Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Alanah McGinley on 12/12/06 at 12:05 PM ET
A Life Covering Hockey
With more than 25 years in the business, 15 of them with the Edmonton Oilers doing radio and television games, Morley is a very busy man but obviously doing something he loves.
“Hockey was always my favorite sport,” he reflected. “Originally I wanted to be a newspaper person and then I kind of gravitated [towards] the electronic media. It’s all I’ve ever done in my adult life. I got my first job when I was either 20 or 21 in St. Paul, Alberta. Worked there, then went on to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, then back to Edmonton, and I’ve been in Edmonton since ‘87.”
Morley covered a variety of levels in hockey in the years prior to his Oilers’ association. In St. Paul he worked the Central Alberta Junior B League. In Prince Albert he got to experience the Western Hockey League, calling the broadcasts there. He even worked the University of Alberta Golden Bears games back in the early 1980s.
“I loved junior hockey. Junior hockey is great!” he says as he remembers those days. “I’m looking forward to the Oil Kings coming back and playing next year.”
But Morley’s career is long past the days of analyzing junior hockey games. He joined the Oilers broadcast team in the early 1990s after working sports radio in Edmonton for a few years, and hasn’t looked back.
How does someone land a job like that?
“I kind of lucked into the job with the Oilers because the station I was working at as Sports Director got the rights [to broadcast Oilers games] and they moved me into the broadcast,” Morley explained. “So I just kind of fell into that. And then it just evolved from there to where it is now.”
Where it is now is a grueling schedule that I experienced first hand last week, when Morley came to Vancouver to cover that Oilers/Canucks game. Allowing me to tag along behind him for most of the day, I learned that Morley’s game broadcasts are only a small percentage of the time necessary to do his job.
For one thing, Morley’s obligations to the Oilers and 630 CHED, the station he broadcasts on when doing the radio commentary, include many varied obligations beyond doing color commentary on the game itself. In the last year for instance, in conjunction with an Oilers’ team sponsor, he’s been photoblogging the team with his camera phone. “I’ve been trying to find some different pictures this year. It’s fun, it’s neat to do.”
While he hasn’t tried his hand at blogging yet (“To write a blog is pretty time-consuming,” he points out. “And I’m writing pre-game shows every game day, so that’s where my writing-side goes into it.”) he is becoming experienced in the world of podcasting.
“We do a show called ‘Oilers Live’. We take emails, and then we take [an Oilers player] and sit him down for half an hour. It’s like a radio show, and we just read the emails and they answer questions. We do that once a week, every 10 days. When we’re home, I host them. When we’re not, the webmaster does it.”
But radio broadcasting, photoblogging and podcasting aren’t quite enough to keep this veteran occupied; he also spreads his talent into another field: Oilers television.
“I do play-by-play for the Oilers television pay-per-view broadcasts. [Plus] I back up Ray Ferraro as the color guy for Sportsnet for the local TV broadcasts, when he has conflicts with NBC or other situations. Over the years I’ve done about 25 to 30 TV games.”
I’ve since discovered how rare Morley’s career path really is. Doing NHL color analysis and play-by-play, and doing it in both television and radio, might make him one-of-a-kind in hockey. I asked what he preferred between color and play-by-play work.
“I like what I’m doing today [color analysis on the the radio] but I’d like to do play-by-play more often. It’s different—you’re still doing the game but it’s a whole different kind of approach to it. I like doing them both though. They’re both very challenging.
“A lot of guys, you get pigeon-holed as a color guy or a play-by-play guy, but I get the opportunity to do both which is great.”
Our conversation then moved on to the recent TSN experiment with Chris Cuthbert and Glenn Healy, calling the game at ice-level.
“I want to call Chris and talk to him about it. I haven’t talked to him about it since he did it. I thought the broadcast looked good, but to me it was—great for Chris—but it doesn’t do that much for me, except for the interviews he did down there. In-game interviews are obviously what add to it, but you can do that with a color guy down there, too.
“But I think it’s great that [TSN] is experimenting, that they’re trying to do things differently and take people closer to the game. It’s a great look with him down there, that’s for sure.”
Because of the somewhat-ambivalent answer, I asked if he’d like to try such a thing himself one day. Not surprisingly, he was enthusiastic about the idea of such a unique experience.
“I’d love to try that! I’ll try anything. You want to expand your horizons, right? Do what you can to improve the product, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not like basketball and football and baseball where everybody knows the sport—especially in the States. In Canada it’s different, but in the States everybody doesn’t know the product as well, and the more you can teach people about the game, the better.
“It’s more of an experience you can give them [and] no matter how good it is, you can always make it better.”
Morley never had a chance to play hockey himself beyond Midget AAA in Winnipeg. “That was it for me,” he said with good humor. He’s since tried to fit adult hockey into his life, but his schedule with the Oilers makes it impossible.
“It’s tough with this job, because I’m away so much and every time I find guys I can play with, they all want their $500 for the year up front. And since I’m going to miss fifty per cent of the games because I’m either away or working that night, I don’t partake.
