The Ingredients of a Magical 5th U.S. Division Title


Standing along the ice last Saturday night moments before the annual Tips Awards Ceremony, and gazing at the electrified crowd of nearly 8,000 souls completely going crazy for a U.S. Division title, I couldn’t help but manufacture one appropriate word to summarize this incredible ride:

“Magical.”

How magical, you say?

Let’s start with local prognostications, everywhere including the words “favorites to repeat, with or without Barzal,” in description of the Seattle Thunderbirds, who in 2015-16 raced ahead of the Silvertips in the final three weeks of the regular season to take the U.S. Division title and then reach the WHL Finals.

The Silvertips? They came into this season as one of the youngest teams in the league. They lost four of their top six scorers from last season. By end of this season, they were still young – though the addition of Dominic Zwerger and Aaron Irving took them out of the “age basement.”

Yet consider the evidence:

  • They were the among the bottom four youngest teams in the Western Conference (by end of the season: 14 players on the roster were 98-born or younger). Two of those bottom four, Spokane and Vancouver, missed the playoffs.
  • By weight, they were one of the lightest teams in the Western Conference (heaviest? Seattle).
  • By height, they were one of the smallest teams in the Western Conference (biggest? Prince George).
  • They lost nearly 180 man games due to injury or World Junior Championships.

So how does this division title happen, outside the obvious element of warrior mentality?

  • GOALTENDING! Carter Hart – NHL property of the Philadelphia Flyers – was 32-11-6-2 with 9 bagels and tied the league’s best with a .927 save percentage.
  • SPECIAL TEAMS! The Tips penalty kill was best in the WHL this season. Their power play finished at 20.7 percent (very good efficiency numbers) – third best in Tips history – and torched their way through the final week, 8-of-24 at one point.
  • DEPTH! There were four guys who hit the 20-goal plateau (Bajkov, Zwerger, Fonteyne, Sutter) this season. Aaron Irving and Eetu Tuulola had 18. And … (*drumroll*) 18 guys were +1 or better.
  • COACHING! Kevin Constantine surpassed 300 wins – all with the Silvertips. Among winning percentage of coaches with four years or more in the WHL, he has the sixth best win percentage in league history (the only ones higher: Ryan Huska, Ken Hitchcock, Mike Johnston, Dunc McCallum, and Dave Lowry). Mitch Love’s defensemen teamed with the forward corps to allow only 2.3 goals per game, fewest in the WHL. We covered his penalty kill already. Brennan Sonne’s power play ranked in the league’s top ten nearly all year.

Starting in the summer of 2012 with general manager Garry Davidson overseeing the selection of the ’97 born draft class (think: Juulsen, Davis, Bajkov, Fonteyne), and culminating at the developing talent in the Silvertips dressing room under Constantine’s watch, the Tips have molded division titles in two of the last three seasons under a spectacularly coordinated array of moving parts. Or in other words, to quote the ancient Chinese proverb, “one finger cannot lift pebble.”

Banners are won throughout a 72-game process of blood, sweat, tears, analysis, and even some bounces along the way. It’s a division title that didn’t happen by accident. It happened, as once again, everything coming together.

Now it’s onto the playoffs: where anything can happen. I completely remember assistant coach Mitch Love’s heavy words of how “tight” the dressing room was this year. It was pretty evident that something special had been brewing.

We can’t predict how the playoffs will go. The point gap between the first and eighth place team in the Western Conference finished just 20 points apart, the smallest deficit since the Tips began play 14 seasons ago. This would be like trying to play darts with limp spaghetti.

One thing we can do: sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. Friday night is almost here.

Award winning broadcaster Mike Benton is in his second season as radio play-by-play voice of the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, and 12th in the game. Tweet at him here.

Thank You, Bob. We Smile Because It Happened.


“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss

Remarkably and fittingly, those words were used by a similar Los Angeles play-by-play legend to wrap up his career. As we can smile because Vin Scully happened, we can now officially smile because of another career that happened, involving a name synonymous with a legendary listening experience:

Bob Miller.

He called it a career today after 44 years of one job, 3,351 games, and 57 amazing total years in broadcasting – many incredibly, with the Los Angeles Kings as THEIR VOICE. That’s a long time (especially in broadcasting!) to call one place, “home.”

Gazing live at the Kings livestream coverage of his announcement, the day became reality that we never wanted to see happen. I can’t believe it’s over, like you. But rest assured, as a guy who grew up listening to him from my living room television and later, extremely privileged to develop a relationship with him, I smile with you because he happened. Offering this summary for a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame for 17 years, he just didn’t have a career. He delivered an experience.

 

Case in point? Try Wayne Gretzky’s 802nd goal, breaking Gordie Howe’s all-time record:

“…. Robitaille with Gretzky the trailer …”

Your ears percolate.

“… Gives it to Gretzky … RIGHT SIDE TO MCSORLEY …”

 Your eyes bulge.

“… back in front to Gretzky … HE SCORRREES!!!”

As the Great Western Forum goal siren screams, and the crowd roars, your heartbeat races.

… Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record book is now complete! He’s the all-time leader in points, assists, and now with his 802nd goal … the all-time leading goal scorer – IN THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE!”

That’s what makes legendary hockey play-by-play guys so legendary. You don’t just listen, you FEEL IT.

