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Costas excited to return to Johnstown 40+ years later

by David Satriano

Bob Costas' broadcasting career will come full circle next week in Johnstown, Pa.

Costas, who is known more for his work in baseball, on NBC's Sunday Night Football and at the Summer and Winter Olympics, got his start in hockey. The first professional game he ever announced was at Cambria County War Memorial Arena, where he will anchor coverage of Kraft Hockeyville USA on Tuesday when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning play a preseason game in Johnstown (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Costas' first professional broadcast was an Eastern Hockey League game between the Syracuse Blazers and Johnstown Jets in 1973.

"I was still a senior at Syracuse and this guy named Andy MacWilliams got a job in the old WHA with the Cincinnati franchise," Costas said. "… Just before the season is about to start and he recommends me, because I was his buddy and we had worked together in the campus radio station in Syracuse, as his replacement, and WSYR radio and television in Syracuse didn't have a whole lot of time to conduct a search and I doubt the likes of Doc Emrick wanted to do the Syracuse Blazers for $30 a game and $5 a day meal money on the road, so they pretty much went with the only guy on the list, who was me.

"They didn't exactly ask so I didn't have to tell them that I had never broadcast a hockey game. And so that left me with about a week to pull that act together, and so I felt like I was a little bit shaky going in, but I studied hard, studied the rosters of both teams not only on the seven-hour bus ride from Syracuse to Johnstown, but in the days preceding."

Despite all the countless hours of preparation, things didn't go exactly according to plan, but Costas made the best of a difficult situation.

"When we got to Johnstown, the Jets skate out onto the ice for their pregame skate and none of the numbers correspond to the roster I was given," Costas said. "And I remember they had one guy named Galen Head. And it was an easy number to remember, and an easy name, so I decided since this was only on radio, I was going to memorize four or five guys and they were all going to play the best game of their whole life.

"They're passing the puck to one another even if they're not on the ice. They change lines even if they're not on the ice. It was a rather strange broadcast, I'm sure, but they didn't fire me and I got reasonably good at it as the season went along and I really enjoyed it."

Costas did get better and got to announce Blazers games on radio for the remainder of the season, and then the following season. The Blazers went 63-9-4 during the 1972-73 regular season and won the EHL title, then went 54-16-4 in 1973-74 on their way to the North American Hockey League championship.

"[In 1973] the Syracuse Blazers won the league championship, they were the best team during the regular season and they zipped through the playoffs and won the championship, and I recall that we only did road games on the radio for some reason," Costas said. "In the championship round, they let me do the home games and the place was sold out anyway, Syracuse War Memorial."

Costas then announced several St. Louis Blues games when he returned to his hometown after college and has anchored NBC's coverage of the Winter Classic on multiple occasions. But he's excited to return to where it all began.

"I am really looking forward to this. I was surprised that the Cambria County War Memorial is still standing," Costas said. "And I was also surprised when I checked it that it was built in 1950, because when I walked in there in 1973, it seemed old. And it turns out, that's where many of the scenes in 'Slap Shot' were filmed. So this is probably the only time that I am actually a really good fit for one of our hockey broadcasts."

NBCSN will air "Slap Shot" on Tuesday following the conclusion of the Penguins-Lightning game. When the movie came out in 1977, Costas was taken aback by the similarities to what he had seen and experienced.

"A few years later, 'Slap Shot' comes out, I'm realizing that other than the fact that we didn't have anyone looking like Paul Newman, all this stuff is true. It's not even exaggerated that much," he said. "And Ogie Ogilthorpe is Bill Goldthorpe. It's not just like sort of inspired by him. That's exactly what he looked like, that's exactly how he acted 100 percent."

It's been more than 40 years since Costas has been to Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

"It will be the first time I step in Johnstown or in the arena since the Blazers beat Johnstown in the playoffs, which would've been the spring of 1974," he said.

The well-respected Costas, who has won multiple Emmy Awards, knows Johnstown and hockey fans are in for a treat.

"I think it's going to be a great atmosphere. There will be a sense of pride about it in Johnstown," Costas said. "If you live in Johnstown, the Penguins are your team pretty much. So it wouldn't work if the Penguins weren't part of the pairing. I think it's an inspiring thing for the Penguins to do and for the League to do, to have a preseason game there. You could just have a preseason game in Pittsburgh or in Tampa Bay, but then it's just a preseason game. This will feel like an event. It's a smaller and more intimate setting. There's all kind of history to it. It will just be cool."


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