Hockey play-by-play broadcasting is about to become a little more diverse.
The Chicago Blackhawks have tapped Jason Ross Jr., a 23-year-old Black Detroit native, to call select games on WGN Radio 720-AM this season as part of a rotating roster of play-by-play broadcasters and personalities on its radio and NBC Sports Chicago telecasts.
"It means a lot to me because the last three years, even though I'm from Detroit, grew up in Detroit loving the Red Wings, I listened to almost every Blackhawks game over the last few years over WGN because of [play-by-play announcer] John Wiedeman," said Ross, who graduated earlier this year from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. "I would say I learned the craft of radio hockey from John Wiedeman."
Alex Randall said he was drawn to hockey when he first heard Mike Lange call Pittsburgh Penguins games on the radio in 2012.
Now, the 20-year-old University of Pittsburgh junior is poised to become the first Black broadcaster to call a Canadian Hockey League game.
Randall is scheduled to call play-by-play for Erie of the Ontario Hockey League when it hosts Sarnia on Jan. 17 for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee that can be seen on CHL TV.
"Martin Luther King Jr. was a trailblazer in every sense of the word, ultimately laying down his life for his dream of racial equality," Randall said. "I hope I can honor his legacy today and beyond by being the best broadcaster I can be."
Randall and Ross each said he has been inspired in pursuing broadcasting by Seattle Kraken radio play-by-play announcer Everett Fitzhugh, the NHL's first and only Black team broadcaster.
"He's been incredibly supportive, been an excellent mentor," Ross said. "I remember the first time I called Everett. I'd never gone back and forth with someone else who looks like me on the sport of hockey, but not just hockey but hockey broadcasting. We were just nerding out about how much we love hockey broadcasting."
Fitzhugh said having Ross and Randall calling hockey games is significant.
"It shows that their talent is shining through," he said. "These two guys aren't diversity hires. They are talented, knowledgeable, effective communicators, broadcasters, students of the game. They put in a lot of time, they put in a lot of hard work."
Ross said he aspired to be a broadcaster from the time he was a boy, watching games on TV with his father. He began paying close attention to broadcasting styles, idolizing Wiedeman, Mike Tirico and Mike Emrick.
Ross landed a job as a digital reporter for Detroit Sports Media, writing and doing on-camera stories about the city's professional teams, including the Red Wings.
When his writing duties were done, Ross would go to the press box at Red Wings games and call play-by-play into a recorder.
"That's how I got my reps, my practice," he said. "It looked a little crazy at times, but it paid off."
Ross said he and his agent sent samples of his work to the Blackhawks in September when they were looking for talent to serve as fill-in broadcasters this season.
"Their broadcast consultant saw it and he was willing to offer me an opportunity to be one of their fill-in broadcasters," Ross said. "This all happened very fast."
About the same time, the Big Ten Network hired Ross to do hockey, basketball, baseball, softball, swimming and diving, football and lacrosse. In addition, ESPN3 and ESPN+ signed Ross in August to work college football and other sports.
To better prepare for the Blackhawks fill-in role and Big Ten Network job, Ross moved from Detroit to Chicago.
"I've been to almost every Blackhawks game this year, just doing studying and trying to get my bearings down," he said. "I've done some mock calls in our press box. I got to almost every practice and morning skate when I could make it just to be there and immerse myself with the team."
Randall is sports director at WPTS Radio 92.1, the University of Pittsburgh's station, where he has called Pitt football and men's and women's basketball.
His opportunity to call the Erie game came in part through Shawn Bednard, the team's play-by-play broadcaster and media relations manager.
Bednard knew of Randall from his work as a mentor with the Black Play-by-Play Broadcaster Grant and Scholarship Fund, an organization dedicated to addressing the scarcity of Black play-by-play announcers throughout sports.
The nonprofit group was founded in June 2020 by minor league baseball and collegiate sports broadcaster Adam Giardino in response to the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in custody of Minneapolis police.
Randall received a $1,000 grant from the fund this year. Ross was one of the fund's inaugural grant recipients in 2020.
"When I saw we were doing our first ever MLK Day game and having worked with the Black Play-by-Play Fund in the past, it just seemed like an opportunity for us to elevate a Black voice and give them an opportunity to call this game," Bednard said. "The organization viewed it the same way."
Randall said calling the Erie game fulfills a dream and will be a good gauge on whether he wants to pursue hockey play-by-play as a career.
"Hockey, it's my favorite sport to watch on TV, it's probably the sport I might have the highest ceiling in just because I'm so passionate about it," he said. "I definitely wouldn't be mad if someone offered me a job to do hockey after I graduated."