Off the Top of My Head: Talk to you later, Robin

5 months ago
“You? A mediocre writer? You wish.”
The first time I ever spoke to Robin Brownlee on the phone, he was rightfully mad at me for screwing up the title on one of his articles. I didn’t notice a spelling mistake, posted the item, and boy, did he ever let me know about it.
“This thing will never take off if we can’t get these things right,” he said.
And he was right.
I screwed up, and I was rattled. That interaction happened on one of my first days working full-time at Oilersnation. Even before I started here, I read everything Robin wrote because I loved the way he’d mix wit into his analysis. Without question, he was my favourite sports writer. I greatly admired his writing, and knowing that I screwed up one of his articles on my first few days managing the site was a bad mental scene for yours truly. He got mad, and I got terrified.
The next time he sent an article through, I took my sweet-ass time with the details before posting it to make sure I got everything right. But a few minutes after the post went live, there was Ruben Bronte calling my phone to tell me I screwed up again, and just as my heart started racing and I was about to apologize, he stopped me to say that he was just messing around.
Confused and slightly panicked, my brain basically did a hard reset as I processed what was happening. Brownlee let out that big laugh of his and explained how he heard I was bummed out about duffing the title of his last article and thought it would be funny to mess with me on round two. On one hand, it was incredibly cool to have the guy’s phone number that I truly considered to be one of the best. On the other, did he really just mess with me to the point of making me poo a little?
In the ten years since that first phone call, I’ve had so many funny interactions and conversations with Robin that I almost don’t know where to start.
Brownlee has been my favourite sports writer forever, and when you consider that he wrote 2,010 articles here at Oilersnation, there are a lot of memories to choose from. But since I’m writing about a man that I consider to be a legend in this game, I want to use a piece of advice he gave me for whenever I was putting together a story that had multiple angles on how to attack it. He told me to find a lane and stick in it to make sure I get my point across. And since so many of us know Bronte for the words he wrote in newspapers and online, I wanted to go behind the scenes a little bit to talk about how great he was at popping into people’s lives with a friendly note of encouragement or a well wish at the exact moment you needed it.
Back in 2020 when the pandemic first kicked off, I was living by myself with my dog Frank at a time when we weren’t supposed to see anybody. If you were single, as I was, the regulations allowed you to hang out with one or two different people outside of your household depending on the week and what was going on with COVID numbers. Needless to say, it was a strange time for all of us. And since the rules meant that I spent most of my time cooped up in the house by myself, I had a lot of time to sit around my place and think about nothing or everything. Sometimes that freedom of thought was a luxury, but other times, it most certainly was not. To be completely honest, there were times I thought I was losing it. The reason I’m telling you this is because all that time on my own eventually led to me spending a whole lot more time talking to Brownlee.
After the shock of the world shutting down had settled in, and people developed whatever routine they could despite having nowhere to go, we were writing about all kinds of Oilers-adjacent nonsense here at Oilersnation to give people something to read and grind through a strange time in the website’s history. And since there was never any real news to talk about, we spent a lot of time behind the scenes batting ideas around about what we could write during a period when literally nothing was happening. One person I leaned on a lot during that time was Robin. He had a million stories from his time on the beat, and I would always try to dig into them to find ideas that we could turn into articles to put on the site. I’d ask if he could re-tell the story about the Oilers losing Boris Mironov in New York, and all I’d get back was his signature, “Sure.”
A day or so later, he’d file something completely different from what I’d asked him for and the result would always be better than what I initially wanted him to do. He was a pro, I was (am) an idiot, and his judgement on what made good writing was always on point, so the last thing I was about to do was complain that he changed gears. Yet, whenever those kinds of things happened, Brownlee would always give me a call afterward to explain his thinking and spend some time bullshitting about whatever. Of course, it was during one such pandemic brainstorming phone call that he found out I was living by myself.
“Just you and the dog? What the hell are you doing all day?”
