by George Darkow | AHL On The Beat Archive
Few hockey broadcasters can say their careers in the booth began with calling ponies, but for Oklahoma City Barons radio announcer Jim Byers, his deep broadcasting roots began with furlongs and photo finishes.
Though describing the fast-paced action of horse racing paid the bills, Byers has always had a distinct passion for hockey. Playing as a youngster growing up in suburban Chicago and later officiating as a teenager after his family relocated to Los Angeles, hockey always seemed to find Byers.
Now beginning his 33rd year of broadcasting, Byers’s career on the microphone began in 1983 as an announcer at the now-defunct Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood, Calif.
In 1988 Byers took a job at the newly opened Remington Park racetrack in Oklahoma City. Having left his home in Los Angeles for what he believed was merely a pit stop, Byers soon found he could begin cultivating the career in hockey he’d long desired when the Central Hockey League was revived in 1992, ushering in the rebirth of Oklahoma’s two former professional franchises, the Oklahoma City Blazers and the Tulsa Oilers.
On a professional level, though, Byers’s hockey career didn’t begin in the broadcast booth. Knowing that most minor league operations sought officials in local areas, Byers leaned on his prior experience officiating hockey and acquired a position as an official in the newly resurrected league. Quickly, the reality of working in professional hockey sunk in.
“The first time I ever stepped on the ice at the Cox Center (formerly the Myriad) as an on-ice official, stood for the anthem and realized I was about to step between two teams playing professional hockey, wondering what the heck was going on was an unbelievable thrill,” Byers said.
After two seasons officiating, the 1982 journalism graduate of San Diego State University made the transition from the ice to the booth. He became the play-by-play voice of the Tulsa Oilers in 1996, a position that required Byers to commute 100 miles north from his home near Oklahoma City to Tulsa numerous times a week. In addition to the miles Byers spent between the various cities of the CHL, he also remained the announcer at Remington Park.
“The Oilers would play a Friday game at home and then a Saturday game in Wichita, so I’d drive to both games,” Byers said. “Then they’d play in Oklahoma City on a Friday and then a home game in Tulsa on Saturday, so I’d drive there and then back. A lot of the time, I would leave for Tulsa straight from calling races at the track.”
Following three years calling games for the Oilers and horse races at Remington, Byers became the broadcaster for the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the one-time triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, ultimately leaving his positions at Remington Park and with the Tulsa Oilers to focus solely on America’s pastime.
In 2005, though, hockey would come calling again as Byers was asked to be the play-by-play voice of the Blazers. For the next five years, he spent summers calling home runs and strikeouts, and winters describing power play goals and penalty kills.
When the American Hockey League arrived in Oklahoma City in 2010, the Barons’ choice for a play-by-play announcer was a no-brainer, and Byers jumped at the opportunity to make calling games at the highest level of professional hockey Oklahoma had ever seen his sole priority.
The consummate professional, Byers takes a tremendous amount of pride in his work. His broadcast booth is a visual lesson in the values of preparation and studying. Rosters, statistics, notes, and more are carefully laid out in front of him, affixed to all surfaces of his booth with clear tape and marked up throughout the course of a game with important notes he will draw upon at later dates.
Once the final horn sounds, work continues for Byers, who spends countless hours compiling statistics and creating game notes for the Barons’ next game. While players and coaches take advantage of the downtime travel creates, Byers is often hard at work in his seat on the team’s bus or plane.
His knowledge and passion for the sport are conveyed throughout his broadcasts, whether he’s painting a verbal picture of the action on the ice or simply rattling off the statistics of a lesser-known player who just so happens to have an interesting story worthy of sharing. Because of his careful attention to detail and determination to provide a flawless broadcast, Byers has become an ambassador to the sport of hockey in Oklahoma, a distinction he welcomes with open arms despite the responsibility it brings.
“I think the main responsibility is to present the game appropriately,” Byers said. “It’s important to communicate properly to your audience. There are subtle differences between broadcasting in, say, Toronto, and broadcasting games in a market that has had various hockey histories and even some years without hockey.
“It’s understanding those subtleties. It’s communicating with your audience. It’s having the right amount of basic information but not explaining it in a lecturing or condescending way. If you can have fun and promote the product while hitting as many of those marks as you can and communicating with as many listeners as you can, you can be successful.”
Perhaps what makes Byers such a success in the eyes of fans is his careful attention to detail and his desire for perfection. Ask Byers what part of his job he least cares for and his response turns intrinsic, stating his only dislikes are moments in which he misses a call or describes a situation less colorfully than he believes he can. But if he’s learned anything over his 30-plus-year career, it’s the value of precision and accuracy.
“I think there was a component of that in my personality from the beginning,” Byers said. “But when I got into horse racing, I learned racing really played into perfectionism. It is a repetitive task; sort of a mental game you have to play with yourself every 30 minutes or so to forget what you just did and call another race that visibly looks very much the same but has different entrants in it. And you’re responsible for accurately describing what’s going on to people who have an investment in the outcome.
“As a broadcaster, you have to put in that prep work, because you never know what’s going to happen, but you’re always driven by wanting to be prepared in case something does happen,” Byers added. “You don’t want to be scrambling on the air to figure out something you could have done beforehand.”
Throughout his five-year stretch with the Barons, Byers has had the opportunity to call the games of dozens of Edmonton Oilers prospects, but some of his favorite moments came in the midst of the 2012 NHL lockout, when he was given the opportunity to call Oilers stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle, as the trio found itself in Oklahoma City while the financial business of the NHL was at a standstill.
“The first time that Hall and Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle played in Abbotsford during the lockout of 2012 – the special atmosphere, a huge crowd, half of which was Oilers fans – that was a special moment,” Byers said.
Now, in what looks to be the final year for the Barons in Oklahoma City, Byers finds himself at a crossroads with the sport that’s made his career so enjoyable. Despite the fact the game that’s been his vehicle to success may cease to exist in his hometown, Byers remains optimistic and ever thankful for the opportunity he’s had.
“I’ve been very fortunate and I’ve had a good run here,” Byers said. “I’m not so sure this is the very end for me, but as far as the Barons go, I’ll miss the organization; getting to know the staff and players, who have always been tremendous to work with.”
Whether Byers moves on to fulfill his lifelong dream of working in the NHL or finds a new home in the AHL remains to be seen. Given his impressive resume and the reputation he’s garnered as being one of the sport’s best, it’s a safe bet Byers would be welcomed by many an organization. And should Oklahoma City be fortunate enough to play host to another professional hockey team in the future, there’s no doubt who would be the team’s first choice to call their on-ice action and help grow a new generation of hockey fans.
After all, hockey always seems to find its way back to Byers.