Bobby "The Chief" Taylor has been broadcasting NHL hockey since 1976. For 17 years, he covered the Philadelphia Flyers, with whom he played and won two Stanley Cups as a goaltender for the legendary Broad Street Bullies teams of the mid-1970s, before assuming the role of color analyst for the Lightning's television broadcasts in 1993. As a result, he's been on hand for almost every significant moment in the franchise's history. We caught up with The Chief and got his thoughts on a variety of topics, including what he sees as a bright future for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A lot of fans have complained about what they perceive as biased commentary from certain NBC announcers throughout the playoffs and Stanley Cup Finals. Do you think those complaints are valid?
Sometimes, to a degree maybe. I know Eddie Olczyk really, really well. And believe me, when you're with a team such as he is with Chicago year round, you really can't help but root for them. I have that same problem. When you get this far, you're in the most important series of a hockey player's life. This is it, this is the Stanley Cup. I think you get much more emotionally involved than you would normally. I mean, you still do in normal games but this is something really special. I watched the game last Wednesday night, I didn't listen to it closely. I guess when you know somebody really well, you can understand where he's coming from and why he's doing it. You aren't going to slant your loyalty against the team you've been working with all year long. Eddie's from Chicago, he was born there. He's been a Blackhawks fan his whole life. I listened to the games when Toronto and Boston were playing. This was national tv in Canada and boy, they were so pro-Toronto it was REALLY noticeable. They're worse than you can even imagine. So I kind of feel bad if they're singling out somebody like Eddie but because it's the Finals, so many more people are watching and listening. I think, yeah, there's probably a little something to it, but I understand it.
By the same token, how hard is it to maintain an even keel when the team you're covering isn't doing well, like the Lightning this past season?
I'll tell you what, it's really hard. You see so many mistakes and so many things they do and shouldn't do. And when you struggle like that, a lot of it is because you're trying to take shortcuts. In this game, when you're successful and you're winning, you're doing all the little things. You do everything right. You do everything to a T. You don't take the shortcuts. It's hard to win in this league. It's really hard because there's not a whole lot of difference. You've probably got four, maybe five teams that are elite status and the rest, there's very little that separates them. You can have a hot goalie one night, you can have a hot player one night and the teams that make the fewest mistakes are the ones that usually end up in the top end of things and win. I think when you struggle like we did this year, you just see too many mistakes and that's when it's really hard. And when you sit up high like we do, the more mistakes you see happen. It's really, really difficult not to be critical. You've got the two ends of the spectrum. You've got the one we just talked about where you're openly rooting for your home team but it can be just as bad when you can go the other way and be overly negative when they're playing badly. They're kind of similar. We have to remember this, and it's taken me a long time to understand, you can be honest to a point but there's ways of saying it like you're not down on them. We as broadcasters are really an extended marketing arm of the club. Think about it: if you're listening to guys on tv and they're telling you "gosh, this team is awful, they're making all these mistakes", you're going to say "well, why would I go out and watch them when their own announcers don't like them?". So you have to be diplomatic. Instead of saying something like "wow, he just made an awful play!", you say things like "he made a questionable decision there" so it doesn't have the emotion. I still have a hell of a time getting over that myself.
When you watch the overall caliber of play in the postseason, to me it really highlights how far the Lightning are from being serious playoff contenders, especially when you look at the passing and defense. Do you think they can make enough improvements in key areas to close that gap in the 2013-14 season?
I really believe we'll be much more competitive and we'll have a shot at a playoff spot but I think we're probably two years from being a really, really good, competitive team. One of the things that has really helped us is the fact that most of the young kids that we're grooming to play up here have gone through major playoff exposure, major playoff scrutiny as well as all the pressure that comes with that, with long series and going the distance two years in a row. That just accelerates their development. The biggest difference between an AHL player with skill and an NHL player with skill is the ability to think quickly. You notice they have the same speed, they can shoot the puck as well, they can skate as well. But you have to think so much faster at this level than you do at the AHL level. I think because of the pressure hockey they've played over the last two years, that's going to be a major help. And the brief call-ups help too. It gives them a taste of what's to come. For instance, Ondrej Palat. I think when they brought him up for those five or six games he played with us this year, that really jump-started his confidence level. And look at how he's been able to blossom in the playoffs, leading the AHL in playoff scoring.
Do you think the divisional realignment will help or hamper the Lightning?
Well, they say you're only as good as your competition and we're going to have some serious competition. Boston, Detroit. Ottawa is getting better and they're getting guys back from injury. So they'll be even better and they were pretty solid this year. Toronto is getting better. They've addressed their goaltending issues. Montreal had a masterful year, whether or not they can repeat it next year, they were really good this year. And then Buffalo is in the same mode as us, trying to build and stay competitive at the same time. So you're going to be going against some real good competition and you're going to have to be better. Athletes, especially hockey players, really don't like to be embarrassed, and so you're going to see some tremendous efforts. You'll see some bumps along the way, no question. They're going to have some turkey games. But for the majority, it's not going to be very difficult for those guys to rise up against Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. They're going to have to play hard and they understand that. So that's going to bring out their best. I'm not going to say it's going to be instant success but it will make them a better team in the long run.
