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IN DEPTH: Jack's Journey

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
*This story was originally published November 29, 2015*

 

 

 

 

 

Jack Michaels could write a book.

The Oilers play-by-play broadcaster has seen just about everything in his career so far, even though it is still budding.

Volcanic activity delayed his return home from a road trip. He was roughed up by a professional wrestler mid-job interview. He lived under the Northern Lights in Alaska. He spent almost his entire first year of marriage apart from his wife. He interned at HBO Sports in New York City. He's never missed a game due to illness. He even called a game with Steven Tyler as his colour guy. All of these mini adventures, these stories, happened along his path that brought him from a small Western Pennsylvania town to Edmonton, where he is carving out a name for himself in the fraternity of hockey broadcasters.

 

Jack Michaels and Steven Tyler broadcast an Alaska Aces game. Photo Provided.

Michaels calls the game of hockey a bit differently than most broadcasters. His mindset draws upon his early interest in horse racing. He builds to a finish. If Michaels' career were a horse race, the finish line would be far in the distance. This horse still has a long way to run.

In high school, Michaels realized he didn't have a career ahead of him as an athlete in college or the pros. So his interest and focus turned to broadcasting. The Meadville, PA native knows sports. Football is king in Pennsylvania, but hockey and basketball carry weight as well.

Michaels isn't a former hockey player turned broadcaster. That's not his story. In fact, he can't skate and doesn't pretend he can either.

"That's the ironic thing," Michaels said. "I participated in a lot of sports, but hockey was one I never participated in because I never learned to ice skate. In fact, one of my first dates was a disastrous ice-skating affair. I don't know what I was thinking when I agreed to it. I think it was sixth grade and I basically just watched her skate around with other boys and was basically thinking 'this is a really stupid idea. I can't believe I'm here.' I think it was because I was too proud to admit that I couldn't skate."

Hockey wasn't his first love.

Where Michaels grew up, the Penguins weren't top dog on the sports scene until a few years after the legendary Mario Lemieux was taken first overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.

"All of a sudden the Penguins became relevant where I grew up," said Michaels. "When you grow up in Western Pennsylvania it's primarily football so hockey was definitely a late-developing interest."

But don't misunderstand, Michaels enjoyed his hockey. He would stay up late and watch Hockey Night in Canada on the fuzzy station out of London, ON that happened to come through on his television set. He'd watch the games and keep track of the results.

"I was always a bit of a nerd back then, logging sports results that weren't of real relevance to me," said Michaels. "I watched hockey a bit. I shouldn't say I wasn't interested at all but when I really started to ratchet up the interest in hockey, as it pertains to my current career, was when the Penguins got good and I started to pay attention to the announcing."
 

Photo Provided.

Michaels would listen to legendary Penguins broadcaster Mike Lange.

"What I was fascinated by was the fast-paced action," said Michaels. "He was able to crank out sentences, that turned into paragraphs, that turned into what would be pages if you'd transcribe it. Minutes on end, and then he'd kick it to commercial or whatever it was. I just found that fascinating. I found the fast-paced play of hockey fascinating."

Those experiences cultivated an interest in broadcasting that helped him decide his career path.

Michaels toiled on the local sports scene early in his broadcasting career, bouncing from high school and small college football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

The first hockey game he'd call would be for the Ithaca club team, as Michaels went to university at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY.

"I'm sure I wasn't very good at it," said Michaels. "It was televised on our station but I can't even imagine where that tape is."

One year, a high school hockey team from Michaels' hometown of Meadville had made it to the West Final and Michaels was able to call the game. That game was at 2 p.m., and the Penguins played that same night in the same building at 7 p.m.

Arizona Coyotes TV broadcaster Matt McConnell, who at the time was the radio play-by-play guy for the Penguins, stopped by to set up for the game. The high school game went to overtime, so the two crossed paths.

 

"When I finished, he asked me what I was up to and that kind of thing," said Michaels. "I basically told him what I was doing and, at that time, I told him I was doing college football, basketball and that kind of thing. He goes, 'you should do hockey. Fewer people do hockey, you've got a talent for it, you should go after hockey gigs.'"

