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FROM THE WHEAT KINGS TO THE STANLEY CUP CHAMPION OILERS

FORMER WHEAT KING VOICE ENJOYED A STELLAR PLAY BY PLAY CAREER

(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, Brandon Sun) — The Brandon Wheat Kings have sent a lot of young men to the National Hockey League.

But only one went straight from the Western Hockey League to the National Hockey League in time to join the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers, known for featuring Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and several other stars.

It was Brandonite Bruce Buchanan, known locally for his work as a play-by-play announcer for a pair of Wheat Kings seasons in the early 1980s.

“I had the opportunity to cover the Oilers at the start of the 1983-84 season when they were becoming a dynasty,” Buchanan said. “I tell people that they can never take that away from me. I broadcast the best team that ever played the game, and no one else can say that.

“I’m grateful, but disappointed in some ways that it didn’t continue a little longer.”

He has certainly travelled a fascinating path from calling Wheat Kings games to becoming the youngest broadcaster in the NHL and later a published author.

Buchanan was born in Yorkton and moved to Brandon at age four, attending J.R. Reid and Vincent Massey schools.

“I was a big sports fan, and my dad and brother were huge sports fans as well,” Buchanan said. “It just kind of became natural to me.”

As a kid, he would call NHL games off a 10-inch TV screen, pretending he was play-by-play legends such as Danny Gallivan or Foster Hewitt.

In Grade 12, Buchanan’s father was transferred to Red Deer, Alta., but the family decided Bruce should finish school in Brandon. He stayed with a friend until he graduated in 1977, and then moved out to Alberta.

He had decided to go to broadcasting school after enjoying the experience of calling Brandon University Bobcats basketball and hockey games on radio, plus filing a Bobcat report on CKX-FM on Saturday mornings.

“I always knew that’s what I wanted to do but that kind of gave me a taste of it,” Buchanan said. “When I got that taste of it, I knew that was what I really wanted to do full-time.”

He worked for a while in Alberta to make some money, and then reached out to broadcaster Ed Whelan in Regina to get some career advice.

Whelan suggested he send out some audition tapes out to small-town radio stations, and one of the recipients in Swift Current alerted another station in Melfort that he might be a good hire.

His radio career began in May 1978 at CJBR, where he had a chance to do colour on Melfort TMs games in the Saskatchewan Junior B league, and after 11 months he was hired by CKX. Buchanan returned to Brandon at age 19 in 1979 as the assistant sports director.

It was his first taste of television, and he gained additional radio experience by doing colour on Wheat Kings home games. (The station didn’t send someone on the road at that time. They would broadcast a feed from the home team instead.)

After his boss had a falling out with station management, Buchanan began doing play-by-play for the Wheat Kings in March 1981.

He then called games for the entire 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons.

“It was exciting,” said Buchanan, who was an active curler, golfer and baseball player. “The great thing for me about working in Brandon and getting my start in television sports there — the Wheat Kings were on radio but we did television stories on them — was that because of my involvement in sports … I got to know so many people in the Brandon area. That really benefited me because in our business, contacts are great and I knew so many people, that it made my job that much easier because I had no problem tracking somebody down if I needed some information.”

By the time he became the full-time broadcaster for the team, he had talked the station into letting him go on the road. He said the added benefit is that on the bus you get to know a lot about the players, who were just a bit younger than he was.

“I was proud of the fact that I started at such a young age,” Buchanan said. “I thought I was ready for it because it was something that I worked on so much when I was younger.”

There was certainly no shortage of characters on the Brandon teams he covered, including Ron Hextall, Dave Chartier, Kelly Glowa and Carl Mokosak.

“It was quite a group,” Buchanan said with a chuckle, who knew Hextall through his father Bryan. “… Ron and I had a good relationship. Ron was one of the most fierce competitors that I can ever remember but off the ice he was a pretty nice guy and kind of a character. I loved the way he played. He would get under the opponent’s skin and you would think he would cause a major brawl every night because you knew he wasn’t afraid to whack a guy with his stick.”

Still, Buchanan said the biggest problem for those two teams, which went 34-38-0 in 1981-82 and 21-51-0 in 1982-83, came in their own end.

“They just weren’t a very good defensive team back then,” Buchanan said. “They had trouble keeping the puck out of their net even though they had Hextall. To think that he went as high as he did (sixth round of the 1982 NHL draft to the Philadelphia Flyers) just shows you how good of a goaltender he was because he faced a lot of rubber when I was there. They had some good players but they didn’t have a lot of depth when it came to their third and fourth lines.”

Buchanan’s big break came in an unlikely fashion.