“My son plays hockey so I spend a lot of time at the rink watching him play, so I get lots of hockey anyway,” he laughs. With mention of his family, I asked about the impact of his job on his time with them. “I get a lot of time in the summer with them, but I miss a lot of Christmas concerts and other events.”
Morley, married 22 years with two children, says that his family never travels with him on the road, but his son is a big fan and goes to a lot of Edmonton home games. And there are a few perks in having Morley as a father. “Over the years he’s gotten a couple autographs—he knows somebody who can get him some. So it works out well for him.”
Covering the Edmonton Oilers
Being with the Oilers these past 15 years—and in Edmonton sports journalism for even longer—Morley says he has experienced the highs and the lows of Oilers hockey firsthand.
Today the Edmonton Oilers reign high in the NHL having come off a stellar run to the Stanley Cup finals last season, and this year reside atop the Northwest division of the Western Conference with sellout crowds.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
“We had a game back in the early-mid 90s against Ottawa and the Oilers came out 1-0 [but] there was maybe 8,000 people there and the building was quiet. Everybody could hear [coach] Ron Lowe who was yelling line changes because his voice was so loud and the building was so quiet.
“After the game all everybody could talk about was [that] the atmosphere of the game was kind of non-existent. And to see where they are now from where they were then, it’s just been tremendous to see their rebirth and the growth again in the market.”
The Edmonton market endured some tough years, for sure. After an era of winning five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990, the team struggled mightily in the early to mid-1990s. In Morley’s opinion, it was the business side of the team the created problems in the market. “During that time - the low time for the Oilers - the ownership issues were going on, and the team was in the midst of changing hands in probably the next three or four years from the low point.”
I asked if he felt the Oilers attendance issues were a direct result of not winning, or if there was something else going on at the time.
“No, I don’t think so. It’s on how you treat your customers, and I think it’s on how you market the game. Winning is the best marketing tool there is, but getting a building full, you can’t rely on winning. You have to fill your building and keep them there, and hope that they’re understanding enough during the tough times.”
Things have since changed in Edmonton, which Morley largely attributes to the new ownership group. The Oilers can boast sellout attendance since November of 2005, and after a summertime gig playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, it shows no sign of slowing down.
About those Stanley Cup playoffs, I asked Morley about his ringside perspective on that remarkable run for the Cup.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “It was neat to be on the inside of it all. I’d seen the Oilers’ run to the Cup finals before, but always as either a fan or a media person who didn’t travel and just watched the home games.
“To be on the inside, and to see what they went through—to be on the planes with them flying back and forth—to see the commitment and the effort that they had to make to get as far as they did, was real fun to be a part of.”
Most of us can only imagine how it feels to witness something like the Stanley Cup playoffs up close, but do the media people following a team so closely during such intense circumstances get as emotionally involved as the rest of us?
“Absolutely, absolutely. I work for the Oilers, I want the Oilers to win, I’m just like everybody else. And that, I think, is where the emotion is. And let’s be honest, the more they win, the more money I make—that’s part of the deal, too—but you can’t help but get emotional with these guys.
“I spend seven months watching them play, and watching them practice, and doing interviews with them and travelling with them… We’re not [personal] friends but I see them everyday and I want them to do well.
“And so, obviously, there is that emotional attachment. I don’t think there’s one broadcaster out there that could travel with the team day in and day out, and go to practice every day like I do, and travel with them and watch every game, and not—somewhere inside you—want them to succeed. You can’t do it. You can’t get that close to people and not want them to succeed.
“Plus it’s a great experience just to be in that position, to broadcast a championship. Only thirty guys have my job in the world - on radio - doing the best hockey there is in the world. And only [two] of them get to call a Stanley Cup game every year.”
Any favorite memories of the playoffs?
“Not one particular moment. I really remember an emotional swing in game one, and they were winning I think 3-0, and I’m thinking… ‘Wow! They’re gonna win the Stanley Cup!’ because they were just playing with them. And then it just fell apart, and I remember the disappointment you feel, for them, for the fans, the way game one ended.
“And also in Game 7—to work that hard, to get there, and not be able to win game 7 was just crushing. A crushing blow I would think.
“I remember talking with Georges Laraque after they won in Anaheim, after they won the west, and Georges said ‘Well we’ve got to win [the Stanley Cup] now because I can’t imagine how bad I would feel if we didn’t.’ And when you think about it, that’s what you play for. You get so close and yet it’s so far away.
“And then you’ve got to start all over again, from September in training camp, to get to game seven in June sometime.”
A lot changed in Edmonton after they lost game seven last summer. They lost Laraque, Michael Peca, Jaroslav Spacek, Sergei Samsonov, and most notably, Chris Pronger. It’s well-known the hockey blogosphere and fans were ripe with bitterness at Pronger’s move, but I asked Morley for an insider’s perspective on how it affected the psyche of the team itself.
“You know what I think? That Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe did a great job within the team of turning the page. They had to deal with it for a couple of days when they went to training camp. They had to deal with it when they went to Anaheim in October. They had to deal with it when he came to Edmonton in November. But other than that, it’s been a non-issue.
