The first season I really started following hockey seriously, I craved the game. I soaked it up like a thirsty sponge, reading books, listening to every single thing the Aeros broadcast or put online about the team, and eventually ordering Center Ice and watching a ton of NHL games, too.
I was 30 years behind on hockey knowledge compared to most fans my age, and I had catching up to do. I needed expert hockey immersion if I wanted to get beyond, “Whoa. Puck fast. Butts firm. Wins good,” any time soon.
That season, Jason Shaver was the Aeros play by play announcer. He comes from a long line of hockey broadcasters: Wally Shaver, his dad, does radio play-by-play for the University of Minnesota hockey games. His grandfather, Al Shaver, has the Xcel Energy Center’s press box named in his honor after having been the Minnesota North Stars’ play-by-play man for the team’s entire existence.
Jason was only with the Aeros for that one season, and then the Chicago Wolves came calling and gave him an opportunity in TV that was too good to pass up. But I’m forever indebted to Shaves, because for all the games I couldn’t attend, he put me right in the stands with him.
He described games so perfectly, when the season ended, I had trouble remembering whether I saw a particular game live or had listened to it online. I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time to be learning the game via three generations of hockey broadcasting. Now, of course, I do, and I’ve never had quite the same bond with an announcer since.
I tell you this because, for all the analysis (and over-analysis) that happens around hockey, little is made of how much those intermediaries — the radio and TV announcers, the in-studio talking heads, the beat writers, and the PR folks — can enhance (or detract from) our enjoyment of the game.
The Minnesota Wild and Fox Sports North appeared to be blindsided by that notion when fans flipped their lids over the signing of Anthony LaPanta to be the Wild’s new TV play-by-play guy last week.
Even as someone nearly immune to bellyaching Wild fans (of which I am occasionally one myself), I was startled by the ferocity of the outcry against LaPanta. You’d think the guy had been caught drowning puppies or rooting for the Canucks for all the immediate and vociferous wailing in every venue possible.
But really, it seems that fans familiar with his U. of Minnesota hockey play-by-play aren’t too fond of his work, that they think his homerism is over the top, and his hair is radio-caliber.
On the flip side, for the organization (well, organizations, because it’s a joint hire between the Wild and FSNorth), he’s a known and liked quantity. They know he works hard (he’s been an in-studio guy for a while doing pre- and post-game for the Wild) and, even better, he’s (presumably) relatively cheap.
So, done deal. Though it did take them an extra day to announce it officially, as they wrestled with managing the surprise public relations fallout.
Aside from some cheap LaPanta’s Hair jokes, I stayed out of the lynch mob. I declared that if the on-ice product was great, I really couldn’t give a shit who is calling the game, and the pragmatic side of me still believes that.
But the more I thought about the ways in which I grew to love this particular team (and in doing so, the game itself), I realized it has almost as much to do with the people who present the game to me and the quality of the information provided to me as with the on-ice product.
Look at it like this: The players, the coaches, the hockey operations are the foundation, the walls, the doors, the windows of a house.
These other faces of a team are the finishing touches. The flooring, the paint, the trim, the caulk. If you had even the most finely constructed home, but it’s robed in olive green shag carpet, the door framing is askew, the grout in the tiles is cracked — you don’t fully appreciate it.
You don’t walk in the door and think, “Ahh, what a sturdy foundation!” You think, “Ugh. These harvest gold kitchen counters look like baby shit.”
Of course, when there’s a Cat 4 hurricane trying to blow your roof off (let’s call this The Playoffs), you couldn’t be more grateful for that sturdy foundation and couldn’t care less about grout cracks.
But I’m talking about every day, run of the mill, watching hockey on a lazy Tuesday night. Those 82 damn games a year of keeping the volume down, or worse, watching the other team’s broadcast, to avoid your own team’s voice.
It’s just a downer, man. It’s not supposed to be that way.
This isn’t an anti-LaPanta rant at all, really. He’s just the most recent and personal example of how fans’ passion for the team bleeds into the supporting characters of a team.
But I’ve seen enough mediocre, uninspired choices in these important and under-appreciated roles to wonder if teams really “get it” from a fan’s perspective. Shaves was “my radio guy” for one season, but his voice is forever tattooed in my heart because that’s what great voices do to you.
New and seasoned fans alike all deserve a hockey voice like that in their lives, and teams should strive to provide it. It’s good for business, but moreover, it’s good for hockey.