Shot Callers: Q&A with Clarence Iron, NHL’s first Cree play-by-play man

Listen to the best calls of the Canadiens vs. Hurricanes game from Cree play-by-play announcer Clarence Iron on Hometown Hockey.

Unless you count that one trip to Meadow Lake (population: 5,344) — “It’s almost a city” — Clarence Iron hadn’t left the tiny village of Pinehouse Lake, Sask., in a year. He hadn’t called a hockey game waged by grown-ups in about a decade.

On the morning we spoke back in March 2019, the self-proclaimed “over the hill” Iron, edging age 60, sat down in Pinehouse’s cozy CFNK 89.9 FM studio for his daily talk-radio day shift. He broke down the newly released federal budget to his indigenous listenership in Cree, then promoted the Cree Nation’s big 13th annual walleye derby coming up at Montreal Lake ($100,000 grand prize).

On the Sunday after we spoke, he stormed out of semi-retirement, found his way south and made history.

A rare voice of Cree hockey, play-by-play man Iron teamed up with analyst and former NHLer John Chabot, and musician-turned-studio host Earl Wood to broadcast the first-ever NHL game in Plains Cree.

“I still have it,” said Iron of this long-deferred dream come true. “I get excited when I see two teams on the ice and I’m getting ready to call a game.”

We caught up with Iron over the phone to learn of his remarkable journey ahead of his boundary-breaking live call of the Montreal CanadiensCarolina Hurricanes game back on March 24, 2019.

SPORTSNET.CA: What language was spoken in your house as a kid?
CLARENCE IRON: First of all, I put God No. 1. I believe in Jesus. I know He gave me the gift to speak the Cree language. My grandparents, I always think of them. They’re gone now. I was raised by them, and they taught me Cree right at home. That’s where you have to learn your language. And when you leave home for school, Cree has to be taught there. That’s the only way people will learn their language. Keep speaking the language. Don’t be shy. There’s lots of people here who know how to speak it, but even with their own people they’re scared to speak Cree. It’s a generational thing. We were taught at one time not to speak Cree at the residential schools. I myself went to a residential school, but I kept my Cree language by talking to myself. I used to go in the bush. People would think I was talking to somebody out there, but that’s how I kept it.

Wow. So you would just go talk to yourself?
Yeah. Like if I was going to the Hudson’s Bay store, a two-mile walk from the residential school, I would be walking by myself and talking as if I was having a conversation with another person. [Gives example in Cree.] I’d say, “Well, I’m going to buy this at the store” in Cree. That’s how I kept my Cree alive. I had a hard time speaking English, to tell you the truth. I had to redo Grade 4 once and Grade 7 again because they told me I was a slow learner. I wasn’t. My English wasn’t up to par. Talk to me in Cree? That’s my No. 1 language. [laughs] I have no problem with that. My English is probably 80 per cent now. I graduated Grade 12, and I took a recreational technology program. I taught phys-ed in our community. I’m originally from Canoe Lake [about 350 kilometres north of Saskatoon].

Clarence Iron. (Photo Credit: Clarence Iron/Facebook)

You have a nickname.
Chi Boy. They know who I am.

What does that mean?
“Small boy.” My grandpa only spoke one English word. He couldn’t say “Clarence.” He used to say “Chi Boy! Chi Boy!” That was his English word: boy. Everyone heard what my grandpa called me, and my peers at school started using it. [chuckles]

Growing up, who were you a fan of?
I was a fan of the Edmonton Oilers when they were with the World Hockey Association, before they stepped into the NHL. I live close to Edmonton. It’s only about a four-hour drive from where I live, so I’d go watch them play. They were my team all the way. In the NHL, it was the Leafs. Lanny McDonald was playing. Darryl Sittler was my favourite. I liked the Montreal Canadiens as well — Cournvoyer, Lafleur.

When did you first get interested in calling play-by-play?
Way back in the ’70s. There was no such thing as local radio [in Northern Saskatchewan] back then. Now pretty much everybody has their own radio station in these northern communities. Back in the ’70s I would’ve loved to have called, but I was still doing it on my own. Nothing professionally taught. I used to listen to Bob Cole, Dan Kelly and Danny Gallivan. I used to like Danny Gallivan’s style.

What did you like about Gallivan?
He was smooth. He had calls like “cannonading shot!” and “dancing over the blue line!” He made it sound picturesque.

So you’d borrow that feeling?
Yeah, I wanted to follow him in Cree. I say “dances over the blue line” in Cree. I’ll use Guy Lafleur for example. [Iron lets rip an engaged 20-second Guy LaFleur rush goal call in Cree.]

That’s great. When did you make the jump from practising on your own to getting in a booth?
The early ’90s. I don’t know exactly what year. It was on radio, not play-by-play. It was just to mention who’s playing, who scored. Then all of a sudden, we started calling a bit of play-by-play. And finally they gave me the mic. I didn’t jump at the mic right away. My colleague — I can’t remember his name — controlled the mic. But one day my boss said, “You try.” He gave me the mic. Little did they know that I used to practise. My boss was surprised: “Hey! You’re a natural.” He thought I was a natural, but it took years of practice. When they gave me the mic in Prince Albert, I started calling play-by-play live on radio. They said, “That guy’s pretty good!” Then I started getting hired. I used to do play-by-play in Prince Albert, North Battleford, Meadow Lake, Regina and Prince George. They had a very good team there; they used to be in the finals pretty much all the time. The Prince George Lumber Kings.

