Many kids grow up dreaming of playing in their favorite professional league, imagining one day jogging out of the tunnel for the Green Bay Packers, climbing the steps of the dugout in New York Yankees pinstripes or skating onto the ice for the Boston Bruins. Some might dream of another future, though: behind the microphone as that team’s play-by-play broadcaster.
But the weird thing about the NHL, in particular, is one’s odds of becoming a player are probably better than becoming a team’s announcer.
In the United States, there are only 24 — soon to be 25 when Seattle enters the NHL — television play-by-play jobs on the various regional networks, and only six of those gigs have changed hands in the past five years. Those numbers will start to grow in the near future, but there’s simply not a lot of turnover. The average time TV broadcasters have spent with their current teams is 14 years, and nine have careers spanning more than 20 years with the same club. Several others have spent time in multiple booths.
The broadcasting post is one that can often be romanticized by fans. That singular voice can bridge generations, trigger the pangs of nostalgia and establish a tangible relationship with the viewer that is difficult to break. But time remains undefeated, and an older generation of NHL broadcaster is slowly moving on.
Bob Cole, an institution in Canada, called his last game for Hockey Night in Canada at the end of last season. Other long-time voices, such as Bob Miller with the Los Angeles Kings, Mike Haynes with the Colorado Avalanche, Paul Steigerwald with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ralph Strangis and the late Dave Strader with the Dallas Stars, and Howie Rose with the New York Islanders, are among those who have left their posts in recent years. Rick Peckham, the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s only TV broadcaster in franchise history, announced that 2019-20 would be his final season, too, after 42 total years in the business.
There are still several long-time broadcasters who continue to put forth spectacular work that has connected fans with the team for decades. Rick Jeanneret has scaled back some of his broadcast duties, but he’s in his 49th season with the Buffalo Sabres and is the dean of hockey play-by-play announcers. Sam Rosen of the New York Rangers and Pat Foley of the Chicago Blackhawks are also members of the 35-year club.
Unquestionably, however, the shift is underway. As the experienced broadcasters move on, another generation is getting an opportunity to land highly-coveted seats in the booth. It often takes years of stops and starts, and the timing usually has to break just right. Three of the league’s newest broadcasters had very different paths, landing behind an NHL mic before age 40. Here’s a look at how some of the young talented voices in the NHL got to where they are today.
Brendan Burke, the young journeyman
If you’ve seen Burke calling NHL games for the Islanders on MSG Networks and occasional national games with NBC Sports Network, you might think he came out of nowhere. At 35, he is especially young in broadcasting years. But make no mistake, he has paid his dues before reaching the big time.
Burke spent 10 years riding the buses in the minors, first in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he got a hit on one of the many, many demo reels he sent to teams around hockey and baseball. He was only 22, but the ECHL’s Nailers needed a new broadcaster. After a few years, he made the jump to the AHL, where he called games for the Peoria Rivermen while also working with their public and media relations and community outreach.
He was even responsible for team travel, and when the St. Louis Blues needed an emergency fill-in on their radio broadcast in 2009, Burke was actually in the middle of trying to get the Rivermen back to Peoria after their bus broke down in Rockford, Illinois. He got the team home, set up the press box for the AHL game, drove three hours to Chicago for a direct flight and managed to make his first NHL broadcast in Nashville with only a few hours to spare.
But that taste of the dream job was briefly spoiled when the Rivermen ceased operations in 2013, leaving a newly married broadcaster jobless and the NHL seemingly very far away.
“I was wondering if that was the right path,” Burke says. “I had been in the AHL for five years. So I was wondering is a sixth season going to be what it takes to get to the NHL? Is it going to take seven? Should I start doing some freelance TV? What is the right path to get where I want to go?”
Fortunes shifted when the AHL moved the franchise to Utica, New York, where it would become the Vancouver Canucks‘ AHL affiliate. Burke’s wife is from the central New York town, not too far from Syracuse, and it was the perfect place to keep the dream alive. Within three years, Burke got the call he had been waiting for after longtime Islanders broadcaster Howie Rose decided to focus exclusively on working New York Mets baseball games.
“I grew up in New Jersey and the New York City market, so to me, this was coming home,” said Burke, whose father Don Burke covered the Yankees and Mets for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. “To wind up in the No. 1 media market in the world and to have it be the place where I’ve always wanted to end up, it was perfect.”
