10/26/2012 10:06 AM
Story By: Stuart McComish
HAMILTON, ONT. – In the American Hockey League’s 76-year history only seven players have skated in as many as 1,000 games.
Derek Wills, play-by-play voice of the Hamilton Bulldogs, will reach that milestone Friday night when he calls the Bulldogs’ game against the visiting Toronto Marlies with Al Craig on Funny 820 AM. The game will be his 1,000th consecutive regular season and playoff broadcast since joining the club in 2001-02.
Wills is quick to point out that he doesn’t think his mark belongs in the same discussion as the National Hockey League record for consecutive games of 964 set by former Bulldogs head coach Doug Jarvis. The AHL ironman record is 548 set by Billy Dea between 1958 and 1966.
“There is a lot higher risk of missing games as a player than a broadcaster so I don’t think my record is as impressive as Jarvis’s streak,” Wills said via telephone Thursday after enjoying a golf outing with Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer. “But it’s something I am proud of. It might be a big deal for a lot of people, but after what I have gone through in 12 years it’s a pretty big deal for me.”
Wills, a 36-year-old native of Port Colborne, Ontario, has had share of mishaps over the course of 999 Bulldogs games.
“There have been games I worked when I probably shouldn’t have. I’ve had strep throat on a number of occasions and barely had enough of a voice to talk let alone call a hockey game. In my first season I missed the team bus and got left behind in Rochester and had to find my own way to Cincinnati. I had food poisoning in that first season.”
Bulldogs President Stephen Ostaszewicz said Wills’ achievement would be recognized during the first television timeout of the Marlies game.
“To reach 1,000 games with one team is a significant accomplishment that not many other people achieve, either as a player, a coach or a broadcaster. That’s a testament to his hard work, his determination and his professionalism.”
Wills prides himself on his pregame preparation.
“I am at the rink first thing in the morning. I watch the morning skate and I talk to the coaches and players. After that I am going over stats and scripts. It’s a full day that doesn’t end until midnight and we might be on the bus heading somewhere else. When I think of that preparation it is hard to believe I have done it 999 times.”
The Bulldogs’ longest-serving employee, Wills is the organization’s Senior Director of Broadcasting, Communications and Team Services. Sylvain Lefebvre is the ninth head coach he has worked with
“It’s bittersweet in a way, but more sweet than bitter,” said Wills, who is recently married. “Most guys don’t last 1,000 games in the AHL because they either move to the NHL or there is change within their organization and they leave or moved out. But I have been fortunate that we have had stable ownership in Hamilton with Michael Andlauer and he has been a big supporter of mine since he bought the team. I have worked with a lot of Presidents; I think I am on my seventh now. I have worked with a lot of great people over the years in Hamilton.
“You make your own luck and I believe I was lucky in getting the Bulldogs job. When I was hired in 2001 I was 24 and the youngest broadcaster in the league. I was as green as could be and had a lot to learn. Thankfully I had a lot of people around me who were willing to teach me. Al has been a fantastic mentor for me, as have a lot of the other broadcasters around the league.”
Wills said he enjoys dealing with Bulldogs fans, either in person or via social media.
“When you are the radio play-by-play guy for a team you are the voice of that team, especially in the AHL where most teams don’t have many games on television. I am also the face of the team in some ways. I really enjoy getting out in the community and working at golf and charity events. I have always tried to represent the team and the league well in everything I do. I like interacting with the fans, especially since Facebook and Twitter popped up. It gives me another way to interact with them.
“Radio is important for us. Television exposure is fantastic and you can’t beat being on Sportsnet or TVA. But in the time I have been here every game has been on the radio so fans know they can always count on turning on their radio and hearing the game whether they are at home, at work or in their car.”
Wills landed with the Bulldogs after learning the broadcasting game, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, with Rogers and Cogeco community television.
“I was doing Jr. B hockey. I was working the cameras and audio and pulling cables. I worked on their coverage of the Golden Horseshoe Jr. B League and one night the host didn’t show up and they needed someone to fill in. I was 18, had a mullet and an earring and no experience. I volunteered to do it and I was absolutely awful. They must have seen something in me because they let me keep doing it. I was hard on myself, but worked at getting better and I would watch the broadcasts and listen to what I was saying. I did that for five years and three years into that I decided I wanted to pursue a career in broadcasting, particularly in play-by-play.”
Said Ostaszewicz: “I first learned of him when I was around the Golden Horseshoe League with Niagara University. I was familiar with his work. He’s from Port Colborne and I am from Grimsby. The Golden Horseshoe is small so you become aware of different people especially in your age group. I think it’s pretty remarkable to be working together all these years later. “
Wills secured an interview with Scott Howson, then the Bulldogs’ general manager, got the job and made his AHL broadcasting debut in Quebec City on October 5th, 2001 when the Bulldogs dropped a 5-4 decision to the Quebec Citadelles at Le Colisee.
