The Skipper sails on

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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—Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. on Total Sports with Bob Stauffer on Team 1260.

  • Mik

    One thing is for sure, I've lived in a few cities with NHL teams and been to quite a few tht have teams and have listened to all of there play-by-play commentators and there are no others that even come close to being as good as Mr. Philips. He simply is THE BEST play-by-play man in the league. I hope that he doesn't retire anytime soon and if he does he will be greatly missed by all hockey fans.

  • oiler_fan

    it will be a sad day when Rod finally retires! no one can make a seemingly unimportant play sound exciting like Mr. Phillips. and no one gets more excited than him when an exciting play happens. hopefully we will see him for many years to come!!!!

  • jayoilfan

    This is sad news that his time is coming to a close. Some of my best memories as a kid were sitting in the back seat of my parents car listing to Rod call that nights game as we traveled 2 hours back home from my Grandparents. My favourite thing is how excitied he gets about all plays, whether it is Iginla making an awesome move to score on the oilers to Smitty scoring while on his back side, they were all exciting and he could make you fell like you were there. I will probably have some tears in my eyes when he calls his last game. Hope it is many years from now!

  • milli

    Ya, Rod is awesome, I love listening to him call the game. When it's on sportsnet or CBC, it's still the best to have the radio on, and listen to him. He has the passion in his voice!!!

  • Dav

    I love Rod's passion but it is time for change. I have found it frustrating listening to his broadcasts full of countless 'uh….uuuuh's' and extended moments of silence as it sounds like he is trying to process what he is wathcing and articulate it. Ditto for Hall but sooner rather than later.

  • MrOiler

    Nice story. I've been listening to Rod since the WHA days. I can't believe he's 67 y.o. Time flies …

    I think you mean to say: "I’ll resist the urge to go on about what’s been an UNquestionably distinguished career…"

  • FTO

    Rod has to be the only announcer i've ever heard refer to someone getting burned as having doo doo all over his face. My God was that call satisfying, right after Regyhr mugged Hemmer and all.

  • RobinB

    My favourite call by Rod is of the butt-kicking Georges Laraque handed Rob Ray in Buffalo.

    The funniest thing is that if you listen to the call on the Buffalo TV feed — the one you get with the YouTube version — it sounds like Laraque and Ray are standing back and trading punches in an even fight. This was anything but even. This was one guy tossing and the other guy catching. Ray looked like he'd been through a meat grinder after the game. I was there.

    Rod meanwhile, was gold and sounded like he'd bust a vein any moment. I can't do it justice here, but if you can find his call of the fight it's a gem.

  • OregonStateFan

    Well Robin, this one's for you:

    They're in RealAudio format, but sure enough, they have the fight with Ray in Buffalo.

    I think this quote, not from Phillips but from the Oilers Zone, sums the fight up pretty nicely,

    "He rained down about 30 punches on [Buffalo's Rob] Ray, finally ending the one-sided pummeling by body slamming his Buffalo counterpart to the ice."

  • RobinB

    OSF: Thanks. That's the site I was thinking of. If you really want to hear Rod get revved up, his call of Laraque fighting Reed Low of St. Louis is the goods and is on the same site as the link you provided — the blow by blow comes after the first 15 seconds of pre-amble.

  • Neil

    I'm not worried about Rod retiring. Everyone has to sooner or later. He has given us so many great years, there is no question. His joy in the game was always there. I spent many nights driving all over Alberta trying to find Rod on cold winter nights. If he goes under his own steam, I wish him well. I trust Morley would be the replacement, which wouldn't bother me a bit. I think he has done a good job over the years and has shown capable ( although no replacement) in his work on the PPV broadcasts.