Rod Phillips reminisces on NHL Hour
"It's been a fantastic career for me, no question about that," Phillips said during an appearance on Thursday's "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman."
"I've always felt it was a privilege to be able to do the job and just very thrilled with everything that has happened over the years, and kind of looking toward Tuesday's game as it's going to be probably a pretty emotional night for myself and my family, but we'll get through it and do the best job we can."
Phillips got his start in broadcasting in 1964 and started out as a political reporter before making the switch to sportscasting. When the Oilers came into the NHL in 1979 and the station Phillips worked for acquired their broadcast rights, he was given the job. He's been following the team ever since.
Phillips received the Foster Hewitt Award and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, but hardly considered himself a natural at his job. He said calling a hockey game is "really a concentration battle" and admitted it was several seasons into his career before he felt he had it down.
"When I did my first game, I really didn't know what I was doing because I had never done a radio play-by-play game before that. But as time goes on, you listen to tapes, you critique yourself and you try to get better," Phillips said.
"I think probably it was 200, 300 games before I started to really feel like I knew what I was doing. It's not something that happens overnight. It's a long process. I'm not bragging, but I think hockey play-by-play is a difficult sport. It's difficult to do correctly. So it took me 200, 300 games before I started to figure things out and tried to be as smooth as possible."
A typical game day for a hockey broadcaster is a busy one -- Phillips finds himself attending the morning skates, taking down line combinations and talking to coaches, before going home for a few hours to have lunch and comb through rosters and statistics. After a quick "shave and a shower" it's back to the arena for dinner and the game, after which he probably won't get home much before midnight.
"It does make for some long days, but it was still being paid to do a hobby so I never worried about the hours," Phillips said.
Likely helping matters when he was starting out was the fact he had an entertaining team to watch -- with a young superstar who would come to be known as "The Great One." Phillips chronicled the Oilers for listeners as they made their first Stanley Cup Final in 1983 and won sports' most coveted trophy for the first time a year later. Edmonton would lift the Cup five times in seven seasons between 1984 and 1990.
"When the Oilers started in 1979, it was just unbelievable -- a lot of people couldn't believe that Edmonton actually had a National Hockey League team," Phillips said. "And they started with the greatest player in the history of the game, in my opinion, Wayne Gretzky. He was only 18 years old at the time. … In 1983, just four short years after they were in the League, they got into their first Stanley Cup Final and were beaten four straight games by the New York Islanders, a dynasty team.
"But then the Oilers came back the next year and went to the Stanley Cup Final and ended the Islanders' drive for five and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup championship. That was May 19, 1984, and it will be a date that will long be remembered in Edmonton by everybody that lives there because it was a fantastic thing for the city. The celebrations went on for weeks and weeks and weeks, and lo and behold they won another four Stanley Cups between then and 1990 -- and it was the same every year. It was just Mardi Gras time. The city was very proud of those teams."
Of course, Phillips also lived through the infamy of Gretzky's trade to the Kings in the summer of 1988 and was asked to describe the emotional state of both himself and the city upon finding out a living legend was no longer theirs.
"I was no different than anybody else in the city," Phillips said. "It was a shock, it was disbelief, it was hatred -- it was all of the emotions came to the front that day. It was just unbelievable. It came out of nowhere, nobody was suspecting it, there hadn't been any trade rumors or anything like that. All of a sudden we woke up on Aug. 9 and the news was that Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.
"It was devastating at the time, but the Oilers still had a very good team. They got into the playoffs in 1989 and then they won another Stanley Cup in 1990, so that made it a little bit easier. But really, the psyche of the city and the feeling toward Peter Pocklington, the owner -- it took a long time for the feelings to go away because the city felt betrayed and were devastated, and it took a long time for that to heal."
These days, Phillips spends much of his time in Phoenix playing golf and is looking forward to having an open schedule. In closing their interview, Bettman thanked him for all the memories he has provided listeners with over the years -- but according to Phillips, it was a reciprocal deal.
"I have to tell you, I got a lot back in return over those 37 years," he said.