When he decides it’s time to go, the man known around the NHL as The Voice of the Edmonton Oilers won’t telegraph his farewell, prompting all manner of fussing, tributes and retrospectives by admiring peers.
Rod Phillips has never been a “look-at-me” guy in his 35 seasons doing play-by-play on Oilers radio broadcasts, even though he could be. His tenure has produced five Stanley Cups and countless unforgettable on-air moments, not to mention induction into the broadcast wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
So, while The Skipper will blow out 67 candles on his birthday cake in September and work on a winter retreat on a golf course outside Phoenix is underway, he’s not ready to declare that the 2008–09 season will be his last jumping jets with the team he loves.
The pride of Calmar isn’t even telling me, and I spent ten years sitting in the next seat on the Oilers charter and have enough on him after a decade of travelling together to coax him to come clean.
I’m betting Jim Matheson knows because, as in everything to do with the Oilers and Phillips, Matty has seniority—and more on dirt on Rod since they started running together in 1973 in the days of the WHA. Half-milers they weren’t.
Right now, though, Phillips isn’t about to set the retirement wheels and all the carrying on that’ll come with it in motion by saying he’ll step away from the microphone next June when his contract is up—even though I suspect that’s the case. He’s keeping quiet.
Until I ply him with Scotch. Single-malt, of course.
“I don’t want to make up my mind until the season is over,” Phillips said on the weekend.
“And it won’t be right at the end of the season. I’m going to wait a month or six weeks or something. Then, I’ll have to tell them. I’m leaning toward it (retirement), but I’m not positive.”
Copper and Blue Blood
If there’s a man more passionate about the Oilers than Phillips, I don’t know who it is. I’ve had enough heated discussions with The Skipper over pasta at Maggiano’s in Chicago, seafood in Boston or Dallas and beverages everywhere from San Jose to Montreal to understand he’s got an Oil Drop tattooed somewhere on his well-travelled backside.
Even though he’s got millions of miles on his odometer and is closing in on 3,400 career regular season and playoff games, Phillips calls a game with as much mustard on it now as he did when he left a TV gig at CFRN to hit the road so many years ago. And he loves the Oiler organization more now than he did then.
Criticize the power play? Fine. Poop on the penalty killers? Sure. Gripe about missing the playoffs two straight years? Fair game. But, as I learned a long time ago, you’d best not question the integrity of the organization or the people in it in his presence.
Even in tough times—and there were many in the mid-90s—anybody disrespecting the legacy of the franchise within earshot of Phillips was asking for a verbal beat down. As somebody who watched Wayne Gretzky ascend from pimply-faced teenager to the HHOF, Phillips wouldn’t stand for it. He still won’t.
One need only recall the retirement of The Great One’s jersey here to know how deep emotions run with Phillips, who acted as master of ceremonies that night. I remember hearing Rod’s voice break and seeing his eyes fill with tears as he addressed Wayne. I understood right then how much this team means to him. Simply put, the “old, fat guy from Calmar,” as Rod sometimes refers to himself, is the epitome of the “Once and Oiler, always and Oiler” credo.
I believe it’s that passion that has Rod tight-lipped about his future. My guess is just the thought of that inevitable final broadcast, whenever it comes, will transform him into a blubbering wreck that makes Mark Messier look stoic.
Wait and see
“I’m not saying anything definite about it or making any announcement,” Phillips reiterated. “I’m taking it year by year.
“I don’t want to say anything right now because if I’m feeling good at the end of next year, I might work another year.”
Phillips is choosing to focus on the coming season and the excitement he feels when he looks at the roster Kevin Lowe has assembled. September, after all, is always full of promise, and Phillips has seen more of them than any radio man currently toting a microphone in the NHL.
“If you’d have asked me at the end of last season, I probably would have said next year is going to be my last,” he said. “But you get off for the summer and get relaxed and get your focus back again.
“There’s no question the better the team is, the more fun it is for a guy like me. The kind of progress they make this year will have something to do with my decision as to whether to carry on.
“Everybody is very positive and feeling good about the team. I’m sure it’s going to be fun. That has something to do with it.”
Until Rod says it’s been a great ride but it’s time to step away, I’ll resist the urge to go on about what’s been an unquestionably distinguished career and how much I enjoyed being his winger. Or, that he’s what I miss most about travelling with the team.
Likewise, I won’t spill the beans on him by relating any stories from the road or taking a trip down memory late just yet. That, given The Skipper is back for at least 82 more games, would be premature. The time will come soon enough.
It always does.
—Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. on Total Sports with Bob Stauffer on Team 1260.