Replacing Rose, who was beloved by Islanders fans and an influence on Burke as a young broadcaster, was not easy. But the rookie broadcaster got a vote of confidence in a call from Rose just before his first preseason broadcast. “‘Don’t act like you’re filling in for anybody, this is your job,'” Burke recalls Rose telling him. “That was his one piece of advice and it was perfect because your natural inclination is to try and replace the guy who’s been there for 20 years because that’s what people are used to. I really took that to heart, and it changed how I approached it.”
Burke is now in his fourth season alongside legendary Islanders color analyst Butch Goring. He has been used by NBC Sports on various playoff series and regular-season games, and he is also the voice of the Premier Lacrosse League’s national package for NBC.
“It didn’t feel quick when I went through those 10 years,” Burke says. “But all of the sudden you turn around, at 32 years old, and you’re calling the NHL on national TV, it doesn’t feel like a long time. And if you told a 22-year-old Brendan Burke, ‘Hey you’ve got to ride buses for 10 years to get where you’re going at 32, I’d sign that contract right now. I probably would have signed a 15- or 20-year contract to do it.”
One industry source even says there is a belief that Burke is among the small group of broadcasters who could one day land in the NHL’s top U.S. broadcast chair.
“You know, it’s one of those things where I will never get to call a Stanley Cup Final unless I get that job, and there’s only one of them,” Burke says. “Could I aspire to it before I got to the NHL? No. I just wanted to get there. Do I aspire to it now? I’m not going to say no. It’s something that’s certainly out there, and I’ve got time on my side.”
Steve Mears’ winding road home
Mears was such a fan of the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins in the late 1980s and early 1990s that he says he began speaking with a French-Canadian accent, imitating his favorite player. He’d play video games while matching the cadence of Hall of Fame Penguins broadcaster Mike Lange, calling the action on the TV screen.
Today, Lange is still behind the radio mic in Pittsburgh, but it’s Mears calling Penguins games on TV for the AT&T Sports Network. Now in his third season, it’s a dream job for the 39-year-old native of Murrysville, Pennsylvania, and something he had a hard time envisioning for himself even as he started out in broadcasting at Bowling Green State University.
Mears’ career began calling games for the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs of the now defunct Central Hockey League. At 26, he had what he thought was his big break when he became the play-by-play radio voice of the Islanders. But as Mears was preparing for his fourth season in the Isles’ booth, the organization decided to go with a simulcast of their TV broadcast, eliminating the radio booth entirely. Mears got word of the Penguins launching a 24-hour radio network in 2009, though, and earned a job as a host — working under the wing of his idol Lange.
“You wonder if you’ll ever get a break again,” Mears recalls. “But sometimes the worst moment in your life turns out to be maybe the best, and you don’t even realize it at the time.
“I tell students it’s timing, luck and some level of talent. And there was timing right there. If you go back and retrace the steps — if that doesn’t happen, if I don’t get in with the Penguins and they don’t know my work and I make those connections, then maybe I’m not sitting here doing TV for them.”
Before later returning as the TV voice, Mears became a more familiar face to NHL fans as a host on NHL Network’s daily “NHL Live” program and the play-by-play voice of the network’s World Junior Championship coverage, culminating with the dramatic gold-medal win by the U.S. in 2017. Mears admits that he loved his job at NHL Network, which made the decision to move on harder than expected. But when the Penguins announced Paul Steigerwald was moving into a different role in the organization, all he had to do was think about that 10-year-old kid calling play-by-play on NHL 96 in his No. 66 jersey.
“The fact that it was the Penguins, there was just no way I could have passed that up. When you strip down everything — the path, everything I’ve done and all the other ancillary stuff — when it comes down to it, I’m still just a Penguins fan from Murrysville,” Mears says.
And being a fan comes in handy. “It’s not a prerequisite for these jobs, but it helps to know the history of the game,” Mears says. “I would like to think that Penguins fans appreciate that I’m one of them. I went to games at The Igloo [Mellon Arena]. It’s in my DNA. It’s not phony. I’ve got all the hockey cards and the posters and VHS tapes to prove it. I do think it makes our broadcasts better.
“I’ve already been blessed beyond belief to sit in that chair for the time I’ve had. Knowing the lineage, the importance of sports to Pittsburgh, the importance of the Penguins to my life and the city, in a lot of ways I’m already playing with house money.”
