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What Is A Bilko?

Tuesday, April 23rd
What Is A Bilko?

After four overtime games and a thousand questions over the last five years, I have some explaining to do.

But the question you’re asking shouldn’t be what, but whom.

Summers in 1990s southern New Jersey consisted of picnics in sky forts, a lot of time spent playing whiffle ball and touch football with friends and my older brother, and family road trips. My dad was the lone majority breadwinner until I went to high school with my mom taking the more important but not as financially lucrative job of stay-at-home mother. She would work at The Disney Store at the local mall part time as we got into school, which had the added benefit of built-up free tickets to Walt Disney World—while that parallels with my hockey story, it’s better left for another time.

My grandparents had moved to Florida before I was born, so my early memories of them stem from a hot, humid week every other summer paired with a few days at Walt Disney World. Two for the price and time of one, a deal I’m more than glad they made.

It’s an 18-hour drive down I-95 from the Philadelphia suburbs to my grandparents’ house in Ormond Beach, Fla., a five minute drive from the more infamous Daytona Beach, so there’s a lot of time to kill. Starting out when I was very young, the drive consisted of my older brother and I occupied by coloring books and cassette players featuring anything from the original Space Jam soundtrack to Jock Jams to Backstreet’s Back, the second in the discography of the Backstreet Boys. My dad was at the wheel, and my mom was knitting, laughing or napping with her feet up on the dashboard.

As we got older, the technology advanced, and by the time we upgraded from our small, light blue Chevrolet Corisca eventually to a firetruck red Dodge Grand Caravan, we had more room for our legs and technology. By this time, the CD Walkman was all the rage, and VHS players had gone portable. My parents thought it was smart to help entertain us by purchasing a portable TV with built-in VHS player.

From here on out, every long car trip consisted of these films: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, two of the Pierce Brosnan versions of James Bond, Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, and one more film.

Sgt. Bilko.

I had never seen Saturday Night Live until I was late into high school. I still haven’t seen The Jerk, ¡Three Amigos!, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Father of the Bride—only the last movie was released after I was born—so this was my first introduction to Steve Martin. My brother, who was born two years before I was, certainly hadn’t seen him either, so it becomes my parents’ fault for introducing us to this film.

Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko was originally a character featured on The Phil Silvers Show, a regular feature on CBS from 1955 to 1959, which was also informally referred to as Sgt. Bilko. The show and the movie follow the antics of an Army officer and conman at Fort Baxter who runs gambling rings and finds every way possible to avoid actually doing any work. The 1996 film starred Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd and the late Phil Hartman, just to name a few. A young Chris Rock would also play a minor role.

It received a 32 percent positive rating, has a sub-50 rating on MetaCritic, and failed at the box office.

It also became a constant giggle-fest for three-straight days with rewinds and quotes that even made our parents laugh through the tiresome repeats that made them wish for headphones (and later on, better ones).

Now, it’s one of a small few films that are part of our families’ regimented history of quotations in everyday life scenarios. To this day, we may still be the only people that actually know the source of those quotes.

There is one scene that isn’t quoted but is a key story setter for the entire film about 15 to 20 minutes after its start. Bilko, played by Steve Martin, after forgetting about his wedding day (again), tells a story to his soldiers in the Motorpool of his early days as a private in the Army running gambling rings and fixing a boxing match that would later bring back an old nemesis in Major Colin Thorn, played by Phil Hartman. At the end of the story, he delivers one phrase that’s a seemingly throwaway line with a calm, undersold tone and doesn’t appear again:

“Game, set and match: Bilko.”

Fast forward to Nov. 22, 2014.

Over one year after graduation, I landed my first full-time broadcasting gig in Corpus Christi, Texas the previous August. I had always hated the idea of catchphrases, but I know a lot of broadcasters who had them. Not to the level of Randy Moeller, who had a themed list of quotes to utter right after every Florida Panthers goal on the radio, but most were subtle or kept to certain situations. More like John Walton, who always shouts “Good Morning, Good Afternoon and Good Night [current city]!” for every Washington Capitals win on the radio.

Overtime is a very finite event in sports, and scoring in that period is usually the peak elation fans and players can get in a game because of its finality and hanging on every shot. I wanted something small and subtle, but I wasn’t sure what.

That night, the Corpus Christi IceRays and Odessa Jackalopes found themselves in overtime, the sixth time already that season. The IceRays had already won in overtime once the previous month—what was said is now anyone’s guess with no video or audio record saved—and the same player, forward Wes Michaud, currently headed to the University of North Dakota from Colorado College, was up for another overtime winner.

This time was different. He had been taken down on a scoring opportunity, so a penalty shot was awarded. It’s the only time a game that I called saw a penalty shot in overtime for the team I was calling. I had been going over in my head for weeks what the perfect phrase would be for an overtime occasion, and this was the chance I had to make my mark.

As a broadcaster, being in the moment and “in the zone” is when nothing else around seems to exist in your conscience, only the ice, your notes and your voice. It was one of those moments (admittedly, few and far between early on), and as I was sputtering out details of the last overtime win he scored, the thought crept into my head.

Okay, if he scores, say the line. Be ready.

I wanted to make a tennis reference, since I had already utilized the sound of a boxing bell for fights earlier that month. Small, subtle and nothing outrageous that would cause too much attention or label me with a negative connotation when it came to my calls. I had played enough Mario Tennis growing up to know that each result finishes with “Game, Set & Match” to reflect the type of point earned.

Michaud got set for the penalty shot. I recounted the phrase in my head. I was ready.

He skated up, made a nice head fake, and went backhand top shelf.

I started with the long “He scores!” before lining up the phrase. As I’m elongating that final word and the celebration begins, I’m mentally preparing for the big reveal. Get ready. It’s coming. You’ve got this.

Then, a fleeting thought crept in my head mid-call: It needs something else. The word finished, and without any time to think about what it needed, I spouted the first thing that came into my head.

“Game! Set! Match! Bilko!”

What was I thinking?

After finishing the end of the call and signing off for the night, that’s the only thought I had.

For weeks, I had been building up this event in my head, and at the last second, my mind decides to fly off the interstate headed for the exit, tires squealing and pluming out white smoke. I wanted to be subtle, be able to have something consistent that wasn’t confusing or irrelevant, and the only thing my mind associated with a tennis phrase was Sgt. Bilko’s throwaway line 20 minutes into a movie from 1996, over 18 years after its initial release.

Just like anything else in improvisational settings (like sports), I just shrugged and went with it. You’ve already said it, so you’re committed to it now.

The IceRays went 8-1 in overtime that season. Seven were with that call.

Since that night, I’ve been part of 33 overtime winners for the teams I’ve worked for, which includes seven in the playoffs, 13 of those over three years in Corpus Christi, and 12 of those 33 with the Steelheads in one season. What started as a mental gaff has gotten traction to the point that it’s second nature, much in the same way that the “Ding! Ding! Ding” at the end of eight fight has been drilled into my unconscious thought and vernacular.

However, over five years later, the phrase has taken on a different meaning, for me. I don’t need my full two hands to count the number of times I’ve visited my family back in New Jersey. Even including the three visits I’ve had (with one to help me move here from just my dad) only fills those two hands of eight fingers and two thumbs. It’s not a public ask for sympathy or the feeling of belonging but more of a perspective of the journey that I’ve taken since leaving home that August of 2014. I’ve got my hockey family here and the hockey families of previous teams, but my blood family is a near full country away.

So, what, or who is Bilko?

It’s more than a movie character. It’s a subtle, humble call to my family. Here’s hoping to see more overtime games so I can keep letting them know that I’m always thinking of them.

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