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.
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.
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."
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.
"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."
"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 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.
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.
"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.
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."
"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."
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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