Everett Fitzhugh wants to be The Voice – the guy who shouts “goal!” when the home team puts the biscuit in the basket, the person who vocally paints a Picasso of what’s happening on the ice during a hockey game for those who can’t catch it at the arena or watch it on TV.
Fitzhugh aspires to be a National Hockey League radio play-by-play announcer, a career path not normally associated with 25-year-old African-American men. But Fitzhugh, a Detroit native who grew up spending cold winter nights listening to Ken Kal broadcast Detroit Red Wings games and lazy summer evenings hearing Ernie Harwell do Detroit Tigers baseball, is on a mission to join the small but growing club of NHL broadcasters of color.
He watches David Amber and Kevin Weekes on CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” and former NHLers Anson Carter and Jamal Mayers on NBC Sports Network and NHL Network’s nightly “NHL on The Fly” highlights show and thinks to himself “See you soon, dudes.”
“I think that’s going to be me in 15, 20-plus years, however long it takes,” Fitzhugh told me recently. “This has been a dream of mine to work in sports, to work in media, since I was seven years old. I didn’t know I wanted to strictly work in hockey until I was in college. But I see those guys on TV and it gives me hope that what I’m doing will eventually pay off. It gives me hope that I can be on ESPN one day and I can become an NHL radio play-by-play man, which is my ultimate goal.”
In the meantime, Fitzhugh is busy paying his dues. He attended Bowling Green State University – alma mater of Pittsburgh Penguins and U.S. Olympics men’s hockey team Head Coach Dan Bylsma – and did radio play-by-play for 120 games for the NCAA Division I Falcons men’s hockey team.
He joined the United States Hockey League in 2012 and is manger of communications for the nation’s top junior hockey league that serves as a stepping-stone to college hockey or the NHL for many players.
Working out of Chicago, Fitzhugh handles the USHL’s social media entries, press releases, YouTube posts and video highlights. The job often gets him out of the office and into the lock rooms of USHL teams. But more than anything, Fitzhugh wants to get back behind the microphone and call hockey games on the radio.
“People call me weird. We used to joke when I was in school that TV guys do half the work but get twice the money,” he said. “But I love radio. I just love painting the picture. I love being able to describe what’s going on and the art of being on the radio. It’s a difficult job, but when you’re able to master hockey radio play-by-play, for me, that’s the ultimate position in sports.”
Amber knows how Fitzhugh feels. He grew up in Toronto listening Toronto Maple Leafs broadcasts and thought that he, too, might be a play-by-play guy some day.
But he gravitated to sports reporting instead. Now, he’s the pre-game, between-periods, and post-game presence on Canada’s equivalent of “Monday Night Football.” He’s pleased to see more minorities are on the air talking hockey and more people like Fitzhugh in the pipeline waiting for their break.
“The exposure from ‘Hockey Night,’ I’ve certainly had a significant amount of minority faces – mostly black, but even Indian and Asian – say they’re happy to see it’s (hockey) not so homogeneous the way it was maybe 10 years ago; that there are people of color coming in and being able to lend a voice and face to the sport,” Amber told me recently. “It has been a slow transition, absolutely, but there are going to be a lot of new young guys coming up now.”
And the interest of people like Fitzhugh to work in hockey reflects the increasing number hockey players of color and the growing impact they’re are having on the game from the USHL all the way up to the NHL, Amber said.
“There are more black faces in the NHL than there’s ever been,” he told me. “When you look at the guys who’ve made it now, these are impact players whether it’s (Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne) Simmonds, we know what (Boston Bruins’ Jarome) Iginla’s been able to do over his career, (Winnipeg Jets’) Evander Kane, (Dallas Stars’) Trevor Daley. But because the position of the players have increased and the position of some of the media members has increased from a minority standpoint, I think success breeds success and visibility breeds more visibility and I think that’s a good thing.”
But old stereotypes still die hard. Fitzhugh says people - both minorities and whites – occasionally do double-takes when he tells them what he does for a living and what his dream job is.
“I’ve gotten snide comments, off the cuff comments “Oh, you’re black, you can’t be in hockey, you can’t do this, that and the other,’” he said. “And I’m like ‘No, you look on TV, we’re growing.’ You look at some of the best players in the NHL – up and coming Evander Kane, if he can ever stay healthy; Jarome Iginla fed (Pittsburgh Penguins’)Sidney Crosby to lead Canada to the Gold Medal four years ago; (Winnipeg Jets’) Dustin Byfuglien was barely left off our U.S. Olympic team this year.”
“Black people, we’re not barely surviving in hockey,” he added. “I think we are staples. We’re contributing day in, day out to the hockey world on the ice, off the ice, in the media.”
Amber said he rarely gets negative comments about his presence on hockey telecasts. But he recalls getting the odd tweet during his NHL Network days from viewers filled with keyboard courage who’d urge him “to stick with basketball.”
“Nothing crazy, certainly nothing like what (Washington Capitals forward) Joel Ward received after he scored the Game 7 OT winner against Boston (in April 2012),” he said. “But a couple of snide remarks, inappropriate remarks. By and large it hasn’t been a big issue. Living in Canada, it hasn’t been a prevalent issue. In the States, I think it’s still by and large viewed as a white guy’s sport.”
Even among minorities. Fitzhugh says striking up a hockey conversation at his local barbershop can be a challenge.
“They look at me a little weird,” he said with a laugh. “My barbers knows that I work in hockey. When I first told them, they kind of looked at me like I was a science experiment like ‘Oh, you work in hockey?’ I enlighten them a little bit, but hockey’s not a regular topic of conversation when I go to the barbershop.”
But Fitzhugh believes that will change in time because “more and more minorities and people of color are becoming aware of the game.”
“Think if anyone goes to a hockey game, they will be hooked,” he said. “If could have a mission, it would be to take everybody, everyone in this country to a hockey game.”
Or to have folks listen to his play-by-play account on the radio.
Special thanks: to Color of Hockey follower and ChicagoSide Senior Writer Evan F. Moore who first reported on Fitzhugh.