Jim Byers hard at work in the Cox Center Arena. Photo by Rob Ferguson
As most Oilers fans cannot head out to Cox Convention Center or follow the Oklahoma City Barons on the road, many who are interested listen to games using online radio or turn to AHL Gamecentre.
If you've been listening to games online, and even if you haven't I would like to introduce you to the voice of the Barons, Jim Byers. As many of you felt something when Rod Phillips retired from calling Oilers games, you likely recognize how important a fixture the voice of the team is in the grand scheme of things. Byers not only calls the games at home, but also travels with the team and makes the calls from the visiting arena, provides content for the Oklahoma City Barons website and is the primary writer of game notes. Byers has called hockey games for the CHL Oklahoma City Blazers, the Tulsa Oilers and the Wichita Thunder, called baseball for the Oklahoma RedHawks and has even called horse racing!
Copper & Blue: Where did you get your start in hockey?
Jim Byers: I got interested in hockey while living in the Chicago suburbs in about 1969, when I was nine. A Canadian family moved into our area and we became friends and I started playing youth hockey after going to a clinic run in part by the father of this Canadian family. I played youth hockey for several years, attended hockey schools, became a decent skater but never really played at a competitive level. I got into officiating as a teenager and did that off and on for quite a while. Once I became interested in hockey my parents and I became big fans, first of the Blackhawks and then the LA Kings when we moved out there in 1974.
Copper & Blue: Where have you worked before Oklahoma City?
Jim Byers: In hockey, I was a locally-based Central Hockey League linesman in the OKC area in the first three seasons of the current league from 1992-95. I didn't work a lot of games, 33 in all, but the experience was incredible and helps me relate to the game even today. I got into play-by-play in 1996 while working as a horse racing announcer at Remington Park in Oklahoma City. I spent the first 15 years of my career announcing horse races in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. While working at Remington I was able to do three seasons of radio for the Tulsa Oilers just commuting to the games. In 2005, the long-time Oklahoma City hockey announcer dating to the 1960s retired and I broadcast the final four years of the Central League's Oklahoma City Blazers and that led into the position with the Barons.
Copper & Blue: Which has been your favourite level or organisation to work with?
Jim Byers: I've been fortunate to work at a high level of Thoroughbred racing, get on- and off-ice experience in the Central League and now the AHL after 11 years of doing Triple-A baseball for the Oklahoma City RedHawks. That's a good run. I appreciate anybody who will let me work and try not to compare different sports and levels, since each has its advantages.
Copper & Blue: If you weren't doing this, where else would you be?
Jim Byers: I've never worked in anything but sports, but if I had to do something else it might be in travel or tourism. I love travel. I also like creativity, so perhaps writing or the movie or theatre business.
Copper & Blue: You travel with the team, do you get to know the players fairly well?
Jim Byers: A team broadcaster's relationship to the players is interesting. We see each other at odd times of day, spend quite a bit of time in close quarters and can't help but get to know each other on some level, but at the same time we all have jobs to do, so I view it as more of a co-worker association. I want the relationship to be cordial and professional and trusting, but rarely does it become personal. At least with me. At my age, I'm old enough to be the father of almost every player on this team.
Copper & Blue: What is traveling with the team like, the bus experience and all that that entails?
Jim Byers: Travel with this team is extremely professional. On flights, the travel party wears suits or sport coats. The players are pretty visible, so we never forget we represent the Oilers, especially since a lot of guys have bags with the team logo. These guys are great travelers, very seasoned. Most of us sleep or read on the planes. I enjoy most of the experience involved in travel so I like to stay awake and look out the window and take it all in. Sometimes I'll watch videos. As far as the buses, it's pretty businesslike also since a fair number of our rides are right after games with a game the next night. Our primary sleeper bus we use to go to Texas has separate satellite dishes and DVD in the front and back sections, so we watch TV a lot. The back section where the older guys hang out is their domain, we front dwellers don't go back there. On regular coaches, we just sit there and listen to music mostly.
Copper & Blue: This is not the first hockey team in OKC, how is the AHL vs the CHL different in your eyes?
Jim Byers: Taking nothing away from the accomplishments of CHL players, many of whom have had good careers at various levels and work very hard, but the level of play in the AHL is noticeably higher in all areas. One thing about this level, and I found this in Triple-A baseball also, is this level of player has so much more range and ability than those at lower levels that even if you watch them every day you see things that excite or surprise you. At the lower levels, guys can do good things but once you've seen it you've seen it.
Copper & Blue: How is the community accepting the change?