When I explained that the answer was a whole lot of nothing, Robin replied by telling me to take care of myself and not hesitate to call if I needed anything. A lovely pleasantry, I thought, never expecting anything more than that.
In the weeks and months that followed that conversation, I often got calls from Robin about “work” and finding out “what’s going on” behind the scenes. Under normal circumstances — in the before times — we’d speak on the phone about once per month or so with most of our interactions happening via email, but that rhythm changed dramatically after what I thought was a throwaway comment about living on my own. From that moment onward, my phone would ring on a bi-weekly basis, and I’d see Brownlee’s name for what he claimed was a check-in for business updates. Business updates? Nonsense. He had nothing to do with company operations, and neither did I at that point. But he called, so I answered. The first few times always started with some kind of question about advertisers or the Nation Beer we were selling or something else Nation-related, but it didn’t take long before the topic changed to literally anything else.
Instead of talking about business or content, I’d found myself listening intently to Brownlee’s road stories for hours on end. The guy had seemingly endless tales from his time following the team around, and hearing about them felt like heaven for a schlub like me who’s been an Oilers fan since childhood. He had stories about wins, he had stories about losses, and he had stories that will never see the light of day that he was willing to share with me because he knew that he could trust me to keep them in the vault. Besides, snitches get stitches and we’ve already established that the guy terrified me, so the last thing I was going to do was say anything that would either a) make him mad or b) jeopardize further stories from coming my way.
It didn’t matter what Brownlee was talking about. I was happy to listen. After a while, the calls kept coming, but he stopped asking about how business was going, and we got straight into conversations about anything else. Life, the news, my career, his career… We talked about a lot.
Even though he never said it nor did I ever ask, I know that Robin made all of those calls because he wanted to check in on how I was doing regardless of whatever excuse he used, and that’s a pretty spectacular gesture for someone to do when he had his own family to worry about. Those calls went on for months before life started to normalize a little bit, and our schedules went back to how they were. But even though Robin and I didn’t chat quite as much as we did when we were all home 24/7, I always looked forward to seeing his name pop up on my call display because I knew the conversation would be an adventure. When we spoke on the phone for the last time about a week ago, we ended up yammering on for so long about all kinds of random things that it almost felt like we were back in 2020 again. He told stories, I laughed out loud, and the idea I pitched him ended up turning into something way better once again. That was our relationship, and we were both good with it.
Even though I would never say I knew Robin nearly as well as some of the others who have offered tributes to him over the past few days, what I can say for sure is that he helped me tremendously over the decade I was lucky enough to work with him. Things changed a lot after that first phone call when I messed up his article, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to soak up as much information from him as I could. It was not uncommon to get a note from Robin about my writing, about how the site was doing, or to offer a friendly word at a time when it was needed, and I would never have seen that coming back in 2014 when I first got this gig. Back then, I was just happy that my favourite sports writer even knew who I was let alone imagine the idea that we’d spend many hours on the phone sharing details from our lives.
That only happened because the website that he helped build grew into a place that offered opportunities to weirdos like me who just wanted to make jokes about the Oilers. Without him, none of this happens, and it’s almost impossible to imagine where we’d all be if he hadn’t taken Jay and Wanye’s phone call all those years ago.
So, how do I wrap up a tribute to a guy who’s been such a big part of the Edmonton sports scene for decades? By saying thank you, I guess. Thanks for giving us all the opportunity to SIUTBOHC. This website (and Network) did it because you were the first one to take a chance on us and that decision gave ON legitimacy. Thanks for being a pro and treating everybody here with respect despite everyone knowing full well how much more talented you were than the rest of us.
While so many people knew Brownlee from his words on the site or the way he’d engage in the comments section, I knew him as a man who never hesitated to be kind, and I promise to do my part in keeping that spirit going for the next 16 years of Oilersnation even though it seems impossible to do it without him.
Rest easy, Robin. I’m sure going to miss those phone calls. I’ll talk to you later.

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