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October 29, 2007
Boomer's Brutal Honesty
With his fans-first attitude and his controversial commentary, XM Radio's Jim "Boomer" Gordon is poised to become a breakout star in the hockey media.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- What strikes you first is the voice. You'd expect a radio personality with the nickname "Boomer" to have pipes like a diesel engine, like Mike Lange after a cigar bender. But Jim Gordon's delivery is at once laconic and loquacious, dazed but unconfused; imagine hearing the vocal love child of Keith Jones and Carl Spackler from "Caddyshack" talking about tonight's slate of NHL games, and you're getting close.

If his voice doesn't "boom," his opinions land with one: He is a brutally honest observer of the NHL, but one whose views are based on keen insight and a formidable memory bank.

This was my first month with access to NHL Home Ice, Channel 204 on XM Radio, where Gordon and co-host Joe Thistel hold court on the "Face Off" program for an hour prior to play-by-play coverage of League action every weekday.

The insight, the nickname, the delivery ... when I added it up, I assumed Boomer was an ex-player.

"People always think that, and I have to tell them I'm not," said Gordon, in a phone conversation while he waited to participate in an XM Radio commercial shoot. "Anyone who Googles 'Jim Gordon' finds the drummer that killed his mother. Musicians will tell you that this guy was considered by some to be the greatest drummer of all time ... who did too many drugs and ended up killing his mother and spending the rest of his life in an institution.

"But I'm not him."

No kidding. So who is Boomer Gordon?

 

"One of those guys that has so much information stored in his head that you wonder where he stores it," said Thistel, who's also the program director for Home Ice. "He's the same off air as he is on the air ... he's never at a loss for an intelligent observation or an honest opinion. And in my experience, the best sports broadcasters are the guys that aren't controlled by an on-air light. They're the same whether they're on the air or not. That's Boomer."

Looking back on it, I was a little embarrassed to have thought that Gordon was an ex-NHL player. Because his opinions aren't anchored down by old friendships or locker room protocol or the callow politeness usually associated with ex-pros in the sports media. You know: The kind of "good 'ol boy" protectionism that makes the mainstream hockey media so tedious.

"I think why [my honesty] hasn't been discouraged yet — and the word is 'yet' — is because we do have good-'ol boys on our channel, and we've been accused in the past of being a sponsor of the League instead of covering the League," he said.

As an outsider to the hockey media, honesty continues to be the policy for Boomer, 37, which is why he's been a revelation on XM.

"Boomer represents every fan," said Thistel. "What he says comes from the heart because he loves the game of hockey and fights for its integrity, in all situations."

"I freak out a lot over the little things," said Gordon. "Like I freaked out over the three stars one night. In Nashville, two of the three guys didn't even come out. They went as far as the door, looked up and waved. And I'm thinking, 'People are paying a ton of money. You should be out signing autographs and thanking people for all the money they have to spend nowadays."

Does he think the league has the best interests of the fans in mind?

"No, I don't," he said "And I think that's a huge problem, and there's a huge disconnect there. But a lot of those problems stem from the fact that the league and the players never sit down and say, 'This is where we are and this is where we need to be.' "

THE BOOM IS BORN

Gordon grew up in Burlington, Ontario, watching OHL games and seeing players like Steve Yzerman as fresh-faced teenagers. He played hockey when he was younger, and his best friends father was Dave Draper, then an OHL coach before embarking on a legendary career as an NHL talent scout.

Eventually, Gordon played more soccer, golf and basketball than puck — and then came his stint as a competitive skier.

"It's incredible in Canada, because no family gives up hockey for skiing. But we skied on the weekends, did a lot of traveling, and gave up hockey," he said.

"I never chose hockey or broadcasting as a career."

Broadcasting, in a way, chose him. Gordon said his sister ended up marrying Stephen Tapp, the CHUM media big-wig who went on to become president and COO of XM Canada.

"He came to me and said, 'We've got to get you into broadcasting,' " recalls Gordon.

When Home Ice started, Gordon sought out a role on the production side, despite a lack of experience.

"Boomer worked for many years at Taylor Steel," said Thistel. "He came in for a job interview unannounced, inexperienced, and I just saw something that I liked. I had no idea it would come so far so fast. To be truthful, the on-air component wasn't on the original agenda. We just took a shot one day and he was fearless, and clicked with the listeners like no one else I've ever seen."

Gordon joined the channel, eventually earning the nickname "Boomer" from morning host Scott Laughlin due to his 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame and strong resemblance to Major League Baseball pitcher David "Boomer" Wells.

