Rod's Retirement Roast: Fans' Roundtable

Rod Phillips was always comfortable behind a microphone, especially during the years that star players like Grant Fuhr and Kevin Lowe helped make the Edmonton Oilers the best team in hockey. via cdn.picapp.com

Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 10th, but given that tonight is Rod's last game in the booth, it seems very appropriate to re-publish it now.

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Rod's Retirement Roast, virtual edition. My name is Bruce, and I'll be your master of ceremonies for this event.

Oiler fans were saddened recently to hear of the impending retirement of the Voice of the Oilers, Rod Phillips. The man who called over 3,500 (three thousand five hundred!) Oilers' games has put in a full career and then some over the past 37 years, but we'll be sorry to see him go.

Having heard the rumours, I tuned into the final minutes of Rod's last broadcast in Anaheim as the sorry 2009-10 season wound to a close; if this was the end it was with a whimper, not a bang. Thankfully, we will have a handful more opportunities to hear Rod call a game in the 2010-11 season, as the club has arranged a farewell tour of sorts. A series of ten games called Rod's Classics will be featured, in which Phillips will call select games involving historic rivals of the mighty Oil, and take the chance to introduce what we all fervently hope is the team's next generation of stars. The hockey club has dropped many a PR ball over the years, but from this couch it appears they are doing things right in sending off their Hall of Fame play-by-play guy with the goldenest of parachutes.

No doubt Rod will be eating more than his share of rubber chicken in the coming months as his announcing days wind down, as everybody from former boys on the bus to assistant radio producers to stick boys to pancake eaters will all take their chance to say farewell. Today however, the chicken is virtual; the speakers are not people with any particular access, instead they are "ordinary" fans who have spent many a night over the past nearly four decades listening to Rod's voice provide the interface with their favourite team.

There are times when many voices can speak more eloquently than one. On this occasion I have invited four speakers from beyond the Oilogosphere to take the floor and have their say. Folks who listened to Rod here in Edmonton, in his home community of Calmar and all the way out on Vancouver Island. Later we will have an open mic in the comments section for any and all who wish to share an anecdote or memory of the man with the golden voice.

Speaking first we have Dave, a diehard local sports fan, Oiler season ticket holder for some 30 years, and a man with a reputation for getting to the heart of an issue in a few short sentences. Dave?

Dave:

My opinion has always been that Rod is the best play by play announcer I’ve ever heard. He was always on top of the play, never lagging. He always managed to convey the intensity (or sometimes lack thereof) of the game. You could feel the ebb and flow of the game in his voice.

He never denigrated players on a personal basis. He may have criticized their play, but never them personally.

He was dedicated. He missed few games regardless of personal circumstances. While he was to some extent a homer (name me a PBP guy who isn’t)  he did give the opposition their due when warranted.

Rod made listening to hockey games a joy, regardless of the score or outcome. I’ll miss his voice greatly.

Thank you, Dave. Right you are about Rod conveying the emotion of a game. I could turn on the radio in mid-game and within seconds would know if it was good, bad or ugly, a close game or a blowout, and for whom. Yes he was a homer, he was an Oiler fan talking about "the boys" to a market of Oiler fans. I for one wanted to hear the game from the home team's perspective.  

Rod was also perceptive to the big picture. I remember hearing him describe Wayne Gretzky's first professional goal, against the Oilers during the brief period Wayne played in Indianapolis. Then he described the second, just 8 seconds later, and was effusive in his praise of the youngster. When Wayne came to the Oilers a couple of weeks later, Rod instantly recognized him for the rare gem he was.

These were WHA days of course, so almost none of the road games were televised. It was up to Rod to describe Wayne's performance in Cincinnati, where Glen Sather benched him for a full period in response to a defensive blunder, then let him loose in the third when the red-faced phenom popped a hat trick to win the game going away. Or a month later, when Gretzky scored all three goals in a 3-0 Oiler win in New England, a place the Oilers never won. You could hear the excitement rising in Rod's voice as the season went on and the Oilers rolled right into first place. Much ado about something.

