Knock-on-wood, I've never experienced total laryngitis. Meaning, even with the most severe of symptoms, I've always been able at least to produce a sound. But it's a different sound, as if I rolled back home at 6:00 AM after an all-night bender.
Navigating through a cold was much tougher during the 11 years I spent in the minors. Travel was almost exclusively by bus, so the trips took longer. And often, the schedule included three-games-in-three-night weekend sets, so there was little time to recover after a broadcast.
At the NHL level, teams travel by plane and the league doesn't schedule more than two-games-in-two nights. That helps. But there are no guarantees. As I found out during a close call in December, 2010.
The Lightning were on a quick two-game trip right before the Christmas break. On December 22nd, they lost, 2-1, in overtime to the New York Islanders. I had been fine all day, but began feeling a scratchy throat during the broadcast. It escalated quickly. After the game, the team bussed to Manhattan in preparation for the contest against the Rangers on the 23rd. When I woke up the next morning, I knew I had a bad one. I could feel it in my chest and throat. That night's game was going to be a struggle. Within the first few minutes, Marty St. Louis scored. As glad as I was to see the puck go in, calling that early goal didn't help the condition of my voice. The teams were tied, 3-3, after regulation. So there was overtime. Of course. Then the shootout. No winner after three rounds. I believe it went seven or eight rounds deep before Ryan Malone won it for the Lightning. I wheezed my way through it. Back home on the morning of the 24th, I was running a fever of 103 degrees and would not have been in a condition to broadcast that night, had there been a game. It was bronchitis. The doctor treated me with an antibiotic and I immediately improved. The fever was gone by Christmas night and I was able to call the Lightning's game at Atlanta on the 26th.
That was certainly a narrow escape. But there was another situation in which I was even closer to being incapable of calling a game. And this one had nothing to do with any illness.
It was January of 1997 and I was broadcasting for the AHL's Hershey Bears. (As is often the case with minor-league broadcasters, I also handled the team's PR and media relations). The Bears were in the midst of an amazing season that year and, with Bob Hartley behind the bench as head coach, they ended up winning the 1997 Calder Cup. Goaltender J.F. Labbe was a big part of that team's success. He would be named the league's MVP that season.
The Bears were affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche. Goalie Craig Billington was Patrick Roy's back-up. In January, Billington sustained an injury, so Labbe was recalled to the Avs. Colorado prospect and first-year pro Petr Franek was Hershey's other goalie.
The Labbe recall came on a Thursday. The Bears were going to play the Binghamton Rangers on Friday in Binghamton. After Labbe and Franek, there weren't any other Colorado pro prospects. Hershey needed a find back-up for Franek.
On Friday morning, Bears GM Doug Yingst walked into my office. He handed me a piece of paper. He was wearing a Cheshire-cat grin. "Here's our back-up goalie".
I looked at the paper and glanced back at Doug. "Are you messing with me?"
"Nope", he chuckled. "Have fun with that one."
My eyes went back to the paper. Doug had written the name in small, neat letters.
As the PR director, I was responsible for adding the player to our existing roster. As the broadcaster, I had to figure out how to say his name.
Obviously, the best way to obtain a pronunciation is to ask the player. Or, if he's on another team, ask that team's broadcaster. Wallinheimo had been playing for the ECHL's Mobile Mysticks and was flying directly into Binghamton. I couldn't guarantee that I'd have a chance to speak with him before the game. Anyway, I'm somewhat particular about getting pronunciations ahead of time, so I didn't want to wait. I immediately called Mobile's broadcaster.
Luckily, I caught him. He gave me the correct pronunciation. It's true that there's a scientific form to writing phonetics (as you'll see in any dictionary). But I've always spelled out phonetics in a way that I would remember, kind of my own personal shorthand. So this is what I put down …
A quick sidebar. Wallinheimo turned out to be a solid addition. He stuck with the Bears through the end of that season, posted a record of 5-4-1, and was the team's third goalie during Hershey's long playoff run. He earned a ring in the process. Nobody around the team called him by his proper name, of course. He was "Wally". The Finnish-native combined a dry sense of humor with a flair for the dramatic. During stoppages in play, he'd skate from one corner to the other and back across. He'd gesture to the home crowd. The Hershey fans would respond with a chant: "WALLY, WALLY!"
Of course, at the time of that January game in Binghamton, I didn't know anything about Wallinheimo. Except that he had an unusual name. And that I had learned how to pronounce it.
Binghamton was a three-hour bus ride from Hershey, so we would have normally departed by 1:30 PM or so. There was a severe ice storm in the forecast for Binghamton, however, so we left a little earlier. We made it to the rink. So did Wally, although he hadn't yet arrived by the time I made my way up to the broadcast area.
