Jim Jackson has been a part of the fabric of Flyers hockey ever since he was brought to the organization as the radio play-by-play voice back in 1993.
On the advent of his 20th year calling NHL action here in Philadelphia, JJ was kind enough to talk to Bob H. on a variety of topics related to his journey through the years that has landed him with one of the top clubs in the National Hockey League and as a fixture for not only hockey, but also Phillies baseball.
BH: It’s common knowledge that you’re from Upstate New York. From which town do you hail?
JJ: I was born in Cortland, New York but I only spent a few months of my life there before my family moved up to Utica, which is where I spent the rest of my childhood. My father was a veterinarian, had his own practice.
Note: Cortland is roughly 100 miles north of Scranton, directly on the line Interstate 81 travels on its way to the Canadian border. It’s more than 200 miles from Philadelphia and home to one of New York’s state universities.
Utica, on the other hand, is one of a string of small towns which sprang up after the Erie Canal was built in the 19th Century. It’s roughly 40 miles Northwest of Cooperstown, nestled in the Mohawk Valley where the river cuts its way between hilly regions north and south of its flow.. It claims a history of minor league hockey stretching back to the 1970′s.
BH: So where did your sports loyalties lie, and what hockey teams did you grow up rooting for?
JJ: I was a New York fan, but I hated the Yankees…I mean, growing up in the early 70′s they just weren’t that good but even then and after with all the “Evil Empire” stuff I didn’t like them like a lot of people did. I rooted for the Mets, Giants, Rangers and Knicks, followed all four sports.
How did you formulate the idea to work in sports media, and was it an easy choice to want to be a broadcaster?
The moment came when I was playing JV football and one of the guys got sick and I filled in at practice and they stuck me in linebacker position and I got steamrolled, knocked out cold. It was either writing or broadcasting, and I always had the gift of gab so I went for that.
Was there a sense that, yeah, I’m going to have to get out of the area and strike out for different locations to follow my dream?
When I first got to Syracuse, I just would have been happy to be a sports director in Utica and done local sports, high school, college and minor leagues. But after about a month on campus with the kids who came around from the big cities — places nearby from the Northeast part of the country, your ambitions do change a bit.
At this time, in the competitive environment at Syracuse, was there a clear-cut choice between hockey and baseball, or were you thinking “whatever I can get my hands on, I’ll take?”
I had no real idea one sport over the other. I loved all four and I never cared which one. I did basketball and football mainly, then I got out, went back to Utica at a small station there and I put together a proposal to do a sports show on the weekend because they had news all during the week and Top 40 on the weekend.
They went for it and included me in the package with the other sports coverage and I worked five days a week. I got to go from an intern to a full-time job. (I was just) two years out and I was getting all this experience.
You landed with the Utica Devils, the AHL affiliate at that time to our favorite New Jersey franchise. You were a lucky guy to start out so close to home…
I was very lucky to have gotten out of school, come back home, in a quick turnaround have six years with the Devils and then I went to Philly. Very lucky.
How long was it before you decided it was time to try and move up and out?
Well…Lou Lamoriello who runs the Jersey Devils…at that time decided he wanted to move, so they moved.
They eventually moved over to Albany. In 1992-93, I got the sense it was going to be the last year for the team. I remember their head coach at the time was Robbie Ftorek. And after we got eliminated from the playoffs, he was giving his team the instructions to train for the Summer, then he looks at me, calls me over and says ‘What are you gonna do?’ I said ‘I’m going to send out tapes to Florida and Anaheim, and we’ll see what happens.’
So he says: ‘Send it all out now, to all the other teams, and maybe an opening pops up.’
So I went home, sent the rest of the teams a form letter and my tape. I got the Anaheim job, and was negotiating with them but it took forever…in the meantime I took a job with the Utica Bulldogs, low minor leagues, lower than the AHL, but that was just temporary.
I had just gotten married, so I wasn’t going to do minor leagues for long and make ends meet. I was in their offices one day, and while I’m talking to the Ducks, someone tells me that Mark Piazza from the Flyers on Line 2…I got to him on the other line and he said ‘We’re considering you for the radio job with the Philadelphia Flyers.’ Long story short, after six years of not looking for anything, suddenly I have two offers at once.
