COLUMBUS, Ohio -- George Matthews has tried not to focus on specific moments throughout his 13-year NHL broadcasting career, but as that chapter of his life closed this week, one particular memory always comes to the fore.
It was the early autumn of 2000 and perched in the visitors' radio booth at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Matthews admitted to having sweaty palms. As a first-time NHL broadcaster and a guy who had been teaching school on Prince Edward Island not long before, Matthews didn't want to feel overwhelmed when preparing for his maiden voyage on NHL airwaves. The Blue Jackets were playing their first game on NHL ice that night in exhibition action against the Penguins, a significant moment in team history and one that garnered a lot of attention around the sport.
Seated next to Bill Davidge - current television analyst on Fox Sports Ohio and Matthews' radio partner for eight seasons - Matthews had just started to settle down and feel comfortable when Doug MacLean entered the booth.
Something to the effect of "don't screw this up" was the message from MacLean, the former president and GM of the Blue Jackets and the man who made the decision to make Matthews the franchise's first radio voice. But MacLean knew exactly what he was getting in Matthews, whom he'd grown up with in maritime Canada together and had many heart-to-hearts with over the years about Matthews' goal of being a professional broadcaster. The Blue Jackets were getting a driven, passionate man who is a quality human being above all else and MacLean still maintains those qualities were most important when hiring Matthews.
When the game began (the unofficial start of Blue Jackets hockey), Matthews found himself rattling off names like Lemieux, Jagr and Straka - the first clear indication that he'd made it, and it would take nothing short of the absolute right moment to take him away from his dream job.
Matthews, who announced this week that he would be stepping away from full-time radio play-by-play duties after 12 seasons, didn't take this decision lightly because of such memories he recalls so fondly.
"I've said this numerous times over the past few days - nobody loves doing radio play-by-play in the NHL any more than I do," Matthews said. "There are some who love it equally and love it a lot, but no one loves bringing a broadcast to life and trying to entertain the listeners like I do. It's just in my DNA and I've been doing it for 37 years now, and coming from a teaching background, if you're doing a good job there you're part entertainer as well.
"This was a tough decision, something I struggled with for the last 18 months. I talked to management the last couple of years about milestones...I wanted 10 years in the league and that went by, and then I looked at 1,000 NHL broadcasts and we did that this year. That meant so much to me, it was real benchmark for me -- no one else cares about it, but I do and that's something I wanted to achieve."
|Matthews and Bill Davidge (right) were radio partners for eight seasons. Courtesy: CBJ.com |
The change won't be an easy one for Matthews, whose unmistakable voice and enthusiasm have become synonymous with Blue Jackets fans over the last dozen years. He's a hockey man, a passionate fan of the sport and one who constantly seeks additional information to bolster the quality of his work. It consumed him at times - and that's just fine, he says - because he loved his vocation and couldn't bring himself to consider it "work."
Right by his side will be his wife Debbie, who has been her husband's biggest fan despite being separated from him for months out of the year. The Matthews have several business interests and close friends on Prince Edward Island, and when George moved to Columbus, Debbie stayed back in Charlottetown. For 13 years, it has been two months together, five months apart, then two months together and so on.
Being with his wife, family and friends on a regular basis is one thing that will make the next chapter easier to begin, Matthews said, no matter how bittersweet it may be to turn the page.
"I went home for two and a half weeks and talked with my family, and they focused with me on what I wanted to do," Matthews said. "I'm at a point now where there are a lot of things I want to do back home, and I'll tell you this -- I'm so appreciative of the opportunity to be here, but at some point it has to come to an end and for me and my family, it's best that I go back east and see my friends.
"I wasn't able to lead a normal life like many of our employees here just being so far from home. I think it speaks to how much I loved working with the Blue Jackets and in this city. I've agonized over it - there's no doubt about it - but I leave with a lot of energy after this season and knowing that I gave it my best effort right to the end."
Over the last week or so, Matthews was looking forward to getting home and taking a few days to relax. Then, his phone rang. Grant Sonier, the recently-appointed GM of the QMJHL's rebranded Charlottetown Islanders who years ago put the bug in the ear of the Anaheim Ducks about some guy named George Matthews who might be a quality broadcaster, asked Matthews to assist in coverage of the league's upcoming draft.
Matthews couldn't pass up the chance to help create some positive energy for junior hockey in his hometown, a community that has dealt with the uncertainty of the formerly-known PEI Rocket franchise prior to its new ownership group, name change and fresh outlook.
"I'm a strong, strong believer in radio," Matthews said. "If you have a product to promote, it keeps a fanbase in-tune and keeps you updated on what's happening each and every night. Whether it's here in Columbus or on the east coast, I really believe in it. I think radio - if done well and you're winning - it's a huge medium for your team.
"I've had that opportunity here, and it really came out of nowhere. Initially, I was only going to come down for a year or two and then get back to the real world, but I've loved this job and this city so much...I was able to bring the excitement of hockey to the people of Columbus and their passion for the Blue Jackets is something I'll always remember. It was as tough to leave home as it is to leave Columbus 13 years later."