Prior to Game 5 of last spring’s Western Conference final between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, public address announcer Paul McCann greeted those in attendance at Bridgestone Arena by referring to the Predators’ home rink as the loudest in the National Hockey League, a not-so-subtle dig at the 15,320 rabid Jets fans who’d screamed their lungs out at Bell MTS Place during the third and fourth games of that series.
Seconds after that slight, Jay Richardson, the only PA announcer the Jets 2.0 have ever known, began hearing from people curious about how he was going to respond when the proceedings shifted back to Portage Avenue for Game 6.
“As tempting as it would have been to say something back, there’s no way we would ever do that,” Richardson says, seated in a Salter Street coffee shop, 16 hours after a 4-1 home win by the Jets over the Vegas Golden Knights, during which he took a moment in the first period to acknowledge Jets centre Bryan Little’s 800th NHL game, a milestone the sell-out crowd properly saluted with a 10-second standing ovation.
“Our thing is, we don’t have to be gimmicky or hold Winnipeggers’ hands during games, letting them know over the PA when the Jets are going on the power play or when play has been called for icing. Our fans are as savvy as you’re going to find anywhere in the NHL. So no, I would never try to draw attention to myself during a game. Since the day I started, the way I know if I’ve done my job correctly is if, by the end of the night, nobody noticed me at all.”
It’s 5 p.m. on a Tuesday. Two hours before the Jets are scheduled to take on the Golden Knights, a highly-anticipated affair that will mark the first time the two clubs have met since Vegas knocked Winnipeg out of the playoffs last May, Richardson is in his usual perch, five storeys above the downtown rink’s ice surface, poring through the opposing squads’ rosters. Obviously, names of Jets’ stars such as Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck roll off the tongue for the married father of four as easily as his coffee order (“just black, thanks”), but tonight he has a question about Valentin Zykov, a winger the Golden Knights acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in late December.
“I’m pretty sure it’s Zee-kov versus Zy-kov, but as for his first name, I still need to check if it’s Valen-tin or Valen-teen,” he says, citing YouTube as a valuable resource for any queries he has in that regard, especially recorded interviews when a skater is asked to pronounce his own name. (Even better: there’s a website, www.announcerhelp.com, independently maintained by the league’s public address announcers that offers tips how to pronounce individual players’ names for all 31 clubs.)
After grabbing a quick bite — it’s taco night in the press box — Richardson flips through a provided script to verify entries such as who’s performing tonight’s national anthems, in the event it’s not usual singer Stacey Nattrass, plus whether there are any pre-game events that require his attention, such as the team’s annual Hockey Fights Cancer ceremony or last season’s emotional, Humboldt Broncos tribute.
His microphone remains off until precisely 55 minutes before the opening faceoff, he explains, at which point he’ll clear his throat — he keeps “a tubful” of lozenges nearby, in case he’s feeling under the weather — and formally welcome any early birds to this evening’s contest.
“For the next half hour or so, (in-game co-hosts) Brody (Jackson) and Drew (Kozub) will handle all the corporate stuff and game hype but if there’s a game sponsor or anything, they’ll throw it back to me,” he says, nattily dressed in a charcoal grey suit, navy blue shirt and matching blue tie.
“Around 10 minutes before the game is supposed to start, one of the NHL’s off-ice guys will deliver a sheet listing the official starting lineups,” he continues. “I’ll radio that information down to our control room, so they know what order I’m announcing the players in, so they can have the appropriate headshot and power ring ready to go. When the team’s about to take to the ice, I’ll say, ‘Here come your Winnipeg Jets,’ at which time the Rammstein song (Du Hast) kicks in. Paul (Duque), our music guy, will fade down the music as soon as I’m done with the starting lineups, at which point I’ll throw it over to Stacey. She’ll do her thing, and after that it’s game on.”
If Richardson has heard it once, he’s heard it a million times: getting paid to watch professional hockey night in, night out must rank right up there with chocolate consultant and private island caretaker on the list of the world’s most coveted vocations.
