As a minor-league hockey broadcaster in Cincinnati, Everett Fitzhugh would go on frequent road trips to Indianapolis, where he’d regularly encounter a young Black hockey fan named Desmond fist-bumping players outside the visiting team’s locker room.
“His Dad came up to me and said, ‘We listen to you sometimes and we enjoy listening to you,’ and that was really cool,” Fitzhugh, 31, said Friday, just after the Seattle Kraken announced it had made him the first Black team broadcaster in NHL history. “I have had a few Black fans either in Cincinnati, or on the road, who find what I do and who I am.
“You never set out to be the trailblazer,” he added. “But any time you’re able to inspire someone — and if there is someone out there who wants to get into hockey or into broadcasting — being that example is really a special privilege. It’s something you never get used to. But it’s something I enjoy doing.”
Now, he’ll get to do it on a major stage after five seasons calling radio play-by-play with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones and previously the Youngstown Phantoms of the junior United States Hockey League and his Bowling Green State University alma matter. Fitzhugh was one of three broadcast hires announced by the Kraken; they’ve also added Jonny Greco from the Madison Square Garden company and the Vegas Golden Knights before that as their senior vice-president of live entertainment and game presentation while Lamont Buford, previously with the Arizona Coyotes, is the team’s vice president of game presentation.
For now, Fitzhugh’s exact role has yet to be determined as the Kraken continues to build out its broadcast crew. The Detroit native will certainly do radio, possibly as a play-by-play commentator, and perhaps some television once the expansion team takes the ice in October 2021.
“As far as I know, my main job here in the interim is going to be a lot of content, a lot of video pieces, a lot of speaking engagements,” he said. “I’m going to be getting out in the community a lot. Just really helping to promote and hype up this team as they get set to play next year. After that, it’s a very fluid situation. That’s about all I know. I’m hoping there are some more opportunities down the road and some chances there.”
It’s an NHL leap he’d previously only dreamed of. He’d played baseball as a child. But he got turned on to hockey in Detroit as a third grader when seeing Black players Mike Grier and Georges Laraque with the Edmonton Oilers and soon began following the team through CBC broadcasts from the affiliate across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.
Still, it wasn’t until a surprise email from Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke in February that Fitzhugh realized how close his dream was to becoming reality. Leiweke had just seen a feature story about McHugh in The Athletic before emailing him about a potential job opportunity that could materialize.
“I wasn’t sure it was real,” Fitzhugh said.
Leiweke said he’d looked up Fitzhugh’s email on the Cyclones website and told him: “Hey, I’m the CEO, if you’d like to catch up sometime I’m cheering you on in your career. He wrote me back, we talked.”
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the team’s broadcast hiring plans. But in the interim, Leiweke heard from a few more people about Fitzhugh, including “a glowing recommendation” from legendary lead NBC hockey announcer Mike Emrick.
Leiweke finally got back to Fitzhugh in May to have him apply for the broadcast opening. By June, they did some virtual interviews and then invited Fitzhugh and his fiancée out to Seattle for in-person interviews last month before offering him the job about 2½ weeks ago.
“We loved his fire, his passion for the game,” Leiweke said. “It’s a little bit of an improbable journey for him. In the ECHL, you’re riding the bus to games on the road and then you’re back at 5 a.m., and he’d have to be in the office at 7 a.m. to do his public relations job with the team.
“But it was his tapes that got him hired. His passion for the game and his body of work.”
The pioneering hire made big waves around the NHL in the midst of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
David Amber, a Black studio host for Hockey Night in Canada and NHL on Sportsnet — formerly with ESPN — applauded the move.
“Seattle has been very good being ahead of the curve,” Amber said. “They’ve done a good job of identifying qualified candidates who happen to be visible minorities, that can do a good job to add to the diversity of the sport. And maybe in this case, have a voice that comes at things through a different lens.”
Amber, among the first hockey TV studio hosts of color, said: “You’d be surprised at how many times kids have come up to me. And even adults have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, man it’s really great to see you out there in the game we love and in a prominent role.
“That’s an awesome thing. I remember back to when I was a kid and I would see Mark Jones, Mike Tirico, Fred Hickman and John Saunders and I’d say, ‘Wow, I’d love to follow in their footsteps. And once someone’s there and is doing it, you don’t think it’s something you’re incapable of.”
Fitzhugh spent Friday getting “sore thumbs” from responding to all the text messages from well-wishers. He admits it’s been tough keeping his new job a secret and not “shout it from the mountaintops” to anyone but close confidants in recent weeks.
“I don’t think it’s truly hit me yet,” Fitzhugh said. “These past few weeks I’ve been saying to myself, ‘This is it, you’ve made the NHL.’ And everyone that I’ve told, my family, my fiancee’s family and all of my friends, they’ve been so supportive and so happy for me.
“But today, I kind of had that smack in the face moment that said: ‘Man, you’re doing something really big here.’ ”
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