Bob made you feel it. Growing up in the Los Angeles area during the years of my adolescence – and sharing similar  occurrences with fellow hockey fans – we were spoiled to get that experience for a whopping five decades. Bob’s voice delivered and unfolded the game as it was natural: rapid, pulsating, sharp, and electrifying. He is the vocal soundtrack to Wayne Gretzky in silver and black, to Marcel Dionne in purple and gold, to Drew Doughty and two Stanley Cup championships.

I’m certain to share this sentiment with countless individuals privileged to wear a headset for a living: he is the individual who single handedly inspired me to get into hockey, behind the mic.

Bob’s attitude, honesty, humility, and friendliness are among the most important tools in his communication skills tool belt. He shared the game with many listeners, viewers, and friends as if it was an up-close and personal experience. And when you finally got the chance to meet him, he made you feel more than just up-close and personal: he made you feel like a longtime friend.

I’m proud yet fortunate to know Bob Miller for more than just a distant inspiration. I’m proud to know him as a mentor and friend.

Bob’s name still stands on my resume as a reference, and went above and beyond to phone the Stockton Thunder for a recommendation when I pursued (and landed) my first broadcasting job in hockey. As many fellow friends in the business can attest to, he was always willing to pick up the phone when you called his house. Whatever he was in the middle of, he was always willing to give you 5-15 minutes of an intimate and warming conversation, whether to catch up or provide solid, raw, and unfiltered career advice.

He taught me more than just the basic mechanics of handling the flow of play-by-play and preparation: he taught me about the value of being approachable. In the long run, you never know who you may meet, and use that valuable experience to “pay it forward.”

As an intern for the Los Angeles Kings in their media relations department for the 2000-01 (the “Deadmarsh beats the Red Wings”) season: I was 19 years old going on 20, inexperienced, full of ambition, willing to learn and eager to meet people, but swimming treading water in the real world trying to hang with the polished, big boys of the NHL. At first, it can be intimidating. In the end, it was rewarding. As a guy who would sit with you at the press table to chat, Bob was one of the those who made the experience rewarding.

We kept in touch. Later in college, my first legitimate feeling of having a shot to hang around in this business was after he listened to an old cassette of my rag-tag hockey demo work*, and replied with a formal typed letter of his critique, concluding with “I firmly believe you have a future as a play-by-play announcer.”

(*read: I spent 15 years living and going to school in southern California, where the college hockey options aren’t exactly robust as compared to their midwest/northeastern region brethren, so I connected with a youth roller hockey league to record several play-by-play demos from a series of games from the rafters).

He was a year removed from being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was my hockey broadcast hero growing up. For a college age guy, that felt like hitting the career lottery.

Phone call after phone call, he would ask about my progress, and remarkably was willing to provide an interview for my senior thesis at Azusa Pacific University which included an amazing story surrounding the famous game 7, 1993 Kings/Maple Leafs series in the Campbell Conference Finals that had the 5-4 final and ending reminiscent of a high-speed chase movie scene (long story short: he signed off and exhaled, head dropped to the Maple Leaf Gardens booth desk like a fighter at the end of a prize bout. The stage manager asked if Bob was okay. Bob said “I’m fine … just exhausted. It’s over.”).

Tagging along with my Dad, Greg, to a Kings game in 2007, three seasons into my career, and introducing Bob to my Dad (thus, a bucket list item for two male heroes to meet in that booth) is a bonafide life moment.

We still keep in touch to this day.

As he predictably responds with a humble tone of gratefulness, I still make a point to close every phone call with gratitude of our relationship, reminding how much he inspires people and the universal level of respect for him that knows no boundaries. More than just a model citizen to providing feedback, constructive criticism, and advice, he is a legitimate role model.

It’s easy to have a conversation with Bob and pause for a moment while someone new enters the circle for an autograph, photo, or merely kind words they want to share. The one thing I notice with Bob: he never forgets to ask “what’s your name?” when meeting a stranger. I took that with me, like a golden rule of communication skills.

He is the definition of “down to earth.” He is an inspiration.

He toiled for nearly four decades before getting a chance to call a Stanley Cup title for the Los Angeles Kings. There’s nobody who maybe handled the waiting period with a sense of balance and patience like Bob, but you had to feel for his endurance through even the most recent “lean years” (the Kings missed the playoffs from 2003-09) before he got a chance to call the one phrase that Kings fans waited all of their lives to hear:

JUNE 11, 2012, STAPLES CENTER: “The Los Angeles Kings are indeed the Kings of the National Hockey League. They are the 2012 Stanley Cup Champions!”  

For so much disappointment (and Kings fans, you remember the illegal stick at Montreal in 1993?), and even small trepidation for Adam Henrique’s late second period goal in Game 6 to make it 4-1, later that summer in 2012 I remember Bob once telling me, “you could sense that it was finally ‘going to happen’ when Trevor Lewis made it 5-1. You could finally exhale.”

No more playoff demons. Bob finally got his Cup call, a ring, and a memory he was waiting for a long time. He even justifiably added a riveting encore two years later – all fitting rewards of endurance for a model citizen who happened to make one of the greatest livings of all-time in the history of play-by-play.

Bob made it a fine career. You sir are a gentleman, role model, and an exemplary storyteller. I carry many of your examples as reminders in my journey, now handling play-by-play in the Western Hockey League with the Everett Silvertips.

So here’s to you, exhaling at the end of a fine career.

We smile because you happened.

Award winning broadcaster Mike Benton is in his second season as radio play-by-play voice of the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, and 12th in the game. Tweet at him here.