Of course the NHL was just around the corner and better times lay ahead. Again Rod was ahead of the curve: for example, in the stretch run of '80-81 he continually waxed ecstatic about the budding partnership between Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson as a second scoring line, even before their points totals began to build up impressively and ended with a flourish in a late season playoff drive. He saw the speed and talent of Paul Coffey when many were focused on tentative play and occasional clangers, and was an early proponent of the smooth all-ice game of Jari Kurri as the perfect foil to the Great Gretzky. He wouldn't hesitate to point out a player's mistakes, but from very early days had an unerring eye for the group's potential.

Next up we are pleased to introduce Patricia, a resident of Rod's home community of Calmar, Alberta, and a lettered hockey scholar in her own right. Patricia and her husband Tom have been hardcore fans of the Oilers since inception.

Patricia:

My primary Rod story has to do with my (initial and ill-advised) thought that I might actually be able to work in the school system (!) which led me to complete a BEd before coming to my senses and opting for university teaching instead. 

I found myself doing a spring practicum at my alma mater, good ol' Calmar High School, and one of my classes was English 33. These were the non-Matric, high school diploma kids, who were considered the less "good" students, so I wanted to do something special for them.

The timing was right (early 90s) and they all remembered the Oilers' then-recent glory days, so I decided I would try to get Rod Phillips to come back to his old home town (and school) as a guest speaker.  I phoned his mom, Kay, who expressed doubts that he'd make it ("he's too busy these days to even visit ME very much") but gave me his number anyhow. 

Rod and I were never personally acquainted (he'd departed CHS before my time) but he remembered my family and especially my two older brothers who were playing hockey for Calmar when he was a wee lad on a team managed by Rod's uncle, Alex Riddoch. The "voice of the Oilers" cheerfully agreed to come out, and come he did, wearing his Stanley Cup rings (that were ooooh'd and aaah'd over by the kids) and he gave an excellent talk that involved many lively stories about the Oilers.

One amusing moment occurred when the principal barged into our classroom carrying a fire-extinguisher (clearly a pretext to see how things were going). "Is there a fire???" Rod inquired dryly.  The kids (as well as yours truly and the supervising teacher) all burst out laughing, and the flustered principal put down his "weapon" and beat a hasty retreat.

After school that day I was summoned to the office of the assistant principal (a former classmate of mine at CHS) who congratulated me on organizing the event.  "The Brain and the Beast!" he said, shaking his head with a grin, leaving me to wonder which of us was which, or if the distinction even made any sense. (In retrospect, I think he just couldn't resist a good one-liner!)

Tom and I have always (unless the time lag was too great) listened to Rod's play-by-play while watching televised games with the sound turned down.  Tom reminded me last night about how much fun Rod's linguistic gymnastics could be – not just the Danny Gallivan-esque neologisms ("gargantuous" comes to mind) or the lively and often highly appropriate use of verbs ("Messier snorting to centre") but also old-fashioned and little used (by sportscasters at least) words like "skedaddle." 

He was merciless in his critiques of the on-ice officials (rightly so more often than not) and whenever a fight broke out, somehow the Oiler player always managed to give as good as he got. 

Or, perhaps I should say: "At least that's how Rod called it!"

We will miss his voice a lot.

Thanks, P. You're certainly right that Rod styled his play-calling after the great Danny Gallivan, not just with the etymologically-questionable polysyllabic articulations but with the pitch and timbre of his voice as it flowed through the play, alternately following the puck and peripheral events that influenced the action.

I wasn't a frequent simul-listener, but I know many people like you who would turn the TV down and the radio up during televised games. I also observed lots of folks packing portable radios right in Northlands Coliseum. A subtle ear bud was one thing, but I always looked a little askance at those hockey spouses -- invariably, husbands -- who donned the full headset. Always made me wonder what was the priority: tuning in Rod, or tuning out the missus?  

