The Great Debate: Van Miller vs. Rick Jeanneret

Fan-demonium vs. Top Shelf….


Van Miller and Rick Jeanneret are both local broadcasting legends. Buffalo sports fans have been fortunate to have the luxury of listening to two of the best in their respective sports.  However, the question remains; who was the better broadcaster?  Matthew Stewart and I each have different perspectives on the debate.  And so, as every great issue is resolved, we will now climb into the barbed-wire steel cage to politely discuss our difference in opinion:

Brian: First off Matt, Van is from Dunkirk and not from Canada (even if St. Catherines is 14 miles closer).

Matt: Brian! You’re already making my argument for me. Yes, St. Catherines is closer, and consider this: For most of the last 40 years, RJ has crossed the border to do his job, every time he’s done it! Sure, Van might have been from Dunkirk and lived in Buffalo, but Rick has SWITCHED COUNTRIES every time he’s come to call a game. Now that’s dedication.

Brian: My point is that he is a Buffalo guy through and through.  Van called Buffalo Braves, Buffalo Bisons, UB Football, Buffalo Stallions and NU Basketball games in addition to his work with the Bills.  Most of his work with the Braves happened while Van’s station didn’t have the rights to call Bills games.

Matt: Quality over quantity, my friend. You know why Rick has called exclusively hockey games in his tenure? Because he’s really, really good at calling hockey games. He also does not have the media based background that Van Miller does, which truly shows Rick’s work is a labor of love.

Brian: Van called all the games of the greatest era in Buffalo sports history

Matt: True this may be, but since Rick has been with the Sabres basically the entire time they have existed, wouldn’t he have called all the games of the greatest era too? If you’re a hockey fan, the Bills failed Super Bowl runs probably aren’t as important as say, the mid-70s or late-90s.

Brian: Really?  Aren’t as important? Van is in the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame (Jeanneret is not, although I will concede that he should be)

Matt: Since you have already conceded that this is a dreadful miscarriage of justice, we shall just move on. 

Brian: Van’s delivery was universally liked and ultra-smooth. There are people who don’t like Jeanneret’s wild, off the wall calls.

Matt: I’m unable to argue with Van’s smooth, professional delivery. It truly does beat out Rick’s hackneyed yelps. However, Van called a game. That’s what he did — no more, no less. Rick, on the other hand, is a story teller, which is why he can work so well simultaneously on television and radio. Every game that he calls is a picture he paints for the viewer or listener. 

Brian: Your youth comes through.  Van was able to paint every bit the picture that Rick could.  A section of Ralph Wilson stadium is called the “Van Miller Club”, try finding that in HSBC arena for RJ

Matt: What are you, like three years older than me? I’m considering bringing a steel folding chair into this contest! In a short amount of time, I would suspect that a significant portion of the arena will be named after RJ, and perhaps a friggin’ city block. I would also expect there to be a statue, or perhaps several statues. The reason some of this hasn’t taken place yet is because, and maybe we haven’t noticed but: The old owners didn’t pay too much attention to the team’s history because it required an investment greater than the minimum amount necessary to keep the lights on in the place.

Brian: More people listened to Van Miller’s greatest game call in ‘The Comeback’ where he painted a picture perfect scene of the Bills’ second half comeback (and for 180,000 people that claim to beat the game, then why did it happen to not be on TV?). 

Matt: And more people listen to Pierre McGuire on a weekly basis than both Van and Rick, probably combined, but no one is about to call Pierre the greatest ever.  

Brian: Rick Jeanneret isn’t even the clear cut best announcer in the history of the Sabres. Many people prefer Ted Darling. With all due respect to John Murphy, is there even a comparison?

Matt: I’ve never really understood the Ted Darling thing. Was he an excellent broadcaster? Sure. But I think very early in Rick’s career, he had surpassed Darling as a talent and only did not have the television gig because Darling was already there. Additionally, Darling existed in a place in time in which his impact as a broadcaster was somewhat limited. Hockey was even more of a fringe sport, and the Sabres went through much more drastic and prolonged periods of inadequacy then have ever existed when Rick has been ‘the guy’. But in any event, it’s sort of irrelevant. When you ask who is better between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Kobe doesn’t lose points because Magic Johnson once played for the same team as him. Same thing here.

Brian: Van’s 37 years is slightly less the RJ’s 40, but Van was the exclusive voice of the Bills during that tenure and Jeanneret has only had that distinction for 15.

Matt: The exclusive voice thing comes from the fact that there weren’t local television and radio broadcasts for the Bills: Football’s TV product is a regional or national affair. If there was a split local broadcast, Van probably wouldn’t have called both the TV and radio games, ever, which Rick now does and has since 1995. Maybe even a strike against Miller then.

Brian: I get the love for Jeanneret and love his calls myself, but the argument for him has two sides:

Catch phrases: Miller has calls like “fandemonium”, “the shot heard around the world”, “fasten your seatbelts”, “NOW DO YOU BELIEVE” and so on just the way that RJ does. I am not belittling the impact of RJ’s phrases, but to say it is a clear advantage is flat out wrong.

Jeanneret makes you feel like you are watching the game though!

Obviously, you either never heard or forgot Van Miller. Both are equally great at painting a visual picture with their words which is the first and foremost attribute to be considered a great play-by-play announcer.

Matt: Rick has been around for longer than Van, but he’s also a much more integral part of your daily Buffalo sports fix than Van. While Van called around 16 games plus, for a few years, a handful of playoff games every year, Rick calls almost 82 games per season plus a playoff series or more.  This, along with the fact that RJ has had the longevity to call games in the era of new media has made him not just synonymous with his particular sport in Buffalo, but he is now iconic — a living embodiment of what most every NHL team wants in terms of their culture and living history. Aside from immediate family, there is likely no more familiar voice than that of RJ’s to the Buffalo sports fan. So much so, in fact, that he is more than just an announcer, he is almost a part of that family.