When did you first hear about this opportunity?
My friends saw it on Facebook and contacted me: “Did you see the ad? They’re looking for a Cree announcer. You should go for it.” I didn’t jump on it right away because I’ve been semi-retired in broadcasting for 10 years. The last time I called hockey was around the year 2000. I came back to work here in radio in Northern Saskatchewan, and I’ve called minor hockey just for the kids here. They like hearing me, but it’s usually just on tape after [the game is over]. The odd time I’ll go on the road with them and call play-by-play.

Why did you stop calling in 2000?
I was calling aboriginal hockey tournaments, and it was getting expensive for them because they had to pay for airtime. I used to call out of La Ronge, but the cost got too much. They liked it. People started wondering why we still didn’t call the games, but it had to do with money.

How did you secure the job after seeing the ad?
I have a bunch of archives of me calling play-by-play on old cassette tapes, so I sent some of them. Mostly, it wasn’t Cree that I called on the tapes; it was an English version. But I found one in Cree, so that’s how they knew I did some Cree hockey. In between my English calling, I’d throw in some Cree for about two or three minutes, five minutes at the most. People knew I could do it, and my friends were saying, “Apply for it! Apply for it!” Eventually, I did.

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Have you ever called an entire game in Cree, or has it always been mixed?
Mixed. But now, with these youngsters here, I’ve called a few games in Cree all the way. But I don’t have tapes of that. I’ll give you an example from back in the ’90s. [Plays a cassette over the phone so I can hear. Iron’s recorded voice bubbles with pep and flows like an auctioneer.]

What reaction have you received since you secured this gig?
Especially on Facebook, they tell me, “Congratulations, Clarence. I hope you do a good job for our audience, for the indigenous people.” They’re excited as I am. Maybe even more so. They keep asking me where and when is it? What time? But it’s going to be advertised.

How are you preparing for Sunday’s broadcast? Going from local kids’ games to Canadiens-Hurricanes is a leap.
You need to know the names, for sure, and the numbers. If you don’t know the names and numbers, it’s pretty hard to call. I have a system. Every tournament I called, it was always a mix of different players; it’s never the same players. So I used to write the players’ names and numbers in chronological order on paper. I’d start with No. 4, then No. 6, then No. 10. That way I know where to look if I don’t know the name of the player. I learned on my own. No one taught me.

How will Sunday’s broadcast impact the Cree community?
It’s going to open doors, for sure. Even back home here, when I call play-by-play — I call some football and boxing, too — the young people hear me, and it makes them want to speak Cree. Maybe one of those might grow up to be a play-by-play caller. This is very important because this is the year of indigenous languages to be recognized. In at least one aspect, I’m helping open doors in the sports world. Our language is very important. We’re trying to keep it alive. Nothing can stop us. We have the talent, but we were never given the opportunity at a professional level. I could’ve called NHL, I think, if I was scouted earlier. I knew every player and their number at one time. To know that, it’s very easy to call a game. In the Lafleur days, I knew pretty much everybody. I thought back then I could’ve been a good play-by-play caller in Cree.

How nervous are you for that moment you go live on-air Sunday and make some history?
I’m not nervous. The only thing I was worried about was not knowing the names and the numbers, but I’ve been studying them. I know it’s going to be fast, because it’s the first one. Now, if I had four NHL games to warm-up and the fifth one was live, I’d feel safer. But doing the very first one live, off the bat? It’s going to be a very fast game. But I like a challenge. I’m not scared. I also was called in to doing a live play-by-play boxing match in Regina, and whoever won the fight was supposed to advance to a title fight in Las Vegas. So, I’m going for it. It’s exciting. I want to do it for the indigenous people across Canada, those that will understand Cree. I toured Canada — right across — one time and tried to stop in every community I could. Some of the dialects, like Ojibwe, are a little different, but the Cree itself, pretty much everybody can understand one another.

Is there any sense this could lead to future NHL broadcasts in Cree?
I’m healthy. I jog. I play hockey. Until one day they might have a younger person come in, I’m ready for the challenge. If they want to do it every Saturday, Hockey Night in Canada, I challenge it. I might be good for another 10 years. [chuckles]

Hey, Bob Cole is still rolling at 85.
There’s people out there who are 70 years old and they’re still doing. I’d be good to call.

Anything else you believe is important for people to know?
Well, it’s very important for the younger generation. I hope they get in their mind that one day they can do things on a professional level. Even me, when I was listening to the Punjabi broadcast, I thought, “Well, if these guys can do it, anybody should be able to call play-by-play.” I know it takes skill, and it’ll take time. But I’ve heard 12-year-olds who can speak good Cree. I hope one of those hears this, gets excited, comes on board, and we can help them.

A version of this story was first published in March 2019.

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