When it comes to assessing the officials, Rod is a man after my own heart, which can sometimes be a bad thing as we both tend to see red before any other colour. That said, there were more than a few times when things were going poorly for the Oil and the men in stripes would be giving it to us as well and about the best thing we had going for us was Rod giving it back in spades. Many a rip-roaring Rod rant was sparked by a sequence of calls/non-calls going against the Copper and Blue, that more than once left me in stitches despite the direness of the circumstances. I'm sure there were a few occasions when Rod went a little further than he would have preferred under sober second thought, but there were also plenty of times when the darn zebra deserved it. In the process of calling out a (perceived) bad call or (perceived) dirty play by an opponent, Rod would provide emotional context to augment the information contained in the play-by-play. At its core hockey is a game of passion as well as intellect, and Rod's voice was a conduit to both.

Our next speaker comes to us all the way from Vancouver Island. Pierre was a season ticket holder in the early NHL years, and has remained a staunch Oiler fan ever since invading Canucks territory midway through the glory years.

Pierre:

I have a bit of a "Rod" story. When I moved out to Vancouver Island in '86 I realized that I would be giving up seeing the Oilers on a regular basis or even listening to them on the radio, which for the last few years I lived in Edmonton was something I did quite a bit since I no longer owned a seasons' ticket and not all of the home games were televised like they are today. I got to know Rod's voice quite well and needless to say when I moved out here it was one of the things I really missed.

A few weeks after I'd moved out here we had gone up-Island to visit a friend. On the way home on the Malahat Pass we lost radio reception and I started pushing buttons -- most of which were still set on Edmonton radio stations -- and when I hit the button that was set to the Oiler broadcasts, there was Rod, loud and clear, doing the play-by-play of an Oilers' game. I couldn't believe it. We were 1,200 miles away and on the other side of the Rockies and there's no way in hell I should be hearing Rod's dulcet voice, but there it was. For the 10 or so minutes that it lasted before I lost the connection and he faded into static, I was in heaven.

So I drove home and most of the way there I was trying to figure out how I could justify driving the 140 km (there and back) out to the 'Hat to listen to Rod for the next Oiler game, but I knew there was no way. That brief snippet of the game was gonna have to do me. And that made me totally home-sick for really the first time since I'd moved, and really sad.

So that night after we'd put Nathan to bed I went back out to the Jeep and started it up and hit the button that I'd hit earlier, and there was John Short doing the post-game call-in show. It wasn't as clear as earlier that night on the Pass, but it was still there.

From that point on till the end of the regular season (because after that all the playoff games were televised) I spent a lot of quality time sitting in my driveway listening to Rod and Morley (who's a bit of an idiot) calling the Oiler games, and with a bit of BC bud and a beer it was almost as good as being at the game. Better in some ways -- besides the 'bud and beer -- since it was so unexpected, and I could sit in my truck in the middle of winter without freezing my ass off.

Later that year I bought a new 'deck' for my truck and that was the end of listening to Rod (funny how I could only get it on the cheap AM/FM radio that came with the truck) till I got my computer and could catch the games off the internet, which I did quite a bit until I got my satellite dish and the NHL Centre Ice package. Even then there were nights when I'd tune in to Rod just to hear him call the game. It brought back a lot of fond memories.

Don't know if you can use any of this Bruce, but if you feel you can, go for it. It felt good traveling down memory lane the last half hour or so and I thank you for allowing me the opportunity. I hadn't thought of those hours sitting in my driveway pumping my fist at another perfectly called Oiler goal in a long time ...

Yeah, Pierre, I too loved Rod's goal calls, at least when he was calling them for the good guys.  

"And now Jaroslav Pouzar has been moved up to the line with Gretzky and Kurri. This could get interesting. The Flames gain possession and shoot it into the Oiler end, OH! AND POUZAR JUST CRUSHES RISEBROUGH!! oh, he just demolished Risebrough, he's still down, and here's the puck into the centre zone, Gretzky and Kurri, two on one! Gretzky ... to Kurri ... HE-E SCO-O-O-ORES!!!