We're entering the fourth year of Steve Yzerman's reign as general manager. While there's no question that the overall depth of talent in the organization is at an all-time high, the results on the ice in Tampa have been disappointing for the last two years. Overall, how would you evaluate the direction that Yzerman has taken the franchise?
I've always said this, but what really impressed me after that cup run in his first year where we were two goals from making the finals, he didn't say "oh man, were really close" and go out and get one or two guys to get there. He stayed the course and is making sure to build a team for the long run and not just short sprints. That's the Detroit mentality. I can see this team, this organization, becoming like the Red Wings and making the playoffs for 22 straight years. We've teased them a little bit but I think our fans down here have become such good hockey fans that they really understand what they're doing here and they can see what's to come and what this will yield. And they'll be excited when it pays off.
It would seem that the Lightning's shot at getting a chance to select defenseman Seth Jones in the upcoming draft have improved at least a little bit. If he's available, do you think there's any chance the Lightning don't take him?
For the last three weeks, I've been hearing so much from scouts, ours and others, singing the praises of Nathan MacKinnon. His stock is just going and going. He's one of those guys who can really become a gamebreaker. I think Jonathan Drouin is a guy that has to play with skill players. He's such a finesse player that if he's surrounded by skill players, he can play well with them. Very few times, do you get a chance to draft that franchise defenseman, though. I know there are some people who have changed their thought process too. If you go back to January and February, they were just raving about Jones. Now all of a sudden, MacKinnon and Drouin, because they won the Memorial Cup, they're getting more ink. Now these so-called experts are second guessing themselves, "Oh, is he (Jones) going to be totally ready?" Meanwhile, the kid is just playing really well. He played on the gold medal winning junior team, he went to the finals in the Memorial Cup, plus he's a right-handed shot. All those things are a premium and he's a complete player. If he falls to us, I can certainly see us drafting him. Imagine pairing him and Victor Hedman with his left-handed shot. Right handed shooting defensemaen who can play a little offense are really hard to find and he would be a tremendous pick for us.
Of all the young prospects we got to see last season, is there one rookie you expect to really break through during training camp and claim a spot on the roster like Cory Conacher did last year?
I like Richard Panik, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Those three playing together as a line. One thing we really have to think about, though, is Stevie and the Detroit way of doing things. Detroit never, ever rushes their young players. They always keep them two to four years in the minors. And look at what the Lightning are doing with Brett Connolly. Connolly is a top 6 player. He's not a third or fourth line player. That's where he's going to be. His game doesn't suit the third and fourth lines so he has to be a top six player. So they kept him in Syracuse last year where he scored over 30 goals. It wouldn't surprise me if he stayed there all next year and they let him really develop some confidence. Because last year was the first year in a long time when he played 20 minutes a game. He only played six or seven minutes a game for us the year before. And the year before that, he was a Junior and was hurt and only got to play 16 or 17 games. Stevie is very patient with those guys. Andrej Sustr did play very well but he only played a couple of months of pro hockey. We have a lot of good young kids in that situation. J.T. Brown missed most of the year because of an injury. I can't see any one guy that's got a lock on a roster spot. I'm not saying they won't play. If they show that they can, they definitely will but I don't think he'll rush them. One kid I think is going to get a good long look is Mark Barberio, beause he's done everything he can at the AHL level. He's won best defenseman, he's won a Calder Cup. Our power play has struggled and we need that power play quarterback back there and he could be that man.
I know you're a baseball fan, and that you're dedicated to rooting for the Rays. Would the countdown to training camp be easier to deal with if the Rays were doing better?
Baseball is such a funny sport. We always talk about peaks and valleys in hockey and they play twice as many games. They were a house on fire and now they can't buy a hit or get runners in scoring position so they'll probably peak again. That team is notorious for getting strong after the All-Star break. They can get a lot better. I think whether they were playing well or not, it's always hard to wait for the next hockey season to start. I think whoever we draft will come to town around July 30th and if we get a guy who really captures the imagination like Steven Stamkos a few years ago, you're going to see the energy and excitement and tension pick up. People will get really excited and ready to get going again. Especially with some of those young guys we just got a taste of last year. Johnson, Panik, Palat and we'll have Radko Gudas for the full year, Barberio might have a chance. and I think these two young goalies are going to be a lot better too, when we play a different style that will help them out a little bit.
I don't know if there's ever been official research on this topic, but I'd guess that if Tampa Bay sports fans were polled on which broadcaster they'd most like to hang out with and have a beer, you'd be at the top of that list. How does that feel?
It feels great. Half the time I'm apologizing to Rick (Peckham, Lightning play-by-play man) because I'll get so excited when we score I'm yelling "HE SCORED!" before he does. Play-by-play guys really want to hear their goal calls, you know. Rick is very patient about that. But I get excited about the game. It's fun. And when I get to sit down with fans in a pub afterward and have a pint or two, I'm excited about the same things they are so it's just like sitting around with friends.