‘Sportstalk, go ahead’: Starting a Vancouver radio talk show juggernaut

An excerpt from Dan Russell’s memoir, which recounts the highs and lows of hosting a call-in radio sports show in Vancouver for three decades.

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In Pleasant Good Evening — A Memoir: My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk, host Dan Russell recounts the highs and lows of hosting a call-in radio sports program in Vancouver for three decades. Here is an excerpt:

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It was the wee-est of hours. 4:45 a.m. June 15, 1994.

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It was nine hours after the world’s most famous trophy had been presented, and nearly seven hours after Sportstalk had signed on a few blocks away from the World’s Most Famous Arena. Now, after dramatic riot coverage, heart-breaking game analysis, gut-wrenching dressing room interviews, media reaction and marathon phone response, it was time for one last call. After all, despite the Canucks’ loss to the New York Rangers, the sun had decided that it was still going to rise over Vancouver.

“Sportstalk, go ahead.”

“Dan, thanks for taking my call. You won’t believe this. I’ve been hitting redial since the show started, and now after all this time I’m finally on.”

•••

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Despite deciding in primary school that I wanted to be a broadcaster, not once while growing up did I ever consider I might one day become best known for hosting a sports talk show — let alone becoming a trailblazer while doing so. Not even high-quality radar would’ve detected that. How could it? Aside from a few short-lived Vancouver market attempts in the ’60s and ’70s, this radio genre was rarely thought of and never taken seriously. Most importantly, my heart’s desire was calling the game while it was on, not talking about the game when it was over. And certainly not on off nights. Or off-seasons.

It was only after a thrilling double-overtime Vancouver Canucks win at Chicago Stadium in 1982, followed two days later by Roger Neilson famously waving a white towel, where I felt something was seriously amiss. No one anywhere on the radio dial was talking about these incredible games when they were over.

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Surely I wasn’t the only die-hard wanting so much more. Was I?

Roger Neilson and two other Vancouver Canuck players raised sticks and white towel in protest over “bad calls” in a 4-1 Game 2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1982 Campbell Conference Final. Neilson was ejected for his actions in the loss and “Towel Power” was born. The Canucks eliminated the Hawks and made it to the Stanley Cup Final.
Roger Neilson and two other Vancouver Canuck players raised sticks and white towel in protest over “bad calls” in a 4-1 Game 2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1982 Campbell Conference Final. Neilson was ejected for his actions in the loss and “Towel Power” was born. The Canucks eliminated the Hawks and made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Photo by BRUNO TORRES /UPI FILES

Two years later, Sportstalk was born, and with it — long before email, texts, smartphones and social media — a gathering spot for local fans was established; it became an on-air forum often more impactful than the game broadcast itself. It was the dessert after the main course, serving die-hards and casual fans of all ages.

With its blend of guests, callers, opinion and entertainment, Sportstalk kept growing and growing until it had become appointment radio. And it seemed most of British Columbia was buckled in as we travelled home and away in 1994 — on game nights and off nights, weekdays and weekends, often extending well past midnight — during the Canucks’ most memorable playoff ever.

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As for that caller who tried all night only to get through moments before our sign-off? He made it on the air after the Canucks’ charter had already landed at YVR.

•••

… I knew the station had bigger issues than late night, like their ongoing battle with Rafe Mair, the temperamental morning host who was about to get pink misted himself. Mair’s ratings had slipped, but his high maintenance had intensified, and his wife’s (Patti) ever-present interference often nauseated management.

Years later I was told by an impeccable source, who might have been the executive producer of all talk at CKNW, that Patti would go into the men’s washroom before Rafe’s morning business to make sure the toilet seat was clean and that there was enough toilet paper.

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Radio talk show legend Rafe Mair at the CKNW mic in 1998.
Radio talk show legend Rafe Mair at the CKNW mic in 1998. Photo by David Clark /PNG files

The complicated part, as it concerns the birth of Sportstalk, was when (station manager) Harvey Gold replaced Mair with Dave Barrett, a former B.C. premier, and Mair went to CKNW in the only time slot it had available, one that started at midnight. There was so much bad blood that Gold wanted to upstage Mair by airing a repeat of the Barrett show just as Rafe was starting. This meant the two former political rivals — one leaning right, the other left — went head-to-head on the all-night show. One was live while the other was in bed.

To make this happen, though, Gold needed a one-hour buffer to fill the gap between the end of The Hot Line with Pat Burns and Barrett’s midnight repeat. He solved this problem by stopping into the sports cubicle on a Friday afternoon to tell me he had decided to insert a sports show featuring calls and interviews.

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“And we’ve chosen you to be the host,” he said.

Wish I’d thought of that is what I wanted to say. Instead, I told him I was grateful for the opportunity.

“Great … you start Monday,” Gold said.

I didn’t have to ask if he meant in three days because I had already been around radio long enough to know that often constituted long-range planning. The next day — my 24th birthday — I showed Gold a list of possible names for my new show. I forget what they were, but he rejected all of them.

