Sunday, September 07, 2014

Chasing His Dream: A Marathon, Not a Sprint, for new Flames Radio Voice Derek Wills

The date was January 8, 2002, it was a cold morning with a biting wind chill, and as he stood in line to buy a ticket at the Greyhound Station in Rochester, New York, Derek Wills thought his career as an AHL broadcaster was already over, less than four months after it began. 

For the new radio play-by-play voice of the Hamilton Bulldogs, the day began like any other day following a hockey game the night before. He got up early, wrote his script, voiced his regular one-minute game recap, then proceeded to email the audio clip to the radio station. However, hampered by a slow dial-up Internet connection, the file was taking a long time to send.

Keeping an eye on the clock and knowing the team bus was departing at 10 o'clock, he hauled his luggage and radio gear down to the bus at 9:45 am then returned to his hotel room to try sending the file one more time. The file still wouldn't go through so at five minutes to 10, he gave up, closed his laptop and headed for the lobby. He arrived there just in time to see the bus pulling away. Uh-oh.

Hamilton's coach at the time was Claude Julien, who you will be familiar with as the current coach of the Boston Bruins.

"So, I called Claude's cell phone. He answers and I said 'Claude, you left without me.' He said 'Yep, you were late.' I said 'What am I supposed to do?' He replied 'Not my problem' and hung up. Well then, panic sets in," recounts Wills, who was 25 at the time. "I'm stranded in Rochester, New York, I need to get to Cincinnati, Ohio, what do I do?"

He decides to call his boss back at the radio station, who phones the Bulldogs team president, and as an affiliate at the time of the Oilers, he then dials up Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe. After explaining the situation, Lowe says no problem, he'll arrange to fly the kid to Cincinnati.

Whoa, Not So Fast...

"When Claude catches wind of this, he says, 'There's no way you're flying him, make him get there on his own.' So my boss calls me back and tells me there is a Greyhound station a couple blocks from the hotel, there's a bus that's going to leave at 12:30 pm, and he wishes me good luck," says Wills.

"I buy a $134 ticket with every cent of per diem I had left in my bank account and I hop on the bus. It ends up being a 12-and-a-half hour ride through every one-horse town between Rochester and Cincinnati. I remember them playing the movie Free Willy 2 on the bus two or three times, a guy tried to talk me to into becoming a Jehovah's Witness. When I finally got into Cincinnati around one in the morning, Claude was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for me, to give me a lecture. I was pretty sure I was going to get fired when we got back to Hamilton."

However, instead of a career-limiting move, the incident ended up a career-development learning.

"It was an important lesson for me to learn -- don't be on time for the bus, be early for the bus, and since then Claude and I have become pretty good friends," says Wills. "He didn't have to waste his time on some punk broadcaster, his focus was on trying to develop hockey players, but he felt it was important to help me become a professional broadcaster and I really respect Claude and I'm thankful he took the time to do that."

Going Back to the Beginning

"I was born with a hockey stick in my hands," says Wills, who spent his first 24 years in Port Colborne, Ontario, a small town on the north shore of Lake Erie, in the Niagara region. "My dad started the beginner's program in Port Colborne and was the first coach of our junior B team. We were a hockey family. There's pictures of me skating and pushing a chair around the ice at two years old. I started playing when I was three or four."

As he grew up, Wills became a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, who were winning Stanley Cups back then, led by the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier. Why didn't he become a die-hard Leafs fan like his Dad? For one, Toronto was awful during those years. Secondly, he would get annoyed when he'd be in bed sleeping and would be woken up by the yelling from his Dad whenever the Leafs scored a goal.

Wills continued playing hockey into high school when his interest turned to broadcasting.

In his final year, he had the opportunity to do a co-op and he had two choices: NBC channel 2 in Buffalo, a 40 minute drive away. Or, Rogers Cable channel 10 in the neighbouring town of Welland.

"We're talking about a big NBC station or a little community TV station so obviously I was leaning towards NBC. But, my guidance counsellor gave me one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received," says Wills.

"She said if you go to NBC, you'll be sweeping floors and bringing people coffee and when your co-op is over, you're done. If you go to Rogers, you're going to have an opportunity to be hands-on and get experience doing a bunch of different things -- operating a camera, doing some stories, doing the video production, editing, lighting, audio, everything. Even a little bit of directing. 

