As far as hockey play-by-play broadcasters go, I am clearly not from the cookie cutter.
I get this question a bunch from people who knew me in high school or college: "Could you ever have imagined back then you'd be an announcer for HOCKEY?"
My answer is pretty obvious: "Why... of course!" My sarcasm usually gets a chuckle.
In reality, my path would have been hard to predict. As a youngster, I did live in New York during the Islanders Stanley Cup reign from 1980-83, and I used to play in a Saturday morning floor hockey league every winter (had a deadly wrist shot for a fifth grader). But when I moved to Winter Park, Florida, (near Orlando) as a 12 year old, I lost my connection with the game.
Fast forward to 1995. I’d finished my phase of life as an athlete, having played basketball and baseball at Vanderbilt, and then two years as a minor league outfielder in the Toronto Blue Jays system. I'd been participating part time on a blossoming sports radio show called Sports Night With George Plaster between my two pro seasons (and my stellar .229 batting average).
Nashville was in the process of building a new downtown arena and was soliciting possible tenants in both the NBA and the NHL. Name a team struggling with arena issues, and there were rumors that Nashville was talking to them. Perfect fodder for a talk show like ours. The Minnesota Timberwolves, Winnipeg Jets (original version), New York Islanders, Sacramento Kings and others were all discussed on some level. Could they be interested in our new building here in Music City? Were we ready to become "major league?”
I recall discussions on the air with Mark Hollingsworth (now of Section 303 legend), who would often call the show to give us the latest rumblings. Most of it was hopeful speculation until the New Jersey Devils seriously flirted with our city during their eventual Stanley Cup Championship victory in the Spring of 1995 (over Stu Grimson and the Red Wings no less). We discussed where they would play (Municipal Auditorium for a year?), the nickname (would Devils fly in the Bible Belt?) and how Nashville was being portrayed nationally (comedian Nick Bakay did an infamous bit on ESPN comparing Nashville to New Jersey. It wasn't complimentary to either place, and he made a number of predictable "Hee Haw" references). It ticked everybody off, which of course made for great radio.
Eventually, the Devils won the Cup and re-upped their lease in the Meadowlands. But for the first time, getting an NHL team looked realistic for Nashville. By June 1997, thanks to Craig Leipold and Gary Bettman, we got our wish. At the time, I was a heavy contributor on the Vanderbilt Radio Network (sideline reporter for Football, color-commentator for men's hoops and play-by-play for baseball). Gaylord Entertainment, a minority owner of the Predators, as well as the owner of my radio station at the time (WTN), wanted Sports Night to be front-and-center at all of the games with a heavy presence. They did not want their two hosts (George and I) constantly on the road with Vanderbilt in the heart of hockey season. Combine that with George's combustible relationship at the time with VU athletic director Todd Turner (who ended Plaz’s tenure as the Commodore play-by-play man after three years), and suddenly my life was about to go on a different track.
As the Nashville Predators were born, I followed closely. I was the first in Nashville to interview owner Craig Leipold. I attended the series of press conferences to introduce the key personnel. First, President Jack Diller, who hired General Manager David Poile, who then hired Head Coach Barry Trotz. I was at the Wildhorse Saloon when the team unveiled their nickname and logo. I was at a random Mall (Belleview?) when the team modeled their original "sweaters" (remember the silver streak down the arms and the "Nashville Arena" patch?). I attended the press conference when the team signed their first free agent, defenseman (and my future broadcast partner) Jay More.
And who could forget George and I's 1998 NHL Draft Broadcast when the Predators selected a kid named David Legwand with the second overall pick? It was just days after the team had selected their players from the expansion draft (“Tomas Vokoun-- come on down!”), and we quickly determined we needed some serious help if we were going to survive. We recruited Ken Campbell, senior writer for The Hockey News initially as a guest for a single segment, but then roped him into staying for the ENTIRE two-hour show! He was a good sport, but he must have returned to Toronto privately wondering how he got hooked up with “Dumb and Dumber.”
Shortly after the Predators hired Pete Weber and Terry Crisp as their broadcast team, they announced that they would be doing a simulcast on radio and TV. This meant they needed a studio host on radio for the pregame, intermission and postgame coverage. None of the on-air people at our station were interested in the gig….except for yours truly. Almost by default, I was hired. One slight problem…what did I know about hockey?
I actually knew way more than most in the existing Nashville media at the time. I could name the standout players on each team and had a basic understanding of the rules. However, I quickly realized how inadequate that was. So I took some measures: I read Hockey For Dummies (seriously, thank you John Davidson). I hung around the rink. And most of all, I tagged along Pete and Terry like a lost puppy dog. Thank goodness they and the entire organization were so patient and welcoming from the top down. I asked a bunch of questions, and tried to sponge up as much information as possible.
As the first few seasons unfolded, there were some growing pains for me (along with the expansion team on the ice). I was doing virtually the entire postgame show with a growing, but limited sense of the game, taking the sometimes wacky calls from the diehards in the fan base (“Why don't the Preds spend the money and sign Alexei Yashin???!!!). I cringe thinking about what I sounded like back then--here's hoping nobody saved a tape. My approach was simply this: (1) learn along with the fans (Crispy's "head on a swivel" principle was one of the first I picked up); (2) don't try to act like you know more than you do; (3) know enough to ask the right questions to the "hockey people" (should the NHL get rid of ties?); and (4) teach the audience in terms they will understand ("forecheck, backcheck, pay check"). Slowly and steadily, Smashville and I grew up together.
So here we are some 17 years after it all started. When the big moments have happened, I've been there. When the small moments have happened, I've been there. Plus everything in between. Heartbreak. Exhilaration. Drafts. Ticket-thons. Gnash skits. Shootouts. Trades. Rallies. And of course, Arena Name Changes.
I'm honored to represent the Predators as your radio play-by-play broadcaster as we move into this new era. I promise no one will top my enthusiasm and passion for this organization. I'm part of its soul, just like you are. I understand its history, and that this place is special. There is only one Smashville.
When it comes to hockey markets, it's not from the cookie cutter. And neither am I.