Shot Callers: Q&A with Jack Edwards, voice of the Bruins

Players and front officer personnel from the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins comment on the offseason acquisition of Dougie Hamilton by the Flames.

In over a decade of calling Boston Bruins games, Jack Edwards has been called many things: homer, hyper, loud.

Add innovative to that list.

In his spare time, Edwards, 58, has been studying computer code and he has developed his own app to help him with his game calls by organizing lines and other information on players and teams. Now he’s hoping to bring his app to the sports broadcasting world at large.

“I try to put information in a place where I can create easy pathways to it, so I can go from a player on a play-by-play chart, to a bio page, to a directory where I can instantly look up a game Patrice Bergeron played against the Maple Leafs in 2007 because something was ringing in my memory,” he explains.

“If I’m learning, I know the audience is as well. That’s fun. Everybody loves going to school when their teacher is teaching them something they love to learn about.”

This week the Bruins — the NHL’s hottest team — pack a five-game winning streak with them as they embark on their annual tour through Western Canada where some prominent former employees are now playing integral roles. Boston’s previous GM (Peter Chiarelli) is trying to lay the groundwork for a winner in Edmonton; its former assistant GM (Jim Benning) is rebuilding on the fly in Vancouver; and its supposed No. 1 defenceman of the future (Dougie Hamilton) is finding his way in Calgary.

In a lively hour-long chat, we spoke with Edwards about all things Bruins and broadcasting. The names of Tyler Seguin, Joe Thornton, and even Lance Armstrong are dropped as the play-caller discusses his craft.

SPORTSNET.CA: What has been the biggest difference with the Bruins this season, its first under new GM Don Sweeney?
JACK EDWARDS: Dougie Hamilton and Zdeno Chara filled the holes in each other’s games. Chara is still an immense presence, especially in his own zone, but he’s going to be 39 [in March]. He’s still an alpha dog, and he can carry this team for stretches, and maybe significant stretches – though we haven’t seen it since his PCL injury. Maybe he can for two or three years, but there’s no heir apparent.

The D core is in a crisis right now as far as a mid- to long-term outlook. There’s no alpha dog on the way. Colin Miller is not going to be an alpha dog. He’ll be a Top 4 defenceman, no doubt, but right now he doesn’t look like a guy who’s going to turn into Duncan Keith.

Which recent trade has been the most harmful to the Bruins: Dougie Hamilton, Tyler Seguin, or Milan Lucic?

Was the Seguin deal worse than the Joe Thornton trade?
Yeah. The problem with Joe is he’s just such a great guy. Even Steve Yzerman, as a player, had an a– h— factor. When Ryan Getzlaf is on his game, he’s nasty. Messier—who wanted to deal with Messier? Teammates didn’t even like him when he had his game face on. We’re talking about a guy who threw Mike Keenan out of the room in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The problem with Joe, he’s just such a nice guy. That feeling pervaded the team to the point where they were universally soft. [Then coach] Mike Sullivan tried every trick he knew—and he knows a lot of them—and Joe was a non-responder. That doesn’t make Joe a bad person. It just means he’s not a leader. They had him in a position of leadership because they thought putting the C on him would turn him into a leader, and they got their thinking totally backwards. Even though they got dimes on the dollar for Joe, they misread the personnel situation.

What’s your take on the theory that Hamilton didn’t get along with other players in the dressing room?
I sat two seats in front of Dougie for three years on the team plane, and I never picked up any animosity between the team and Dougie. He’s a really quiet, introverted kid. His close loved ones have probably functioned as enablers in his life and have made him a bit aloof. But that can’t be a deal-breaker, especially when the guy’s an RFA.

READ MORE Edwards studies Maple Leafs: “They going to shock people”

Who has impressed you in Boston this season?
Patrice Bergeron is having a Hart Trophy year. He’s better than he’s ever been defensively, which is hard to believe since he’s won three of the last four Selkes. He is absolutely head and shoulders the best defensive forward in the league right now, and the guy has points in every game but five. You put Bergeron right in the middle on the power play, he uses those incredible hands to turn the worst passes into nice, one-touch little bumps to set up shots and triangles for shots. He’s having an unbelievable year.

The Bruins gave you a Stanley Cup ring in 2011. Is it common practice for broadcasters to get rings?
It is in the U.S. I don’t know who started that. The Jacobs family—bless their hearts—gave away something like $20 million in Stanley Cup rings. There are four tiers of rings. There’s the inner circle: players, coaches, management, people who actually bled.

I got a second-tier ring, and there are hundreds of third- and fourth-tier rings. Literally every person who worked on the Bruins production at NESN was offered a ring if they wanted one. Most were third- and fourth-tier rings, but it’s still an expensive chunk of gold. The third- and fourth-tier have rhinestones in them, but the second tier have real diamonds. I’m still blown away by their generosity. I used to wear it on game nights, but that team has been disassembled now, so I only wear it on ceremonious occasions, like Opening Night.

