The consummate professional
Jim Robson is the first to admit he was in the right place at the right time.
What that shouldn’t be mistaken for is luck.
Robson will be celebrated during Jim Robson Night at Rogers Arena this Saturday when the Vancouver Canucks host the Detroit Red Wings. Classic old clips and vintage radio and TV calls will be adored by all, but it’s the former broadcaster’s drive, passion and dedication for his craft that should be most admired.
Players don’t make it to the NHL overnight and neither do broadcasters. It takes years of practice and for Robson, that began at age 17 doing basketball play-by-play with CJAV in Port Alberni.
Robson was writing commercials when the opportunity to call sports with CJAV came along and he seized the opportunity, despite not having a second of on-air radio experience. One year turned into four as Robson kept his nose to the grindstone; bigger and better was certainly out there, but he understood that paying his dues was part of the process.
There’s always someone watching, or listening in Robson’s case, and that someone was Bill Stephenson, sports director at CKWX in Vancouver.
CKWX wasn’t an all-news station at the time as a lot of programming was dedication to sports, programming that Stephenson covered singlehandedly. When that became too much for him to handle, he reached out and brought Robson on board in 1956.
“I was hired as an assistant, which was unheard of in those days,” said Robson, now 75-years-young. “The station did BC Lions football, Vancouver Mounties Pacific Coast League Baseball and the Vancouver Canucks Western Hockey League games, in addition to other local sports. As the backup, I would do the baseball when he went to football training camp in June and when he’d take a week off to cover the Grey Cup, usually in Toronto, I would do the hockey.”
In the blink of an eye Robson went from a six-year-old listening to Foster Hewitt do Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts with his dad to a 21-year-old coming into his own and on the verge of his big break.
That came in 1960 when Stephenson left for Toronto leaving Robson to fill his shoes. He had made it, in a sense, but worked harder as the sports director than ever before. In 1961, Robson’s workload was made up of 230 play-by-plays spread between baseball, hockey and football.
It was as memorable as it was grinding, but it was what Robson had to do to realize his dream.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1970 when the Canucks entered the NHL, Robson dropped baseball and football from his schedule to specialize in calling hockey, both for the Canucks and as part of the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.
That’s where you come in.
Scroll back through your rolodex of Canucks memories, both happy, sappy and crappy, and Robson was likely a part of most of them.
For 24 years Robson was the radio voice of the Canucks on CKNW, a duty he performed solo until colourman Tom Larscheid joined the broadcast booth in 1977. Robson saw and called it all in covering nearly 2,000 regular season Canucks games before stepping in front of the camera for a few years to end his illustrious career.
A lot of Robson's infamous calls will forever be prominent in Canucks history; off the top of your head the Greg Adams call likely comes to mind: “Back at the line to Babych, long shot, Potvin had trouble with it…Adams shoots, SCORES! GREG ADAMS! GREG ADAMS! ADAMS GETS THE WINNER 14 SECONDS INTO THE SECOND OVERTIME! THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS ARE GOING TO THE STANLEY CUP FINAL!”
What few people don’t realize about the greatest call in Canucks history is how simple it is. Robson didn’t go over the top, despite being filled with more Canucks adrenaline than ever before. He didn’t even joyously curse. He relied on the basics, which is what he based his career on.
“My philosophy was to describe what happens as best as you can. Think of a blind person sitting in the stands listening to the crowd reaction and wondering why they are reacting that way, you’ve got to tell the people listening. Sometimes the crowd reacts and the announcer doesn’t say why the crowd is doing this, whether they’re doing the wave or picking on a player or what, you try to describe what happens.”
Simply describing the action was easy for Robson as despite his employer CKNW also owning the Canucks, he called a spade a spade. He didn’t want to be termed a cheerleader, although with a predominantly British Columbian audience, he did show more excitement for Canucks goals than scores from the opposition.
If anything, Robson was a cheerleader of preparation. Proper preparation prevents poor performance, a saying Robson dedicated himself to. His pre-game routine included visiting to both dressing rooms and talking with the referees before taking in warm up from the booth.
“I always thought that was very important. It gave me a chance to memorize the players’ numbers, see line-combinations and who the starting goalies were. If someone was missing I made note of that too and would call down to investigate. I always felt it was never as good of a broadcast if I missed any of the warm-up.
“I tried to get as much information and be as prepared as possible because you don’t want any surprises. That was Roger Neilson’s theory as a coach too, he didn’t want his players to start a game and be surprised by anything the opposition was doing.”
Listeners were never surprised by what Robson was doing on air, he was a consummate professional with a zest for play-by-play who earned every break he got in his career and earned the respect of Canucks fans for it.