The Broome County Arena in Binghamton had a long press row in which the broadcasters, reporters, and off-ice officials all sat together. One of the off-ice officials had the seat just to the left of visiting radio. He was always friendly and helpful to me. He'd write down the official scoring on goals and assists, if I needed them. When he saw our roster for the night, he pointed to Wallinheimo's name and smiled. "I know, I know," I laughed. "We just called him up. SIN-ooh-HAY VAH-lin-HAY-moh".
The teams came out for warmups. Like his new teammates, Wally was wearing Hershey's dark maroon road jersey. But his mask, pads, blocker and glove were all coordinated to fit with Mobile's colors, which were bright green and purple. When it comes to fashion, I'm clueless. But even I could tell this combination looked ridiculous.
The game began. Franek in net. Wally on the bench. The Bears had a 4-2 lead in the second period, but then the game turned. The Rangers scored two quick goals before the end of the second. Making matters worse for Hershey, the Bears were assessed two penalties in the closing seconds. So Binghamton would begin the third period with a long five-on-three.
As Coach Hartley stormed off to the locker room, I could tell that he wasn't happy with Franek. As the intermission clock ticked down, I wondered to myself: "Bob wouldn't, would he? Would he actually put this new guy in? After flying all day through an ice storm? Cold, off the bench, into his first AHL game? And facing a five-on-three?" You can probably guess the answer.
The Rangers returned to the ice first and the crowd cheered. Then the Bears emerged from their locker room. Nobody could miss the green-purple-and-maroon clad goalie leading the visitors on the ice. My off-ice official friend looked at me in surprise. Already on the air, I shrugged.
The crowd had settled down and the teams were getting ready for the opening faceoff to begin the third. So the building was fairly quiet when the sound of the PA announcer's voice rang out.
"NOW IN NET FOR HERSHEY…."
There was a pause. Maybe it was because he just realized that he actually had to read the name in front of him and he had no idea how to say it.
I really can't do it justice on the page, but know that he started out loudly on both first and last names before dropping to a mumble …
The fans stayed mostly quiet, but not completely. Through my crowd microphone, I could hear people laughing. Then I saw my off-ice official friend. He was hunched over, covering his face. He was laughing so hard that he didn't make a sound. But his shoulders and back were shaking.
I know I started this column writing about viruses. But there may be nothing so contagious as laughter. Now, I'm in dangerous territory. I have to will myself not to laugh. And not just so I can do the broadcast. What's happening in the game is no laughing matter for the Bears and their fans. They've just blown a 4-2 lead and are on a five-on-three penalty kill! I made myself focus on the ice, keeping my eyes away from the shaking man next to me.
The Rangers had two of the best offensive players in the league on their team. Twins Chris and Peter Ferraro. Naturally, they were out for the five-on-three. Chris played at the center point, Peter at the left circle. They go right after Wallinheimo - Chris setting up Peter for one-timers. The first couple of attempts missed the net. But not the third one. Peter blistered a shot so hard that Wallinheimo didn't even have time to move. He just stood there as the puck hit him square in the mask. Wally was knocked backwards. The mask flew off, the glove sailed into one corner, and the blocker and stick slid into the other corner.
As I write this, I'm ashamed of my reaction. Given what we know now about concussions, head trauma is serious business. (Fortunately, Wallinheimo was fine after absorbing the Ferraro shot). But at the time, this episode seemed like it came straight out of a scene from Slapshot. Or The Mighty Ducks.
In short, it was too much. I managed to call for a break and made sure the commercials kept playing while our trainer was out on the ice with Wally. By the time the game was ready to resume, so was I. I called the rest of the third period with my left hand shielding my eyes from my neighbor. Had anyone looked up at the press row during the previous delay, however, they would have seen the two of us identically hunched over, shaking uncontrollably.
You never know when laughter can take over a broadcast. A few years ago at Amalie Arena, there was a scoreboard incident. The Lightning were playing Minnesota. It was in the second half of the season and the Wild had a strong record. Despite their position near the top of the standings, however, the Wild were ranked nearly last in shots taken per game. During our pregame conversation, Phil Esposito and I expressed a bit of surprise at this statistic.
Then, shortly after the game started, a problem surfaced with the Amalie Arena scoreboard. Next to a team's score is the shot total. Suddenly, Minnesota was credited with 11,000 shots for the game. Phil and I, along with host Greg Linnelli, all started laughing on the air. I guess someone was worried about Minnesota's low shot total! Fortunately, we all pulled ourselves together fairly quickly. Lightning Radio engineer Steve Versnick kept that clip and has started using it as a lead-in to one of the shows on Lightning Power Play.
Anyway, as the Lightning embark on this two-week trip to New York and Sweden, I'm happy to report that I'm on the mend and feeling much better. No giggles in the forecast, either.