ITV vice-president Pete Tabman was driving through Saskatchewan and flipping around the radio dial when he happened to pick up a Wheat Kings game. Soon after, Buchanan received a call from ITV hockey broadcast host Tim Spelliscy that there might be a play-by-play job with the Oilers.

Buchanan applied, and in July 1983 found out that he would be making the unlikely jump from a WHL broadcast booth to the NHL at age 23.

He would be covering an Oilers team that would fall in the Stanley Cup final that year to the New York Islanders, and then go on to win four of the next five championships.

His biggest transition actually came in the way he delivered his call.

After his first game, Buchanan sat down with his producer, John Shannon, to review his work that night. Buchanan quickly realized he was behind the play all night.

“The thing that is different in radio as compared to TV …you’re way more descriptive,” Buchanan said. “You have to always describe where the puck is, whereas on television, people can see where the puck is so you have to go outside the box and call the game a little differently.”

He had to learn to speak less and anticipate what was coming based entirely on his feel for the game. Buchanan wanted fans to learn things they wouldn’t know from simply seeing the action.

Buchanan quickly fit into his new surroundings.

“I think the thing that made it neat with the Oilers was that most of their great players were the same age that I was,” Buchanan said. “It was kind of a unique situation, when I was coming in as a new broadcaster and they were coming in as a new talented team.”

Even with a cast that also included stars like Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and former Wheat King Dave Semenko, the spotlight was squarely on Gretzky.

Buchanan thinks the NHL career points leader was changed by his 1988 trade to the Los Angeles Kings, but remembers a player who was just happy to be with his friends with the Oilers.

“He enjoyed being in Edmonton and just one of the guys,” Buchanan said. “He was the top point producer and the greatest player in the game, but he was from small-town Ontario and came to Edmonton — and sure they have a great team — but he could kind of be himself. Those guys liked that. They didn’t like being in the spotlight and the centre of attention.”

Buchanan kept a professional distance from the players, adding he thought they appreciated that he didn’t treat them like he was starstruck in their presence.

He covered the team from 1984 to 1992 on ITV Edmonton until the station lost the rights. Five years later, including two seasons doing play-by-play for the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, A-Channel hired him when they got the rights to Oilers games, and he stayed with them until 2001.

He would later call the Calgary Flames for two seasons on Sportsnet, broadcasting his last hockey game in 2003.

“When I got there, I thought I would be doing it all my life,” Buchanan said. “Like any other business, there’s politics.”

After leaving the broadcast booth, he did sales and also worked as a sports anchor, but neither appealed to him.

In 2007, he made a complete career change, joining a friend in the safety business. In his work as a safety advisor, he was usually employed in the oil and gas industry in Alberta and then the potash industry after a move to Saskatchewan.

He now lives in Saskatoon with wife Barb, who he married two years ago. The pair of sports fans have proven to be a great match.

“For a while I was kind of spinning my wheels trying to figure out what I was going to do after broadcasting but then I found safety and then I found Barb,” Buchanan said. “Life is pretty good.”

At work, Buchanan ensures that everyone is following the rules, and when an accident happens, he helps out.

“It was a complete career change, but in some ways my broadcasting experience has helped me, especially when it comes to meetings and things like that,” Buchanan said. “I’m not afraid to get up in front of a crowd. It was a complete career switch. I miss broadcasting — I’ll be the first one to admit that — because I thought I would be doing it all my life. But it didn’t work out that way.”

The idea for the book came from a conversation over a beer with a buddy. Buchanan had never planned to write one, but as the two watched a Major League Baseball game during the Toronto Blue Jays last post-season run, he shared some of his old stories. His buddy encouraged him to write them down.

He began tapping out some notes on his computer, but a year ago the project became more serious after he met Tina Crossfield of Crossfield Publishing.

They worked out a deal, and with the deadline approaching in mid-July, Buchanan made the finishing touches as he worked at a job site in Esterhazy, Sask.

The book launched on Aug. 23, and will be available in the store, at crossfieldpublishing.ca or on Amazon.

Buchanan still gets back to Brandon when he visits his mom and sister in Winnipeg. He has a couple of close friends in the city, Warren Murray and Billy Adams, and until recently was a regular participant in the Grey Owl and Tamarack golf tournaments at Clear Lake.

He’s looking forward to meeting with old friends at the book signing on Friday.

“I always considered Brandon my hometown,” Buchanan said. “I guess that’s true for anybody where you grew up. I still think it’s a fabulous little city … I just had so much fun there growing up. I think because of that you always have a special place in your heart for it. That will always be the case for me. I still love coming through there.”

 

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