If life was normal, Jim Jackson’s schedule would be beyond hectic, trying to broadcast both Flyers and Phillies games as one regular season was coming to an end and the other was just starting.
It would take some hustle, but Jackson, whose voice has become as connected to the Philadelphia sports scene as Bill Campbell’s in a different era, would be prepared and excited to do as many games as he could.
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Those games, of course, won’t be played. Not now. Maybe not ever. The coronavirus outbreak has put the world on hold.
Including the sports world.
“It’s a different time, that’s for sure,” Jackson said in a phone interview from his Gloucester Township, N.J., home the other day. “Throughout life, I’ve always tried to find positives out of negatives. One of the positives is I get to spend some time with my family, which with my schedule, I don’t usually have breaks because of the two sports.”
So the Jacksons – Jim, his wife, Bernadette, and their two children, Deanna, 22, and Johnny, 19 – are all under one roof.
The Jacksons have been watching movies together, Oscar-nominated films from each year starting with 1980. They are catching up on Homeland, Chicago Fire and other TV shows, taking walks, eating meals together, and doing things that their busy schedules don’t frequently permit.
The break has also given Jackson a chance to clean out his home office.
“I dug out Flyers media guides from 1993-94, my first year here,” he said. “I’m finding all kinds of interesting things. That’s one good thing. I’m cleaning things up, and I’m still doing baseball prep for the season even though I don’t know when it’s going to start. When it does start – and hopefully sooner than later – it’s going to be 100 mph for both sports.”
During the break, Jackson has been doing some Flyers podcasts for NBC Sports Philadelphia, “and there’s talk about doing pre- and postgame shows around classic games,” he said. “They’re looking into a lot of different things.”
Jackson said he watches the news “as much as anyone, and it’s kind of depressing, so you want some kind of outlet -- and sports has always been that ‘out’ for people. We’re trying to give people that outlet through some old games. The other night we live-tweeted during the rebroadcast of the game at the Linc” between the Flyers and Penguins last season. “There are ways to stay involved.”
To thousands of viewers and listeners, broadcasters become an important part of their lives. And vice versa. That bond between viewers and broadcasters has been severed, at least temporarily, by the suspensions of the sports seasons.
For the Flyers’ broadcasters — Jackson, Keith Jones and Bill Clement on TV, Tim Saunders and Steve Coates on the radio — there is a void they hope doesn’t last too long.
When the season was stopped, the Flyers (41-21-7) were the NHL’s hottest team. They had won nine of their last 10 and climbed to within a point of first-place Washington in the Metropolitan Division. With 13 regular-season games left, they were poised to make a run at their first Stanley Cup title since 1975.
“I’m very hopeful this isn’t a lost season because this team had something special going,” Saunders said. “I sure would hate to see them robbed of a chance to prove it in the playoffs.”
Saunders has been listening to lots of hockey shows and podcasts to fill time. An avid golfer, he’s been reading Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons. “I’m trying to figure out how I can get better,” he said.
“Usually irons,” he cracked. “I hit balls to parts of the golf course that nobody goes to.”
Saunders remembers when there was no hockey to broadcast in 2004-05, when the lockout wiped out the season.
“This time, there’s more of an unknown,” he said. “Optimistically, we’re all hoping you give it a month or a month and a half and maybe it’s possible they come back and have some sort of playoff format. I don’t know how realistic that is, to be honest with you.”
Clement, who played on the Flyers’ Stanley Cup champions in 1974 and 1975, is making the most of his time off. He and his wife live on a mountainside in Waynesville, N.C., a 35-minute drive from Asheville, and he has been using his chainsaw to clear trees and "beautify our view, and right now I’m designing and building a spice rack for our pantry for my wife.
“I’m not so sure I’ve ever felt this relaxed," he said. "I’m concerned, but as long as my kids are OK, I’m [not worried]. My son lives in Philadelphia with his fiancee, and one of our daughters lives in London, and our other daughter lives in Ottawa. If I can stay in touch with my kids at the start of the day and make sure everything is OK with them, my wife and I can relax and go on with our day. Be prudent and say prayers for everyone around the world who is having such a difficult time.”
Saunders, who lives in Somerdale, N.J., has heard about the myriad of proposals the NHL has been floating around if the season returns.
“Good on the league that they’re keeping an open mind and nothing is off the table,” he said. “They’re going to consider every possibility to make something happen. The problem is, you don’t know how long this [suspended season] is going to be.”
“There’s no handbook for any of this,” Coates said.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t want the season to end without a champion.
“I love the fact he said they really want to hand the Cup to somebody this year,” Saunders said, “so that makes me hopeful that after a period of time – even if it’s well into the summer – that maybe they’ll figure out an abbreviated playoff format.”
“If they’re able to get back and play games, it’s going to take a little while to ramp up,” Jackson said. “There’s going to have to be a mini-training camp, if you will. I would think it would take at least a week or so to get ready. If they’re on the ice and playing games by June, I think you can still sneak in some kind of playoff system. It may not be a full four rounds of best-of-sevens.”
Jackson said he’s seen the players’ proposal of possibly starting the playoffs in late July and then delaying next season’s start to November.
”To me, if you can’t get this season [done in time], do you want to start compromising next season, too?” he asked.
Jackson said it was important to crown a champion for the 2019-20 season, even if you just had four teams compete in the semifinals before they held the Finals.
“This is all uncharted territory for all of us. You just don’t know how this is going to play out,” he said. “I don’t know if baseball is going to get much of a season in. At this point, we have much bigger things to worry about. I mean, this is a major, major pandemic that has arrived in the U.S. As much as I’m a huge sports fan and obviously involved in sports for a living, we have much bigger things to clear before we start worrying about if we’re going to play hockey or baseball or any sport.”
Coates said he is shocked by the world’s health crisis.
“At my age, I’ve seen SARS, MERS, the swine flu. Never did I ever dream in my life we’d [go through] something like this,” he said. “I thought the financial crisis was one of the most depressing times I’ve gone through in my life, and this just makes that seem like a minor-league situation.”
Jones probably has had to make the biggest adjustment of all the Flyers broadcasters. His work schedule – serving as the color analyst for Flyers games, being a national hockey analyst for NBC, and joining WIP’s morning sports-talk show – is usually dizzying.
Now he has only one job instead of three, working in WIP’s studio and doing the Morning Show with Angelo Cataldi, Al Morganti, and Rhea Hughes from 6 to 10 a.m.
“We sit a long way away from each other,” he said. “We space out and hope that nobody comes in contact with someone who has it. Every precaution is taken, and we just talk some sports and mix in the other stuff that’s going on in the world. It’s not an easy topic.”
Jones might start doing some hockey podcasts for NBC, but says it’s a “wait and see” as far as when/if the season resumes.
In his spare time, he watches horse racing and “more news than I ever have in my life,” works out at home on his treadmill, and takes his dog Leo, a cane corso, on at least three walks a day.
“I should take his picture. He’s exhausted,” Jones said from his home in Shamong, N.J. “He’s never moved this much in his life. He’s not enjoying my time off.”
Coates, an Egg Harbor Township, N.J., resident who is a 36-year veteran of the Flyers’ broadcast team, had been playing a little golf at Greate Bay until the course closed. So like the rest of us, he sits and waits and hopes the NHL returns.
“I’ve been very boring,” he said of his time away from the rink. “I try not to look at my 401(k). I try not to watch the news. My wife has been on me to start gardening. I told her that will never happen. That’s just not in my vocabulary.”