Mark Stephen has been interested in sports since a young age, but he wasn’t quite good enough to pursue a career as a professional athlete.
“It've been nice to be an athlete, but I think I figured out fairly early that was quite a stretch there," Stephen says.
So, he picked a career in sports media where he has made a name for himself as a play-by-play commentator.
Stephen’s interest in sports began as soon as he knew how to turn on a radio because at “that time radio was far more prevalent too then it is now.”
Aside from watching sports as a child, Stephen played sports in his neighbourhood. He says, “[I] enjoyed the games, and the competition.”
Stephen figured out pretty quickly that he wouldn’t be able to make a career out of being an athlete even though he says it would have been nice to be one. So, he started thinking about reporting on other athletes after listening to and watching sports announcers.
“It seemed to be a lot of fun. It seemed to be interesting,” Stephen says. “I liked, you know, when they came on T.V. and the radio, and seemed to know everything that was going on, and seemed to be in charge.”
Eric Bishop, the 15-year Calgary Stampeders commentator, stood out to Stephen out of all the radio and T.V. personalities. Stephen considers Bishop to be a role model of his. He says, “[Bishop is the] standard against which football broadcasts are measured,” and that he had a passion along with a lot of great insights.
The two became friends, and talked with each other frequently until Bishop passed away.
“In his later years he used to phone me all the time, just to ask what was going on and things like that. So I used to talk to him, he used to tell me stuff, and I used to tell him stuff,” Stephen recalls. “He kind of did it all. He even owned a junior hockey team and he did a lot of hockey growing up.”
Like Bishop, Stephen had a passion. Entering into university, Stephen began to develop more of a critical eye for sports broadcasting. He got a sense for why the story went on the air. He says, “I knew I could see, you know, some of the background stuff [such as] how things were done and why things were done.”
“There was a day when every radio station had a sports department. So you’d listen back and forth, back and forth. . . You’d sort of listen to who, in your opinion did the most work, and the hardest. And you know, had the most to say. And you’d start to appreciate, well if that was on the air, somebody had to go get it.”
Stephen began to understand that there’s more than meets the eye or ear in a broadcast. He says, “you can’t just show up, you have to have some ideas and you have to have an understanding of systems.”
Getting to where he wanted to be was a long process for Stephen. Prior to working at CHQR 770, he had a few jobs.
Stephen started out as a university reporter for The Albertan covering the Calgary Dinos. He recalls that’s how he got to be known at CTV, his first broadcasting job.
Although he was broadcasting, Stephen was still looking for a break in the sports scene. He left CTV after five years to work at CKCK Radio in Regina to cover the Regina Pats and Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“Way too much Saskatchewan Roughriders for my liking.” Stephen humorously recalls. “But that’s what there was.”
It wasn’t a hard sell for him when he returned home for a front office gig with the Calgary Cannons baseball team in 1985.
Although he recalls his time with the Cannons fondly, Stephen didn’t get complacent. The broadcast booth was still where he wanted to be. He caught a break when CHQR 770 acquired the radio broadcast rights to the Stampeders. They were in need of people to fill their team and they hired Stephen.
“I had been looking for a job and saw a new opportunity. When they got the rights it was in January of 1992. So for four years, I was the reporter. Sort of the day-to-day reporter for the Stampeders.”
It was a big step for him. Although Stephen wasn’t commentating yet, he had his foot in the door. He wouldn’t have to wait much longer either.
In 1996, a play-by-play spot opened up, and Stephen seized the opportunity. He says that he was feeling the pressure, but was relieved when he finally had the gig. Stephen has been doing the play-by-play ever since.
“I knew one day I’d ascend to that. I set an internal goal. If I didn’t get a position with a team like that, or something by the age of 40, maybe it was time to consider other things.”
For his entire tenure, he has been calling games with the same person, colour commentator Gregory Peterson. The duo of Stephen and Peterson have been together for over 20 years, the longest stretch in Canadian Football League history. Over the years Peterson has seen first-hand what makes Stephen such an effective play-by-play man.
“He’s all over the place. He’s sitting down a lot… he’s clapping his hands, and he’s very animated. But he’s just very good. You have to be quick with your mouth to your mind.” Peterson says it’s something that Stephen not only has a gift for, but has gotten better with practice.
“There’s nobody better at it,” he adds.
Along with his gift, Stephen is very dedicated to what he does. Peterson knows this very well.
“He just always puts in so much time,” Peterson says.. “He just loves the Stampeders. He loves what he does.”
“When somebody has been doing it that long,” Peterson says, “it’s kind of like how you respect a very good player who has played for 10 to 15 years in the league. Yeah, all your peers respect you for it.”
Stephen and Peterson have drawn all sorts of acclaim from their viewers. When asked if he believes they are the best the league has seen, Stephen provided a humorous response.
“If I disagree I’ll tell you,” he says. “I’m silent so yes, I’m more than happy.”
Stephen’s hard work and dedication have earned him a spot in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2013 during a ceremony that took place at the Grey Cup in Regina. The accomplishment means a lot to him.
“It was amazing. It’s a real honour to be up there. It’s in Hamilton, so I see my picture when we go there. It’s very nice to be regarded with people who have had long, distinguished, very successful careers.”
- By David Stanich