But the Flyers seemed to be the better opportunity, and when I got down to Philly…a contract was waiting for me.
Note: After the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning made their debuts that season in the NHL, the Panthers and Mighty Ducks gained entrance to the league in 1993, bringing the total number of clubs to 26. The Panthers actually finished ahead of the Flyers that inaugural season under future Flyers head coach Roger Neilson.
Ftorek, a former US Olympian who won Silver in 1972 at Sapporo, played in the World Hockey Association and NHL from 1972 through 1985, and got into coaching as soon as his playing days were over. He was at the helm for Wayne Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles, but by this time was working his way back up to the NHL in the Devils’ organization. He’d eventually be named New Jersey’s head coach in 1998, but was let go at the end of the following season, right before the club won its second Stanley Cup title.
From the archives of the Utica Observer-Dispatch: ” Utica landed the New Jersey Devils farm team in the American Hockey League (1987), a venerable, well-run league that kept a team here for six years. But fan support was never what it should be and the team skipped town for the Capital District a year after getting the (Memorial Auditorium) to make $1.3 million in improvements to the building. The 1992-93 season averaged only 2,778 fans a game during the regular season. Despite a…campaign by the Utica Chamber of Commerce and a local TV station to fill the Aud for the playoffs, only 2,224 fans showed up for the first playoff game.”
You don’t ‘replace’ someone like him, you just follow. I talked with him and learned from him for the two years before I went to television. He taught the area the sport of hockey and no one but he will ever be the Voice of the Flyers. I got some nasty letters when the news was announced. Back then, the internet wasn’t as close to what it is now, and I can’t imagine what it would be like if I did that today. Basically, these letters said “you pushed the legend out,” and the like. Still, once I got to the booth, it was a smooth transition.
Hart had been moved to radio, along with partner Bobby Taylor, following the 1987-88 season. Mike Emrick and Bill Clement took over on television from 1988-92. Hart remained on radio until 1993, at which time he was sent back to TV in a pairing with former Flyer and Hockey Night in Canada analyst Gary Dornhoefer. All of this shuffling came during the down period of the late 80s and early 90s which saw the Orange and Black fail to qualify for the postseason five years running.
Your thoughts on the Eric Lindros saga and how it framed the 2000 playoff run then and now.
My very first time in the Coliseum, it was pretty obvious how he just jumped out at you, he was so big and so fast. He was the best player on the ice and you just couldn’t take your eyes off of him. When he was on, he was such a dominant force. It was unbelievable experience for the whole time.
I didn’t fully understand how great it was until it was long over. It went away, we moved on but when the Alumni event happened and he came back to town it was great to talk with him and see him play with John LeClair again, it was a shame they couldn’t get Rennie (Mikael Renberg, who had to work the World Junior Championships for a Swedish TV outlet), and for the first time it gave me perspective that wow, that really was a something special…but there will be that question ‘what could have been?’ Sad thing is they never got to the promised land.
It was a privilege to call that line. Remember, that it didn’t go until LeClair was dealt there (in February of 1995). And who knows? They were up 3-1 against New Jersey and lost, who knows what would have happened if he came back earlier or not at all? It was really unfortunate to see it end that way, Lindros knocked out of the game by Scott Stevens and then he left and was never the same player in a couple different places.
You’ve had some animated characters in the booth, first with Steve Coates.
Coatesy was my first broadcast partner and actually when I first got here, I lived with him down at the Shore in Bob Clarke’s place…My wife was still back in Utica getting things together up there. He really is the spirit of the Flyers now, he was so much fun and keeps a lot of energy in the broadcast and makes us all laugh.
And then Dorny…
Gary was awesome. I was a complete TV rookie (his first season of 1995-96 on PRISM and Channel 17) and he took me in and was great, and was a great partner for many years. You knew exactly what you were getting with him and we had that special rapport after so many years. I always say that if I was ever thrown in a trench, I’d want him to be the guy in there with me. It was a ton of fun because that line was electrifying game in game out. That’s all you can ask for as a broadcaster and being part of a team like the Flyers.
