Sunday, November 20, 2011

Talking Broadcasts With Jiggs McDonald

It was a wonderful ceremony for a wonderful man. It was an abysmal game. Sad, but true. I also had a feeling that’s exactly what would happen.

I hit the morning skate (which was optional. There were only three Islanders on the ice.) in order to interview my buddy Jiggs McDonald. I got a bonus from getting there early of meeting Ed Westfall and his family. I was there to see Jiggs and Eddie reunite and shake hands and embrace after too much time apart. I became sandwiched in the seats by the Westfall camp all wanting to chat with the hall of fame broadcaster. They thought I was Jiggs wife, Marilyn. I quickly introduced myself as to not get Jiggs stuck in rumors of another woman. I also immediately rethought my decision to go blond. (yeah, it’s not working.)

I stood in awe of the reminiscing and the laughter and the genuine and warm smile of Ed’s brother George. Whatever the Islanders are accused of, mistreating guests is never one of them. Michelle Winter made sure that every detail was taken care of, every need attended to.

Westfall was called into the media room for interviews. Chris King did an amazing interview with the legend for his Islanders radio broadcast on WRHU. Jiggs and I sat in the media room and watched. “He’s pure class.”

The smile was unmistakable and the words were strong and honest. “Hockey -- Hockey is very simple. We were not a strong team by any means when we started out the first couple of years…. In our third years we won more games than when we in our first two years combined. But you have to go through those stages and figure out what does and doesn’t work.”

Wait… was he talking about the Islanders he Captained or the Isles of today?

He laughed while he told the stories of being one of the older players on the team and the comedy of Clark Gillies. But when it came to Jiggs, he looked over and said “I remind him, Jiggers, I was the guy that hired him. He can either blame me or shake my hand. We really did have something special since having known him -- since he was a kid.”

Jiggs actually called games on a radio station in Canada when Ed’s brother George was playing hockey. This is a life long relationship, and it showed on air for years.

I found it really funny when he told Chris King ‘Were really didn’t have to do much, you know that as a broadcaster. We let the players made the broadcast, we just highlighted it.” Personally, I think that what Chris King, Howie Rose, Butch Goring and everyone does that job works their tail off.

I asked Jiggs if there were any stories he could tell me about his broadcast partner that were particularly funny, as in -- “Come on, Jiggs. Throw Eddie under the bus.” But there was no such thing. The harshest thing I could get out of Jiggs about Eddie was of one Saturday afternoon “in Boston, Islanders - Bruins. Stan Johnson playing for Boston at that time. A little ruckus breaks out along the boards and Stan jumped a guy, one of the Islanders. I forget now who. But he jumped him. And it was cheap. And Eddie said ‘I hate that cheap shot “blank”. We looked at one another and thought ‘Nope. Don’t apologize, don’t say anything. ’ Just let the audience think ‘Did he really say that?’

I wonder what he thinks of some of the broadcasters and the liberties they take now. Hmmm.

Thinking about the difficulty of being a broadcaster, I asked Jiggs what the hardest name he ever had to pronounce was. It was a Russian name during the Olympics in France. “I had a mental block. Every time he was on the ice I would tell you where we were, who they were playing, what the score was, how much time was left, what game was coming up, ‘Stay tuned to TNT’ -- I just dreaded it. Then years later, when I was doing the Maple Leafs games, he played for them. I was able to pronounce it by then. But I sat with him in the dressing room one morning and I told him the story the way I just told you, and he just laughed and said ’Jiggs, it’s okay. Remember that time my name go from one arm to the other with all the vowels. More in Russia than in Canada.” The name he couldn’t pronounce? Dimetri Yushkevich.

With the speed of the game today, broadcasting is far different, and the TV broadcast is far different from the radio broadcast. (Yes, we found that out one year when the Islanders radio feed was the TV feed. Who knew what was happening on the ice.)

Knowing that people aren’t always just glued to the set, they are listening but doing other things, “So, in the back of my mind, I’m also trying to do enough of a descriptive call that if the puck is moving around the boards from right to left, I’m going to say ‘to the left corner to the right corner to the opposite side. I think with the vast majority of the audience not being glued to the set, you’ve got to stay with the play but you’ve got to edit on the fly. There’s just no way to get everything in and be understood.”

Jiggs credits his very first NHL boss, Jack Kent Cooke, for the quality of his broadcasts. The details are what makes the calls come to life. If you can close your eyes and imagine the rink, the announcer should give you enough clear information so that you can see it all in your mind’s eye. Think of how tough that is.

The institution of Instant replay changed NHL broadcasts immeasurably. When replays came from a studio a few states away, he would actually have to rely on his own memory of the play to explain it. Now on Versus they have a six foot iPad that they can start, stop and diagram plays for the viewers.

Technology has come a long way and the TV Trucks today are beyond sophisticated. As viewers, we take that for granted.

Technology and the way the NHL has embraced it has been key in garnering new fans. When I asked Jiggs about the growth of the fan base he brought up the Winter Classic.

“The very first go around with the outdoor game just built a whole new audience for hockey. There have been stepping stones along the way. The 1980 gold medal -- there’s a whole generation of players and fans that were developed from that. But I think with satellite TV and the NHL Center Ice package there are no secrets.”

Every thing that happens in the NHL can be found almost instantaneously. Every stat, every play is available for anyone to locate, dissect and review. What a difference from when Jiggs started and NHL stats only came out on Mondays. That’s right. Once a week, not within seconds.

Jiggs called those the dark ages of television. I didn’t realize how right he was.

Also coming a long way is the return of Sidney Crosby. It’s been ten months since Crosby has seen game action and he will make his much heralded return against the NY Islanders.

Great. Just great. Andres Nilsson is backing up Rick DiPietro with both Evgeni Nabokov and Al Montoya placed on IR. (I’m calling for the kid to get the nod. Give him something to tell his kids later in life.) David Ullstrom has been called up from Bridgeport and will play along with released from the doghouse, Kyle Okposo.

The game is so big tomorrow night that Versus had decided to show it in the US. Without Gillies or Haley in the line-up, this will not be a repeat beat-down. However it may be tilted ice, and the Isles will probably be on the wrong side of it.


Patrick aka sign guy said...

Another great interview Dee, always giving readers such a different prespective. Ed Westfall is as classy as there are as well as Jiggs. And yes without guys like Gillies and Haley, well lets just say there energy and fight is what the Isles really miss!!

Rob K said...

Great job Dee, both Jiggs and Eddie are class acts indeed...