In a series of articles, called Isle Be There, my intention is to focus on the different social groups that support your New York Islanders team & its players. This will also include current events or situations in and around the team as it relates to its fan base and community.
When one of my favorite Islanders’ legends agreed to do an interview with me, I was kind of excited. John Kenneth McDonald has called hockey his professional career for almost 50 years. From his fabled calls as an Isles play-by-play announcer to his red carpet work in some of the organization’s biggest ceremonies at the NVMC, Jiggs is a part of New York sports history that even younger fans should take the time to learn about. Most fans understand the comradery and the feelings of a family type atmosphere with each other when attending games. An experience that is strengthened by being around others who love this team and cheer for them year in and year out, win or lose. It’s no different for most team employees or members of the broadcast family. When I asked about a favorite experience with Islanders fans, Jiggs wasn't able to give just one. “As a family, met so many wonderful people. People who we stay in contact with and enjoy spending time with.”
But as the voice of the New York Islanders for so long, Jiggs has a unique insight that spans the dynasty years through the trials of the Milbury era and back again, to what could be another special time in team history. A few days ago, I wrote about the possibility of Mr. McDonald returning to the booth to replace Howie Rose as a regular for next season, but then I got the opportunity to ask a few more questions, and I jumped at the chance.
Knight of Cups: Who do you see as a potential candidate for Howie’s long-term replacement? DP is a good choice, but he is more of a color guy. I asked Jiggs about his feelings on Isles radio host Chris King or former BST radio host Rich Bocchini.
Jiggs: “At this time I don't know who MSG might have in mind to replace Howie. Certainly someone with NHL experience will be a factor. No doubt they'll conduct a full scale search for a successor. I'm familiar with Chris' work and of course he will be at the top of the list.”
Chris King or “Kinger” as he is known in Isles circles has been with the Islanders radio network since 1998 and has numerous voice-over and radio talents to his credit. King was quoted as saying Arbour’s 1,500th game as Islanders head coach was the most memorable moment of his career. King should be one of the first guys considered for the job. In my opinion, Rich Bocchini should be the second. Or at least the first guy considered to replace King on the radio. Bocchini did play-by-play in Knoxville during the 2000-01season. He became the voice of the top New York Islanders affiliate, BST in 2001-02 and did color for Worcester with some play-by-play from 02-05. RGV 05-10 PBP. He also did arena football there. Bocchini toured as a sports anchor for radio and TV in Houston before his time as an on-air talent for the WWE. Jiggs was quick to point out that, “There are some very good people working in the AHL and ECHL that might have a shot as well.”
Jiggs added, “Selfishly, I wish I was 30 years younger because whoever is chosen to replace Howie Rose is going to be calling games for a very talented team. A team that is headed in the right direction and will be a contender for some time.”
Knight of Cups: What did you think of the Isles first season at the Barclays Center?
Jiggs: “To have a 100 point season while making all kinds of adjustments in both the work place and daily routine speaks volumes. Really it's a tribute to the dedication and accountability of the 2015-16 Islanders. Fans are familiar with the changes they had to make from the Coliseum to Barclays -- the players, trainers, coaches, broadcasters, writers etc. were beyond those. It was a learning experience for those who handle building operations as well. From ice conditions to concessions, from fan friendly ushering and game night presentation, overall it turned out much better than it might have.”
I regret to say that I wasn’t able to attend a single game last season. It was the first time in several years that I didn’t get to at least one Isles game despite already having tickets to a few. Unexpected changes to my work schedule and obligations to my Father prevented me from going, but I was encouraged by the stories of friends and family about how the atmosphere improved as the season went on. I hope to catch up with a few games next season and see some of you around the concourse. Count on it!
Knight of Cups: What did you think of the 2015-16 team/season?
Jiggs: “It's difficult enough to make the playoffs in the NHL and to accomplish that in back to back seasons is enough to say it was a good season for the NY Islanders. However, when you break it down over the 82 game stretch, there were stretches when things should have or could have been much better. Dry spells in scoring, defensive lapses and so on. Protecting a late lead or not protecting it, and the season could have been a whole lot better in total points. Some of that carried over into the playoffs as well.”
In my opinion, the Islanders will have a partial make-over after falling shorter than expected this season. After the NHL Draft, evaluating home free agents and the rest of the talent pool on July 1st will certainly give the new ownership a chance to change some things about the team for next season. I’ll have a free agent feature as well as what we may be able to expect for the Islanders at the NHL draft in a few weeks.
Knight of Cups: Who is your Isles team MVP?
Jiggs: “The team MVP for 2015-16 is a tie in my opinion. 3 way at that. John Tavares is an automatic! The other two are Kyle Okposo and Travis Hamonic. Travis for playing as well as he did with so much non hockey related things on his mind (especially after his personal matter became public knowledge) and Kyle without a long term deal in place as well as being shunted on and off the top line with regularity.”
Knight of Cups: What Islander surprised you the most?
Jiggs: “The biggest surprise came late in the season with the addition of Shane Prince and the speed he brought to the team. The season long surprise was the lack of progression by Ryan Strome. I felt Ryan was on the cusp of a breakout year when it became anything but and his regression was so evident.”
Knight of Cups: Who has the best team in hockey?
Jiggs: “The best team in the NHL today, obviously, is the Washington Capitals. From goal to the guys who vie to get into the lineup as the 12th forward, they are deep. But, remember it's not always the best team who wins, rather the team that is playing the best. St. Louis is in that category out west and Tampa in the east at the moment.”