"I've never been 'Boomer' before in my life. When I was a kid, I was 'Slim Jim'. But I filled out," he said.

Things change, as Gordon has witnessed first-hand. One of the reasons he works so well on the air is because his journey to the microphone wasn't predetermined; that makes his delivery sound unrehearsed, connecting with his audience in a way that other more polished broadcasters cannot.

"I didn't get into this thing to be an on-air personality," said Gordon. "It's like my boss says: 'I've created a monster here.'"

‘THEY'RE JUST VANILLA’

When the monster decides to roar — in his patented laid-back manner, that is — Gordon is unlike anything else on the network.

XM Home Ice is a godsend for any hockey fan who lives in a media market where NHL news is about as welcome as an outbreak of mumps. Twenty-four hour coverage, live game broadcasts, constant news updates; for an American fan, it sure beats trying to tune in a static-filled AM station from the Great White North on a starry evening.

But it's not without its flaws. There aren't enough interviews with coaches, players and general managers throughout the day, and the "experts" that phone in — with a few exceptions — offer uneventful commentary or pathetically fail to generate any buzz. The hosts themselves tend to sound alike — minus Gordon, Phil Esposito and the New York-based boys on "NHL Live" — which is a symptom of the over-Canadianization of the Toronto-based channel.

As a producer on Esposito's show and as an on-air talent himself, Gordon is aware of these issues. He said one of the early mandates for the station was to balance the geography of the voices and the coverage; thus, XM will have a West Coast-based program on the air soon.

When it comes to guests, he said, "it is hard, and the teams themselves don't help."

Gordon said he needs to line up guests for Espo's drive-time program, but there are only 18-20 teams that will offer them up. That's despite the fact that the teams are obligated to do so.

"Technically, we're supposed to be first in line [for guests]. Technically, a team like Detroit is supposed to look to us before they look to local media, because we're rights holders and we pay a lot of money," said Gordon, estimating that XM will spend around $130 million during the course of its deal with the NHL.

But even when a player does come on the air, the results don't often make for good radio, because they're as reserved as they are on the ice these days.

"They're incredibly boring. Nowadays, it's not sports — it's sports entertainment. I think these guys have just been brainwashed for so long: Hockey players don't talk, they don't promote, they don't hot dog. A lot of those things are things that people like about the league, but at some point you have to sell the product," he said.

"I'm not saying you have to put Chad Johnson in the NHL, but if every once in a while if someone had a little Chad Johnson in him, it wouldn't be a bad thing."

He points to a situation last season in Nashville, when Alexander Radulov went from being a spirited player to somewhat more reserved.

"I saw an interview with him about a month into the season and he said that a couple of the veteran guys pulled him aside and said, 'That's not the way we do things here.' That is so weak. Let Radulov be Radulov instead of having 700 robots out there."

STRIKING THE BALANCE

If there's one thing Gordon isn't, it's another hockey drone enslaved by politeness and cuckolded by the League. His opinions, his snark and his passion for the sport are his own.

"But it's also going to get me outed, you know?" he said. "I ain't gonna be on any networks whatsoever. It's not just the hockey media, it's hockey in general. They're just vanilla, they don't say anything, they're afraid to get outed if they say anything controversial. It is tired."

What Boomer has been able to do is strike a balance between being a hockey critic and being a hockey cynic — a cynicism at which the downright predator-like Toronto media excels.

"They're not that clever, the media here. They're not that bright and they don't think things through," he said. "Every year they pick out a punching bag. Last year, it was [Andrew] Raycroft; no matter how many games he won, they were going to jump him. This year, it's [Brian] McCabe. They're not jumping him because he's a horrible defenseman — which he is, by the way — but they're jumping him because he's a horrible defenseman making $6 million a year."

McCabe, the Toronto media, overpaid players... in one statement, Boomer can lay waste to several targets, and you hang on every word because he sounds like someone you don't mind having a pint with at the neighborhood pub, even if the game is on the flatscreen.

You listen because there's finally a voice in the mainstream hockey media that isn't speaking on behalf of the League in guarded tones and careful words.

You listen because he sounds like a fan, because he is a fan — just one that happens to be able to talk circles around the alleged "experts" and then back it all up.

He's such a rarity, you leave his program worrying that XM will have to end up muzzling him one day.

"My job as boss isn't to tell Boomer what to say, or what not to say. It's to present all sides of an issue," said Thistel. 'Boomer generally takes a firm side and there's nothing worse in broadcasting than someone who won't take a stand. Never had that problem with Boomer.

"But tone him down? Not on my watch."
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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