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Day 61 – College Hockey: Everything That Sports Should Be

October 7, 2010

WRBB, the student radio station of Northeastern University, is the most unheralded, yet consistent, source of young broadcasting talent in the United States.  Over the course of the last 13 years, every single student who has manned the helm of the station’s hockey broadcasts has moved on to the professional ranks immediately upon graduation.  Three of that group are voices in the American Hockey League.  Some of the station’s alumni host and produce much of Boston’s sports talk radio and others, such as Red Sox TV broadcaster Don Orsillo, have climbed the ranks faster than most believed possible.

The major reason for this is opportunity.  Unlike hyper-competitive programs at Syracuse or Kansas, there’s plenty of room on the staff and enough sports (minus football) to provide an undergrad with an unique chance to build a strong portfolio before they graduate.  Throughout my five years at Northeastern, I served two years as the station’s sports director, 5 years on-air experience with football, baseball, basketball and hockey, hosted a weekly 3-hour sports talk show, traveled across the country to cover events, networked at media day events and worked part-time at commercial station WEEI for three years during some of the most tumultuous moments in New England sports history.  At Syracuse, MAYBE I get to call lacrosse my senior year for the online feed…if my dad was Dick Enberg.

 

"I've got your back...son."

 

The experience is accentuated by the unique enthusiasm of the university’s facilities and atmosphere.  Northeastern has a reputation as a working-class university where you can pay for your education while maneuvering through the school’s co-operative education program…spend 6 months on campus in the classroom, spend the other 6 months of the year in the workplace with a full-time job in your field of study.  The social and cultural strata of Boston intersect through two avenues: college and hockey.

By itself, college hockey embodies everything we want to be right about sports.  Big powers at the same level as the smaller upstarts (recent Final Four teams include Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Michigan as well as Bemidji State and Rochester Institute of Technology).  Little distraction aside from traditional (and non-traditional) chanting.  A concrete method of determining a national champion.  Access to any and all fans.  Strong regional rivalries with far-reaching consequences on the future of the sport.

The college hockey community at Northeastern is inclusive, intense and intelligent.  The arena is more clubhouse than cathedral: a hundred years of hockey and legitimate history, topped with a wooden roof to reflect the sound.  The front row of the balcony hands directly over the hockey boards, allowing for the most intimate views in the sport.  It also guarantees that the players will hear every awful utterance you send their way.  Sound waves are in constant motion, bouncing off the perfect, clean sheet of ice, back up off the wooden planks defending the faithful from the elements, and into the eardrums of fans and players alike.

 

The world's oldest indoor hockey rink: "THE BARN"

 

The entire road contingent will walk out of an arena if arena security unfairly ejects a member of the Red and Black.  The order of things is self-governing among fans; they’re relentless regarding offending players but are quick to point out any of their own who decide to shout vulgarities or toss objects onto the playing surface.  Chants are organized via megaphone, the student section tries to coordinate with the band as best as possible.  Best of all, the expectations are at a level such that failure to meet them won’t result in revolution.  The Northeastern Huskies men’s hockey team is  not a perennial national contender yet it’s always a threat to knock off a #1-ranked team.  Combine this country’s unique passion and atmosphere for college sports then ADD the incredibly awe-inspiring experience of watching a good game of hockey in front of a full crowd and you’ve got something magical.

That video is from the balcony’s front row on the evening of the team’s conference opener, a 1-0 victory over cross-town rivals and defending national champions Boston University.  Ask yourself: when was the last time YOU were that excited for a regular season game?

When I graduated, I did my part to keep the WRBB streak alive, interviewing with the Utah Grizzlies before accepting a position with the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors.  For all my efforts up to that point, the minor league hockey experience was altogether disappointing.  The crowds were older, detached, passive.  The largest attendance numbers were spurred not by local rivalries with other California-based teams (Three of which, San Diego, Long Beach and Fresno, have folded in the four years since), but charity gimmicks like a Teddy Bear Toss or alternate jersey auctions.  The players were either usually blindly ambitious or faithfully disenchanted.  Hollow “MAKE SOME NOISE” jumbotron pleas, national anthem singers selected based on group ticket sales potential, the Spongebob Squarepants theme, professional “crowd warmers”, “Guaranteed Fight Night” promotions…nothing was authentic.  That was the biggest difference to me: in college, fans yell.  In the pros, fans get yelled AT.  By jumbotrons, by bombastic public address announcers, by marketers who “know how sports fans think…”  In other words, a local, indoor, miniature version of the NFL.

The experience lasted a year; my contract wasn’t renewed and I was replaced by a part-timer with a master’s degree from Syracuse.  This was probably the most disillusioning aspect of my time in professional sports: the moment I felt it wouldn’t be possible to advance any further in the field.  5 wonderful years of effort and learning, surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable people…wiped out with a loss in a ‘AA’ league’s Western Conference Semifinal.  They might as well have outsourced the broadcasts to a call center in India.

 

"Greetings to you, the sporting fans of your town!"

 

After I had cleared my desk and taken my Northeastern diploma off the wall, I stopped by the locker room to bid farewell to the head coach, Marty Raymond.  He sympathised that my improvement as a broadcaster had gone for naught and in a bid to leave me with a positive note, he offered me one of the team’s game-worn sweaters.  I told him I’d consider, but I never went back to claim it; it would have served not as an heirloom, but as a symbol of the dissolution of my broadcasting career.

The WRBB broadcaster streak is still alive, thanks to recent graduate Keith Lavon’s appointment as media director & broadcaster for the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees of the Central Hockey League.  I wish him luck and know he won’t need it.  Those that came before me and those who will follow will do just fine.  Tonight, a new college hockey season begins and tomorrow night 5400+ diehards will pack into the 100-year old Matthews Arena, refuse to sit down and pin the decibel meter as Northeastern hosts the #1 ranked, defending national champions from Boston College.  Just like the BU game last year, the BC tie the year before, and the previous years’ home victories over top-ranked teams from Denver, North Dakota, Maine, and New Hampshire, the atmosphere will be unparalleled.  The minors couldn’t live up to the standard I had grown accustomed to, and may have permanently altered the way I view other spectator sports.  Those great moments of unbridled, blissful oblivion have transformed current gameday experiences into a shell of unrealized potential, reinforced by casual fans who have never truly witnessed those spontaneous, fleeting seconds of nirvana.

In memory of the moments that have come before, and in anticipation of those yet to come…drop the puck.  Go N.U.  Beat BC.

 

D-Ross: Second Row, Third from Right. Pose: "Goal Line Jesus"

 

DR

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