Jack Michaels was always going to be damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
After 11 years of doing play-by-play for minor league hockey teams in Colorado and Alaska, Michaels scored his first NHL gig this past summer as the new voice of the Edmonton Oilers on the Oilers Radio Network and radio station 630 CHED.
But the 36-year-old is stepping into the gargantuan shoes of a bona fide legend, that of outgoing Hall of Famer Rod Phillips, known for his ecstatic “SCOOOOOOooooorrrre!!!” that has blared from Oil Country transistors for the past 37 seasons. No doubt about it, this was Rod’s Country.
But with Phillips retired, it’s now Jack’s City – and the enormity of what he has to live up to is not lost on Michaels. As he sees it, Phillips’ legendary status actually makes the situation less daunting. Fans expect first-round draft pick Taylor Hall to excel on the ice, but he can’t actually be Gretzky. Same goes in the broadcast booth.
“I’m not replacing Phillips. I’m just the second guy to call play-by-play for the Edmonton Oilers,” says Michaels.
It definitely helps that Phillips has been a supportive presence, going out of his way to make Michaels and his family feel welcome in Edmonton. But not everyone in the city has been so open-armed. The fact that Michaels is American has ruffled the feathers of the contingency that considers hockey “Canada’s game.”
What critics may not know, however, is that Michaels cultivated a healthy case of Oiler fandom despite growing up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where hockey exists in the shadow of the NFL’s Pittsburg Steelers. As a kid, he followed the Oilers’ 1980 cup runs, picking up the games through a patchy Hockey Night in Canada broadcast out of London, Ont. He remembers getting particularly worked up over the 1987 Stanley Cup series, where the Oilers narrowly defeated the Philadelphia Flyers – a team he hotly despised. His favourite players weren’t necessarily the marquee scorers, but the tough-guy grinders like Craig MacTavish, Marty McSorley and infamous pest Esa Tikkanen – guys he refers to as “the grease of the engine.” His love of the Oilers is deep-rooted and deliberate.
With more than 900 minor games to his credit, Michaels was ready for his shot at the big time and the Oilers brass agreed. The young-and-hungry voice in the broadcast booth matches the new blood on the ice. After last season’s last-place showing, there’s a noticeable feeling of fresh starts this year. In other words, the stage is set for Michaels to make his mark.
“Yeah, there’s pressure, but that’s also exciting,” he says. “I’m glad I’m not in a market like Atlanta or Tampa where the hockey team isn’t the focus. I’d rather be in an area where hockey is king and some of what I did in terms of communicating to the fans mattered.”