COLUMBUS, Ohio – Having known each other since the eighth grade, Doug MacLean felt comfortable and confident telling George Matthews it was time to get his act together.
A hockey-obsessed youngster who grew up in maritime Canada with his ears glued to a radio on a nightly basis, Matthews had it cemented that hockey was his dream job. The former goaltender (who still wears his trusty skates from time to time) knew exactly what he wanted, but the road blocks seemed insurmountable: he didn’t live in a major media market, and hockey broadcasting certainly didn’t pay the bills.
But Matthews, armed with unbridled passion for the profession and an unwavering-yet-realistic determination, navigated around the bumps in the road and did whatever was required to get to his destination. He went to college, picked up a pair of degrees, and embarked on a 23-year teaching career on Prince Edward Island that allowed him the chance to get the best of both worlds: earn a living and hone his broadcasting craft, which led to where he is today.
Matthews, in his 13th year with the Blue Jackets, called his 1,000th NHL game on Feb. 16 in Phoenix, nearly 15 years after he got the best phone call of his life – a call that almost never came. After working in junior hockey, college hockey and spending time in the American Hockey League, Matthews never went on an all-out, self-marketing spree for NHL jobs.
In 1997, he got strong consideration for jobs in Philadelphia and Anaheim but they never panned out, and those opportunities only came about because MacLean got in his ear.
“Doug phoned me one day and said ‘George, I always said you’re never going to get to the NHL because you never send anything out,’” Matthews recalled. “So I sent out two demo tapes and got to the final four twice. He gave me credit for that, and said I’d shown some ambition and phoned me again a few years later.
“It was Dec. 26, 1998, and he said ‘I’m the president and GM of the Blue Jackets and I’m going to give you an opportunity to be the first radio play-by-play guy.’ I thought about it because it was two years out, and when push came to shove, I made the decision to come here.”
And as Matthews remembers, that initial exposure he got in Anaheim a year earlier came only after one of his former students, Grant Sonier, gave a recommendation to the Ducks’ broadcasting director. Sonier was working with the Ducks and heard about a radio job becoming available, and he thought of his teacher back on the east coast of Canada who had done a pretty good job calling junior and minor pro games.
The Ducks’ broadcasting director, who eventually moved on before a final decision was made, fell in love with Matthews’ radio call despite having never met him.
“Their director of broadcasting got my tape – I never told my wife (Deborah) that I had sent it, thinking I wasn’t getting a reply – and I got a reply within 24 hours,” he said. “(Anaheim’s broadcast director) said ‘I don’t know you very well, but I’ve listened to your broadcast and I really like it.’ She short-listed me to the final four, and I almost had a heart attack. You never do think that you’re ever going to get the opportunity – and it’s amazing when you live in a world like hockey, that’s your world – whether it’s small-town Pennsylvania or New York City. It’s what you do, and without a doubt, it’s what you love.”
|Matthews and his long-time radio partner Bill Davidge in 2010. |
While Matthews figured it would take an enormous leap of faith on someone’s behalf for him to fulfill his dream, for MacLean, it was quite the opposite. As the Blue Jackets were getting off the ground in the late 1990s, MacLean began filling positions and one vacant post happened to be radio play-by-play announcer.
That conversation between he and Matthews from years earlier had resonated. MacLean picked up the phone and called the man he thought would be a perfect fit with the Blue Jackets.
“I remember the day I phoned him,” MacLean told BlueJackets.com. “I had gotten the job in Columbus and I said ‘if you could have any job in the world, what would it be?’ He said, ‘well you know what it would be…it’d be broadcasting for an NHL team.’
“I said well, you just got a job. And I remember being criticized for hiring him because he was my buddy, but that was fine. He came here, was dedicated and hadn’t done much pro hockey, if any, but he did a marvelous job. It’s not how he broadcasts games that intrigued me – it was the kind of person he was and how he fit with the fans, and how the fans would grow to really love this guy. It was a no-brainer for me.”
MacLean always thought Matthews was a person who would be with the Blue Jackets forever, simply because of his commitment and love of the job. His 1,000 career games are an impressive accomplishment, MacLean said, but Matthews’ background cannot be overlooked.
The odds of a part-time broadcaster (who sometimes didn’t get paid) and school teacher making it to the NHL and making a career of it never seemed too high – but Matthews has never been much of a betting man.
“Why wouldn’t you be there forever?” MacLean asked him. “He’s there because he’s a good person. He’s as quality a guy as you’ll ever meet and I’m not talking about his broadcasts, I’m talking about the person he is and how he interacts with fans. They enjoy his style. To me, it’s all about the type of person he is, and I know he’s a good broadcaster and that’s a given for me.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the least that he’s there, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s amazingly popular because he’s a heck of a guy. He’s been like that since the day I met him in eighth grade. I’m really proud of him and I’m thrilled for him.”
Matthews has been behind the microphone for every single one of the most memorable moments in Blue Jackets franchise history: the inaugural game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the first road victory in Calgary, Tyler Wright’s unforgettable hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the first home playoff game at Nationwide Arena in April of 2009.
Each memory has its significance in the mind of man whose own memory is as quick as his wit, and each call still rolls off the tip of his tongue as if it was scripted. But one particular day - his “first day on the job” - provided a moment that neither Matthews nor MacLean will ever forget.
“I think back to the first game he called in Pittsburgh, an exhibition game. I went over (to the radio booth) just to bug him,” MacLean said.
Matthews laughed when thinking about what happened next.
“I would have been happy calling just one game,” he said. “I remember our first game in Pittsburgh like it was this morning, sitting there with Bill Davidge and watching the Penguins come on the ice…it was incredible. That was the first time the Columbus Blue Jackets would be on the sports page after a game. Doug came into our booth, and aftersome discussion, said: ‘boys, this isn’t the maritimes or college hockey, it’s the NHL. Don’t screw this up.’
“And 999 games later, I’m still trying to not screw it up.”