Knight of Cups: Who is the best player in the NHL?
Jiggs: “The best forward in the league right now has to be Jamie Benn with Brent Burns as the best D man.”
Knight of Cups: What free agent would you like to see on the Islanders next season?
Jiggs: “It wouldn't shock me if the Islanders made a huge play from Steven Stamkos as free agency looms. A top 4 or 5 forward should be a priority in my opinion. A talented winger to play alongside J.T. (either side) Perhaps a Teddy Purcell could be that guy. A trade for someone like Taylor Hall would be huge as well.”
Stamkos would be high on everyone’s list. At least if the uncertainty of his health concerns could be pinned down and reliably evaluated. My top available guys at this time would be Backes, Hudler, Lucic or Eriksson for “O” considerations and probably Russel on D.
Knight of Cups: Who was/is your favorite Islander?
Jiggs: “I've never had just one favorite NY Islander. That said, I've never been around a NY Islander player that I didn't enjoy spending time with either. If put up against the wall, it would have to be Clark Gillies. "Jethro" just had that level of personality to augment his undisputed talent that set him apart. Just a bit ahead of all the others including today's squad.”
The next few questions are ones that only a guy like Jiggs could answer. I hope you enjoy reading his insight as much as I did bringing it to you.
Knight of Cups: What was your favorite team moment?
Jiggs: “My favorite team moment has to be the trip from Vancouver to New York with the Stanley Cup onboard the flight. The charter flight didn't land till after 7am following the victory in Vancouver and during the trip every player and team personnel got to sit with the Cup. In some cases tears were flowing. It was that emotional. And it lasted for nearly 6 hours of cross country travel.”
Knight of Cups: What was your favorite moment is the Islanders broadcast booth?
Jiggs: “In the booth there were many memorable moments. From Mike Bossy's 50 in 50, to the win over Colorado to establish a new NHL record for games without a loss. The Easter Epic in Washington, the overtime win in the opening round versus Pittsburgh to eliminate the Penguins in 1982 --and Pittsburgh comes into play with the 1993 team and that David Volek overtime goal to win the series in the Igloo. I could on and on and on.”
Knight of Cups: What was the most interesting behind the scenes conversation or revelation?
Jiggs: “I'll never forget the travel day to Pittsburgh for that 1993 series. It came on the heels of Dale Hunter's vicious attack of Pierre Turgeon. Pierre was lost for the balance of the playoffs. The team is traveling from LaGuardia and Coach Al Arbour is sitting by himself in the boarding area. I sat down beside him and offered this: 'if the NHL were to offer -- hypothetically-- the opportunity replace Pierre with any player of your choosing from the Caps, who would you want?' Without hesitation, Al responded, Dale Hunter. I was stunned...and said, Al, for C___sake he just put out your best player ... what the hey?? and Al said yah, but he wants to win, will do anything to win.”
Knight of Cups: What do you think Al Arbour really meant to the Islanders organization and to the game of hockey?
Jiggs: “Al Arbour, and I've said this many many times, was a sports psychologist long before we'd ever heard the term. He could read his players like a book, knew what buttons to push. Had a nickname for everyone etc. His foresight in putting together 3 players that would click as a forward line or two defensemen was a gift. His uncanny ability to motivate was one thing. The fact he never blew up on the bench just underscored how the player is an extension of the coach.”
Knight of Cups: Is there anything you would like to see changed in the game?
Jiggs: “Respect has to change. The player has to have more respect for the opponent and you can't make a rule for that. This hitting from behind is total lack of respect. That's it for playing rules... except for the red line. Get that back into the game and we eliminate most of the injuries that are speed related. I recognize that speed of the game attracts many fans. However, it was a better game when players could dictate the speed with a little hook or hold and the red line dictating offside helped control things.”
Knight of Cups: What was the proudest moment of your HHOF career?
Jiggs: “Probably being asked to work the 1988 Olympics on ABC as well as 1992 and 1994 for TNT. Sportschannel America gave me the chance to do the Stanley Cup playoffs for another 4 years beyond the Islanders Cup years. SC America also put me in the booth the night that Wayne Gretzky broke Gordie Howe's scoring record as well.”
Knight of Cups: When did you know you wanted to be a broadcaster and who gave you your first break in the field?
Jiggs: “I was probably 8 or 9 when the fascination with radio made it evident I wanted to try my hand. Graham Gordon hired me right out of high school, to work at a radio station about 130 miles from my home. So I could jump right in without facing anyone I knew and learn from mistakes etc. That was 60 years ago this July. Then the opportunity to do pxp at the NHL level goes to Jack Kent Cooke when he hired me as the LA Kings broadcaster in 1967.”
Knight of Cups: Who has supported you most over the course of your career?
Jiggs: “My wife has been my biggest supporter. She didn't hesitate when the opportunity to move from a community of about 20,000 to Los Angeles came about. We left family and friends behind for a whole new world. We've moved a lot over the years and she has been by my side throughout along with our two daughters.”
I’d like to thank Mr. John Kenneth McDonald for lending me his stories and insights from a storied HHOF career so that I might share them with all who support me at Knight of Cups.
Brock Nelson (1 assist) and Team USA fell 7-2 to Russia in the IIHF worlds bronze-medal game.
Thomas Greiss (33 saves) and Team Germany fell to Russia 4-1 in the IIHF worlds quarterfinals.
Howie Rose speaks fondly on his 21 years with the Islanders. "The Islanders are a part of me forever.”