Michaels sent out a bunch of demo tapes for hockey and the next high school game he'd call would be his last. Colorado Springs came calling, and he was hockey full time. No more $4.25 per hour gigs for Jack.

So Michaels got his first pro job in Colorado Springs, CO for the city's WCHL team. Sadly for the Michaels family, the team would fold and he'd be on the hunt for another job before he could even settle in. He married his wife, Emily, in May after the two bought a house the previous December. He'd buy Emily a new car in July and on August 1, "they pulled the plug."

"It was a lot of fun, but it didn't last," said Michaels. "We had no fans. It was in the same town as Colorado College and it's kind of old-school money. Everyone loved the college team and not so much the pro team."

Luckily for Michaels and his wife, the Alaska Aces came calling with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that, today, can be seen as a very important career move. But back then, it was a difficult time.

"Less than three months into our marriage, I moved to Anchorage," said Michaels. "My wife had already committed to the Colorado Springs school district so we lived that first year apart. Nine months. That was a tough year. It certainly leads you to ask 'am I in this for the right reasons?' Nothing else in my life was going that well. We ground it out. I thought there was enough potential in Alaska to give it a go."
 

 

Emily and Jack? They endured through the time apart and she'd move up with her husband and they'd start a life together in Anchorage. Michaels and his family spent eight seasons there as Jack became the radio and television voice of the ECHL's Aces.

 

Michaels earned ECHL Broadcaster of the Year twice and was selected five times by the league to broadcast their All-Star Game.

Jack, ever motivated, was still looking to advance his career. He interviewed for a minor league baseball gig, but also got a call from Titan Sports, Inc., also known as the WWE. Michaels interviewed to be a professional wrestling broadcaster in 2002.

"They flew me first class and picked me up in a limo and brought me up to Stamford, CT," said Michaels. "I did a few matches. They brought me into the studio and had me call a few matches. They had me sell something and do a commercial for a random product. Then they had me do an interview with a wrestler."

That wrestler? Chris Benoit.

The same Benoit from Montreal, who had a long career in professional wrestling and who made headlines for a tragic murder-suicide in 2007. The incident sparked nationwide mental health and concussion awareness. But in 2002, he was just a big guy.

"They want to see how their announcers react in all situations, from selling products and calling matches and sometimes the wrestlers get a little aggressive with the announcers," said Michaels. "This guy grabbed me and shook me. I knew at some level it was all an act, but when a 275-pound guy, or however much that guy weighed, he was jacked beyond belief. I tried to play it off, but I was rattled."

Wrestling wasn't his thing. The offer from WWE would see him have a six-month trial period in which he'd be on the road 140-plus days in a 180-day span.

"I remember thinking we've already been through abandoning our house in Colorado Springs, Emily having to abandon her job, me having to abandon her for a year and all kinds of crazy stuff going on," said Michaels. "We had gotten our house rented in Colorado Springs, but it didn't seem like the right time to try that and have another six months away from my wife for something that may turn into nothing."

Michaels chose to stay in Alaska and the two enjoyed their lives there, starting a family. Jack and Emily have two kids, both born in Alaska. Callie is 11 and Tyler is nine.

Michaels also realized following his wrestling interview that hockey was probably his best bet to advance.
 

Photo Provided

"I just wanted to keep grinding it out," said Michaels. "That was easy to say in 2004. In 2010? I was getting into my mid-thirties and you start wondering if it's ever going to happen. Right around that time, I said 'let's go as hard as we can in hockey.' I did a ton of ECHL All-Star Games and had a couple offers to do AHL games, but either the city or offer were underwhelming."

"After '06 or '07, it was NHL or bust."

Michaels came to grips that he didn't want to move his family to the American Hockey League and take that path to the NHL. He'd set his sights on a direct leap, and he had options.

 

Michaels was in serious contention for both the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders play-by-play gigs. Nothing came of those, but when the Oilers job came open in 2010, it was another opportunity. It wasn't one Michaels took very seriously.

The broadcaster was hesitant with Edmonton being a Canadian team and market. The odds of them hiring an American for the job were likely slim based on tradition and immigration etc. But for some reason, his mood changed.

The Michaels family was heading on an annual vacation to Long Island when Michaels turned the car around. For some reason, he felt he had to apply right then and there. He drove the wife and kids home, shoved a resume, cover letter and tape of a Kelly Cup Final game into an envelope.
 