“I remember the bus ride from the hotel to the arena and how nervous I was,” said Wills. “I don’t get nervous now. I called the game by myself and didn’t know enough about the team or the league at that point, but I was as prepared as I could have been. The game was Quebec’s home opener and they had this elaborate, 45-minute pregame show that I knew nothing about. So my 15-minute pregame had now become one hour and I didn’t have the knowledge then that I have now so I had to describe what they were doing in the arena to the people at home. Luckily I got through that one-hour pregame, even if I probably didn’t do it well.”
The Bulldogs advanced to the Calder Cup final in 2002-2003, bowing out in seven games to the Houston Aeros.
“I won’t forget the seventh game. The Bulldogs might have had the best team in the history of the AHL and were heavy favourites heading into the playoffs. In the deciding game there were 17,428 at Copps Coliseum and we lost 3-0 in front of a packed house. That was tough to swallow.”
The Bulldogs returned to the final in 2006-2007 and Wills said their five-game triumph over the Hershey Bears produced his two best calls, beginning with Ajay Baines’s eventual series-winning goal, scored shorthanded at 9:33 of the third period of a 2-1 win.
“You can’t prepare for the goal, you just have to call it and I was fortunate it was a long two-on-one. I thought a lot before that final game about what I was going to say if the Bulldogs were in a position to win a championship. The final moments made me nervous and I had it all in my head. I was able to say exactly what I wanted and I said: ‘10 seconds left, let’s listen to the crowd at Copps Coliseum’ and I shut up and that’s probably the hardest thing for a broadcaster to do. I turned up the crowd microphones and let the fans bring it home. There was nothing I could say to capture the moment better than the fans did.”
Like the Bulldogs’ players, Wills hopes his time in the AHL leads to a spot in the NHL.
“My ultimate goal is to get to the NHL. I have been in the AHL a long time and there have been a couple of opportunities when I have come close to getting a job in the NHL. If I never get there and spend the rest of my career calling Bulldogs games then that’s the next best thing for me. I have had an unbelievable time. I wouldn’t trade anything I have experienced with this team for the world.”
Wills has worked one NHL game, filling in for Rick Jeanneret, the legendary play-by-play voice of the Buffalo Sabres, in the Sabres’ 3-2 loss to the host Vancouver Canucks on January 25th, 2010.
“It was a great experience,” said Wills, who worked alongside longtime NHL colour commentator Harry Neale. “I grew up in Port Colborne and went to a lot of Sabres games as a kid. I grew up listening to Rick Jeanneret, a guy who I considered to be the greatest team play-by-play announcer in history. I remember having the radio on really low at night so my dad didn’t know I wasn’t sleeping and listening to Rick call games. His broadcasts made me want to do that job. If you listen to my calls you will hear a lot of Rick in there. I will never be him, but he has influenced me more than anyone. I love the way he calls a game, I love his passion for the game and his ability to bring the excitement from the arena to his listeners. I have always tried to do that.
“Having an opportunity to fill in for the guy I idolized the most and getting the opportunity to work with a legend like Harry was great. I listened to Rick on the radio growing up and watched Harry and Bob Cole on television on Hockey Night in Canada. The only thing that went wrong that night was the Canucks beat the Sabres. I just hope that wasn’t my first and last NHL game.”
Wills is excited about this season’s youth-laden edition of the Bulldogs, who fell to 2-2-0-0 after losing 3-1 to the Rochester Americans in a neutral-site game at Buffalo, NewYork on Tuesday night.
“In my time with the Bulldogs this is the best young team we have ever had. I think there will eventually be more players graduate from here to the NHL than any other team we have had. All of the blue chippers from the Montreal Canadiens are here. Five of the six defencemen the Bulldogs dressed against Rochester the other night were rookies. They have had a huge impact and so have the forwards. There will be some ups and downs and we have seen that four games into the season, but the ceiling is really high for a lot of these players as individuals and it is really high for this team. It is the second-youngest team in the AHL and it will only get better. This team could surprise some people as the season goes on.”
Wills begins working towards his 2,000th AHL game on Sunday when the Bulldogs host the Abbotsford Heat at 5 p.m.
“Hopefully I will get to the NHL before I get to 2,000 AHL games, but if not I will keep enjoying the ride. I love broadcasting games more than anything else I do professionally and outside of my wife, dog and family there is nothing I enjoy more. It has been a really fun ride and I have been fortunate to have been with a team that is very successful on the ice and with developing players. Everything has fallen into place for me in the AHL.”