Larger than life character remembered with affection

Billy Powers was remembered as an institution in sports circles in Calgary by friends and colleagues who called the shocking death of he and his wife a tragedy.

Saturday, 06.07.2013 / 2:25 AM / News
By Scott Cruickshank, George Johnson & Vicki Hall
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Larger than life character remembered with affection

A couple of old-timers, during a quiet moment this past spring at Canyon Meadows Golf and Country Club, had been catching up.

One topic was the recent demise of rodeo reporter Dwayne Erickson. John Down had been tapped to talk at Erickson’s memorial service and this is what he was telling Billy Powers.

Photograph By: Courtesy Corus Radio, Calgary, Handout

Powers, of course, was famous for his own work at the microphone — on the radio, in scrums, during news conferences, at roasts, banquets, golf tourneys, even weddings.

But the man would not do funerals.

“That surprised me when he told me that,” Down, a former newspaperman, said Thursday afternoon.

“For him, he said, it was just too hard, so it was the one thing he refused to do. He did everything else as far as speaking, but he said he wouldn’t speak at a memorial service, no matter how close people were to him.”

A pause.

“That was strange because I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of people standing up to say good things about Billy now.”

Powers and his wife Donna Lee were discovered dead in their Calgary home Thursday morning. News of the death of Powers, an immensely popular figure in the city, rocked the sports community.

“You’re, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” says Jock Wilson, who had worked alongside Powers at CHQR 770 radio. “I truly was shocked and stunned. I can’t think of better words. This is such a sad and tragic story, it’s mind-boggling. I’ve got a lot of love and respect for Billy. He touched a lot of people.

“A bigger-than-life character, there’s no question.”

On the last night of his life, Powers attended the retirement dinner of Pat Clayton, outgoing athletic therapist of the Calgary Stampeders, at Nick’s Steakhouse and Pizza. Late arriving, Tom Forzani missed seeing his old chum by a matter of minutes.

“Tragic. Tragic. Numbing,” Forzani, choking up, says of Powers’ death. “What I’ve lost will probably come to my full attention at the funeral, when you go, ‘Man, I’m never going to see him again.’ Right now, it’s just, ‘I’ll see Billy at the next football game.’ It’s a loss that you don’t understand ... the comprehension of it all. Like, I’ll never see him again. He was a good guy. The best. I can’t believe it.”

Jim (Bearcat) Murray credits Powers with helping him get his career-making job as trainer of the Calgary Flames.

“This is tough to absorb,” says Murray. “I’m broken up right now. When I heard something this morning, all I could think of was, ‘I just hope it isn’t Bill. I just hope it isn’t Bill.’ ”

For those who had been listeners until his retirement in 2009, Powers was familiar. That voice, that personality.

He became legendary in these parts — an institution, really — and, no surprise, was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.

“I cast the deciding ballot,” says Ken Newans, longtime local sportscaster. “And, you know, I’ve always been pretty proud of that.”

Adds Wilson: “And why is he in there? Because he basically had this way with people. I don’t think we have that type of sportscaster, that type of media person, in the city anymore. He is the last of a — I hate to say it — dying breed.”

Out of high school, Powers was hired by the Edmonton Journal in 1961. Four years later, he served as court reporter for the Calgary Albertan. But by 1968, he had discovered his true talent — radio.

“He joined CKXL, a rock station,” says Newans. “They were ranked one of the top rock stations in the country at the time, if I’m not mistaken. And that was his pride and joy as a broadcaster, I think, being No. 1 and working with all the great people there.”

At the sports helm of that ever-popular AM station, Powers ruled the city’s airwaves.

Wilson recalls breaking into the business — with 107 KIK FM in 1981 — during Billy’s reign.

“Everyone wanted to be Billy Powers if you were a young sportscaster in Calgary,” says Wilson. “My employers at the time, they wanted me to be Billy Powers. They brought in tape and said, ‘Jock, you’ve got to be like this guy. This guy rocks this town.’ ”

Soon enough, Wilson got to take the full measure of Powers.

At a press conference together, they had “a few pops.” Then a few more — despite both men having sportscasts later in the afternoon.

“So he goes on the air and I’m listening to him back at my station,” says Wilson. “He is so smooth. Smooth as silk. And I’m going, ‘Oh, OK. I can do this, too.’ I go on the air and I kicked it all over the place. I should have been fired on the spot. But I learned a very good lesson — if you’re playing with the big boys, don’t pretend you’re a big boy. Billy, he was a professional from that standpoint.”

Wilson sighs.

“I’ve got so many stories, you don’t have time to write them all. There’s just too many.”

Given his outsized personality and enduring popularity, Powers turned into a household name in Calgary.

“Well, the nuts and bolts of it, obviously, he’s been around the sports scene forever,” says Mark Stephen, CHQR 770 radio voice of the Stamps.

“I worked with him directly for 17 years. So I’ll remember his infectious enthusiasm for everything and more so the Stampeders than anything. He came in and always had a joke. In our office, there was a box full of jokes that he would type out. He would run the joke of the day, and he would read one out.”

Yes, jokes. All those jokes.

Some clean. Some salty.

And always letting them fly.

“He had an unbelievable memory — staggering, really,” says Forzani. “I could say, ‘Billy, I remember you telling a joke at this sports banquet and it was about a pig.’ Then he’d tell it. Just amazing. Whenever we were playing golf, you’d hit a bad shot and go, ‘Billy, tell me a joke.’ Bang. Another joke that I hadn’t heard before.”

But for all of Powers’ gags, for all of his mirth, Forzani admired the man’s tact. Sometimes an optional trait for those covering sports.

“He was never mean, he was never controversial with players,” he says. “He would tell it the way it was — like, if you had a bad game — but he was never mean about it. You know, sometimes sportswriters can get personal to a point where it’s disturbing. But Bill was never like that. Never. Never. Just a good, good guy — bottom line.”

As for his legacy . . . .

“He was a storyteller,” says Wilson. “I don’t think there are many storytellers left in the media business. Whether it was telling a good joke or telling a good story ... he made a career out of it. That’s why Billy was special.”

Down agrees.

“Billy was a throwback to the old-time media days,” Down says. “If you worked in this business in Calgary, sooner or later you’d get to know Billy Powers — and you’d never forget him once you met him. He was that kind of guy — he left an impression. He was a legend in this town, no question. I can’t even think of anybody like Billy.

“He was an entertainer. It’s just a stunning loss.”