“Guys have seen players come and go for years. It happens everywhere in the NHL—Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Curtis Joseph, Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, etcetera. You look at any other team and it’s the same thing over the years: players leave. Especially now with the new rules for free agency, players leave. Get used to it.”
So I asked if Morley would agree that the way fans reacted in Edmonton was maybe a bit more extreme than just fans reacting to losing a good player in the post-season.
“Yeah. I think that was because of what happened last year, and because of how far they went. And because of the way it [Pronger’s departure] happened. It came out of the blue for so many people [who] couldn’t understand why he’d want to leave the team. But he had his reasons.
“It’s fair to say that the fans took it harder than the players did. [The players] would take Chris Pronger back on their team any day obviously—but they’re doing a better job getting over it.”
A Typical Day on the Road
On the day I spent following Morley around, he arrived in Vancouver the previous afternoon to cover that evening’s game as the color analyst for 630 CHED. But also, as always, an employee of the Edmonton Oilers. I asked if he ever ran into any conflicts, being a sports journalist who worked for the organization he was reporting on.
“It’s different. My job’s not to create stories. My job is to tell you what’s going on on the ice. My job’s to tell you about the game. I’m not trying to fool anyone. I’m not an investigative journalist trying to break trades or whatever. My job is to tell you what’s happening, to bring you the information I gather about the game, about the team, and bring it to the listener or viewer.”
I asked what happened when he came across insider information—if, for instance, he knew of an injury that wasn’t yet reported on - would he report that to his listeners?
“Well, I do what the team wishes. What they release is what I use and that’s just the way it is. Nobody’s trying to stir the pot here, we’re just trying to bring the folks some hockey.”
And indeed, that’s what he does, emphasizing that Edmonton fans can be found in every corner of the world. “There’s Oilers fans everywhere. Everywhere. [Occasionally] I’ll get asked for an autograph, to sign the media guide. People say they love listening and they love Rod Phillips [my play-by-play radio partner]. We’ll talk about the photoblog—they’ll ask when the next pictures are going up. Yeah, it’s fun.
“That’s one thing I’ve found doing that [podcast], too. We get questions from everywhere, all over the world. We had Matt Greene on last week and we had a question from the United Arab Emirates.”
On a game day, preparation for an evening broadcast begins almost as soon as Morley gets out of bed. His first mission of the day is to get updated on the day’s hockey news (part of which includes Kukla’s Korner, I learned) and the newswire services.
“At home, I’m usually at my computer by 6:30 and I’ll work for about an hour at home. And then I’ll drive my kids to school and then go to the rink. I’m usually at the rink between 8:30 and 9 o’clock, depending on traffic. So I work there, they practice at 10, then I do my interviews.”
Morley’s pre-game interviews on days when he’s doing the radio show are done on a nifty little Sony recorder, but with more bells and whistles than my own.
One thing that many fans might not realize is, not only does Morley talk to the players and get the interviews on game days, he also cuts and edits all of his own audio work right at the arena, on the same handheld Sony. Later, when he’s on the air, the sound clips are all set and ready to be aired.
After doing these interviews and edits on the fly at the arena, it’s time to prepare his scripts for the night’s game. And there’s no chance of a game day nap in this business.
“When [in Edmonton] I usually go home and pick up lunch and watch a little tv and read the game notes for about and hour and a half in the afternoon. And then I go back to the rink for the game.
“I go on [the air] at 5:30 for a 7 o’clock game, so I like to get there at least by 4:30. We do a live opening, so I do one interview [as the show starts] at 5:30. At 7 o’clock they drop the puck, we go through the game, and then I do the post-game show afterwards.”
I spent nearly two hours in the broadcast booth with Morley and Rod Phillips that night, experiencing their pre-game routine in person. It was a mixture of lightness and madness only found with professionals who busy themselves with a job they truly love. It was a surprisingly relaxed and amiable environment as they alternated between talking to their listeners on the air, then bantering with each other and me during commercial breaks.
During one such break, we all found ourselves sucked into the NFL Monday Night Football broadcast being shown on one of the overhead televisions, featuring Sylvester Stallone sitting in on the football analysis. Without missing a beat, Morley and Rod launched into a two-way impersonation of Rocky Balboa analyzing the night’s game. Then, just as quickly as it began, it ended, as both men tuned into their headsets and went back to the hockey talk.
The entire experience in that booth was like that—whimsy and hard work brought together to make for a great live hockey show.
After the game ended, the post-game show ran half an hour as Morley conducted live interviews by headset from the broadcast booth, speaking with Oilers coaching staff and players after the game. Then it was time to get on the team bus and head to the airport.
“I’ll be scraping [the ice] off my car at about 1:30 a.m. Edmonton time and then going home.”
A day in the life of bringing hockey to the people.
*I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Morley Scott, the Edmonton Oilers, the Vancouver Canucks, NHL.com and the folks at 630 CHED for making this interview and game day story possible.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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