Skip to main content

PRINCE OF PUNS

BY KELLI GUSTAFSON

It started out like any other post-game interview.

As a tired Patrick Maroon emerged from the dressing room - having just secured the game-tying goal, helping lead the team to an overtime victory against the St. Louis Blues on December 19 - Gene Principe prepared to go on air.

"That night we spent a lot of time talking about Patrick Maroon, his family and his son," recalled Principe.

The six-foot-three Oilers forward was not only the topic of conversation that night because he was playing in his hometown of St. Louis, but his family and young son, Anthony, were among those in attendance.

Prior to any interview, Principe explains to the players what clips will be shown to the viewers during the interview - generally highlighting a game-changing play, goal or blocked shot. The players are able to see the highlights on a screen while the interview is being conducted.   

But that night was slightly different. Principe explained to Maroon that they would not only be cutting to a shot of his score, but they would be sharing footage of his son Anthony's reaction to his dad's goal.  

Maroon nodded, the red light came on and the film began to play.

Beginning with footage of the goal, Maroon commented on his deflection of the shot fired by defenceman Brandon Davidson, sending the puck past the goal line.

"You could see as I'm talking to him - and he's talking about his goal and then the shot changes to his son - it strikes an emotional cord," said Principe.

Asking Maroon what he thought after seeing the clip of his son's reaction to scoring his goal, Principe could see the emotion flood through his eyes.

"It's pretty cool. Pretty emotional," Maroon said, while choking back tears.

"I don't get to see him as much. It's pretty special." 

Although Principe had not anticipated this level of emotional reaction from Maroon when footage showed the young boy proudly jumping up in excitement from the stands after witnessing his dad score, the veteran sportscaster knew just how to react.

Placing his hand on Maroon's shoulder, Principe reminded him that he would be seeing his son again shortly for the holidays.

"I knew it was a great moment," Principe said. "It was a great moment to have your son celebrating your goal. It was beautiful."

A father of three himself, Principe's compassion was unprecedented. He knew just when to cut the interview short, allowing the moment to be what it was - a perfect snapshot of the human side of sport.

Besides providing a glimpse into Maroon's life once the gloves come off, viewers were given a deeper look at Gene Principe himself - a kind, compassionate man, and the consummate professional. 

GENE-UINE

"He has a natural instinct for exactly the right thing to do or say," said Oilers radio play-by-play announcer Jack Michaels.

As one of the first people he met when he began his job with the Oilers in the summer of 2010, Michaels has spent a significant amount of time travelling on the road with and getting to know Principe.  

"What is the biggest revealing thing in that interview is Gene's hand on his shoulder. That tells you all you need to know about Gene Principe. Just the compassion," said Michaels, reflecting on the interview with Maroon. "Even if Gene hadn't said a word, that tells you all you need to know about him."

"I think the reason so many of us are comfortable around Gene and comfortable expressing what we're feeling, is because Gene is as genuine a person as there is. Not only in this League, but probably as genuine a person as anyone I've ever met," Michaels added. 

Born and raised in Edmonton, Principe always knew he wanted to be involved in sports. It wasn't until he was a teenager that he began to look into becoming a sports announcer.

"I realized I wasn't going to be a pro soccer player," Principe laughed. "So I thought maybe covering professional athletes (was my path)."

After completing two years at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in broadcasting, Principe obtained his first work placement in 1987 as a radio and television sports news reporter for CFG-CTV in Kamloops, BC. From there, he found his way back to Alberta, working as a videographer in Grand Prairie, eventually moving into sports full time in Lethbridge. 

"I used to watch the announcers do their games and I thought, 'wow, that would be a neat job!'" said Principe.

After moving to Winnipeg and Toronto in pursuit of his career, Principe found his way back to Edmonton in 1998 when working for A-Channel (now, City TV).

"I think my big break was getting to move from the local station to Sportsnet in October of 2001," said Principe. "My dream was to always work in Edmonton and work around the Oilers, and here I am - I've been lucky enough to do it."

Although Principe may deflect the credit for his success towards luck, his colleagues will argue he can attribute his success to his dedicated work ethic, and his passion for the game and the people who surround it.

"He is one of the very best in our business - if not, the very best," said Michaels. "I've worked with a lot of good people around the League, but I can't think of one person I'd put above Gene."

It is not just Principe's professionalism that has earned him credibility among thousands of fans, but it's his personality that has worked its way into the hearts of many throughout Oil Country. 

PUN-LOVING

When was the last time you turned on the television and saw a sports broadcaster doing their stand-up in a hotdog costume?

Oilers fans amusingly recall October 30, 2011.   

On that day, Principe began his opening doing just that, quipping he mixed-up what day was Halloween.

"I feel like such a wiener!" he exclaimed.

This was just one of the many puns that Principe is so well-known and well-loved for.  

Following the end to the Stanley Cup Final run of 2006, Principe said he wanted to do something to uplift fans, and thus began his pun-intended venture.

"The game is the game. I can't do anything on the ice for them, but let's see what we can do for viewers - let's accentuate the positives!" said Principe. 

"I remember one night, it was something about pasta."

Principe paused to think back to the first time he used a pun during a broadcast.

"… He was able to pasta the puck over!"

Receiving positive feedback from fans following the broadcast, Principe knew he was on to something.

"What I like about them [puns] is if they're bad, they're good, and if they're good, they're good," he laughed. "It's cut and dry."

Giving credit to one of his broadcasting heroes, Principe said he was first inspired by Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean - who has used puns himself during broadcasts.

However, it is not solely the puns that has tipped Principe over the edge as a fan-favourite. Rather, it is his commitment to the act - no matter how outrageous or absurd it might seem - and his combined use of props and puns that have made him a notorious Oilers personality.