 

He addressed it to then Oilers VP of Communications Allan Watt, being careful not to misspell his name.

"I'm told some candidates didn't get that right and it disqualified them," said Michaels. "I signed the cover letter, folded up the resume and letter and threw the DVD in there with my business card. Normally, I would have done up a portfolio with articles about me, my sales figures and all that stuff."

 

There wasn't time to go through his usual application process. His wife, of course, was livid and thinking they'd miss the flight. They didn't, Jack mailed out his resume and the family went about their vacation. Michaels didn't hear back from Edmonton until a month later. The Oilers called and requested a conference call the next day.

"I told them great, I was thrilled. This was maybe my fifth kick at the can. Now I'm in the mix for an NHL job."

A few weeks later, the Oilers called and asked if he could be on a plane to Edmonton the next day. He barely made the flight, with a late-arriving itinerary, but got to Edmonton, interviewed and felt good about it.

Then… nothing.

"A week and a half goes by and we're now doing our annual trip to Hawaii. I did one of those emails that is just a shameless attempt to trigger conversation."

Michaels checked in, told them he'd be on vacation and gave them a contact number but didn't hear back.

"I'm kind of being a baby. I'm being depressed again, because this looks like another miss," he recalled.

Emily, all flight, kept telling him to snap out of his depressive state, stop thinking about his job and enjoy Hawaii. When they landed, Michaels had a voicemail from Alaska.

The owner of the team told him the Oilers were asking serious questions, as if they would make an offer. Michaels was thrilled but couldn't sleep that night.
 

Photo by Jeff Nash

"That night in Hawaii, I slept 10 minutes. Maybe."

 

The next morning, Michaels was a nervous wreck. Emily, once again, told him to settle down. "Go get a mai tai."

Michaels was sipping on a mai tai when Watt called. The Oilers not only called back, but offered him the position.

"I'm one of the few people who can say I got my dream job in the dream location, with a week in Hawaii to celebrate," said Michaels.

"It was pretty awesome."

Following up a hall of famer is a tough task. That is what Michaels came into when he joined the Oilers, taking over a position previously held by Rod Phillips, who saw his career in Edmonton span 37 years. Phillips called more than 3,500 Oilers games, beginning in 1973, and including five Stanley Cup titles.

"In some ways, it actually made it easier for me because no matter what I did or who they brought in, if they had brought in Doc Emrick, he wouldn't have been Rod Phillips," said Michaels.

"Everyone for four decades, two generations, had grown up with Rod Phillips. Nobody could be that, replace that or stack up to him. I think that's made it easier for me because, at some level, they knew that. So it was just 'let's judge this guy for who he is. Be the guy you've always been. Call the game like you always have because that's what got you here. Don't try to be something or someone you're not.' There's an old southern proverb that says 'dance with the girl who brought you.' When you're invited to the biggest party of the year, dance with who brought you. I apply that to this position. Don't go off what got you here. Be who you are and try to establish your own niche. It took Rod Philips 37 years to become the legend he is."

Michaels added, "I'm not trying to become a legend, but to carve out my own niche is going to be six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years. I think ultimately, in time, people will recognize me for who I am and what I bring to the table and not try to compare me to Rod."

Michaels' welcome to the NHL moment came in his first season.

"It would be my fifth or sixth game. It was the anthem in Chicago," said Michaels. "They were the defending champions at that time too because they had won in 2010. To be there with 22,000 people chanting the anthem was kind of emotional. I don't want to say it was when I arrived, but it was awesome. That's more like it was. A tremendous sense of pride of being part of a magnificent event."

Now on his sixth year with the Oilers, Michaels feels the best is still ahead of him. He calls the games like a horse race. During the game, there are exciting moments. But it's the crescendo Michaels lives for.

He's had many exciting moments on his path to, and during his time in, but the best memories are still to come.

"I think very much that (the best games and memories) are ahead of me rather than behind me."

Michaels has called championship games before, but when he gets that chance in Edmonton, he may not be able to contain his excitement.

"I can't imagine the emotion and the energy that will be in our building when that happens. I hope I survive it."

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