In a profession filled with self-promoters and hot take artists, Chris Parker has carved out a successful career on the radio by simply being himself. Contrived takes and scripted rants designed to generate more callers have never been a part of his repertoire. Over the past 22 years, the guy you hear on the radio is largely the same guy you’d meet down at a Sabres game.
The root of Parker’s success might be traced to a commonality with his listeners. Like most Buffalonians, he is a covert optimist who possesses a sure eye for bullshit. A love of family and an appreciation for cold beer at reasonable prices are embedded in his DNA. Listening to an outsider disparage his city raises his blood pressure; imagining Jack Eichel skating around Key Bank Center with the Stanley Cup overhead moves him close to tears.
Recently, the Artist Currently Known As the Bulldog kindly took some time away from a relaxing vacation to reflect on life as a hockey dad, what it was like to get married on the night of No Goal, and his well-earned distaste for the musical stylings of Enuff Z'Nuff
My primary takeaway from your Twitter feed is that you seem like a really good dad— not a “hey, look at how much I love my kiddos” type of parent that often litters social media these days, but a genuinely good man that loves and supports both of his sons. What’s the best part of being a dad? What have you found to be the greatest challenges associated with being a good father?
I appreciate the compliment. I'm not sure what the best part is because there's so much that I might answer differently on another day. Seeing them learn is hard to beat. Two examples involving our youngest, Leo, who is 13:
His math grade in the fall was really low. We talked with him about it, suggested he stay for extra help, offered to help him ourselves. Instead, he dug in, applied himself and figured it out. He made the honor roll by spring.
Leo also wanted to learn guitar. Last summer his hands were so weak that he couldn't play the simplest of chords. Playing music is something I enjoy with friends and our oldest, Owen, had picked it up pretty well but Leo was struggling to keep up and find his place with it. He played just about every day from September to now and got into a guitar class 3 days a week at school— I mean the kid was just grinding away at it and the results are fantastic. I can just strum some chords but he finds places to fit lead licks in and I have no doubt he ends up as the most accomplished guitar player in the family, which isn't incredible or anything because I'm mostly a hack, but he's going to blow by me soon.
The greatest challenge is holding yourself to a high standard and setting a good example. I try hard and do pretty well, but when I screw up, it's compounded because not only do I feel the impact of whatever mistake I've made myself, I'm upset that I've let the boys down, too. This can be as simple as losing my temper over something frivolous or something larger.
How would you compare your own childhood to the home your sons have grown up in?
I was born in 1965. My parents were born before World War II. They were supportive and loving but just in a different way than my wife and I are. There was a bit more distance between me and my parents than we have with our boys. That's not a criticism, it's just a very different time.
It seems like you’ve managed to navigate your way through the world of travel hockey without becoming a total nutcase. What advice would you give to a parent who is just venturing into the jungle of competitive youth sports?
Competitive youth sports can be tricky and I'm certainly no expert. I let Owen make the decisions and I think that's a healthy place to start. Sure there's some steering involved, but trusting your child to make the right decision is important. I never wanted him to feel like he was doing this for me.
That said, I did have to push him some to try out for his first travel team. That could have blown up in my face and almost did a few months into his first travel season. Owen was clearly the second best goalie on a really talented team. He played against teams they just clobbered. They'd win 10-0 and he'd just be standing there bored. The other goalie played the tougher teams and Owen was not having any fun. He told me at that point that he'd like to give up goaltending next season and go back to being a skater. I said that's fine, but you've got a season to play here. As it turned out, Owen got his chance against a couple of stronger teams and played well. The coaches started treating the goalies as interchangeable and Owen just kept getting better.
The perseverance to get through that first travel season has been a big building block for him. He was challenged and responded. Things have progressed from there. So much so that as I'm responding to you Owen is in the yard doing wind sprints and squats. That sort of commitment is not for everyone.