Alex Faust, the wunderkind
Faust was only 28 when he landed his first full-time job in sports broadcasting, replacing a Hall of Fame broadcaster who had been with the Kings for the previous 44 years. Prior to that, Faust was carving out a role as a sought-after freelance broadcaster who had called a lot of men’s college hockey games and eventually became the voice of Hockey East on NESN.
“I grew up fascinated by [broadcasting],” Faust says. “Both my parents worked in TV, and even though they begged me not to go into broadcasting, I got bitten by the bug.”
He took his parents’ advice as longtime television producers to heart and explored all of his options. Faust started a career as an analyst and consultant, putting his degree in economics to good use, while keeping broadcasting as a side gig.
“I always viewed it more as a passion project instead of a career path,” he said. “I didn’t ever think seriously that I would either be good enough or thought that I’d be interested enough to make it a career path. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it, and here we are.”
Having started calling hockey games as a student at Northeastern University, he picked up more and more work as a freelancer. People were paying attention, including Burke, who needed a fill-in broadcaster in Utica and immediately thought of Faust. NESN gave him an audition calling college basketball, and he started doing college hockey games, eventually landing the job as the lead voice for the Hockey East package. The jump in exposure was enough to leave his full-time job as a consultant.
After calling Notre Dame hockey games, NBC Sports Network offered Faust a shot at doing an NHL game. At 27, he called his first national NHL game alongside veteran color analyst Brian Engblom. Yanni Gourde scored an overtime winner to lift the Tampa Bay Lightning over the Chicago Blackhawks in thrilling fashion, and that OT period served as Faust’s demo for the Kings’ job.
After auditions with color analyst Jim Fox, where Faust said there was instant chemistry, Fox Sports West and the Kings agreed that he was ready to fill the shoes of the iconic Bob Miller. In broadcasting terms, Faust is an overnight sensation.
“I’d like to think I’ve earned the opportunity to get this job based on my body of work to that date, but I also understand that part of my learning curve was stunted because I didn’t have those experiences riding the bus [in the minors],” Faust says. “I didn’t have the background of developing relationships with coaches and players, or grinding your way through a long season. So there were things in my first year that I encountered that I wouldn’t have encountered before. I’m lucky that the Kings were flexible enough to allow me to grow into the role and trusting that I had enough upside that I could be an established voice in the league within a couple of years. I’d like to think that I’m there and that I’ll be in this league for a long while.”
Like Burke, Faust is already on national broadcasts with NBC Sports Network. His star rose so quickly that Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek floated Faust’s name during his first season with the Kings as a possible replacement host one day, which Faust admits caught him completely off guard. Having just turned 30, Faust still has a lot ahead of him, and if the rest of his career is as impressive as his meteoric rise, there’s a lot for him to look forward to.
“The best thing you can do is always aspire for growth,” he says. “I want to be able to continue to call games on a national level. I think there’s a fun challenge in doing that. I want to strive to be the best I can possibly be in this profession.”
What comes next
While the voices are changing, the booth has been a largely homogeneous position. But the future of the profession is likely to grow.
There have been small gains made in recent years to diversify the NHL booth. More women have been given opportunities in color commentary roles, including former Olympians AJ Mleczko and Jennifer Botterill, who have been involved in Islanders broadcasts. Mleczko has also had booth time on NBC Sports’ national broadcasts. Kendall Coyne Schofield, a current U.S. women’s national team member, has been part of national broadcasts, too, but also picked up a few games with the San Jose Sharks‘ regional telecasts this season.
On the play-by-play front, two prominent hockey events had female play-by-play voices for the first time. Leah Hextall became the first woman to call men’s NCAA tournament games for ESPN last season, and Sloane Martin earned the nod to call Minnesota’s boys’ high school hockey tournament in the spring of 2019.
The NHL’s U.S. TV rights are currently exclusively held by NBC Sports until 2020-21. The expiration of the current contract could lead to a changing landscape with multiple national networks expected to bid for at least a piece of the U.S. rights. With that, the opportunities for even more new broadcast personalities could exist.
A mix of familiar and new voices will continue to ring through the television speakers. Wherever NHL broadcasting goes next, the abundance of talent in the industry’s next generation proves that hockey fans will be in good hands.