"So based on her advice, I decided to go to Rogers Community 10 and one of the productions I worked on was the Golden Horseshoe Junior B hockey league."

Opportunity Knocks

Wills spent his time at the arenas behind the scenes, working the cameras, doing the audio, pulling cables, etc. But one night, the host didn't show up and they needed someone to fill in. 

"I'm 18 years old, I'm about 140 pounds, I had a mullet and an erring and I certainly didn't have any experience on-air but I raised my hand and volunteered and that was where it all started for me," Wills recalls. "I went on air and I was terrible, I mean absolutely terrible. I didn't think I'd get a second chance but they must have seen something in me."

Not only did they allow him to continue being the host, he also filled in for the main play-by-play announcer during his annual one-month winter vacation.

"I had people in the league come to me and say you're good as a host but you're better as a play-by-play announcer and that's when I started to focus more on the play-by-play side of things."

The next couple years he did play-by-play for anything he could. He filled in for hockey, did local basketball, lacrosse and football. But eventually he realized he needed to get more hockey play-by-play experience and since those jobs were difficult to find, he decided to create a job for himself.

The Entrepreneurial Broadcaster

In a reflection of how driven Derek was to make it as a radio broadcaster, he started his own sportscaster company. He got a business license and went to a couple of radio stations in the Niagara region and bought air time. 

"The plan was to broadcast Junior B hockey games and to sell advertising to at least cover my costs and hopefully make a couple bucks... but I'm not a very good salesman when it comes to asking people for money," laughs Wills. "Luckily, I had tremendous support from my family, especially my Dad and my late grandmother. So they helped me pay the bills."

Wills put a lot of time and effort into this idea. He had a website built, he would create his own schedule so over the course of the 50 games he'd do each year, he covered all seven teams equally. The teams loved it as getting some of their games on the radio gave them better exposure. It was also good exposure for the players, who were trying to get scholarships for US colleges or get drafted by OHL teams. While the venture did not pay off financially, it would pay off later on career-wise. 

"It was a great league for me to work in and get my feet wet. I still look back on those days and have fond memories. If those teams wouldn't have allowed me to do those games, I might not be where I am today. It's really what opened the door for me to get the Hamilton Bulldogs job at such a young age. "

AHL's Broadcasting Ironman

Wills moved to Hamilton to take the Bulldogs job in the summer of 2001. He promptly started what became the longest ironman streak in the AHL. Now Wills admits his streak of 1,147 consecutive games over 13 seasons doesn't seem like much stacked up against the 3,162 straight contests racked by Peter Maher over his 33 years. Nonetheless, it's a still an impressive feat and is testament to his dedication to the job.

However, there were certainly some near misses along the way. There's the aforementioned day he had to find his own way to Cincinnati. Twice he had severe strep throat but still carried on. The worst though was a fast food lunch gone wrong in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

"I wasn't making much money back then so I tried to save as much of my per diem as I could so I went to Burger King and got a combo meal. When I got back to the hotel, I felt just terrible. I had food poisoning. I was sitting in the bath tub the whole afternoon with the hot shower running on me and just throwing up non-stop. I thought there's no way I'm going to be able to call the game tonight."

Yet, thanks to the good care of the team trainers, as well as Julien, who kept bringing him flat ginger ale, Wills made it to the rink and even though he said he would nearly collapse at every break in the play, he somehow managed to get through it."

The Rick Jeanneret Influence

"Growing up near Buffalo, I loved listening to Rick Jeanneret on the radio, even though I wasn't a Sabres fan. I would go to bed at night and I would quietly turn on the radio in my bedroom. I fell in love with his enthusiasm and his passion, not only for the game of hockey but for calling the game of hockey," said Wills. "He made every game sound so exciting. Early in my career, I was really trying to be the next Rick Jeanneret."

Chalk it up as one of those ideas that sounded like a good idea at the time.

"I was pretty crazy at first and I've got some tape from those early days with the Hamilton Bulldogs and I have to plug my ears when I listen to some of my goal calls."

In 2003 in game two of the Calder Cup final, Michael Ryder scored in the 4th overtime to give Hamilton the victory. At the time, it was the longest AHL game in history.

