When the Kraken defeated the Nashville Predators on Thursday for its first-ever victory, it was a proud and emotional moment for the expansion franchise.
Those feelings, and more, also flooded through the man on the Kraken’s radio call of the game on KJR (950 AM), veteran Seattle broadcaster Ian Furness.
It was Furness’ first NHL game behind the mic after announcing more than 1,000 games in minor-league and junior hockey over the past three decades. In that sense, it was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream for Furness, one that elicited an outpouring of support from friends and colleagues.
“I never thought I’d get there, and last night I was there,” Furness said Friday by phone from the Atlanta airport, en route from Nashville to Columbus, Ohio, for the Kraken’s game Saturday with the Blue Jackets.
“I looked out at one point right before the start of the show, and (KJR’s assistant program director) Kevin Shockey was talking in my ear and pumping me up, and it was cool. It was really cool.”
In another sense, however, it was a bittersweet achievement. Furness was the emergency fill-in for the Kraken’s regular radio play-by-play man, Everett Fitzhugh, who tested positive for COVID-19 just before the franchise opener in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Fitzhugh’s debut has been much anticipated in its own right, as he will become at age 32 the first Black team broadcaster in NHL history.
“Obviously, that’s not how I wanted to get that seat,” Furness said. “It was really hard to just wrap my arms around the fact I was doing an NHL game, much less that I’ll do three more.
“I wanted to get there on my own merits and have someone decide that I’m the guy, and not get there because someone was sick and had to miss some games with the virus. But that being said, I was grateful, and it was pretty emotional.”
Fitzhugh declined to be interviewed for this column, saying via text that he is focusing on getting ready for next Saturday’s Kraken home opener at Climate Pledge Arena. At that point, Furness said, he will hand the radio seat “back to its rightful owner.”
It’s possible to empathize with Fitzhugh’s frustrating situation — he, too, paid his dues in the lower ranks of hockey broadcasting as the voice of the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones and the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms — while simultaneously being thrilled for Furness.
Because the Vegas game was televised on ESPN, the Kraken just flipped its television voices, John Forslund and JT Brown, over to the radio that night. But while Fitzhugh recovered in Seattle, the Kraken needed someone to do the radio call on KJR for the remaining four games of the season-opening road trip, which concludes Tuesday in New Jersey.
Furness, with his hockey experience and KJR connection as an afternoon host, was the obvious choice. There was a time early in Furness’ career — when he was riding buses and calling the games for, at various times, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Tri-City Americans of the WHL, and the Utah Grizzlies of the International and American Hockey League — that he strove to be an NHL play-by-play broadcaster.
That goal subsided over time as Furness branched off successfully into sports talk as well as television. He’s a reporter on Fox 13 and part of the Seahawks’ postgame crew — that will require a side trip to Pittsburgh on Sunday, as if his travel this week isn’t hectic and stressful enough.
Furness realized over time that it was a longshot proposition to be discovered by the NHL while calling games in the remote outposts of the WHL. He found himself reminiscing about those days as he settled into the booth in Nashville.
“I mean, I had to catch myself a couple times, because I never thought I’d get there when I was doing games in Prince Albert or Swift Current or even when I was in the minors and doing games in the AHL and IHL,” he said. “I was doing three games in three nights in Fort Wayne, Indiana, or Orlando or wherever, and I didn’t really ever think the NHL would come calling. You have to have somebody that likes you and knows you. There’s so much to it, so I never even sent a résumé to the NHL when I was doing that.”
When Seattle was awarded its expansion team in 2018, Furness’ interest in an NHL job was reawakened. But though he talked to Kraken officials about various roles, none was forthcoming — an outcome he has come to peace with.
“They decided to go different directions, which is good,” he said. “That’s their option. It’s been a tough couple of years, I’ll tell you that, because if I had $1 for every time somebody asked me if I was going to do the Kraken broadcast I’d be a rich man. Obviously that didn’t happen, and I’m not a rich man.”
But he’ll at least be rich in memories from this week, ones that are meaningful for someone who grew up a hockey fan. Furness came by it naturally. His mom was born in Saskatchewan. His grandfather was a semipro player in Canada. Hockey was in the Furness blood.
“We grew up watching ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ every Saturday at 5 o’clock,” Furness said. “It was religion in my house. It was just what we did.”
It was natural for Furness to marry his hockey passion with broadcasting, considering that his late father, Milt Furness, was a longtime TV news anchor and reporter in Seattle at KOMO.
While working as a sports producer out of college for Bruce King at KOMO, the younger Furness started doing some work between periods and postgame with the Thunderbirds in the ’91-92 season. He learned the ropes from Dennis Beyak, now one of the voices of the Winnipeg Jets, and Rich Waltz, who branched out into a successful career broadcasting baseball.
“When the job became open in ‘92 for the Thunderbirds, I went after it,’’ Furness said. “My résumé tape was awful but Dennis Beyak, who was the GM, took a flyer and hired me. I took about a $35,000 pay cut and my wife-slash-fiancee at the time helped support me and my stupid hockey habit.
“But it worked out well, because it ended up getting me into sports radio and everything else.”
On Thursday, “everything else” circled back to lead Furness, at age 56, to the thrill of a lifetime. It was a long, long way, in every facet, from his first bus ride in the early ‘90s with the Thunderbirds, when they suffered a lopsided loss at Kamloops. Unbeknown to Furness, the T-birds’ coach, Peter Anholt, had a rule that there was no talking on the bus after a loss.
“We rode eight hours back, not a word was said,” Furness recalled with a laugh. “I was like, OK, this isn’t fun.”
It turned out, however, that the camaraderie of the bus rides was one of the great joys of calling games in minor-league and junior hockey. Those memories came flooding back to Furness on Thursday, when many of the people he befriended along the way left messages of congratulations.
“I’ll be honest, the coolest thing was that so many people reached out,” Furness said. “I’m so used to just getting people blasting me all the time, because that’s what we do for a living. You know, 90 percent of the time, I just feel like everyone in the world hates you.
“I think that’s been the most emotional thing for me. It’s really humbling and kind of overwhelming to have so many people reach out and say they appreciated hearing it last night.”