Jim Gilchrist has seen huge changes to junior hockey over 50 years

Over five decades of announcing junior hockey, Jim Gilchrist has seen huge changes to the players, the coaching staff, the venues and even the fans.

Earlier this season, the Frontenacs celebrated Gilchrist’s 3,000th game as an OHL announcer. He started calling the play by play for the Oshawa Generals at the age of 20 in October 1972 at the Civic Auditorium in Oshawa.

Gilchrist came to Kingston in 1980 on the invitation of legendary Kingston sportscaster and Kingston Canadians play by play announcer Max Jackson. Jackson was a fabulous presence on the air, but was also known to be a homer who yelled at the referees when Kingston got a penalty he didn’t agree with.

“For my first few years after replacing Max, I tried to carry on with the local cheerleading,” Gilchrist recalls. “Max was amazing and I am not criticizing him, but eventually I decided to take the announcing to a professional level and treat both teams fairly.”

Gilchrist has seen a big jump in the skills of the players since he started announcing. At the outset, the OHL featured only skaters from Ontario. Today, the league attracts teenagers from Europe and the United States, all keen to get a leg up on making the NHL. The current Frontenacs roster boasts two outstanding players from Europe: Linus Hemstrom of Sweden and Jakub Chromiak of Slovakia.

“The quality of play has improved a lot over the years,” Gilchrist says. “Every franchise is able to put together top-notch players. Most teams have full-time coaches and assistant coaches, allowing them to spend more time developing skills and fitness.”

The NHL is, of course, the dream destination but only a small percentage of OHL graduates will make it there. Fifty years ago, those who didn’t succeed often dropped out of school and got a regular job. These days, there is a wide range of opportunities.

“The American Hockey League and pro leagues in Europe have really grown over the decades,” Gilchrist says. While these players don’t make the multimillion-dollar salaries of the NHL, they can earn a decent living while playing the game they love.

Alternatively, Frontenacs graduates can play at college or university while getting their degree. “The quality of university hockey is outstanding now,” he argues. “Once you complete university, you can still go on to play in a pro league. Scouts are keeping a close eye on university teams because there are a lot of great players there.”  

New technology has made a huge difference over the decades, both for announcers like Gilchrist and fans who want to keep abreast of what’s happening with their team.

“When I started announcing the games in Oshawa, there was only radio – no television,” he recalls. “So fans only had the option of listening or going to the game in person.”

TV started to take hold in the 1980s, with Kingston Canadians games on cable television and the OHL game of the week. The internet has made a huge difference. Now, fans can watch Queen’s games online without having to pay for a cable package.

The range of opportunities to view games, plus the availability of statistics online, means that fans are better informed. “I think fans a lot more educated about junior hockey today than when I started because of all the information that is out there,” Gilchrist says.

Over the decades, arenas have changed dramatically. The Memorial Centre was built in 1950 and offered advantages to the broadcast team. The announcers were perched right above the Kingston bench, offering them an outstanding view of the action. However, by the 1980s it was showing its age – the roof leaked and the seats didn’t provide much comfort to fans. It took a long time for the city to approve a replacement, but the K-Rock Centre finally opened in 2008. The good news: It’s a great facility. The bad news: It can seem almost empty when there are only 2,000 fans in an arena designed to hold more than twice that number.

Shortly after arriving in Kingston, Gilchrist was lucky to be able to announce the greatest playoff run in Kingston history. The 1980-81 squad featured one of the best power play units ever in the league. The forwards were future NHL star Bernie Nicholls, Scott Howson who is now president of the AHL, and Justin Hanley, who would go on to play in the AHL. On defence were future pros Rik Wilson and Neil Belland.

That year the Canadians made it to the Leyden Division final, before losing to the powerful Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

Other years were tougher. In 1987-88, Gilchrist had to call the play by play as the Canadians went on a record-breaking 28-game losing streak. After that dismal season, Lou Kazowski purchased the franchise and renamed them the Kingston Raiders. However, that year was no better and Kazowski threatened to move the team out of town. Fortunately, Wren Blair and a new ownership group bought the franchise and renamed the team as the Kingston Frontenacs.

“When the Canadians were on that record losing streak, certainly it was tough to put a positive spin on it when I was announcing,” Gilchrist recalls. “But over the years, you have to remember that we have had a lot of great players here with the Frontenacs and it’s been a lot of fun doing the games.”

This year, the Kingston team hopes to make a playoff run but Gilchrist is realistic. “It’s a young team and I think this year’s experience is really going to help next year. It might be next season before you see this team really moving up.”

Now that Gilchrist has 3,000 games under his belt and recently turned 71, people across Kingston and around the league are asking how long he’ll continue. “I’m definitely not going to break the 4,000 games mark set by the legendary late Kitchener Rangers broadcaster Don Cameron,” he says. Gilchrist plans to keep going for a few more years and see how it goes.

“Certainly, when I get back to Kingston at 4 am after a long road trip by bus to North Bay, I wonder why I am still doing this,” he says with a laugh.