"I was just screaming and yelling and I sounded like a little girl. It's tough for me to listen to those calls from those early days with the Dogs but it was all part of my growth. I've come a long way since then."

The Turning Point in His Career

In his first seven years with Hamilton, Wills was a tireless self-evaluator of his broadcasts. He'd record his games then go back home and listen to them and identify things he could do better. Perhaps it was a certain word he used too much, or a certain phrase, and he'd then try to correct that.

However, he admits he got away from that in his 8th, 9th and 10th years. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, his calls were getting louder and louder again, fuelled by the fact Hamilton was continually going deep into the playoffs.

In 2011, the Montreal Canadiens radio play-by-play job came open. He thought the job was his. After 10 years in the same organization, he figured he was the natural choice. For his demo tape, he used clips from that 2010-11 season. Then came the devastating news that he didn't get the job.

"Quite frankly, I was embarrassed when I didn't get that job. I had read all the newspaper articles and I read all the fan forums and I read all the blogs saying that I should be the guy and I believed that, I believed I deserved that job so when I didn't get it, I was really down in the dumps and disappointed.

"At that point, I decided I had two choices: I could point the finger at the people who didn't hire me or I could look in the mirror and point the finger at myself. So after two weeks of pointing the finger at other people, I decided to point the finger at myself and try to figure out how to become a better broadcaster." 

The first step was meeting with the guy, who just finished not hiring him.

"He gave me a great piece of advice. He said turn down the volume 20 percent and vary your call a little bit more." By vary, that meant change the pitch, tone and volume of your voice more often.

Call a Game Like You're Driving a Standard

Wills got similar advice from longtime Dallas Stars play-by-play voice Ralph Strangis.

"He told me that when I'm calling the game, shift gears like I'm driving a standard. So go from 1st gear to 2nd gear to 3rd gear to 4th gear to 5th gear and once in a while, it's okay to go into overdrive, but don't be in 5th and 6th gear all the time." said Wills. 

"For example. If the puck gets dumped in, be in first gear. As the defenceman skates the puck out of the defensive zone, shift into second gear, then hit third gear as he goes through the neutral zone, and maybe fourth gear if they're bringing the puck in on the rush into the offensive zone. Only go into fifth and sixth gear if something really exciting and important is happening.

"I used to only be in third gear and beyond, I never used to drop down into first and second gear and kind of cruise around a little bit on the air. I've tried to really focus on that and from time to time I'll even pretend I'm shifting gears with my right hand in the broadcast booth when I'm reminding myself to do that." 

It was a hard lesson at the time, but Wills recognizes it now as an important one.

"I've worked hard on the art of play-by-play the last three years and I'm a lot more prepared now to be the play-by-play voice for the Calgary Flames than I would have been before. Toning it down a little bit and not being so over the top is probably what helped me get this job."

His One NHL Cameo Appearance

Wills does have one NHL game under his belt already.

It came on Jan. 25, 2010. Jeanneret takes some time off every winter and the Sabres use that opportunity to bring in some different broadcasters. With Jeanneret getting up there in age -- he's now 72, Wills believes Buffalo was taking that time to audition potential successors.

"They called me up and asked if I'd fill in and obviously, I jumped at the chance. I got to work with Harry Neale, which was an absolute thrill. Because growing up watching Hockey Night in Canada, the main crew was always Bob Cole and Harry Neale."

Played in Vancouver, the Canucks won 3-2. The first NHL goal Wills called was scored by Sabres centre Adam Mair, who is now retired

Riding high from the thrill of calling his first NHL game, Wills figures he didn't get more than one hour of sleep before his 4 am wake-up call the next morning, which began -- literally, an 18-hour 'trains, planes, and automobiles' journey in order to get to Rockford, Illinois for the Bulldogs next game.

Closing In On His Dream Job

Fast forward to this summer and the opening up of the Flames radio play-by-play job after hall-of-famer Peter Maher retired.

Within an hour of sending in his broadcast demo, Wills got an email from Fan 960's program director Kelly Kirch, telling him to call him right away.

"As soon as I spoke with Kelly, he made it pretty clear that I was at least in the running for the job and he wanted to get to know me a little bit better both as a broadcaster and as a person."