If you'd asked me three years ago if it was something Owen would want to do I probably would have said no. Yet here we are. So the point is, let the kid decide how competitive he or she wants to be. The last thing I'd ever want is my kid doing push ups swearing at me under his breath. I've always been clear with him that he can take this as far as he wants. Whenever he wants to stop, there'll be no questions asked. I wanted him to be challenged. I wanted him to get in shape. I wanted him to learn about discipline and accountability. He's done all that. The rest is gravy.
You and your wife were married on June 19th, 1999, which is a fairly notorious date in Buffalo Sabres history. What was the best and worst part of getting married on the day Brett Hull stole the Stanley Cup from the Sabres?
The worst part was easily the run up to the wedding. Fearing there'd be a conflict. Then knowing there was a conflict. My wife was a real champ. We had our reception outside at her parents cottage in Canada. She suggested we get TV's which I wasn't going to push for. As it turned out, the folks at Delaware Audio Visual loaned me a projector so we were able to put the game on a big movie screen in one of the tents.
The fondest memory I have regarding the game is not feeling at all distracted by it. Might've been a bad sign if I was more interested in the game than our wedding and all of our guests. So I really didn't see much of the game. The Steam Donkeys played during the intermissions, I remember being bummed that we had this great band to play and the game just wouldn't end.
Shortly after the game ended, we got picked up by a car service to head for the Toronto airport and our honeymoon. I honestly had no idea about all the controversy until I called WBEN a few days later to check in and see how everything was going. I remember getting Matt Franko on the phone, he was one of our producers back then, and he was telling me how crazy it had been and how they're trying to get Bettman on the show. I was like, wait, what the hell are you talking about? Suddenly it dawns on Matt that I have no idea. I mean, I was in Mexico on my honeymoon and it's 1999 so no Twitter. Funny to think about it now.
The Sabres have qualified for the playoffs exactly six times in the 18 years you’ve been a married man. Has the team’s lack of success led you to check out and follow the Sabres more casually or is your allegiance to the team as strong as it has ever been?
I love hockey, so it'd take a lot to get me away from a Sabres game— like getting married. Of course, it will all be way more fun when they're good again , but I'm mostly the same as ever. The NHL is harder to like than ever. Replay review for offsides are a scourge. The rules aren't enforced or are randomly applied. I have a bigger problem with the league than I do the Sabres lack of success.
Does talking about the Sabres 20 hours a week make it easier or harder to be a fan of the team?
I would say neither. Being a Sabres fan still feels very much to me like it did 25 years ago. I still get excited about the game. I guess I'd have to admit that when something interesting happens in a game I know that'll be good for the show, so that's different. But that honestly doesn't happen that often.
Looking back over the past quarter century, what is the single team or era of the Sabres that is closest to your heart? Why?
For a long time my answer to this would've been Ted Nolan's hardest working team in hockey. Fun team to watch with Hasek in goal and Ray, May and Barnaby doing their thing.
That's no longer my answer though. The 2005-07 Drury-Briere teams are the right answer for me. Things had been so bleak. Games were awful, expensive, and poorly attended. Then there was a lockout. The '05 season began with low expectations and then the Sabres exploded. I had talked often during those bad years about the fuse needing to be re-lit. To see it happen was awesome and the ride was great. The game opened up, skill flourished and it was fun to watch. Out of nowhere, Buffalo remembered it was a hockey town.
If hell froze over and you were appointed NHL Commissioner, what are the first five changes you’d make to the game?
Changes to the game are a rabbit hole. There is no way you can convince me the on ice product is worth the money fans pay. I honestly don't know how the season ticket holders do it. Paying thousands and watching fans buy cheaper tickets on the secondary market. Yes, this won't always be the case when the team is good again, but prices aren't going down either.
So any changes would be toward making the game more exciting. One of the reasons I hate the 3 on 3 overtime is that it shines such an uncomplimentary light on the rest of the game. In order to make it exciting we've got to remove one third of the participants from the playing surface. Good one. Does that not make you think your game has major structural problems?
