📝 by Patrick Williams
The American Hockey League’s reputation for churning out National Hockey League players is a well-established one.
Just check the daily AHL transactions for proof of that. Last season 87.7 percent of NHL players had also played in the AHL. Already this season alone, another 109 AHL players had made their NHL debuts.
With NHL clubs dealing with COVID-19 issues for the past month that have also reached into the broadcast booth, they turned to the place they always look for talent ― the AHL. In recent weeks no fewer than seven AHL broadcasters have received a call-up to the NHL, and there may never be another week like the final week of 2021 for some of the voices that AHL fans hear each night calling games.
One NHL opportunity meant an early-morning surprise wake-up call, a race to downtown Chicago, and a wild week to follow.
On another night, AHL broadcasters had opposing calls for a Vegas Golden Knights-Los Angeles Kings contest. Later that same week, one of those broadcasters pulled off one of the rarest of achievements ― an NHL-AHL doubleheader in two different states with a flight in between.
A bit to the south in Anaheim, a San Diego Gulls play-by-play caller received the call to make the same drive that some of young Anaheim Ducks prospects have made.
Here are some of those stories, and the AHL lessons that helped make those NHL recalls possible:
Brian McCormack converted an ECHL opportunity in Idaho into an AHL post when he advanced to the San Antonio Rampage for the 2018-19 season. Now McCormack quickly has become a familiar radio and television presence for Henderson Silver Knights fans.
But recently the team across town needed McCormack’s help as well. With some of the Vegas broadcasting crew unavailable, the Golden Knights turned to McCormack. Game one came Dec. 28 in Los Angeles for that match-up with the Kings. Three Golden Knights goals in the first 11:09 made his transition that much easier, and McCormack went on to call a 6-3 Golden Knights victory.
From there, it seemed like that would be it for McCormack. After a 12-day hiatus, the Silver Knights would be back in action for a road game with the Ontario Reign on New Year’s Eve. But the Golden Knights needed help again for their noon matinee against Anaheim at T-Mobile Arena, so McCormack found himself back in the NHL.
Could he work the Henderson-Ontario game that night as well? McCormack did some quick math and logistics work.
“The [NHL] game is at noon, and it’s over by 2:30,” McCormack figured. “That gives me a four-and-a-half-hour window to get to Ontario. It can be done, and [I] looked up and saw that there were flights.”
Vegas provided another win to call, and then it was a race to the airport followed by, what else, a delayed flight to Ontario.
Said McCormack, “Like, I was on the plane, and I was looking at my Twitter feed, and there were fans who had listened to the first game. I heard that people got a kick out of the journey of the day. So, I had people saying, ‘Did Brian make it to the airport? Did Brian get on his plane?’
At long last his flight departed. A quick hop to Ontario and the five-minute car ride to Toyota Arena later, he could settle into the visiting broadcast booth. With 10 minutes to spare before that night’s opening face-off, McCormack put on the headphones and got down to work on the back half of his doubleheader.
A seamless broadcast followed despite a day that had been anything but.
“It was a crazy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles day,” McCormack said, “but it was absolutely perfect.”
McCormack readily admits that his work in the AHL prepared him for the NHL stage.
“I think [the AHL] allows you to completely 100 percent immerse yourself in the game,” he said. “It’s the PR aspects, the game notes, the statistician work, that helps me to know this league and these players like the back of my hand. It forces me to ask good interview questions to get to know these players.
“I’m studying all the time and calling the games on top of that, and those are the tests that reinforce everything that I’ve learned. I think there’s the grind aspect of [the AHL] that just makes you better at your job.”
Josh Schaefer and Jared Shafran have built on-air chemistry quickly enough that it can be easy to forget that they are working together for the first time calling the exploits of future Kings talent.
The Ontario Reign brought in the pair this past summer. Schaefer, a recent Arizona State University graduate who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, broke into the AHL late last season as part of a rotating crew of Ontario play-by-play callers. His time working Sun Devils and Reign games provided him high-level experience early in his career. Fresh off five ECHL seasons with South Carolina, Shafran also had NCAA experience at Northeastern and Ferris State before he arrived in Ontario.
“It’s been a thrill,” Shafran said of his first season with the Reign. “It’s been awesome. I’m really enjoying it. Everybody around the team and the organization has been outstanding to work with, and so far, so good.”
Schaefer grew up in a market featuring the likes of hometown legends like Bob Miller with the Kings and Vin Scully on the call for the Dodgers. And being from just outside New York City, Shafran had ample opportunity to hear some of the top voices in sports.
Said Schaefer, “I grew up in L.A. listening to Vin Scully and Bob Miller. Dick Enberg was still around. The Lakers guys have been around since I was a kid, and I’ve loved listening to them. Just something about listening to these guys tell stories and broadcast sports really jumped out to me.”
Shafran remembered, “I just thought that I wanted to be in sports in some way.”
Schaefer had called a Kings preseason game and made his regular-season NHL debut Nov. 20; Shafran had worked a Washington Capitals preseason game earlier in his career under the tutelage of former Hershey Bears broadcaster John Walton. But those games proved to be just a taste of what awaited the pair in the final week of 2021.
When the Kings needed some reinforcements in the broadcast booth, they put a call into the Reign. Schaefer would be on radio play-by-play while Shafran would handle pre-game hosting duties.
Their week looked like this: a Dec. 28 NHL game against Vegas, another home contest two nights later with the Vancouver Canucks, back to Ontario for the New Year’s Eve match-up with Henderson, and then a wrap-up night in Los Angeles against the Philadelphia Flyers to begin 2022.
“We saw a lot of hockey,” Schaefer said of the week. “We saw a lot of each other, and it was fun. It was a whirlwind. It was stressful at times, but more exciting and just absolutely worth it, worth every hour of looking at a computer screen or reading documents just to get ready for a game for a chance to call a few more NHL games. And then to come back out here and do the Reign at the same time was just a dream come true.”
Said Shafran, “Just like everybody else during COVID, right now it’s very fluid, all hands on deck, [be] willing to help out with whatever, and I think that’s one of the coolest things about working in hockey. Everybody is working for the team, they want the team to do the best, and everybody’s going in and pulling the same rope in the same direction.”
Working opposite McCormack was special for Shafran.
“He was sitting there getting ready, but…as a friend to be able to come in and just pump him up a little bit and just say, ‘Hey, I know you can call a game. You’re good at what you do. This is going to be no problem for you.’”
Joseph Zakrzewski is a familiar voice to AHL fans from his time in Ontario and Rockford.
Before advancing to the AHL, he worked with South Carolina of the ECHL, an operation that has also produced AHL voices like Shafran and Hershey’s Zack Fisch (himself an occasional fill-in for the Washington Capitals).
Now Chicago hockey fans can hear Zakrzewski’s call as well. Zakrzewski had already spent time with the Blackhawks earlier this season, but when a Dec. 29 road game against the Winnipeg Jets was postponed along with that week’s IceHogs slate, Zakrzewski expected to spend a quiet holiday weekend at home with his wife, Kelci.
A Saturday off is one of the rarest commodities in hockey. Then Zakrzewski received the most welcome of early-morning wake-up calls to start 2022.
“[Kelci] kind of stormed in the room like, ‘You’ve got to wake up! You’ve got to wake up!’”
The Hawks were on the line. Some of their broadcast team in Nashville had become unavailable for that afternoon’s New Year’s matinee at the last minute, and they needed a replacement.
“They were just like, ‘What are you doing right now?’” Zakrzewski recounted. “I showed up to the studios in jeans and a t-shirt. They [had] said, ‘Don’t worry about getting dressed. Don’t worry about anything. Just get in the car and go.’”
The Hawks texted an address for the WGN radio studio, and it was off to the downtown Chicago.
“I called the game off the TV. ‘Holy smokes, this is crazy,’” Zakrzewski thought. “But I was like, I’ll take it. I called games off the TV as a kid and video games and all that other fun stuff.”
While Zakrzewski had the call from downtown Chicago, Alan Fuehring of the Bridgeport Islanders provided the television call on NBC Sports Chicago’s broadcast from Nashville. The surprises kept coming for Zakrzewski when the Hawks needed him the following night, a Sunday, for a home game against the Calgary Flames. So, a night later at United Center, Zakrzewski had a chance to reunite with Fuehring as the two worked the Hawks-Calgary Flames game on radio and television, respectively.
Then with a snowstorm bearing down on Chicago, Zakrzewski spent the night at a hotel and planned to return to Rockford the next morning to begin a busy week with the IceHogs.
“I’m packing my bags and getting ready to get out of there and report back home,” Zakrzewski said, continuing his tale.
Then the phone rang again. It was Ralph Strangis, the long-time Dallas Stars voice who is now helping with Hawks broadcasts.
“I need you to get on a plane on Tuesday,” Strangis told Zakrzewski. “You’re going to Arizona and Vegas to call those games.”
Said Zakrzewski, “Holy cow. So, I called [my wife] like, ‘I don’t know what you have planned this week, but are you good if I just pull off at O’Hare, jump on an airplane, and join the [Hawks] real fast?’
“She’s like, ‘Yeah, get going.’”
That assignment meant two more NHL games for Zakrzewski, and the memories that came with them.
“If I showed you my camera of all the photos I took of the press boxes, meals, buses, and planes from this last week, you would just die laughing,” Zakrzewski chuckled. “Because, I mean, it’s everything that you could hope for and more in terms of the experience and the atmosphere.”
Zakrzrewski believes working in the AHL makes a broadcaster well-rounded.
“You get to learn the broadcast craft, sure. But you get to learn the public relations side. You get to learn the marketing side. You get to learn the hockey operations side. You get to learn graphic design, audio editing, video editing, and things of that nature to where if somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, can you do this – now?’ … ‘I can do it. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.’
“You learn so many trades. Then when you go to the National Hockey League, you get to see all those skills shine even brighter.”
For Andy Zilch, the heads-up came from Anaheim Ducks vice president of marketing Merit Tully.
Zilch recalled that Tully said, “Hey, I just want to give you a heads-up that I’ve recommended you to fill in for [Ducks television voice John Ahlers]. There might be an opportunity. You might get a call from Bally Sports, but I wanted to let you know so you’re not caught off-guard.”
Zilch thanked him, and Tully said, “You’ve been doing a lot of hard work down there in San Diego. You’ve got the Ducks flavor to you, so we want to reward that. So that’s why I suggested you.”
Thirty minutes later, Bally Sports did indeed contact Zilch, and soon enough he was in the lineup for Anaheim’s Dec. 29 game against Vancouver at Honda Center. Zilch then connected with Ahlers and long-time Ducks color commentator Brian Hayward to begin strategizing.
Next Zilch sat down and watched Anaheim’s previous four games, both to familiarize himself with the team’s latest doings as well as to get an even better feel for Hayward’s style.
“I think we’re in this together, so to speak, which is a weird type of thing with two different leagues,” said Zilch of the Anaheim-San Diego bond. “But I get a good pulse on the Ducks, regardless of what’s going on there. So, the transition to Anaheim was pretty easy, and the fact that I’ve seen 90 percent of that roster live helped out as well.”
Two days later in Las Vegas, Zilch called the Ducks-Golden Knights contest opposite McCormack before it was time to return to San Diego.
But the call-ups from the AHL broadcasting ranks continued this weekend. When the Colorado Avalanche needed help on Friday night, Colorado Eagles play-by-play man Kevin McGlue made the trip south to Denver to step in on the NHL club’s radio broadcast. For Zilch, who had previous AHL stops in Springfield and Utica, it’s a path he’s seen his colleagues take before.
“Let’s take [former Iowa Wild voice] Joe O’Donnell, for example,” Zilch said. “He’s with the Wild organization. For them to select him to fill in for [long-time Minnesota broadcaster] Bob Kurtz and then take the throne, I think that’s fantastic.
“We all talk. It’s funny, because when some of these [jobs] started opening up… We’re all texting each other. We’re all saying, ‘Oh, did you get the interview? What were your thoughts? How did you do? What did you send, etc.?’
“It’s like goaltenders. Even though we’re competing for the same job, we’re also friends in the process.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.