And Keith Jones…
Jonesy is another great one. His sense of humor is so dry but he is still so funny. Though he likes to play the ‘dumb as a fox’ someone who doesn’t know what’s really going on, he clearly has to, to effectively do his job on NBC. I’ve been around a lot of players, but never been around a guy who could get more out of a morning or pre-game skate and notice something I would have never thought twice about.
And Bill Clement…
Yeah, of course Bill does seem to take things more seriously, but he’s another great guy with a great sense of humor. He’s another one who likes to keep it loose. It’s a big thrill to be sitting next to him in the booth. His ability to see the game and put it all into context in unparalleled.
Did you get a sense during the Boston series two years ago that this would be an all-time comeback, or were you looking at it like we fans and kind of going along for the ride?
We were all caught completely off-guard by that. I was doing my Phillies duties and watched Game 4 and thought well, if the Flyers win this I have work to do, if not I have baseball to do. Once the puck goes in during OT, Simon Gagne scores, I don’t know why I said this to the producer but I did: ‘It’s time to go make some history.’ Then they win Game 5 and it’s 3-2 and you start to wonder…and then to go down 3-0 in Game 7 and comeback…that has to be right up there as an all-timer…
Had there ever been a game in a championship round in any sport you called, or any title game you’ve ever seen that had such a bizarre, wrenching ending as Game 6 of the Finals?
I was in the studio (for the Comcast SportsNet pre-and-post-game shows) with the rest of the crew with the sound up, but not high. It was bizarre…you couldn’t tell…Doc couldn’t tell on TV…you’re that close, but…I got the feeling the Blackhawks were the better team, so I wasn’t shocked as much as disappointed.
Michael Leighton is still here, he told me he thinks about that all the time.
After all this time, do you get to the rink with a sense of wonder, like ‘Philadelphia — yeah, I really made it.’ Or is it much more grounded now that you’re an established personality?
Every day that my feet hit the ground I’m thankful for where I am, and what I’m doing. It’s great to be in Philadelphia after all this time.
Your favorite memory…and I might have to pin you down to just one, so…
(Laughs) Well, the five-OT game against Pittsburgh of course because it was the longest one…but if I had to pick one moment would be the Boucher shootout against the Rangers because it was right there, to make the playoffs sudden death and unbelievable drama. I know a lot of people don’t like the shootout, but how could it have been any better?
Least favorite memory?
My least favorite…I really couldn’t come up with one because when we advance to a certain point in the playoffs, we’re not doing the games anymore because the networks take over. So I’m not there for games such as Game 7 against New Jersey in 2000, such as the 2004 loss to Tampa Bay, or a crushing loss like Game 6 against Chicago.
There were some AHL games…one in particular where Olaf Kolzig stood on his head for Rochester against Utica.
It’s really difficult to pick one, to think about names like Lindros, LeClair, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Primeau, and now Claude Giroux and it’s tough. If you had to push me on it, I would say the first 20 games of Peter Forsberg’s tenure here, before he had his problems with his foot, were the best I’ve covered. He was so dominant.
Favorite player on another team?
I only saw about three or four years of Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, but the one guy I was totally in awe of was Ray Bourque. It was one of the few times I ever got into the awestruck mode as a professional.
Least favorite player?
I never really appreciated Darcy Tucker’s play and his act. Never respected that. I don’t like when Sidney Crosby whines and dives, but I have total respect for him as a hockey player. Same with Matthew Barnaby with his theatrics. His (Tucker’s) acting just always bothered me.
Anything you’d like to pass on to the crop of young broadcasters who want to follow the path to the NHL?
Experience: You’ve gotta get experience right away. Even though you’re going to go through some rough times, remember that there’s no such thing as bad experience in this business. You learn something at every step.
Perseverance: You will have to do it…to find a way to make your way. I was told at one point I was not good enough when I was back in Utica. My own mother didn’t want me to do it. She wanted me to become a vet like my Dad and take over his practice.
Barring any labor strife, Jackson’s regular-season broadcast debut will be on Saturday, October 13 as the Flyers take on the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. All of Flyers Faithful thanks him for his time and insight.