For local NHL broadcasters, missing out on the playoffs is agony: ‘I’m a lost soul’

ByHarriet

May 28, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

NEW YORK — The Whipsnakes and Atlas LC were locked in a hell of a battle at Baltimore’s Homewood Field. The upstarts at Atlas put up a fight, but the defending Premier Lacrosse League champion Whipsnakes eventually held them off 12-11, with Matt Rambo scoring the overtime winner. Genuinely exciting stuff.

Play-by-play man Brendan Burke threw himself into the call for Peacock, as he always does. But at every stoppage, every lull, every opportunity, Burke snuck a peek at the iPad he had sitting next to his lacrosse notes. On that little screen, the New York Islanders — the team for whom Burke works, travels, lives, breathes — were battling the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7, with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. It was the biggest game the Islanders had played in more than a quarter-century. It was 1-0 in the third period. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Five years of Burke’s life — the late-night cross-country flights, the practices, the morning skates, the hours poring over stats and stories, the locker-room conversations, the seemingly meaningless games in Ottawa on a frozen Wednesday night in January — had all led up to this game, this period, this moment.

And Burke wasn’t there. He was in a press box in Baltimore. Calling lacrosse.

“It’s weird to feel as disconnected from a team as you feel connected through the entire season,” Burke said. “It’s bizarre. It really is.”

This is the fate of all NHL local television broadcasters. The biggest moments for your team — and it is your team; there’s no pretense of objectivity involved in local broadcasting, nor should there be — will always happen without you. For 28 years now, starting with the league’s television deal with Fox in 1995, national broadcasts have had exclusive rights to the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final. And since 2011, the second round has been all national, as well.

So Pat Foley didn’t call the Blackhawks’ first Cup in 49 years in 2010, or the following ones in 2013 and 2015. Bob Miller didn’t call the Kings’ wins in 2012 and 2014. Rick Peckham’s career ended weeks before the Lightning won the 2020 championship. Darren Pang couldn’t scream “Holy jumpin’!” to all of St. Louis when the Blues finally broke through in 2019.

Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk got those calls. They’re the soundtrack to the biggest sports moment in those fans’ lives, not the local crew. This year, it’ll likely be Sean McDonough and Ray Ferraro on ESPN. Next year, it’ll be Kenny Albert and Olczyk on TNT.

Of course, those are some of the best broadcasters the game has ever known. But for fans, losing that local voice means losing a piece of the team’s soul. And what’s a minor nuisance for fans is an agonizing experience for the broadcasters themselves.

“Look, you know what you’re signing up for,” said Dave Randorf, in his second season as the Lightning play-by-play broadcaster after years as a national voice in Canada. “But when the time arrives, you look up at your own booth and think, ‘Boy, I’d love to be in there.’ This is the big time of year for the players, for fans, and for broadcasters, no doubt about it. The games are easy to call. The calls float over the atmosphere that’s provided in the building and the action on the ice. These are the games you love to call, and you’d love to be there doing it. You spend the entire regular season and all the seasons that you’re in the booth building that relationship with the fans of the team. It’s those long, six-game road trips in the middle of March, where you’re grinding it out as a broadcaster. That’s where you build that relationship with fans. You just wish you could see it through.”


Photo of Alexei Kovalev celebrating with broadcaster Sam Rosen after the Rangers' Stanley Cup win in 1994


Alexei Kovalev celebrates with broadcaster Sam Rosen in the locker room after the Rangers defeated the Canucks in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final on June 14, 1994 at Madison Square Garden. (Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios / Getty Images)

Sam Rosen can’t even imagine it. Can’t fathom it. This is a man who grew up going to Rangers games in the 1950s, recording himself doing play-by-play while watching the action. His entire life’s work led up to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final between the Rangers and Canucks. He felt the weight of the moment as much — if not more — than Mark Messier and all the other players who were born some 30 years into the Rangers’ epic championship drought.

The idea of someone else calling that moment? Unthinkable.

“Ninety-four was the ultimate,” Rosen said. “I mean, that’s what you dream about.”

