Being a broadcaster has been a dream of mine going back to childhood. Perhaps I’ve mentioned it here and there in four years’ worth of columns here at the Banter. From hosting a college football audio chat show with Terry Bowden — now, this would be equivalent to a podcast — to doing web-specific video and actual TV fill-in work for Chris Shearn while at YES, to doing guest spots here on Bronx Banter TV and other SNY blog bits, I’ve been fortunate to have had a wide range of on-air experience, even though being on the air wasn’t the sole focus of any job I’ve had. It was a nice diversion.
Back in college, I did play-by-play, color commentary, anchoring and reporting for about a dozen Ithaca College and Cornell sports for Ithaca College television and radio. The best experience, though, was the five months I spent in Los Angeles as public address announcer for UCLA Baseball. I was lucky enough to announce every home at-bat for Chase Utley and Garrett Atkins that season, as well as visiting at-bats from Mark Teixeira (Georgia Tech), Xavier Nady (Cal), Eric Munson (USC), David Parrish (Michigan), and Joe Borchard (Stanford); and pitchers Justin Wayne and Jeremy Guthrie (Stanford), Kirk Saarloos (Cal State Fullerton) and the inimitable Barry Zito (USC). All the while, I had Bob Sheppard on my mind as the singular person to emulate for doing public address for baseball.
SHAMELESS BOOK PLUG ALERT: It’s probably worth noting that my entry in the Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories compilation is about a chance meeting with Sheppard.
On Dec. 2, I was awarded another break on the announcing front. I’ve been doing corporate voiceover work at my current job, which also provides a connection to the New York Islanders, perhaps my favorite team of all the teams for whom I hold an allegiance. I attended games for years as a kid while my uncle had season tickets in Section 310, Row O. I still have the ticket stub and promo giveaway from January 2, 1986, when Denis Potvin was honored for breaking Bobby Orr’s record for points by a defenseman. That night, Mike Bossy scored his 500th goal. I was there the night Bossy’s number 22 was retired. April 24, 2002, Game 4 versus the Maple Leafs, the night of the Shawn Bates game-winning penalty shot goal, was one of the first dates for my wife and I.
I auditioned for the backup public address gig earlier this year and am on standby for any of the 41 home games this season. My debut came this past Thursday against perhaps the team I hate the most as a fan on any level, in any sport: the New York Rangers.
I was nervous. I was excited. I was afraid I would unload a “The Rangers Suck” over an open microphone when the organist played “The Chicken Dance” and Islander fans at the arena invariably launch that chant during the break in the music. Sitting rinkside among the off-ice officials, being credentialed, I had to put my fandom away for an evening, as I had to do for so many years covering the Yankees.
Hockey is much different than baseball, and it has nothing to do with the differences in the playing surfaces. The pace of the game is much faster. The regular-season affair was way faster than the intrasquad scrimmage I worked 2 1/2 months ago for my audition. More than anything, though, the role itself is different. The PA Announcer doesn’t effect a hockey game like he does a baseball game. For example, player changes happen on the fly. It’s not as if the coach needs to wait for the PA Announcer to announce a player into the game in order to make a strategic move. The role is more of an MC, an in-arena host. You’re the voice of the arena, and as part of the Game Event staff, responsible for providing the atmosphere that shapes the fan’s experience at the venue.
With that said, there are similarities to the role between sports: There’s no margin for error with the reading. You can’t operate under the assumption that people can’t hear you or worse, aren’t listening. The timing has to be spot-on. There’s a game event rundown and an outline of what’s happening and when — all stuff within the flow of the game that doesn’t happen on the field or the ice — that requires precise execution. Communication between the Game Operations staff and the PA Announcer, which like a television production takes place via closed-circuit headset/intercom, has to be frequent, clear and concise. If you can’t compartmentalize, you’re doomed.
The stuff within the game, that’s actually the easiest part. There’s no time to think. It’s action-reaction. You have to pay attention at all times. In fact, the part I was least worried about heading into the Islander-Ranger whirlwind was the game itself: announcing goals, penalties, times of each, video replays, timeouts, etc. Having watched hockey since I was 5, I’m comfortable with the French-Canadian, Russian and European names that pervade NHL rosters.
There wasn’t room to create my own style for the first gig. Referring back to my baseball experience, I couldn’t draw on the subdued style of Sheppard. I couldn’t draw on John Condon from Madison Square Garden or John Mason, who has made “Deeeee-troit Baaaas-ket-ball” a household piece to the experience at the Palace of Auburn Hills. I drew mostly from the current PA Announcer, Roger Luce. He’s got a deeper, richer voice than me, but his delivery isn’t that much different from what he does every morning on WBAB here on Long Island. He’s just a solid pro. I wasn’t out to copy anyone, but to just be myself. I wanted to bring enthusiasm to the game, feeding off the energy that only a Rangers-Islanders game can provide.
The one thing that was said to me prior to the game — in a sarcastic tone, but dead serious — was “Don’t screw it up.” Did I make mistakes? Yes. But they weren’t glaring. After 25 years of training, I’m rarely uncomfortable behind a microphone. I validated myself, which above all else, was my goal. After watching a recording of the game, I know exactly where I need to improve if given the opportunity to do it again. I’ve already worked on some templates to standardize a few things to help my in-game performance.
The road probably wasn’t easy for Sheppard, Condon, Mason, or Luce, either. Sheppard was a linguistics teacher. Condon, in addition to his PA duties for the Knicks, was the boxing publicist at the Garden before becoming president of boxing at MSG in 1979. Mason and Luce are radio personalities, with distinctive and familiar voices to their fans. Like Condon, I’m fortunate to work in a place that provides a direct line into the organization. It’s a great diversion that keeps up my broadcasting chops, much like writing this column allows me a forum to maintain my writing chops. I can only thank the gentlemen mentioned in this column for giving me a canvas.
Thursday, Dec. 2 was a tremendous escape. More than anything, it was an opportunity to be a part of my favorite team. And it was a blast.