What followed over the next couple months was more interviews -- including a six-on-one board room interview in Calgary with executives from the hockey team and radio station including Flames president Ken King. He also was tasked out with an intriguing and fun assignment. Wills was shipped a DVD of the Flames 4-1 loss to St. Louis on April 25, 2013. He needed to send in a demo of him calling that particular game.

"It was interesting as I had never called a game off a television monitor before. I'm a type of guy, who has to put myself in the right frame of mind so I said, I've got to put myself in 'game day mode' here.

"First, I spent an entire day writing notes. I had 18 pages of notes. Then, I did this real technical set-up in my living room. I've got this 52-inch TV above the fireplace. They included an effects feed so I used a mixer to bring in the noise from the crowd and the ice mics. I had two DVD players, two laptops and about a thousand cables to hook everything up. Finally, I put on my suit and tie and there I was, standing in my living room, calling a hockey game off of the TV," says Wills.

In case you're curious, the only Flames goal that night so technically the first Flames goal Wills called was scored by Sven Baertschi. "A heck of a goal," recalls Wills.

The lengthy hiring process culminated one night about six weeks ago when, while out for dinner, Kirch slid an envelope across the table to him.

"The best moment in my career, for sure," said Wills. "It was a little bit surreal. I was happy but I was also a little bit nervous. I knew it meant a huge life change for me but more importantly for my wife Jennifer. She was born and raised in Hamilton and all her family is there. She's very close with her parents, she's got a very good job with Great West Life. As excited as I was for myself, I knew that she was going to have to make some sacrifices for me so I can persue my dream job of calling games for the Calgary Flames.

"We talked and there were some things we had to work through. Certainly some laughter and some tears along the way, but ultimately between my dad and my wife, they've been my biggest supporters over the years."

Preparing for His First NHL Season

With the hiring done, the announcement official, the old Bulldogs Twitter handle updated (now @Fan960Wills) and having made the obligatory introductory rounds on local TV and radio, it's back into full-on homework time for Wills and there is no end to it. He realizes he has a lot of learning to do.

"What I've been doing over the last three months is just trying to catch up and put myself in a position so when the puck drops, I know what I'm talking about. Eventually, I want to be the person that knows more about the Calgary Flames than anybody else but I have a lot of work to do before I get to that point," says Wills.

"I feel comfortable saying that I know more about the Hamilton Bulldogs than anybody on the planet as I spent 13 years there, I was the longest tenured employee, was with the team for 1,147 consecutive games, at every practice and morning skate, so I should know more than anybody else. But I don't have the advantage of that experience here in Calgary and I'm taking over for a guy that spent 34 years with the organization. Peter Maher knows the Flames, inside out.

"Everybody keeps telling me I have big shoes but I have huge shoes to fill. so I've been doing a lot of homework on the history of the team, the different owners that they've had here in Calgary, some of the great players they've had, the great playoff runs. Now I've changed focus a little bit to prepare for our broadcast of the Young Stars games coming up. I've got a pretty good idea of who the regulars are and now I'm really focusing on some of the prospects and who they are."

With a busy exhibition schedule later this month well, it's going to be a hectic September but at least he doesn't have to work around moving quite yet. He's currently living out of a hotel while waiting for the Oct. 2 possession of his new house in Cochrane, at which time Jennifer and their dog Zoey will come out to officially begin their new lives out west.

Following in the Footsteps of a Legend

Wills had the chance to meet his predecessor for the first time on Monday night when Maher was honoured at The Italian Club.

"Peter's been so gracious to me. I think some people in his position maybe wouldn't be so welcoming to the new guy, but he's been fantastic He also offered me a great piece of advice in front of the crowd that night. Basically, he said never take this job for granted. And after 13 seasons in the AHL and 20 years in broadcasting, that is one thing that I can guarantee I'll never do," says Wills.

"I'm fortunate to be able to move to a world class city in Calgary, to work for great organizations in the Flames and Sportsnet 960 The Fan. I really believe that I've paid my dues, much like Bob Hartley did coaching in the American Hockey League, like guys like Mark Giordano did playing in that league, and like a lot of the Flames other staff, who have gone through the AHL as well."

While the voice that brings you Flames action on the radio will be different, Wills promises he won't be be any less prepared.