It was hard enough when he had to sit in a suite with color commentator John Davidson and the Rangers brass for the three Eastern Conference final games in New Jersey, because MSG Network handled both Devils and Rangers broadcasts, and each team’s crew was prohibited from calling games in the other team’s buildings. Messier’s famed guarantee in Game 6? Rosen didn’t call it. And it was agonizing.

But he got Game 7, and Stéphane Matteau’s double-OT winner at the Garden. And he got the big one two weeks later.

In fact, not only did Rosen get to call the biggest moment in franchise history, one that was 54 years in the making, he got to do it twice. After a frantic 20 seconds in the Rangers’ zone, with Rosen’s expert tape-to-tape call rising in intensity with every pass, every hit, Steve Larmer cleared the zone and Rosen literally screamed over the sound of 20,000 delirious Rangers fans, “That’s it! Fifty-four years of curses are over! No more 1940! The New York Rangers are going to win!”

But it wasn’t over just yet. It was icing, and there were 1.6 seconds left on the clock. It took two full minutes to settle on the time remaining and to clear some debris off the ice. Then Rosen got to call the first championship in 54 years for a second time.

“The waiting is over!” he joyously bellowed. “The New York Rangers are the Stanley Cup champions! And this one will last a lifetime!”

It’s one of the most famous calls in hockey history. Emrick is perhaps the best broadcaster the game has ever known, certainly in the United States. But he was also the hated New Jersey Devils’ play-by-play broadcaster at the time. So Emrick calling that moment just wouldn’t have been the same as Rosen, a New Yorker, a Rangers fan, a part of the team.

“That’s a special feeling,” Rosen said. “You put so much of yourself into the team during the course of the season, doing all the games, traveling with the team and — prior to the pandemic — being in the locker room with the guys and getting to know the ins and outs of what they’re feeling about everything.”

“The calls are iconic, right?” said John Forslund, play-by-play broadcaster for the Seattle Kraken and TNT. “But they’re iconic because they both felt it, Sam and JD. Especially Sam. Sam had grown up in New York and idolized the Rangers and he’s exorcising this demon. He’s right there with the fans. A national broadcaster can’t capture that. He can tell a story, but you have to be down the middle and it’s not easy to get all of that emotion and really sell it. Because you haven’t felt it, right?”

It’ll never happen again. Not with the kind of money thrown around in these national TV deals. Rosen was the last local television broadcaster to call his NHL team’s championship, and he’ll remain so as long as there are games on television. In 2014, when the Rangers were back in the Final against the Kings, MSG Networks threw him a bone and had him on the postgame show, doing an interview here or there or hosting a segment with color man Dave Maloney.

It wasn’t the same. Not even close.

“When you’re out of it,” Rosen said, “you just feel like, ‘OK. I’m a lost soul.’”


Many local broadcasters, of course, are also national broadcasters. Burke, Forslund, Olczyk and Pang all do national games for TNT. Typically, that means calling a game right down the middle. Easy enough to do when you don’t have any ties to the two teams.

But what happens when a local guy gets his own team on a national network? That gets a little tricky. As Burke put it, “When it’s a national game, an Islanders penalty kill is not an Islanders penalty kill. It’s a Blackhawks power play.” You can’t assume any institutional knowledge when it comes to a player’s backstory, or an ongoing injury saga, or a memorable meeting from a month or a year or a decade ago. It’s all big-picture stuff, with the granular detail a casualty of the bigger tent.

It’s a balancing act Olczyk had to pull off frequently when the Blackhawks — his hometown team, the team that drafted him, and the team for which he calls games all season — were making deep playoff run after deep playoff run. And the Olczyk you heard on NBC Sports Network wasn’t the same Olczyk you heard on NBC Sports Chicago.