A personal favourite that I happened to hear live while (rapidly) driving home was Rod's call of Radek Dvorak's brilliant end-to-end rush against the Stars in the '03 playoffs. Rod nearly fell out of the booth describing the play, and I nearly hit a pole. "No way!" I thought to myself, "that's Radek Dvorak he's talking about!" but later I saw the replays on TV, and every word of his description was accurate, his over-the-top enthusiasm fully warranted.   

Oh, and how Rod loved to call a fight! I can't say as I believed every word of it – geez, he even had Kelly Buchberger winning the odd one – but there was no quicker way to spice up a game call. One encounter I remember particularly clearly happened in the first ever game between the Oilers and Islanders, one that set the stage for one of the game's fiercest rivalries over the next half-decade. (Between them, the two clubs would win the next six Stanley Cups.) But this was just the Oilers sixth game in the NHL, an untelevised road affair. "Battlin' Billy" Smith bit off a little more than he could chew when he high-sticked Dave Semenko of all people, sparking a furious brawl. Rod's voice rose to the occasion: "...oh, and Semenko BOOOOMS a right hand in on Smith!"  with the key word delivered with the intensity of a sonic boom. I later saw video evidence of Semenko responding to the initial (vicious) high-stick with an absolute bomb that sent Smith's mask flying, nearly with his head still in it, and Rod had captured the moment perfectly. The mayhem just escalated from there, as Rod took his audience on another memorable ride. Not very often these days you see this many majors for a single incident, especially involving a goalie, but let's just say none of the three principals could be called a shrinking violet. Neither was the guy calling the action.

Rod Phillips has such enthusiasm and professionalism that he established endurance records to rival those of Gordie Howe and Glenn Hall. Between 1973 and 2008 he missed broadcasting two (2) games. Along the way he received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award and became an honoured member of the broadcast wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining such greats as Hewitt, Dan Kelly, Jim Robson, Bob Cole, Rene Lecavalier, and Rod's hero Danny Gallivan.

Finally we invite long-time Oiler fan/hockey widow, Anna, to share her thoughts:

Anna:

When I think of Rod, I think of a man who was the Oilers' extra man in the sky. I am sure that the players would have enjoyed his company (and his sense of humor) when they travelled and appreciated his unwavering support of the team.  Mostly Rod was the voice of the Oilers – uniquely expressive – there were certainly expressions like "another gargantuan save" but it was the overall over-the-top quality of his voice (both volume and timbre that was filled with emotion).

He made it no secret that he was a huge fan of the Oilers' team. He might have been the Oilers' number one fan but I never felt his bias comprised his professional obligations.

Like a parent of a recalcitrant child, he made no bones of letting the players know if they were playing like idiots but he always did it in a respectful way.  You knew when he was thrilled or disappointed or awestruck or mesmerized by the game.  

From an outsider's view, it always felt like the Oiler players / team were part of a bigger family. Rod was like a favorite uncle who could be a supportive mentor and friend. Together they shared a passion for something that was unique to the Oiler Mystique. Being a fan of the Oilers was like belonging to a special club, and Rod was the club leader. The strong sense of attachment to the team enveloped the community. It was part of Edmonton's identity. 

Most of all, I think of Rod and the Oilers of the 80s as a time of being young. Those young men loved to play hockey; they reveled in the excitement and fun of the game; their passion was palpable and the goal of being Champions was ever in the forefront. That was before it became clearly a business – it was a game. (I recognize it always was a business but the feel was different – 20 years ago there wasn’t twitter or facebook or internet media that can expose all the flaws of the sport and the individual players)

Edmonton was the City of  Champions  and  Rod was part of that.  Listening to Rod was an integral part of the Oiler experience – whether at home or on the road – Rod was there to share the Oiler experience with the Oiler hockey fans. Rod probably could have used his position to deal the dirt on the players and the organization but he chose to take the high road. Thanks for the great ride.

There is no one quite like Rod. He will be missed – Happy Retirement Rod.

Well said, Anna. Happy Retirement, Rod!

That closes the formal portion of today's festivities, but now we will open the mic to the floor. Please step up and share your thoughts on the Voice of the Oilers.

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