"On game days, I'll throw on my suit and tie and spend the entire day at the rink. I don't go home and take a nap like some guys do. For me, it's important to prepare and I know that's something Peter was famous for. I've always taken a lot of pride in the way I prepare for a hockey game. The way I look at at it, I may not be the most talented broadcaster on the planet but I'm not going to be underprepared for a game," says Wills.

"I probably only use five percent of the material that I prepare for a game but you never know what five percent you're going to need. So if you don't prepare 100 percent, you're not going to have what you need. So I'll be over-prepared for every broadcast and I will take a lot of pride in putting myself in a position where I can be at my best."

Good-Luck Charm

Who knows, perhaps the arrival of Wills will be a good omen for the Flames. In a city that hasn't seen much post-season hockey of late, Wills has called tons of it during his time in Hamilton. In his first 10 years with the Bulldogs, they were a Calder Cup contender nearly every year. They went to the conference final in five of those years, went to the league final twice, won the Calder Cup in 2007.

Calling some Flames playoff games in the near future would be a nice way to repay the fans who Wills says have been so welcoming already.

"It was something I was concerned about, but everybody in Calgary has welcomed me with open arms and I can't thank the people here enough for doing that because I was worried that being the guy taking over for Peter Maher would be more difficult than it has been. So far, everybody's been great and that will make my transition into the Flames broadcast booth a heck of a lot easier, that's for sure."

The new era in Flames radio broadcasts begins this Friday at 5 pm MT from Penticton when he and colour commentator Peter Loubardias have the call of the Flames-Jets game in the Young Stars Tournament.

The last goal called by Peter Maher was scored by Johnny Gaudreau. It would be fitting, wouldn't it, if a goal by Gaudreau is also how Wills' broadcasting career in Calgary begins. We'll find out soon enough.

Good luck Derek!


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  1. That was an enjoyable read, thanks Darren! And good luck to Derek!

    Hopefully he can pass along some of that "tone it down a little" advice to Loubardias as well :P

    1. It was fun to write, also. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. Not a Rick Jeanneret fan, whatsoever, so I can only hope Derek Wills didn't fall too much "in love" with Jeanneret's enthusiasm. If dragging finger nails over a blackboard is what you want, Rick's your man.

    Great article, however!

    1. I'd be lying if I said I was a huge Rick Jeanneret fan. II find it interesting how play-by-play voices become so popular in their own markets yet often to an outsider, they don't sound all that great. I notice that a lot in baseball. There are some play-by-play guys who I think are awful but they are legends in their local markets. An acquired taste, I suppose. Thanks for the feedback.

    2. I've always liked Mike Lange. His gravelly voice is just hockey. Ed Whalen, Danny Gallivan, Jim Hughson . . . even Rob Kerr on a good night (though I think he's better-suited as an afternoon host on the Fan 960), and Bob Cole just because he's been around forever. Of course, Peter Maher.
      I don't like the guy from Washington and his dumb calling card of, "Good morning, good afternoon and good night." As for Jeanneret, his "May Day" call was so damned irritating to me, and I don't remember if it was the same call with the, "These guys are good . . . scary good." It was just awful. That said, I understand Jeanneret hasn't been well, and I certainly don't wish him anything but a speedy recovery and to get back in the booth for Sabres' fans.

  3. just cant stand the new guy. really wish they would have picked a guy with some history with the team or area. Not some guy who grew up in SE Ontario and an Oilers fan.

    1. You're entitled to your own opinion, but I don't share your opinion. Peter Maher grew up a Leafs fan and he's from the East Coast, did you hold those things against him? Derek Wills may have liked the Oilers when he was a kid but he is now one of the Flames No. 1 fans now and to think he will be impaired by his affinity for Jari Kurri back when he was 12 years old, that's a bit ludicrous. This guys is a hard-working of a guy that you will find. He's at every practice, every game-day skate, he's talking to the players, ex-players, alumni, he's soaking it up as fast as he can. His dedication to getting caught up Calgary and Flames history has been impressive. Maybe you don't like his style/voice and that's fine, there are announcers I can't stand either that other people love. To each their own. But where he was born and the team he cheered for thirty years ago when he was in junior high is hardly a reason to fault someone. In my opinion.

  4. I love the work Derek is doing on the Flames games. I like his style - his calls are exciting, but not over the top. Great interview Darren - some great incites into Derek's career path and education as a broadcaster.