No matter who you ask in Oil Country, nearly everyone is bound to have their favourite Principe pun or skit that they will never forget.

For Michaels, it was when he was getting ready to broadcast a game against the San Jose Sharks and he caught a glimpse of a ventriloquism act when he least expected it. 

"In San Jose, our broadcast booth is situated where you've got this little monitor staring right at you and it's hard to ignore it," Michaels remembers.

"And just as I'm about to go on the air, I see Gene and 'Little Gene.'"

Michaels is forced to pause the interview while laughing.

"It just struck me as so absurd," Michaels said, gathering his composure. " I couldn't even hear the audio; I could just see his lips moving."

After finding a puppet that the Sharks had used for a Christmas video that year, Principe asked if he could borrow it for his opening - where he then proceeded to interview the puppet, dubbed 'Little Gene', while attempting to be a ventriloquist. Principe tried and failed, hilariously, to be a ventriloquist.

"I just happened to glance down at the monitor 20 seconds before I'm on the air and to see that coming back at you - it was just so funny," laughed Michaels.

Forced to delay his broadcast for a few seconds while he composed himself, Michaels claims it was one of the funniest Gene Principe moments he can remember. 

When asked what one of his favourites has been, the Prince of Puns himself replied, "There have been so many over the years, I've lost track.

"The 'Toddfather' though was one of my favourites because it was a team effort."

On December 9, 2015, Principe began his broadcast in a memorable fashion for the first time Todd McLellan coached the Oilers against his former team, the San Jose Sharks.

"As soon as Todd got hired I could hardly wait for when they played San Jose because I knew I wanted to do the 'Toddfather'," Principe said.

Wearing a black fedora and bow tie, accompanied by a trumpet player and a black backdrop, Principe did his best Vito Corleone impression.

"I'm going to tell you a story about the Toddfather," Don Principe said. 

Using idioms from The Godfather, Principe's 'Toddfather' act was one of the more carefully planned and unforgettable openings.

"That was the one that had the most elements to it because we wore costumes and we had the musical arrangement to go with it," he laughed.

But don't let Principe's pun-loving nature distract you from the true professional and genuine person - colleague, friend, son, husband and father - that he is.   

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

"I don't think the people in Edmonton realize what a national and international talent that Gene Principe really is," argued Michaels.

"Again, his ability to handle those situations [like the Maroon interview] and be professional when it truly matters, is unrivaled in our business."

With a robust resume, extensive knowledge toward the game, and his ability to recognize and empathize with the emotions of others, Principe has become well-respected among players, teams and around the League.

"Everyone feels like Gene connects with them [players and fans] and that's the greatest thing you can have as a broadcaster - being able to connect to your audience - and no one does it better than Gene Principe," said Michaels. 

Michaels recalls a media scrum that occurred a few years ago after a morning skate, ahead of a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Oilers at Rexall Place - a scrum he says he'll never forget.

"You can just imagine the scrum around Crosby."

Michaels remembers the local media crowded around the 2005 first-overall draft pick on one of his few visits to Edmonton.

"Gene was working on some sort of project with one of our players and handling that assignment and there was this huge scrum around Sidney Crosby, and Gene arrived late so he wasn't able to ask any questions."

Without becoming agitated for missing his opportunity to interview Crosby, the scrum quickly comes to an end and Principe prepares to leave.

"And over my shoulder I hear, 'Gene, come on let's go'," said Michaels.

Standing behind him, Sidney Crosby had taken notice that Principe had arrived late and was unable to ask him questions. Leading Principe to a private area away from the other media, Crosby gave him a rare one-on-one interview.

"When one of the game's brightest stars shows you that kind of respect, you know you've had a positive impact on the game," added Michaels.

"Gene won't tell you that story because he's too humble to mention it," Michaels laughed. "But I'll never forget it. The Patrick Maroon and Sidney Crosby moments are embedded in my mind. He's held in the highest regard." 

Aside from the respect gained by players around the League, Michaels explained that it is those who are closest to Principe that hold him in the highest regard.

"No one is more important to him than his family," said Michaels.

Traveling to cover the team while they are on the road, Principe goes out of his way to ensure he spends as much time as possible with his kids. There are many times Principe does not take the team charter as it flies out of Edmonton for the road trip. He wants to spend that extra evening at home for his daughter's soccer game or his son's basketball game, or to help them study for a test.

When asked himself, Principe smirked and said, "the boys have a good laugh at me about my flying habits."

He added, "Pat Garland in Team Services for the Oilers is excellent with me though - allowing me to sort of hop on and off, or get somewhere commercially and then rejoin them."

"I miss so much stuff that I can't do anything about. Over the holidays I missed all my kids' Christmas concerts because we [the team] were away," Principe said, mirroring Maroon's fatherly emotions.

"So, if I can do something, - if that means flying different routes or hopping on red-eyes - whatever I can do to make a small sacrifice on my part to be a little more involved with my kids and special events, I will," he smiled.  

Holding no grudges towards a career that requires a great deal of travel, Principe will be the first to tell you how grateful he feels to be on the path he's on.

"I just feel blessed to be in the city I grew up in, covering a team I grew up watching, to be with my friends and family," said Principe.

"I feel like I have had a heck of a career and a heck of a life here in Edmonton as a local boy."

From fans to players; from hot dog costumes and ventriloquism, to earning sincere respect around the League, Gene Principe has proved that he is not only the Prince of Puns, but an unparalleled professional in the field of sports broadcasting.   

"To anyone out there who's figuring out what their dreams are - go for it. Really go for it, because you just never know what can happen until you try," said Principe.