“Sure it’s a long day sometimes, especially if it’s a midweek game when I’ve already worked at my full-time, credit union job from eight to four,” he says. “But when people tell me being an NHL PA announcer sounds awesome, they’re absolutely right. It 100 per cent is.”
Richardson, 40, graduated from Major Pratt School in Russell, in June 1995. He relocated to Winnipeg two months later to study science at the University of Manitoba, a period in his life he describes as a “catastrophic failure.”
“I was really good in elementary, junior high and high school, to the degree I really didn’t have to try. The thing is, if you get to university and haven’t developed good study habits, you’re dead in the water. That was me to a T.”
Not sure what he wanted to do after dropping out of university, he moved to Steinbach where his father, a banker, and mother were already living. He was 19, he supposes, when he heard through the grapevine Steinbach AM radio station CHSM was hiring. Despite having no media experience, he landed a job producing commercials which, in time, led to various on-air responsibilities.
“At one point I was handling the overnight shift so, yeah, if you happened to be driving around Steinbach between midnight and 6 a.m. back in the day, I was definitely No. 1 in that time-slot,” he deadpans.
Richardson moved back to Winnipeg in 2001 after accepting a production assistant’s position with Power 97 FM. By 2003, he was hosting his own Saturday night show, which occasionally required him to perform his duties live from the Winnipeg Arena, the then-home of the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose.
“At the time, our parent station CJOB was the official voice of the Moose so my bosses thought it would be a good idea for me to set up in one corner of the rink, when the Moose were in town on weekends,” he says. “One night there was an on-ice promotion I was asked to help out with and through that, I got to know Kyle Balharry, who was in charge of game production for the team.”
Over the phone, Balharry, now the Jets’ senior director of game production, figures it was early 2004 when he first heard Richardson doing his thing on the radio.
“Back then I was a big fan of Andy Frost, another Winnipegger who happened to be the PA announcer for the Maple Leafs, and whose voice I always found to be so commanding and powerful,” Balharry says. “To me, the makings of a great PA announcer is someone who can get the crowd excited without screaming. It takes a special talent to do that and simply by hearing Jay on the radio, I could tell he had that quality, too.”
In August 2004, three months before the Moose relocated from Maroons Road to the brand new MTS Centre, auditions for a new Moose PA announcer were held at the Winnipeg Arena. Richardson recalls being asked to announce a series of mock goals and assists while a half dozen True North staffers sat “in this bare, empty space,” listening to him boom out the names of Moose players such as Jeff Heerema, Joe DiPenta and — OK, this would one would have been a piece of cake — Tim Smith.
“Before the audition Kyle told me they were looking for the voice of the building, which is something I took to heart,” Richardson says. “So I asked myself, what would a building sound like? The answer I came up with was, a little big bigger, a little bit clearer and a little bit deeper than I normally talk.”
A few weeks later, Balharry contacted Richardson stating, “Jay, we want to offer you the job.”
Richardson believes his exact reply was, “Kyle, I want to take that job.”
To those who, in the ensuing months and years congratulated him, only to turn around and say with their next breath something along the lines of, “That’s great but it’s too bad it’s just the AHL,” Richardson had a stock reply.
“I heard that a lot, how ‘it’s just the A,’ or ‘it’s just the Moose,’” he says, shaking his head. “To that I would respond that there was nobody in our organization who ever used the word ‘just’ when they were talking about the Moose. From the start, True North treated the team as if they were an NHL franchise. We were the only professional hockey team in Winnipeg — a true hockey town — and to us, that was a huge responsibility, one we all took very, very seriously.”
A lifelong sports nut, Richardson was as excited as everybody else around these parts when Mark Chipman, the chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, stepped to the podium on May 31, 2011 to announce the Atlanta Thrashers would be relocating to Manitoba’s capital for the start of the 2011-12 NHL campaign.
His excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when he began to wonder whether the powers-that-be at True North intended to turn the page, now that the NHL was back in town.
“There’s no other way to put it, that summer sucked,” he says with a laugh. “I understood they had to move two teams in the space of a few months — Atlanta to Winnipeg and the Moose to St. John’s — so obviously, PA announcer was pretty low on their priority list. At the same time, sitting around, not knowing what was happening, drove me right up the wall.”