How to fix that? Call penalties. Get serious with suspensions on head hits. Maybe bigger nets. Outlaw offsides? OK, I'm desperately spitballing now…
Oh yeah, launch the offsides challenge into the sun. It’s the worst thing the NHL has ever come up with and it's not even close. In more than 20 years of talking about hockey for a living I never once had a conversation with another fan about a missed offsides. Yes, I know what happened in that playoff game in Montreal whenever the heck that was. Talk about an overreaction. It's horrendous.
What little I know about your career seems like a small miracle. You worked as the manager of a pizzeria and stumbled into a part-time gig at WBEN that eventually turned into a full-time job that has lasted over twenty years. Broadcasting is generally a pretty transient profession. Why do you think you’ve managed to stay gainfully employed in your hometown for over two decades?
Stumbled into a career might make for a better story but it was actually quite calculated. I moved to Connecticut in '88 chasing a failing relationship. I know, sound planning. While there I got turned on to WFAN which was new and very cool, at least to me. Mike and the Mad Dog in the afternoon. Imus in the morning. I listened constantly and honestly began to think I could do what they were doing.
When the relationship finally reached its predictable demise in the spring of '91 I came home. I moved into my parents basement and went back to Buffalo State for broadcasting. I got my old job at Santora's back and got to work. Did Buff State football and basketball, hosted talk shows and had a dee-jay shift at WBNY, the campus radio station. I interned at WGR in the winter of ’92, then interned with Howard Simon at WBEN in the spring and summer of '94. That internship was supposed to be with WGRZ-TV but I changed my mind at the last minute. I had heard that WBEN was getting the Bills games and thought they might be looking to hire some people so I wanted to get in the door. I was right and I never left. By the fall of '95 I had my own show and here we are today.
I'm fortunate that enough fans seem to like how I do what I do. This will be my 15th Bills season partnered with Mike Schopp and I simply love going to work with him every day. Our show has been successful and I'm proud of that.
The idea that you still love going to work with Mike after spending roughly 14,000 hours on air with him speaks volumes. Why do you think your relationship has stood the test of time?
Competence, confidence and trust. We both have a good idea of how to do the job. I think we know we can count on one another to show up day in and day out ready to the job. After all of this time together there is a level of comfort being on the high wire together that live radio can be.
Some of my favorite memories of listening to your show over the years have been those rare occasions when a subject or caller leads you to completely flip out on the air. It’s fantastic radio. Your voice goes up several octaves, you start bumping into the microphone, Mike starts chuckling and that just shoots you even further into orbit. Looking back, can you pick one or two moments that stand atop the mountain of times you almost blacked out in the studio?
One that really stands out is when Tom Donahoe said he was "embarrassed to be a part of the community" when talking about Gregg Williams being fired. As I recall, that one was sort of a slow burn that eventually went to full-on inferno. I was incredulous at the notion that a man who had been here only 3 years had the balls to criticize the fans and the community. I remember saying something like "hey man, we'll let you know when you're a part of the community."
At one point one of the sales managers, a guy who almost never pops his head into the studios, walked into the control room and was applauding. That made me feel like I was saying something that needed to be said.
I’m fairly certain that Brian Duff, Amy Moritz and you are the only people in this town who have not engaged in a Twitter feud with another member of the local sports media. Is there a secret to getting along with other members of the media?
And an obvious follow up: would you like to take this opportunity to say something disparaging about Brian Duff or Amy Moritz?
I don't think there is any secret to it. I just don't interject myself into things that don't concern me. How people choose to either do their jobs or handle their Twitter feeds is none of my business.
Duffer needs to get to more shows, especially when I'm sitting in with The Leroy Townes Band. Amy pisses me off because she always seems to be training for some long race and I've been getting fat while nursing one injury after another for what seems like years.
How's that? Sick burns, right?
If you had to pick a favorite player, coach or administrator you’ve interviewed over the years, who would it be and why?
Rob Ray deserves a mention here. I learned a lot about the game from working with Rob when he was still playing. His appearances now on game days are some of my very favorite times.
