(Ed. Note: EA Sports’ influential hockey video game classic “NHL ’94” was released 20 years ago. In its honor, we’re running a multi-part celebration of the game this week on Puck Daddy. Here’s blogger and radio host Scotty Wazz on the 10 greatest things about the game.)
By Scotty Wazz, Faceoff Hockey Show
While the “face” of NHL '94 in the end could be Jeremy Roenick, as he was actually tied to that game in such a pop-culture manner, the real face of NHL '94 has to be Ron Barr.
The sportscaster, who won an Emmy award for his piece about San Quentin convicts getting the chance to try-out in front of San Francisco Giants personnel, was tabbed by EA Sports to be their lead "voice" for their game titles.
Despite being in a lot of previous titles for the EA Sports contingency, his role in NHL '94 may be one of the longer lasting moments to hockey fans and sports gamers around the world. However, there is much more to Mr. Barr’s career than just being at the EA Sports Desk.
Q: Let’s start with how you got involved with EA Sports in the first place.
BARR: It was back in 1990 and at that time EA and EA Sports were really a smaller company and everything sports wise fell under the umbrella of Don Transeth and Chip Lange. They were the sports marketing guys for all the brands at EA Sports and they came to know me because I was doing the national show (Sports Byline USA). As they were the sports marketing developers, they said, “Why don’t we create the EA Sports Desk?”
They needed someone with creditability and they brought me in on that. As they continued to develop the games as they do each year, adding different elements; they wanted to add a live broadcaster to do the introductions of teams, players, and everything—it was ground breaking at that time.
What was reaction from people who knew you and saw you in the game?
Those two guys were smart, especially Don Transeth. What they did was have someone who was a real live person and not a comic person. When people would call my show, people would tell me, “I love your video game.” I don’t know why people thought I stayed up late at night working on the video game, but when they would call saying that; I asked them what they liked about it. They would say, “Well, I like the music, the commentary, I like this, that” and that would be consumer endorsement you can’t pay enough money to get. And that’s why that game was so successful. It was ground-breaking from a technological standpoint and it had a lot of consumer endorsement to it.
How do you feel being recognized as being the guy in NHL ’94?
Fortunately, it caught me at the right time.
I was a little bit older so it didn’t make my head swell. It was great to be a part of something ground-breaking. My whole life and my career, I’ve had good people around me. My mom and aunt were both pilots, my grandfather was curator for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, my great-grandfather was part of the invention of the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell. So, I say that only as the fact that being associated with something like NHL '94 makes me proud of being able to be associated with that.
Being the first is always wonderful. I’m proud—that’s the one word I can say. I’ve also enjoyed the fact that kids would come up to me when I was in those games—like NHL '94, Tony LaRussa Baseball, FIFA Soccer—they would say to me, “You’re the dude in the hockey game, aren’t you?” I always wanted to be known as the dude in the hockey game. That’ll forever be my mantle to carry as the dude in the hockey game.
How involved were you with the actual game?
That’s a good question. I was involved to the extent I was involved with EA. I realized quite quickly that the game was something that was ground-breaking and unique. The game itself was the most important thing, but because no one had ever been digitized as a sportscaster in a game like that before, I didn’t mind being out in front like that. I definitely liked being a part of it in that way.
This is also a big year for you as your sports radio network, Sports Byline USA, turns 25. What can you tell us about that?
I launched the company in 1988 as the first sports talk radio network in the country. Our second year in business, American Forces Radio came onboard and that’s 500 stations in 177 countries. We had 300 stations carrying our network of sports programming by the time NHL ’94 came out. I’m very blessed to have wonderful people, not only working with me—my president Darren Peck, who started with me as my engineer and 24 years later is the president of the network—but also some of my limited partners like Billie Jean King. Eddie DeBartolo, Brian Billick, and Leigh Steinberg; as well as Bill Walsh being on the Board of Directors.. When you have those type of people that you’re involved with, you have to conduct yourself in a way that’s reflective of the quality of those people.
How did the whole network come about?
It happened when (Baseball Hall of Famer) Duke Snider came on the local radio show I was doing, a man called saying, “I waited 35 years to talk to Duke Snider and you gave me a chance tonight.” When I was doing a tennis telecast with Billie Jean King, I told her I had an idea for a national sports talk radio network, but it’s not being done and I’m not a businessman. She looked me in the eye and said, “Ron, I know you well enough; you never want to look over your shoulder and wonder if you could have.”
Our progression is what happened on Jan. 9 when the Library of Congress licensed the entire 12,000 interview library of Sports Byline. I did the last interview with Mickey Mantle before he passed away. The Library of Congress said, “We don’t have anything like this and this is a capture of something we need to have in the capture of sports.”
From the Washington Post to sports casting in Seattle and San Francisco to EA and now Sports Byline, did you ever think it would get this big for you?
When you list all of what you listed, I don’t think I would have. But I know I have always been around, I guess greatness is the best word. As a young sportscaster in Washington, DC when Ted Williams was the manager of the Washington Senators and you’re sitting on the bench down from him and you want to say something, but you know he has chewed up the media when he was in Boston. But I was smart enough to say, “You know, Ted,” as he scowled at me, “Bone fishing in Florida is really great.”
His eyes lit up and he slid down and started talking me. From that time on, any time I had a question for him, I got it. I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to the great names in sports and many of them I’ve been honored to call my friend. I would have never have thought it would happen, but I was never afraid or intimidated in any way. I was going to take advantage of every path given to me. I’ve been blessed to have a great career with great people in it.
Is being in NHL '94 been the biggest thing you have been linked to in sports pop-culture?
It’s one of the two. The other, I was the play-by-play broadcaster for Stanford during their game against Cal when “The Play” happened. During the call, I had said the game was over with and they kept lateraling it. Ten years later in 1992, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a picture on the front page of that and in the top right hand corner was a picture of an official with his hand above his head signaling the end of the game. He had seen the runner’s knee was down on the sideline and called it dead. I caught that out of the corner of my eye and I’m proud I called it right.
Did you ever play NHL '94 when it came out?
No, at the time we were in the process of creating the sports talk network. I was so busy and I didn’t have that “game chip” in my make-up. But I understood it well enough.
I’ll never forget one thing; when that game came out, the people at EA asked if I wanted to go to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago and I said sure. Chris Chelios was there and they wanted me to be part of the Q&A with the media with Chris. I remember him leaning over to me and saying, “Ron, I’m glad you’re here. This makes it a lot easier.” With athletes, they never know what kind of question they’re going to get. Having me as the buffer and being able to ask them question I know they could handle and would want to respond to put them in an area of comfort they appreciated.
When people look back on NHL '94, what should they remember about it?
It was a unique game and ground-breaking experience. It’s one of those things that stays with gamers. It became an iconic, pop-culture experience. I’ve never seen something as NHL '94 that took over in pop-culture and still, 20 years later, is still at the forefront of a lot of people’s mind.