In August 2011, when he still hadn’t heard a word, he sent a message to Balharry, the gist of which read how he understood the team had tough decisions to make, and if they decided to go in a different direction where he was concerned, he would totally understand. He ended his missive stressing if they were still interested in retaining his services, he would be over the moon. But if they weren’t, “hey, no hard feelings.”
“It’s true we could have started fresh, saying ‘OK, those were the AHL days but for the NHL, we’re going to go with a new PA announcer, a new music guy, everything,” Balharry says. “But as you probably know, from our owner on down, True North has always been about loyalty.
“There were a lot of people who spent a lot of years honing their craft in terms of the Moose, so instead of saying, ‘Let’s replace these folks,’ our feeling was, ‘These are the ones that got us here.’ So yeah, Jay was a slam-dunk. There was never any doubt in our minds he was coming with us to the Jets.”
Despite 15 years on the job, Richardson still finds it surreal to hear himself announcing tallies scored by the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. That said, there is one game that stands out above all others, on his list of career highlights.
“Without a doubt, when I got the chance to say, “Winnipeg Jets goal, scored by No. 13, Teemu Selanne,” not once but twice during the Heritage Classic’s alumni game at Investors Group Field a couple years ago, that was the pinnacle, right there. That night I think I tweeted out something like, ‘OK, I can now die happy.’”
Other noteworthy matches include the 2011-12 season-opener versus the Montreal Canadiens, the Anaheim Ducks’ first visit that same season “when the crowd booed every Duck except Teemu” and, more recently, the two games the Jets played versus the Florida Panthers in Finland, last November.
“I was given the opportunity to do PA for both games — maybe that’s why the guy from Florida isn’t talking to me right now — but luckily, I didn’t have to learn any Finnish, as it was a total NHL production from start to finish, not much different, really, than what you’d see or hear at Bell MTS Place,” says Richardson, the NHL’s pick to handle PA duties for the bulk of the World Cup of Hockey games staged in Toronto prior to the 2016-17 NHL season. (Another cherished memory is when a Jets season-ticket holder sent him a video of his mother, seated behind the penalty box, mimicking how Richardson painstakingly enunciates every last syllable of “Dustin… Byfuglien,” every time the towering Jets D-man ends up on the score sheet.)
“Oh my god, all the time,” he says with a chuckle, when asked how often he’s in a social setting and is asked to “do the voice.”
“I can’t, it would sound completely insane, because there isn’t that same rush of emotion I get when the Jets score a goal late in the game to take the lead or tie things up, I tell them. To me, it would be like sitting down to dinner with a comedian and ordering them to stand up and tell some jokes. The context is all wrong.”
Richardson, former host of The Big Show on TSN 1290 and, since November, the “evenings and weekends guy” at QX104, admits radio can be a fickle business, where quarterly ratings sometimes mean the difference between waking up to a paycheque or not.
That’s one of the main reasons he holds his role with the Jets so dear, he allows.
“No question about it, I’ve had a couple unfortunate ends to some jobs in radio that left me struggling to make ends meet. So just for my own ego or satisfaction or whatever word you want to use, having a job I can be proud of at the end of the day is pretty big,” he says, his voice cracking a touch.
“Right or wrong, the PA gig is a pretty big part of my identity and for sure, I’d be crushed if it ever went away. Because let’s face it: there’s not a lot of call for freelance PA announcers. It’s not like I can get a job standing on the corner, telling passers-by that Adam Lowry just took a two-minute minor for slashing.”
Besides his game duties, Richardson also hosts team events during the year, one of which led to an interesting exchange three years ago, when he was helping emcee a Jets charity fashion show at the convention centre.
“I was backstage, reading the guys’ names as they were preparing to head out on the catwalk, the same way I do at the rink. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Blake Wheeler staring at me, talking to one of the other players saying, ‘Uh, is that our guy?’ I was like, ‘Sorry to let you down but yep, this is what it looks like… this is the best I got. And if you don’t like how I say your name when you score, speak now or forever hold your peace.’”
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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