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How much do you study other teams?
I try to keep my head on a swivel. I’d like to know more about the Western Conference than I do. I watch as much hockey as I can, and that’s looking at the next three or four opponents the Bruins are playing and learn as much as I can about them so I’m up to speed.

Why create a broadcasting app?
I started doing Post-it notes on a piece of card stock back in 1987 or 1989 after doing magic marker on notebook paper for line charts. I found it more and more necessary to have flexible information, especially come playoff time, when coaches run 3-on-2s that have nothing to do with reality until the game begins because they’re engaging in gamesmanship.

I wanted something mobile for my play chart. As information became more available, I wanted a way to connect all the dots. The few notes I could get on my Post-it notes were not enough. I ended up going to laminated card stock with stickers on the back so I could switch them around the chart. I was creating that on the computer and I longed for a method to activate it on a screen. When touchscreens began to emerge, I spent a few thousand hours learning how to write basic code, and I’m still pretty bad at it, but I got it to the point where it’s functional. All this information is out there in the public domain but it hasn’t been put in one place. This is a utility that allows everyone from a high-end broadcaster to a fan of the game to follow their curiosity.

Has the app cut down on your prep time for games?
Phenomenally. My goal for the last five years has been to do less clerical work and more analysis—watch more video, go into more dressing rooms, get more face time with players, and to do less of the copy-and-paste, fill-in-forms type stuff. As we’re getting through our first tour through the league with the new app, I find I have two extra hours a day that I didn’t have before. It’s not like I’m smoking a cigar during those two hours. I’m looking at individual player video, so I can anticipate if this left wing will drive the net or pass. What are his tendencies? It’s allowed me to get into the minds of players and out of the minds of spreadsheets.

What’s the biggest challenge you had to overcome to get where you are?
I talk to a lot of high school and college kids who want my job. As Tina Turner said in the 1980s when she had those back-to-back No. 1 albums: “I’ve busted my ass for 30 years to be an overnight sensation.”

I look back at the twists and turns and where it was going wrong and where it could’ve went off the cliff, and I’m blown away that things have fallen the way they have, that there were enough chance-taking decision-makers that gave me the nod, when most of them were replaced by people who would rather play it safe and either fired me or let my contract run out. And that’s OK. We knew it was dangerous work when we took the job.

“If you’re a hockey fan in New England, there is not an Original Six. There is an Original One. It’s Boston or nothing.”

Who inspired you?

I had a mentor in college who said, “Set impossibly high goals for yourself because even if you don’t achieve them, the impetus of working towards lofty goals will pull you toward something that gives you great fulfillment.” He’s been absolutely right. There were dream jobs I thought I was going to get but didn’t. But in pursuit of those jobs, I’ve been pulled to experiences that exceed expectations. If you’re a hockey fan in New England, there is not an Original Six. There is an Original One. That’s it. You think I’m gonna call Rangers games? Work in New York? Not a frickin’ chance. Detroit and Chicago have their own cultures. It’s unimaginable that I would get a job in Canada. That’s off-the-chart not gonna happen. It’s Boston or nothing.

How do you respond to fans who say you’re too much of a homer?
I’ve grown a thick skin. Some critics, those who still watch with the sound up, understand this season that they’ve confused partisanship with enthusiasm. When an opponent does a great thing, I hit the steam whistle just as hard. The Bruins were a super-dominant team for four of the past six years. I’ve been doing these numbers and transferring them to hard copy since 1999. The five-on-five numbers for the Bruins, especially in the second and third period, they were just crushing teams under their power.

When you see those numbers sustained over a long period, you realize you’ve got a super-dominant team. There was a lot to yell about with the Bruins from 2009 to mid-2014. People misconstrued one thing for another. The only time I cringe when I watch my air checks is some of the fights when Milan Lucic was a rookie. I completely lost my crap because it was so exciting. I don’t really apologize for that. Early in my career I got overly emotional about fights, and I try to keep it under a lid.

You cringe because you don’t want to encourage fighting?
No, no. I love a good hockey fight. Frontier justice is one of the most beautiful things in human existence. Dennis Seidenberg comes back from freaking back surgery this year, and on his first or second shift, Cody McLeod runs him in the corner—three steps and freakin’ corked him. Seidenberg hadn’t even hit the ice, and Tyler Randell’s gloves were off.

Cody McLeod went 19 fighting majors last year! When a guy does what Randell did, that’s how you build a team. [Randell is thinking], I’m gonna get an instigator right now, but it’ll be two minutes worth killing because I’m sending a statement to my team that I’m not going to tolerate a guy going pass the threshold or reasonable competitive behaviour. And that wasn’t. C’mon. Seidenberg’s coming back from back surgery in September and you run him like that?!

How do you so get geared up in the booth? Is is genetics? Coffee? There must be some nights you don’t feel enthusiastic but still have to sound that way?
When I don’t feel it, I’ll walk away. Promise you. I’m not hanging around if I don’t get jazzed on game day. My ticket to college was, I was a soccer player. Centre forward. I’m five-foot-nine. My playing weight was 161 pounds. Now I’m down around 148. I was Brendan Gallagher—I got the crap kicked out of me, but I was pretty smart, I had really good skills, and I could get knocked down 30 times if it meant one great chance to score. That’s the kind of character I look for in every single player.