Jim Byers: I think the community has accepted the change well. In my position I don't have the chance to mingle with fans as much as some staff members and obviously I spend a lot of time on the road, but the fans here like hockey and have really gotten behind the team. There was a season without hockey here during the transition, so between that and the new players and league it might take a little while to build the fan base back to previous levels. But I have confidence we'll be a strong franchise in this league. This area has withstood the economic challenges well and we have good facilities.
Copper & Blue: Oklahoma City is not seen as a traditional hockey market, in your mind why does it work?
Jim Byers: This area loves football, so physical sports are popular, but beyond that it's a sports-minded area. The prevailing reputation is heavily football-centered, but as the NBA team has proven there's room for other sports. This area produces a lot of baseball players too. Plus, we get our share of transplants here in the Air Force or oil and gas industry, or just because the weather and cost of living is good.
Copper & Blue: The players are quite accessible to the fans, is this essential in making hockey in Oklahoma City a success?
Jim Byers: I think our fans are used to being able to interact with the players from the days of the CHL, so yes, that's key. It probably is important everywhere in this part of the States, where hockey can be a novelty at times. People here are laid back anyway, so combined with hockey players' general politeness it's a good fit.
Copper & Blue: Are you seeing more Oilers' jerseys in the stands? As more Oilers' fans are becoming Barons fans, is it also going the other way, I did see a few Oilers' jerseys during my visit.
Jim Byers: Hard for me to say, but I see a lot of Barons jerseys. People here spend a lot on game-worn Barons jerseys also, so you see quite a few of them. I think the numbers of Oilers jerseys will grow in time as the rebuild progresses. I see a fair amount of other NHL jerseys too. Detroit had some fans when Grand Rapids was here. The Dallas Stars have had some jerseys when Texas comes to town. Colorado, too.
Copper & Blue: Is the community buying into the team dependent mostly upon wins?
Jim Byers: Wins for a farm team are hard to gauge. Everyone wants to support a winner and it's better to win than lose, especially your home games, but in reality a minor league team is ultimately judged by how it presents the game and how successfully it sells tickets. Hockey fans are more into the game than I found to be the case in my previous experience in baseball, where our team's record had almost nothing to do with its success at the box office. But even in hockey a team can draw good crowds if it has a down year. I think the fans here though have kept the enthusiasm high even though this season the Barons have had some ups and downs at home.
Copper & Blue: Do you see the Cox Arena ever being too small for this team?
Jim Byers: No, if anything the Cox Center is a little large. It seats roughly 13,000 and if you were building an AHL arena in the U.S. today the design would probably be for 7,000-10,000 seats depending on the size of the market, etc. Cedar Park Center near Austin is about the perfect size for an AHL team in this part of the country and I think it's capacity is about 7,000. There's a genuine demand for tickets, there's never an overwhelming number of empty seats even on a weeknight, and every seat is fairly close to the ice. That being said, the Cox Center has a lot of advantages and has the best local hockey tradition, plus millions were spent in renovations. It's a good home for us. There's an NBA-sized arena across the street where we played for a few years, but in the Cox Center we have our own place, fewer seats, practice ice and better sources of revenue.
Copper & Blue: Which teams are the biggest rivals for the Barons?
Jim Byers: So far Peoria has probably fired up the fans the most. Ryan Reeves hit Jake Taylor when Taylor was down on the ice during a fight in January and that got things going. The games with Texas have been good, but the Stars are the least penalized team in the league so while it's good hockey the rivalry isn't that intense. Houston has a chance to be a good rival, but we lost all five home games to them so that might have to extend the playoffs or next season.
Copper & Blue: What is your most memorable moment or game from this season so far?
Jim Byers: Still has to be Nov. 7, when Linus Omark scored five goals against Toronto [Marlies]. It was a Sunday early in the season so the crowd wasn't among the best of the year, but the Barons trailed 4-1 when Omark started scoring. He scored the Barons' final five goals in what became a 7-6 shootout win, plus he added a goal in the shootout. His tying goal is still the highlight of the season and it came in the final minute to make the score 6-6 and force overtime. Nobody that was there will ever forget that. A rival would be the last home game on April 2, when the Barons finished the home season with a second straight shutout to move into playoff position with a week left. There were 8,833 on hand that night and when Giroux scored the insurance goal with 3:41 left it was pretty loud. Barons won that game 2-0 over Texas.
Copper & Blue: Thank you so much for taking the time to let Oilers and Barons fans get to know you Jim.
A great coincidence is that Jim Beyers was on Oilers nation Radion on April 2nd. You can hear the audio here.