pairings, coaching decisions, trade and free agency scenarios is relentless. It amuses Morley Scott. These days Scott is the play-by-play voice of the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos on CHED, but from 1992 to 2008 he provided the colour commentary for Oilers game calls by Phillips. “It amazes me how long people can talk about who the Oilers’ third-line left wing should be when it’s 25 degrees in the middle of July. There is just such a thirst,” Scott says with a laugh.

Jack Michaels would concur. Michaels, a Pennsylvania native who grew up cheering for Mario Lemieux’s Penguins, succeeded Phillips as the play-by-play voice of the Oilers in 2010. He shares the broadcast booth and microphone with Stauffer (now in year 12 as colour man, 10 alongside Michaels). “Metro Edmonton is like 1.2 million, but it still feels like a small town in that the mood of the entire city is directly affected by how the team is doing,” he says. “This place lives and dies with the Oilers.”

Michaels came to Edmonton after eight years in Anchorage doing radio for the Alaska Aces of the East Coast Hockey League. He has lived in both cities long enough to draw a parallel between them. “Anchorage is a little Edmonton-like. Proud. Yeah, it’s cold and maybe we’re not as wealthy as some cities, but if you just want to complain about the place, you can get the hell out.”

For his part, Stauffer believes the intense local attachment to the Oilers derives from the particular demographics of this place. “There are teams in the NHL where less than 50 per cent of the market is from that region. It’s not the case with Edmonton. I would hazard a guess that 70 per cent of northern Albertans are from northern Alberta. People here are from here,” he says. Which basically means that if they weren’t themselves around for the glory years of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and company, they grew up hearing all about them from their parents and it has rubbed off.

As for our enduring bond to hockey on the radio, it’s about demographics and geography too. That and motor vehicles. Given our tough climate, widely scattered resource economy and fondness for sprawling suburbs, we spend a lot of time in our cars. According to Statistics Canada, more than 5.2 million vehicles were registered in Alberta in 2018.

“Edmonton is known as a commuter city,” says Kurt Leavins. Leavins writes insightful commentary about the Oilers for the Edmonton Journal’s Cult of Hockey, but by day he’s a programming specialist for the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group, which owns 47 radio stations across Western Canada, including two non-sports stations in Edmonton. So he pays understandably close attention to audience metrics. “In the car, radio is still king and that’s where Oilers game broadcasts and shows like Stauffer’s excel. People never want to be more than a click away from their team when they are driving down the Yellowhead to the jobsite,” Leavins says.

3,542. That’s the number of Oilers games Rod Phillips called during his 36-year career. It earned him induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and his name with that number appear on a banner hanging from the rafters of Rogers Place alongside Hamilton’s 3, Gretzky’s 99, Grant Fuhr’s 31 and other stars of the great Oilers dynasty team. Ask him about the secret of his longevity and success as a play-by-play guy, and Phillips, who now winters in Arizona but still tracks the team with the devotion of the diehard fan he always was, says: “I was paid to do a hobby. I loved broadcasting those games. All I ever did was try to paint a picture for the listeners.”

Phillips was a good painter. There are stories about people muting the TV to listen to his call on the radio while they watched the game at home. Some fans would even follow him on headphones while watching the game live at Northlands Coliseum. I didn’t hear all of Phillips’s broadcasts over the years, obviously, but I’d bet I caught bits and pieces of more than half of them. I listened when I should have been studying for exams at university, while washing stacked-up dishes in my apartment before I got married, while repainting bedrooms after the kids started to show up. I ducked out of wedding receptions and even slipped away from my own kid’s minor hockey games to catch part of an Oilers tilt on my car radio in the parking lot. I couldn’t help myself, and I’m pretty sure there are plenty of fans of today’s Edmonton team with its young stars McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse listening to Jack Michaels and Bob Stauffer right now who’d admit the same thing.

This article appears in the December 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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