Like many Sabres fans who have blown out 50 candles on a birthday cake, the origin of my relationship to the team traces its way back to listening to Rick Jeanneret on a transistor radio. The official rule in our house during hockey season was lights out and radio off after the first period. The unofficial rule in my 8 year old universe was lights out, pulling my radio under the covers, and listening to the rest of the game at the lowest possible volume to evade my mom’s watchful eyes and ears.
The voice that pushed its way out of that tiny transistor and into my ears was 60% coolest uncle in the world and 40% hysterical teenager at a Beatles concert. Jeanneret’s anxious and informed narrative is the soundtrack of all the triumph and sorrow connected to my formative hockey memories.
He was there when I jumped out of bed after Rene Robert scored in overtime in game 5 to beat the vaunted Canadiens and three weeks later, he consoled me as I sat stunned on the floor after Bernie Parent and the Flyers crushed my Stanley Cup dreams. Jeanneret’s voice filled the room while I furiously punched my pillow as Jim Schoenfeld and Wayne Cashman brawled out into the Zamboni entrance at the Aud, and he consoled me as I wept into that same pillow as the Sabres played the Atlanta Flames the night after Tim Horton died.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d love hockey half as much if that voice had belonged to someone else. What if the guy who broadcasted Sabres games in the early 1970s had been 30% science teacher and 70% fake radio voice guy?
My guess is that I’d still be a hockey fan, but not nearly the borderline nutter who watches every period of every game and dresses up as Randy Wyrozub for Halloween. For many of us here in Buffalo, Jeanneret’s call of a game isn’t just names and numbers, it’s an unbreakable thread back to our childhood.
The value of a first-class broadcaster seems to be lost on many NHL decision-makers. Sometimes it seems like I love hockey in spite of the people who receive a paycheck to tell me about the game. Local broadcasts around the league are filled with myopic former players who drone on and on about “playing the game the right way” and “doing the little things that win hockey games”. Network hockey broadcasts are littered with pompous narcissists. Is there a single kid walking around today who has embraced hockey because of something he once heard Mike Milbury or Jeremy Roenick say?
If I stumble down the rabbit hole of chirping on guys like Milbury and Roenick, I might never see the light of day again. It’s probably far more healthy to focus on the best broadcasters in the business. Here are half a dozen local and national hockey voices that keep me connected to the game I love:
Robert Malcomson McKenzie is the burning bush in the ether of NHL news and trade rumors. A release by McKenzie of a Sabres-related tidbit out into the Twitterverse is akin to Zeus unleashing a thunderbolt into the Ted Darling Memorial Press Box. Because he is the most connected and respected member of the NHL media, it is easy to overlook the fact that McKenzie is a gifted writer. If you can read through this without getting a little choked up, your heart must be made of stone.
Duff’s transition into the Buffalo broadcasting market from Leafs TV and the NHL Network has been seamless. While his broadcast partner seems to be preoccupied with looking smart (love the new librarian glasses, Brad), Duff is actually smart. He knows the NHL inside and out, seems to genuinely enjoy interacting with fans and has a greater understanding of team history than many former players. Extra stick taps to ‘Duffer’ for his quiet and dedicated support of a number of local charitable organizations.
When McKenzie retires somewhere down the road, Friedman is his likely successor. His 30 Thoughts column for Sportsnet on Tuesdays is required reading, even if it requires secretly extending your lunch break. Much like McKenzie’s work, there is very little self-promotion or ego connected to Friedman’s body of writing and TV work. He is all about information and insight. If there was a Pulitzer for hockey writing, this column on the behind the scenes machinations of the Subban and Hall trades gets my vote for 2016.
Here’s another story about the man behind-the-scenes that you wouldn’t see in his outward persona.
White seems to encounter a significant level of anger here in Buffalo (take a look at the comments section of anything he writes for the WGR website or his Twitter feed if you think I’m kidding). The view from here is that he is the most entertaining and influential member of the local hockey media. On matters related to the Sabres, no one influences content or stimulates conversation in Buffalo more than White. Even his harshest critics have to acknowledge that he almost singlehandedly kept Sabres fans sane and engaged during the ‘Tank Years’ and for that public service, he should never buy a beer in this town again.
It seems like such a simple concept: place two knowledgeable and funny friends who love hockey in a room together, press the record button, and let them talk about topical hockey stuff for 45-75 minutes once or twice a week. Listening to the MvsW Podcast is like eavesdropping on two of your favorite hockey reporters at a neighboring table in your favorite bar. Bonus points to both guys for founding the ‘John Scott to the All-Star Game’ movement last year.
Let’s not kid ourselves, when Ray began working as the Sabres color commentator in 2012, he was a certified industrial accident. On the rare occasion that he had an interesting comment to add to the broadcast, he struggled to pronounce words correctly and speak in complete sentences. I have ever seen anyone work harder to improve more than Ray has over the last four years. He is insightful, funny, and his affection for Jeanneret is evident on every broadcast. His work in 2016 is almost unrecognizable from his work two or three years ago.