But I think I have to go with Tim Murray. I've never received more positive feedback from listeners than I did from Tim's appearances. He was just so straightforward, which in big time sports you just almost never hear.
An awful lot has changed in Sabreland over the past several weeks. Which acquisition or hiring leaves you the most encouraged as we steer toward the 2017-18 season? What is your greatest concern?
I'm big on the Phil Housley hire. I think he fits very well with the age and style of the talent here. His experience working with high end young players prior to his time in Nashville is a key to that. I believe the Sabres could've had a different outcome last season had they made a move on the coach in the winter, so change should be good there and I believe in the choice.
Concerns...will Housley feel like he has to play veterans like Gorges and Moulson? Coaches, especially new ones, sometimes feel like the vets have earned the opportunity over a long career. I'm looking for youth to break through—Bailey, Baptiste, Nylander, Guhle— loyalty to Gorges and Moulson would be a mistake, in my opinion.
If I told you the the Sabres were going to win the Stanley Cup in your lifetime, what are the first thoughts and images that pop into your head?
Tears. Just tears. And a parade.
The thought of you weeping over a Sabres Stanley Cup victory gets me a little choked up. Let’s finish up with a lightning round:
What’s the first, the worst, and the best concert you’ve ever attended?
Worst: Enuff Z'Nuff with Bang Tango at Toads Place in New Haven, CT. I will cop to liking Bang Tango at the time but Enuff Z'Nuff was straight garbage. Plus, I'm pretty sure my girlfriend at the time got busy with one of their roadies. Not a great night.
Best: So many possibilities… seeing The Tragically Hip last August in London, ON is going to be hard to top. Seeing them has always been an emotional experience. This was off the charts. I'm getting chills right now thinking about it.
Rick Jeanneret, Pat Lafontaine, Gilbert Perreault, and Dominik Hasek are sitting in a crowded bar here in town. Who is the last guy at the table that has to pay for his own drink?
I think Rick is the answer. He's always been there and everyone loves him.
What is the percentage of your friends and family who call you “Bulldog” vs. those who call you “Chris”?
My family never call me Bulldog. My friends mostly never call me Bulldog unless they're trying to goof on me.
Clinically speaking, what is the maximum number of guitars that a healthy, well-adjusted human being should be allowed to own?
I'm not computer savvy enough to make an infinity sign on my desktop.
How many guitars do you own?
12 electrics, 3 acoustics, 1 resonator, 2 bass guitars and a mandolin
What is the most beautiful hockey jersey in your collection? Which jersey has the best story connected to it?
The most beautiful is a Rob Ray home white blue and gold.
Best story… I got a sweet Buffalo Bisons bottlecap logo jersey when I was part of media team that played the Sabres alumni when the Northtown Center opened. Gilbert Perreault on the rush with me playing defense is an all time life highlight for me.
What is the key component of an excellent pizza?
Sorry, the correct answer is “pepperoni burnt around the edges”.
I’m guessing you’ve pondered this next one a time or two already: if you were allowed to take only five records to a desert island, what would they be?
Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue
The Clash, London Calling
Ryan Adams, Cold Roses
Wilco, Being There
Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
Who is the greatest musician (or band) most people have never heard of?
Will Johnson/Centro-matic. He's had other projects, but Centro-matic is my favorite thing he's been involved in.
You can share a case of beer with five Buffalo Sabres, living or dead, out on your front porch this weekend. Who are they?
Punch Imlach, Rick Martin, Danny Gare, Mike Foligno and Jack Eichel
Assuming your guests have the same taste as you, what beer would the six of you be drinking?
That IPA by Community Beer Works.
Many thanks to Chris Parker for carving some time out of a well-deserved vacation to answer our questions. You can listen to Chris and his co-host, Mike Schopp, M-F from 3-7pm on WGR 550. Follow Chris on Twitter @Bulldogwgr
Follow Tim Hirschbeck on Twitter @TimHirschbeck