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Sports media: Billy Gardner indebted to Wolves after breakup with Blackhawks

Color analyst Billy Gardner (right, with play-by-play man Jason Shaver) has been on Wolves broadcasts since 2002. | Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

Before there was Pat and Eddie, there was Pat and Billy.

Pat Foley and Billy Gardner were the voices of the Blackhawks from 1998 to 2002. Foley had been on the call since 1980, and Gardner was returning home after a two-year stint as the Whalers/Hurricanes TV analyst.

The timing was tough. It was the beginning of the dark ages. The pair’s first season together came after the Hawks’ first season without a playoff game since 1969. Only the 2001-02 Hawks made the playoffs in the duo’s four years together, and that team lasted only five games.

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But you always enjoyed the broadcast, despite the usual outcome. Foley was his typical smooth-speaking, enthusiastic self describing the action, and Gardner provided the analysis and comic relief that fans needed from those teams. But in May 2002, the Hawks didn’t bring Gardner back, and he had nowhere to go.

“It was a rough situation for myself when I got let go with the Hawks. There was a lot of turmoil,” said Gardner, who was drafted by the Hawks in 1979 and played in 354 games for them in his career (1980-89). “I had no idea what I was going to do. But I didn’t want to leave [Chicago]. I didn’t want to uproot everybody again and go somewhere else.”

“I left the Carolina Hurricanes just to come back for the Hawks, and four years later I’m out of a job. That was difficult to swallow because I really enjoyed my time with Hartford and then Carolina, and I kind of left them in a bind by coming back.”

In August 2002, Gardner received a call from then-Wolves play-by-play announcer Judd Sirott, who asked Gardner if he’d be interested in the team’s analyst job. Almost 16 years later, Gardner is still in the booth, now alongside Jason Shaver, his play-by-play partner since 2008. They’ll be on the call Saturday, when the Wolves open the AHL playoffs against the IceHogs (7 p.m., Ch. 26.2).

“They were kind of my savior,” Gardner said. “I have no idea what I’d be doing or where I’d be if it wasn’t for the Wolves.”

In a twist of fate, he was joined by Foley in 2006 after the Hawks controversially withdrew their contract offer to their voice of 26 years. Foley and Gardner called Wolves games for two seasons. After Hawks owner Bill Wirtz died in 2007 and son Rocky took over, the Hawks brought Foley back in 2008.

Gardner didn’t join him.

“I did hear that our owner [Don Levin] said, if you’re taking Pat, you should take Bill with him,” Gardner said. “That didn’t happen, obviously.

“When Pat left, I really didn’t think they’d bring me back just because of what took place. Not that I wanted to leave [the Wolves]. I enjoyed what I did, I wanted to stay in Chicago and I was with a professional team that was as good as any NHL team in the way they ran the business. So I was very happy.”

The Hawks already had Eddie Olczyk in place, and he has become hockey’s premier analyst. Gardner, meanwhile, has fulfilled his wish to stay put while working for a top-shelf organization in the Wolves.

“In one sense, it’s the American Hockey League, but the way they run everything, it’s so professional,” Gardner said. “They always used to say we’re the 31st NHL team, in a sense. That’s how they felt they ran the organization, which is the truth.

“When Pat came on board for those two years with us, he couldn’t believe the number of people that were involved in office, etc. It was astonishing to him to see the involvement, the number of people that they had to put a product on the ice.”

For the first time since 2008, the year of their last Calder Cup title, the Wolves are the only playoff hockey team in town. After starting the season 6-12-5, they won the Central Division with a record of 42-23-11.

“This team has played so well for such a long period of time, they just need to continue that and not have any lapses,” Gardner said.

Remote patrol

Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my distaste for WGN-TV’s new score bug. Readers’ emails and tweets were almost unanimous: NBC Sports Chicago’s score bug is better.

The most common complaint was an element of the graphic I didn’t even mention: the outs indicator, three boxes stacked to the right of the count. Responders said it was poorly located, too small or both.

Thanks to everyone who wrote.