To think that starting tonight, Steve Mears will be calling Penguins games as the play-by-play broadcaster for AT&T SportsNet when he steps into the booth for Pittsburgh's preseason game in Detroit is, as he put it, surreal.
"I'd love to know what the odds are," Mears said. "It's not like my parents were in broadcasting in any way or worked in the NHL. Just simply a fan. That's all I was."
Growing up in Murrysville, Mears began following the Penguins when he was 10 years old, right before the team won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and '92. The timing for falling in love with the franchise could not have been better.
"I'm 10 years old, I'm the perfect age," said Mears, now 37. "And they win the Stanley Cup, they have the best player and they have the best announcer (Mike Lange). So right away, that groundwork is set."
From there, Mears admitted that he wasn't just a casual fan - he lived and breathed Penguins hockey. He had jerseys, cards, posters, pennants, hats and T-shirts, and even wanted the same hockey equipment that the players used.
It was, as Mears put it, emulating everything they did and learning as much about them as he could - to the point where every year, he would purchase the team's media guide that was sold at a merchandise stand at Civic Arena for just 10$. That's where he would read Lange's bio, and that's when his dream of becoming a Penguins' broadcaster started.
However, it wasn't just Lange that inspired Mears. Inside the book was a list with all of the media's contact information, with all the phone numbers of local sports desks. One year, he had a school project about hockey where he needed to get an expert opinion, so Mears looked up Bob Pompeani and gave him a call.
"I thought it would be like 10 assistants who would get it before Bob Pompeani," Mears laughed. "But he picked it up and nervously, I said, 'It's for a school project.' He said 'what school?' And he gave me 20, 30 minutes of his time on a night where I'm sure he was working. And I quoted him in the high school report. That just gives you an idea, that's another person who was influential, not just Mike."
After graduating from Franklin Regional High School, Mears went on to attend Bowling Green State University and took a job with the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs of the Central Hockey League upon finishing school.
From there, Mears was the radio play-by-play voice of the New York Islanders from 2006-09, worked for the Penguins Radio Network from 2009-13 and recently spent the past five seasons as co-host of "NHL Live" and "NHL Now" on NHL Network.
When Mears signed his multi-year contract to return home - something he said his mother is absolutely thrilled about - the biggest emotion he felt was just appreciation.
"Appreciation for the opportunity, for those who were before me in that position," Mears said. "The people in charge at both AT&T SportsNet and the Penguins who have shown faith in me and just appreciation for friends and family and fans who reacted and showed their support right away.
"To hear that is really helpful and much appreciated. I think that was the one word, appreciation. But also excitement, too. It's so surreal and just because I love the team so much and I have since I was a little kid, just the excitement level."
And now, Mears is like a little kid on Christmas morning heading into his first game in his new role.
"I am truly sick of watching games," Mears said with a laugh. "For a while, it's like OK, you move and you want to get situated and relax and maybe not jump right in. But now I've sat around for a week of training camp, four exhibition games, and I've had enough of sitting and watching. I'm just ready to get going and calling the games, because that's what I love to do. I just can't wait to get going."