I look for a guy who ignores reality and says, “I’m going to win this moment.” It’s endlessly exciting for me to be in the building when one team proves it’s better than another, even if it’s the opponent of the Bruins. It’s thrilling to see that question get answered, the myriad of ways it can get answered, and the common threads of great teams. My kids are sick and tired of me making sports analogies, but I see capital-T truth in sports.

“It crushed me to be betrayed that way. I felt taken advantage of.”

But there’s the other side of sports, too.
One of the hardest things I experienced personally was when Lance Armstrong got exposed as a liar and a fraud. I did a seven-minute feature on him when I was working for ESPN’s SportsCenter and I rode with him twice. I ride my bike a lot in the summer. I took two pretty long rides with him. I looked him in the eye and asked him if he took PEDs, and I freaking ate it. I bought the lie. I bought into this amazing story of a guy they thought was dead because they gave him so many chemicals in therapy and he came back and won seven Tours de France. He was a personal hero of mine. That it was all fake blew me up. I didn’t ride my bike for almost a year after that. I couldn’t get motivated.

Have you spoken with Lance since?
I’ve actually texted him back and forth. I’ve forgiven him in my heart. There aren’t many human beings who are truly evil. I understand why he did it. I don’t condone what he did. There are many places he could’ve got off the train, but he enjoyed the ride too much. He thought he’d get away with it. I would still go out to dinner with him. He’s a very interesting man. But it crushed me to be betrayed that way. I felt taken advantage of.

If that ever happened with Patrice Bergeron, I’d have a hard time going to the booth and being enthusiastic. As a guy who grew up idolizing Bobby Orr, Bergeron is the most revered Boston player since Orr—even more than Bourque, as great as Bourque is and was. I love Ray; he’s a great guy. But Bergeron has that Beliveau magic going, that presence: Oh, my God, I’m in the room with someone really special. If that thing came down, I’d have to walk away. That would frickin’ crush my heart like a grape under a shoe.

That’s not happening with Bergeron. I’d be shocked.
Yeah? I rode with Lance. I looked him in the eye and asked him directly. I’m sitting on a sea wall in Santa Barbara while he’s on his honeymoon with Kristin [Richards, Armstrong’s ex-wife], and I asked him directly, “Are you on performance enhancing drugs?” He said, “No, I’m not. I’ve never tested anything but clean.” Well, he was half right. [chuckles]

“Patrice Bergeron has that Beliveau magic going, that presence.”

Who do you like as a play caller?
Ken Daniels [voice of the Red Wings]. He’s the most underrated guy in play-by-play. I like [Jim] Hughson. I like really energetic guys who have a sense of humour. I loved Ralph Strangis, who walked away from the Dallas job this last off-season. I’m picky. I love the guy who does Islanders radio, Chris King. He’s right on the puck. His player identification is sensational, and he gets really excited. You can tell he loves the game.

For entertainment, check the Colorado radio call. Marc Moser is a standup comic. He makes me look like The Christian Science Monitor if you’re talking homers. If you hear him, you’ll be laughing out loud driving down the road. Hilarious in his passion of the game. You can tell he adores doing what he does.

My father made his living as a theatre director. He always said, “There’s something special when the audience realizes the actor is having fun doing what he’s doing.” I took that to heart. I don’t have a hard time expressing joy. I’m lucky. I know a lot of people, especially men, who do. Not me! And I have an outlet for it 70 times a year.

Gotta See It: Marc Moser’s greatest calls from 2014-15

What’s the worst mistake you’ve made during a game?
I mistook Messier for someone else, and he scored a snapshot goal off the wrong foot at Madison Square Garden. This is Mark Messier, No.2 on the all-time scoring list! That’s like getting Joe Montana wrong. A stupid call. I beat myself up for it for three days. I’ve tried to learn from goalies and just flush it.

You’ve had this gig for a while. What challenges you now? How do you push yourself?
Here comes another sports analogy. The greatest athletes are constantly working on their games. They’re finding some place where they can get better. Even Gretzky at his peak was trying to get one or two per cent better at something. Like the summer Crosby came back and was a dominant face-off guy and he had sucked until then. How did that happen? Well, he looked at his game, thought, “I can get better here,” and he did it.

I’m trying to be precise and clear in my expression and stay with the speed of the game. Just when you think it can’t get any faster, it’s getting faster. The very first filter for every player signed now is: Can you flat-out fly? If you can’t, you better have some X-factor in your game that no one else has. That’s the way the league is going. There’s a lot of brainless youngsters who can tear around the ice, but they don’t know what the heck they’re doing. That’s why you appreciate guys like David Krejci and Patrik Elias who slow the game down and exploit the brainless speed that’s out there.

I’m always challenging myself to stay with the play, because once you start playing catch-up, you’re doomed. You’re still going to be talking 30 seconds into the commercial break.

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