"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: New York Islanders

Those Who Can't…Try Anyway, and Write About It

A pitfall of being a sportswriter, broadcaster, or reporter, particularly if you cover a particular team for any length of time, is that you have to swallow your fandom to perpetuate the myth of objectivity. A perk to the job is the tremendous, unprecedented level of access granted.

Those thoughts crossed my mind when I posted the following to my Facebook status last Wednesday night:

I might be the luckiest sports fan ever: I’ve had the chance to play pickup hoops at Pauley Pavilion, walk on the field and be in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. I’ve gotten to meet my childhood broadcasting idols, Chris Berman and Marv Albert. Tonight, I got to live my ultimate childhood dream: play ice hockey at Nassau Coliseum.

I’ve now viewed games at the Coliseum as a fan in the 100, 200, and 300 sections; attended games in the Owner’s Suite; sat rinkside as the Public Address announcer, and played ice hockey on the same 200×85 surface on which my all-time favorite, Mike Bossy, scored so many of his 658 career goals (573 regular season, 85 playoffs). This wasn’t Paper Lion or Tom Verducci joining the Toronto Blue Jays for a brief turn in Spring Training four years ago. Far from it. The occasion was a partnership celebration between my company and the NHL, with whom we’ve been partnered for four seasons now.

Will Weiss

Will, in the roller hockey pants and orange jersey, preparing for a draw.

Emotions ran high for those of us who grew up idolizing those Islander teams. We stood at the blue lines for the National Anthem, looked up at the rafters to see the many banners highlighting the Patrick Division, Wales and Campbell Conference titles, and of course, the four Stanley Cup championships (which easily could have been 6, if not for the Rangers and Oilers). Then, the retired numbers of Potvin, Bossy, Smith, Trottier, Gillies and Nystrom caught our gazes. Then the Hall of Fame banner. Every second was a “How cool is THIS” moment.

(I wonder if guys like Tyler Kepner, Bob Klapisch, Mark Feinsand et al have those same feelings when they play at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park to do the Boston vs. New York writers games every year.)

The last time I felt that kind of rush was April 5, 2002, when I covered my first Yankee game for YES. It was the Yankees’ home opener. The feeling I got when I walked from the clubhouse to the tunnel leading to the dugout, eventually emerging and then stepping onto the field, I couldn’t comprehend how anyone, not even grown men making the millions of dollars they do, could ever take that for granted.

Looking out from behind the batting cage down the lines, the short porch didn’t seem so short. I wondered how, with a wood bat, someone could turn on a 95 mile-per-hour fastball and deliver it into those seats. I gained a greater appreciation for what professional baseball players do on a daily basis.

The same was true here. Having played hockey (street, dek, roller and at various points, ice), I knew how physically taxing the sport was. But certain items that I thought would be true turned out just the opposite. The rink didn’t seem that large. The puck was surprisingly light. The boards had more give than expected. In the heat of the game, I didn’t notice the people in the stands (yes, people were there). If they were heckling, I couldn’t hear them. My senses were too attuned to what was going on in front of me, and making sure I didn’t embarrass myself in front of my bosses, either through my skating, or by letting my competitive intensity boil over.

I had three real good scoring chances, one in each period. The best one came on my first shift of the second period. I took a nice feed off the boards just before the blue line and sped up the right wing a 3-on-1 break. My first inclination was to pass, but my two linemates were too deep to accept a cross-ice feed. The lone defenseman gave me lots of room to skate. So, I kept my feet moving and fired a wrist shot from about 20 feet out, just before the faceoff dot. It was ticketed for the top corner, glove side, but the goalie made a strong save. In retrospect, I had more room and could have gotten deeper and made a move. But who knows if I would have gotten the shot off?

Will Weiss

The postgame handshake. Still one of the coolest things about hockey.

My team won, 5-2. I was on the ice for two goals — one for my team, one for the opponent. I won the majority of my faceoffs and drew a penalty. It was the most fun I’ve had playing anything since the first and only gig I had with a band nine years ago.

Ultimately, though, I understood how difficult it is to be a professional athlete. It’s a job that literally beats you up. The physical and mental conditioning required is staggering. There’s a reason so few people in the world do it. The simple answer: Because they can.

For a night, though, it was a rush to walk a few steps and skate a few strides in the same arena.

Behind the Mic

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.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver