You probably remember with vivid detail the first time you fell in love with sports. Sitting cross-legged in front of a TV while watching some innocuous regular-season clash that nobody in the world but you remember.
Such was the case for Everett Fitzhugh who is the voice of a new NHL franchise and is for the moment its most recognizable personality.
“I think the interesting thing is I had always thought that there wasn't a place for me as a black kid in the game of hockey,” Fitzhugh tells En Fuego.
The Kraken are bringing NHL hockey to the Seattle area, a place certainly replete with fervent sports fans and a town that last celebrated the pinnacle of hockey joy in 2017 when the Seattle Metropolitans gave America its first taste of Stanley Cup glory.
The franchise that will welcome hockey fans to the arena is still getting situated. They are without a head coach and don’t seem to be in any rush to make that hire. For the moment, they are building out in a measured manner.
Part of the mission is not just to build a franchise that works and wins but one that is representative of the world in which we all live.
“When you have an opportunity, you're starting from scratch, you're building an organization, you're building a staff," Fitzhugh said. "Why not try and get as many different voices, experiences, viewpoints as you can for a more well-rounded office and a more well-rounded culture?”
Because the Kraken are a work in progress until the start of the 2021-2022 season, they have leaned heavily on Fitzgerald to not just be the voice of tomorrow but the persona of today.
He is been a key part of the welcoming committee as the team continues to put polish to the brand.
The team’s YouTube channel is nearly the Fitz show with AMAs, interviews, and a pre-draft show greeting would-be fans.
In time he will be the eyes for fans listening to the game at home or on the go. It will be his voice that shapes the experience, so it’s a perfect way to introduce the franchise, with a hockey expert whose passion for the game is infectious.
A Game For Every Fan
His job at the moment is to make new fans feel welcome to the budding organization. Many of these fans will not be the traditional hockey demographic.
This is by design. The Kraken are making a concerted effort to diversify from within and see the results play out in the stands, a wonderful tapestry of cultures coming together to watch the Kraken skate.
“Hockey is historically and still to this day primarily run and consumed by white men,” Fitzhugh explained. “And as a kid growing up, I didn't have a lot of those positive black influences in the game of hockey that I could look up to.
“And actually, I became more than a casual fan. About nine years old, I went and watched the Red Wings-Oilers game, and at the time Edmonton had two Black players, Mike Grier and Georges Laraque.”
A young boy who grew up a huge baseball fan, listening to Ernie Harwell every summer, expereinced wonderment for a sport that didn’t represent his life. He didn’t see himself on the ice.
And it wasn’t until this magical day that he flipped on the TV that his life changed forever. “And that was huge for me because it let me know that there was a place for me in the game of hockey.”
It’s not lost on Fitzhugh that he can be that change for another little boy or girl who can now watch and listen to the game being called, look to their parents and exclaim that, yeah, I’d like to do that when I get older.
Calling hockey from the booth takes hard work and perseverance but the very notion of its possibility opens so many doors. It empowers the next generation to believe they can attain that much more.
“I want to be known as someone who was a good broadcaster and who did his job well, obviously. But I think I also, more importantly, want to be known as somebody who tried to do whatever they could to get more minorities, more young black kids from Detroit like myself, more women, just people who are members of those historically underrepresented communities, I want them to know that there's a place for them in this game.”
The Kraken aren’t just saying nice things about diversity, they are proving it’s part of their DNA. According to the team broadcaster, the goal is to have at least 45% of the organization made up of females and 25% dedicated to BIPOC staff.
“We want an organization that looks like where we see this game going,” he said.
Putting In Work
Fitzhugh speaks with effortless enthusiasm. I’m pretty confident I could stand to hear him call the final outs of a 22-inning snoozefest in the dog days of September let alone a fast-paced clash on ice.
His calls are like the auditory equivalent of watching someone cork champagne. He delivers everything you need but so wonderfully captures the pace and anticipation that normally can only be found when you watch this sport live.
It’s something cultivated over the years as he absorbs any broadcaster that comes his way. And for his current position, he is adamant that he listen to every NHL broadcaster at least twice a season to really see what others are doing with the profession.
Getting to the show wasn’t a given. He certainly questioned his decisions and whether it was time to pivot and look for another line of work.
Fitzhugh recounts the moment he discovered he was going to the NHL. A moment that he reacted to by saying over and over again that he was going to NHL. The repetition somehow acting like a verbal pinch to guarantee the phone call he just received wasn’t a dream.
He says that he felt a wave of relief in the moment. “Not relief, as in, oh, man, the process is over,” he explained.
“But you look back at your journey and you look back at where you've come from through your career, and you start to think about all those times when you almost gave up and start to think about when I was living in Chicago making $27,000 before taxes and my lights got shut off again. Is it worth it? Is this continuing to be worth it? And you think about those long bus trips and those long days and long nights and you're like, man, is this really worth it? Like, should I just give this up now?”
He saw it through until the dream dissolved into the reality that he would be moving to Seattle, packing up his things during a pandemic and making the trek to a new life.
It’s over 2,000 miles and a couple decades from where it started. Fitzhugh was raised by his mother on the northwest side of Detroit where he became a fan thanks to living in a hockey town.
He would leave for Bowling Green University with the need to get into the sports booth. Auspiciously and because he wanted airtime, he decided to use his knowledge of hockey to lend his voice to that sport over football and basketball.
After calling a game against Alaska Fairbanks, the future was clear to the 18-year-old. He immediately called his mother and relayed that he was going to the NHL.
"I remember calling her and saying, 'This game went fantastic and I'm now putting all my eggs into the hockey basket. We're going to the NHL,'" Fitzhugh told the Detroit News last summer. "She kind of chuckled and said, 'All right, well, you can do it. Let's see if we can get you there.'"
After college, he found himself calling games for the Youngstown Phantoms in the United States Hockey League and for the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL.
“It's been kind of surreal, this process, getting to talk to some of these broadcasters now that I'm in the NHL and they're saying things like, ‘Oh, man, welcome to the league. We're so excited to have you here,’” Fitzhugh said with a smile. “And I'm countering with, ‘Man, I've been listening to you for the last ten years, and this is huge for me.”
Continuing The Dream
They never tell you that things get a bit chaotic when you’ve made it. The moment that Fitzhugh and his fiancée planned to move coincided with another great opportunity.
The broadcaster was tabbed to be the voice of the audiobook "Willie: The Game-Changing Story of the NHL's First Black Player.”
The first Black team broadcaster was narrating the life story of the first Black NHL player. And it came during a pandemic while he packed up his life and moved across the country.
They had to get the audiobook recorded in just under a week. So, while his soon-to-be wife got things together for the move, Fitzhugh was spending five-plus hours recording an audiobook.
“It was a huge honor to be able to lend my voice and telling his story,” he admits.
Willie O’Ree’s remarkable life is now inextricably intertwined with Fitzhugh’s amazing story. And in time the Kraken’s broadcaster’s life will affect others who come behind him. That’s the plan. That’s the hope.
“I have the opportunity to be in a position where kids who are aspiring to be broadcasters or media people or just hockey fans, you know, it's an honor to be able to say that now I can be what I never had,” he said.
“I can be that person that people can look up to and say, hey, if he can do it, I can do it. And I think, you know, no one really ever sets out to be a trailblazer, so to speak, or to be the first. But if you do find yourself in that position, I think you owe it to not only the community, not only to that next generation, but I think more importantly, you owe it to yourself to take that role head on and run with it.”