Brian: Van was around this team for actually longer than Rick has been around the Sabres.  His station lost the rights to the team from 1971-77.  That’s not his fault.  Every week was an event to look forward to with Miller’s calls.  RJ does make each and every game exciting, but you can’t knock Miller for calling the games scheduled. Your youth comes through here; Miller was every bit as iconic and a fabric of the Buffalo sport community as RJ.

Matt: Though Rick has only called two championships to Van’s 4, he has actually called more championship games (because the NHL is best of 7, afterall) at 12. He has also called three additional conference championships. The very nature of hockey, as well, means that Rick has a lot more “famous” calls from close and/or exciting games. While Van has a few “pandemonium” games in his repetoire, the way the games are played means Van called a lot more blowout victories when the Bills were good and blowout defeats when they were bad. Rick has May Day, the Dave Hannon marathon, Shields vs. Snow, The Hardest Working Team in Hockey, Jason Wooley and the miraculous cup run, Jason Pominville: Oh Now Do You Believe? Roll the Highlight Film, Chris Drury’s miracle against the Rangers, and so on.

Brian: Famous to who? Van Miller’s stamp on the Bills goes far behind ‘catch phrases’.  It is important to hang your hat on them, but I’ll take the all-around arsenal that Van was able to display on a weekly basis that made him great.

Matt: Three words: Longevity through turmoil. Van Miller had the luxury of having the same owner, and thus the same stability throughout his career. There was rarely an opportunity for change because there has rarely been change. However, the Sabres and RJ have gone through multitudes of ownership transitions and different broadcasting partners/networks. Each has had the opportunity to start fresh and give the Sabres a new sound and identity with a new voice of the team. None have decided to stray away from Rick.

Brian: Yeah, because the Bills have been the model of consistency under Ralph.  Also, ownership isn’t going to dictate who calls the games.  Fan interest and approval dictates that.  Both Van and RJ have had that throughout their careers.

Matt: Though Rick is not considered the “voice of his sport’ in the same way that Vin Scully might be considered so in baseball, Rick is amongst the top echelon of hockey broadcasters, and amongst a select group who are considered elder statesman of the game (probably alongside the likes of Bob Cole and Doc Emrick). Van Miller, is comparison, was beloved by Buffalo and rarely criticized elsewhere, but he was a member of a much larger pool of celebrated though not particularly prolific announcers.

Brian: I have seen all sorts of other regions and national sites rank top broadcasting teams (Melrose and Buccicross as well) and they seldom put as much stock in RJ as us locals do.  He is synonomus with Sabres hockey, not hockey.  Van Miller has had more exposure through the large distribution of NFL Films memorabilia.  He’s the much bigger star nationally.

Matt:Is Rick a homer? Absolutely. Was Van a homer? Absolutely. Brian noted that Rick is criticized for his homerish shrieking, but the fact is that Rick, even in a sport like hockey, is far more available than Van was in football. Because of the regionalization and nationalization of football on television, and the limited scope of your standard radio, Van was far more difficult to reach for opposing team’s fans than Rick who works now on two different mediums in the era of DirecTV, Center Ice, mobile satellite radio, and so on. In other words, Rick and Van were probably equally as homerish, but Rick gets more flack for it because more opposing ears hear him.

Brian: Every local broadcaster is a homer.  It’s not his homer mentality that really gets people too upset with his comments about penalties. It’s his actual play-by-play delivery and commentary on the game.

Matt: And lastly, degree of difficulty. Rick calls a game with almost constant action, where there are lots and lots of foreign names that are difficult to pronounce and routinely butchered by his counterparts. Van called a game with predominantly American names, with many more stops-and-starts, with players who lined up typically in the exact same spots every play.

Brian: Every hockey fan knows how to pronounce 90% of the names in hockey.  Make it their career and they’ll learn the other 10%.  Let’s not over complicate the names.  Each sport has it’s own nuances for handling the play-by-play call.  Van was able to handle the play clock and control the entire pace of the broadcast.  We’re not comparing apples to apples with that.  


Closing Arguments:

Brian:  As great as Jeanneret is for the Sabres and Buffalo has seriously been fortunate to have two (three) of the greater announcers in their respective sports, Miller was and is better. Both announcers have their supporters, but Jeanneret actually has a large contingent of detractors, especially outside of the region. Both are the type of announcers that as a kid I would turn down the television broadcast to listen to. When push comes to shove though, I’m going with Miller. It’s been almost a decade since Miller called his last game and a whole young generation of fans have missed out on how incredibly gifted he was just as I almost missed out on listening to Ted Darling. Those who remember the way Van Miller called the play-by-play like I do know the answer to this question. It’s VAN-demonium.

Matt: So who’s the best ever? Well, RJ, who else? And does that take anything away from Van Miller? Of course not. I remember hearing the crackling sounds of the Comeback on my family’s radio, sitting on the kitchen floor, watching pacing family members — members who typically didn’t even care about football. I remember being told what I just heard was history. And it is true — there are few moments in Sabres history that compare to that everything-is-right-in-the-world feeling that Van Miller so poetically described that day. But in the end, those feelings fade and what we are left with is something different. We are left with those who make us feel good when there is almost no reason to feel good, who live and die with the same emotions we have, who are able to make mundane moments and games seem more than mundane.

So when the curtain finally closes on Rick’s career for the last time, he won’t just be a Buffalo media guy who was great at his job. He represents the crazy uncle, the encouraging neighbor — a true friend. Truly: The fan. Who is the best of all? Well, there is this one guy who was pretty… no, scary good. I think he gets the nod.

So who are you taking?