“I’d like to think the call is the same,” Olczyk said. “But I’m not using nicknames, and maybe the shtick is a little less when it’s me and (Foley) compared to me and (Emrick). I know there are some fans that wish I would openly cheer, and disagree with the referee if the Blackhawks take a penalty. But I’d like to think over the years, my credibility and my reputation precedes me. If it’s a great goal, it’s a great goal. If it’s a bad play, it’s a bad play. Doc was the pro at it. He did the Devils games for a million years and he was doing national, as well. I learned a lot from him. There are some fans that are going to like it, and some that don’t. You’re not going to win. But I would like to think I’ve lasted this long because I’ve been very true to the game and the way I call it. It’s certainly gotten easier to do what I do over the years.”

Any professional broadcaster, like any reporter, will tell you it’s pretty easy to turn that homer part of your brain off when you’re working a game. But there’s an inherent irrationality in fandom, and any moment can be twisted into a perceived slight, a slant, a slap in the face. Forslund learned this the hard way in 2019, when his Carolina Hurricanes (for whom he had worked since they were the Hartford Whalers) were playing the Islanders in the second round. Forslund was assigned to the series for NBC Sports, and Islanders fans were constantly on the lookout for any signs of bias.

They thought they found one when Forslund used the forbidden word: “We.” New York’s Jordan Eberle hit the crossbar in the third period of Game 2, and there was some debate over whether the puck had gone in. Forslund called it off the post. Olczyk thought it had gone in. And Brian Boucher, between the benches, wasn’t sure. After replays showed it clearly did not go in, Forslund said, “OK, we’re good.” He meant he had gotten the call right. Islanders fans took it as “we” — the Hurricanes — were good because it wasn’t a goal against them. It set off a mini-firestorm, and NBC’s public-relations team and boss Sam Flood had to get involved to support Forslund.

“I had to defend myself after all these years,” Forslund said. “I’m not an incredulous homer. I’m a homer, we’re all supposed to be, but not over the top where it’s irresponsible.”

Still, Forslund said it’s important to keep your broadcast instinctive when calling a national game, to not get too far inside your own head. Just like how a player who’s constantly thinking about protecting a nagging injury is more likely to get hurt, a broadcaster who’s constantly monitoring himself or herself about potential perceived bias is more likely to have a lousy broadcast.

Besides, keeping your comically homer tendencies in check makes for a better show, regardless of whether the audience is local or national.

“(Longtime Blues radio broadcaster) Dan Kelly gave me advice before he passed away in the ’80s,” Forslund said. “He said, ‘Never sell down the big moments.’ Never sell down a goal in hockey, never sell down a big save. Because it deserves it, right? When the other team scores, I don’t sound like I’m depressed. I just take it down a little. And then when the team you’re covering scores, you take it to another place. That’s where the catchphrases come in, that’s where you add a little sauce for the local fans. But you can’t go day-to-day and change your style for national or local, because you’ll get confused in your own head. You’re going to struggle and your authenticity’s going to go out the window.”

Still, there’s a soullessness to national broadcasting, to parachuting into a city and leaving the next day. It’s why so many national broadcasters still work for teams throughout the season: That’s where the juice is.

“I’ll tell you where it varies and where it’s way different, is after the game’s over,” Forslund said. “When the game’s over, you get this generic feeling. You’re thinking, my bosses are probably happy, the on-site production crew’s probably happy. I hope my partner’s happy. Then the game’s over and you’re moving on to the next one. When you go through the playoffs with a team, you carry that energy home with you. You carry that energy back to the hotel. You understand that you’re the conduit to the fan base, and you’re taking them through the journey to the very end. So that’s exhilarating.”


Daryl “Razor” Reaugh is one of the lucky ones. The Dallas Stars’ radio broadcast is simply a simulcast of the television broadcast. And while that leads to some frustration when Reaugh wants to break down a replay of a key moment — “There are plenty of times I wish I could tell people to watch the left side of the screen, but there are some tongue gymnastics you have to do when you’re simulcasting,” he said — he and play-by-play man Josh Bogorad still got to call the Stars’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020.

Because while TV is the glamorous gig, the radio teams stay on the air until the very end. It’s why baseball broadcaster Len Kasper left the Chicago Cubs TV booth for the Chicago White Sox radio booth last year. From the outside, it looked like a stunning step backward for an accomplished TV veteran. But it’s Kasper’s dream to call a World Series, which he can never do as a local TV guy. Only radio allows that.