“It’s going to be Sportstalk because it’s so self-explanatory,” he said.

He was right.

•••

After that I had to think about our first guest. Who would it be? (Sports director) Garry Raible and I decided on the Canucks’ new head coach. With one call — yes, it was far easier booking guests back then — Bill LaForge was confirmed.

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As Monday neared, I didn’t have any expectations. I just knew that ready or not — and I wasn’t — Sportstalk would launch shortly after 11 p.m. on Oct. 15, 1984. Raible insisted on sitting in that first night, which caused me much anxiety. My mouth turned into a desert as the 11 p.m. news ended, and by the time the Sportstalk theme music played through my headphones, I was parched.

“Here’s your host, Dan Russell,” the announcer said.

After a slight pause while I put my heart back in my chest, I spoke pretty much the same words I would use at the start of every show for the next 30 years:

“And a pleasant, uhh, good evening … welcome to our first of what we hope is many editions of Sportstalk.”

OK, I thought, those words actually came out. Just barely. My mouth did work. Not well, but we’re on the air!

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LaForge, the Canucks’ rookie coach, was our first guest, but he arguably launched our show four days later when disbelieving and stunned fans jammed the phone board after Vancouver surrendered a club-record 13 goals in Philadelphia, after which LaForge said he saw “positive signs.” Two weeks later, the Canucks gave up 10 goals at home versus Los Angeles, leaving LaForge with one win in 10 games while being outscored 74-33 and leaving me with a full phone board every night. LaForge was fired 10 games later, ending his NHL coaching career.

Bill LaForge, during his very short tenure behind the Vancouver Canucks bench as head coach, in the fall of 1984.
Bill LaForge, during his very short tenure behind the Vancouver Canucks bench as head coach, in the fall of 1984. Photo by PNG file photos

Of course, Canucks’ game nights were Sportstalk’s bread and butter, just as I thought they would be after Jim Nill’s 1982 double-OT goal in Chicago. Within a few months, CJOR added 30 more minutes to the show.  Traction, in the form of ratings, was building to the point where we were extended again, from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. I wasn’t sure why they started at the bottom of an hour, but before I could find out it was extended twice more, first from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and then to three hours — 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.

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Three months after that Oilers sweep, Sportstalk broke its biggest story — arguably the biggest in Canadian sports’ history, the previously unthinkable trading of Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky was traded on a Tuesday, and we broke the story the previous night. I had one source for this story, a listener I had never met who never provided me with his identity or phone number. It was risky, but I had talked to him several times, starting a few days prior, always trying to gauge how credible he might be. Initially, I didn’t believe it. But he kept calling me, offering me more details, and I kept peppering him with questions to gauge if this was legit.

A teary-eyed Wayne Gretzky talks to reporters in Edmonton on the day his stunning trade to the Los Angeles Kings was announced on Aug. 9, 1988.
A teary-eyed Wayne Gretzky talks to reporters in Edmonton on the day his stunning trade to the Los Angeles Kings was announced on Aug. 9, 1988. Photo by Brian Gavriloff /Postmedia News files

In the early evening of Aug. 8, he called again, telling me the deal was going to happen. I still didn’t want to go to air with it, but I told him I’d convey the strong rumour, which I did off the top of our show. He called back during the next newsbreak, this time providing me names he had heard were going to be in the trade. He was absolutely certain it was going to happen. As the weather forecast was being read, I was trying to assess it all as I feverishly wrote down the names.

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Moments later, I went with my gut and went to air.

“This trade is going to happen and it may be announced tomorrow,” I said.

Gretzky’s trade to L.A. was announced the next afternoon, and I came into the station extra early to hook up a live audio feed from Edmonton. It was the news conference the entire country wanted to hear, the one in which Gretzky broke down in tears. Just as the news conference was beginning, I got into an argument with the assistant program director, who claimed we couldn’t carry it now.

“Why not?” I yelled.

“Because we have to break for the two o’clock news,” was the response.

“This is the two o’clock f—ing news!” I might have yelled.


Read more excerpts from Pleasant Good Evening — A Memoir: My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk:

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• Excerpt 1: ‘Sportstalk, go ahead’: Starting a Vancouver radio talk show juggernaut
• Excerpt: 2: ‘Thanks for having me on, Dan’: Brian Burke as Sportstalk’s best guest ever
• Excerpt 3: With ‘McKeachie-isms … you never know’: A dear, maddening friend to Sportstalk
• Excerpt 4: ‘Critique so stinging, so biting, so brilliant’: ‘The Pauser’ called some shots on air, and off, at Sportstalk
• Excerpt 5: ‘We connected’: Recalling Sportstalk’s night in ’94 riven by Rangers and riots

For more information, visit danrussellsportstalk.com.

Cover of Pleasant Good Evening — A Memoir: My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk.
Cover of Pleasant Good Evening — A Memoir: My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk. Photo by Tellwell

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