“Believe you me, it’s such a fortunate thing,” Reaugh said. “I can’t even imagine. You do all season, you do 82 games, then your team gets through to the conference final and all of a sudden you’re just done? That would be awful.”

There are ways to stay involved, to be on the periphery of the action, for displaced TV broadcasters. Rosen filled in on the radio for Game 3 of the Hurricanes-Rangers series at the Garden on Sunday because Albert was calling the Lightning-Panthers series for TNT. Local pregame shows are prohibited by the national TV deal, but Randorf is being utilized on Bally Sports’ postgame show, which he calls “the next best thing,” because it allows him to keep traveling, keep attending morning skates and games, and keep staying involved. Forslund moved over into the radio booth to do color alongside Chuck Kaiton for the Hurricanes’ title run in 2006. The Kings had Miller recreate a call for the Stanley Cup wins for inclusion on the commemorative DVDs the team made. The Blackhawks had Foley do the same thing at their fan convention in the summer of 2010. And Foley was even invited into the raucous team-only postgame party in the locker room after Game 6 at the United Center in 2015. Because the local broadcasters — “us local schmucks,” as Foley gloriously puts it — truly are part of the team.

But everyone has their tale of woe, their story of being isolated from a moment they’d been building toward their entire working lives. Randorf and color commentator Brian Engblom were watching Game 5 of last year’s Final from the auxiliary press box — a table haphazardly set up in the last row at Amalie Arena — before heading down to their broadcast position for the final minutes, preparing for the postgame show. Randorf ended up standing next to Lightning CEO Steve Griggs in the lower bowl.

“The clock seemed to be creeping along,” Randorf said. “Just speaking to you right now about it sends chills down my spine. To see a team win at home was truly special. Griggs turned to me and gave me this giant bear hug and he’s yelling and screaming. Then he’s gone and we went and did our postgame. It was a night I’ll never forget.”

Imagine how much better — how much more memorable — it would have been if he’d called the game.

It’s a strange thing, to watch and listen as someone else calls your team’s game. Sitting in the stands, or watching at home, or following along on an iPad in a Baltimore lacrosse stadium just isn’t the same. A writer watches a game and can’t help but formulate ledes and storylines in his or her head that will never be printed. A broadcaster watches a game and can’t help but conjure adjectives and connective stories that will never be heard.

“You don’t really turn that side of your brain off,” Burke said. “That’s just the way I watch hockey now. If I’m hearing someone else call it, I think of other words that I might use in that situation, things like that. It’s just the way I consume sports now. I don’t necessarily enjoy watching sports live as much as I used to, because I need commentary to feel like I’m actually involved in the game. It’s a bizarre feeling when I’m in an arena and can’t scratch that itch.”

Burke is just 37 and is on a career track that could take him to the Stanley Cup Final someday. Forslund is a potential heir apparent should Albert eventually step away. Randorf has called a conference final, and a return to a national role always could be in his future. Olczyk has called every Final since Anaheim beat Ottawa in 2007, and will be back at it next year after he spends this year’s Final with his feet up, “texting my buddies Ray Ferraro and Brian Boucher the whole game, busting their balls like they bust mine all the time.”

But none of them is ready to give up his local gig just yet, grueling as it is, and unfulfilling as the ending might be.

“I must admit, after years of not really caring who wins the game, it’s fun again,” Randorf said. “I love the games, all national guys love doing the games and love the game itself. But you don’t care who wins. As a team broadcaster, it’s fun again, caring who wins. This is why we all got into this business in the first place, because we were fans. I’m not ashamed to say that I care when the Lightning win now. It’s fun and I enjoy it.”

But if they keep winning, they’ll do it without Randorf. That’s just life for the local guys.

“You wish you could see it through,” Randorf said. “The fans do, too. You’ll hear, ‘Hey, we wish you guys were seeing it through.’ And that’s great to hear. That’s gratifying. That’s what makes it special.”

(Photo of Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk broadcasting for NBC Sports Network: Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By Harriet