December 31, 2010

Reprint | George Matthews: True Blue

A busy holiday schedule has precluded me from updating the site with fresh content. Until things settle down a bit, I'll leave you with this classic piece that originally appeared on Full Mental Jackets last season. It remains one of the most popular articles to ever appear on this site. Happy New Year everyone! ~Greg

As George Matthews tells it, he only occasionally dreamt of being an NHL broadcaster. The 57 year old native of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, a town of 15,000 residents on the eastern coast of Canada, is entering his 10th year as the radio play-by-play voice of the Columbus Blue Jackets. After spending a quarter of a century as a part-timer in the minor leagues of hockey broadcasting, and doing it mostly for the fun of it, he thought he already was living a dream.

Matthews recalls that on occasion, during the long four hour drives he made across eastern Canada in the wee hours of the morning as he returned from calling a junior league game, he allowed himself to fantasize about what it would be like to call a hockey game in the NHL. But those fantasies were quickly doused with the cold reality that awaited him at the end of his trek – two to three hours of sleep followed by a full day of teaching seventh, eighth and ninth graders at a local middle school. “But, I mean, I’m the only guy from my province to ever call a game in the NHL,” he says. “No one had ever done it from my neck of the woods.” So that’s all it really was to Matthews. A fantasy. A way to kill time on the mind-numbing drives through the Canadian darkness to and from the next hockey rink.

“A lot of people think that teaching middle-schoolers might be the graveyard shift of teaching,” says Matthews. “And probably it is. But if you enjoy it, then it isn’t. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the energy level of the kids I had. I enjoyed the interaction.”

Matthews talks a lot about passion. It’s part of his DNA. It’s his modus operandi. And if there is only one word to describe how George Matthews calls a hockey game, it is "passionately". Every loose puck, every hit along the boards, every deke and every “glove save made”, they all get the same treatment – like it’s the last minute of the third period, all tied up, in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Matthews gives his listeners a mental workout.

“Broadcasting hockey is something that I just love to do. I love the excitement. And I love entertaining the fans. To me it's all about around the crease, and about the excitement and potential of a goal. “

Matthews gets so excited over goals that if you’re not paying attention you might find it difficult to discern whether it was the Blue Jackets or the opposing team that just scored. And he makes no apologies for that. “The goal is so big in the NHL. There's not many of them. There’s only four or five of them in the game, okay?” he pleads.  From start to finish, a typical Matthews broadcast packs more energy than a case of Red Bull. But when the biscuit goes in the basket for Columbus, you can literally feel Matthews jump out of his seat as he generates a seemingly inhuman decibel level, bellowing “Bluuuuuuuuuuuuue Jackets!!!”, or unleashing one of his signature rhymes, such as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash! RICK NASH!

And once in his presence, it doesn’t take long to figure out that there isn’t anything fake about it. His enthusiasm is genuine to the core.  And he feels a responsibility to include it in his broadcasts.

“It's an old-style of broadcasting," says Matthews. "It's a little bit different than perhaps what some of the younger guys do today. I'm a guy that wants to name every player that touches the puck. I want to keep you in tune with whoever's got the puck. I might not tell you the way in which a puck was given up. I might just say there's a turnover. It's so fast and there are so many turnovers in just 20 seconds, you just have to believe what I'm saying. I try to include the energy and I try to be accurate.”

He also takes great pride in mixing up the phrases he uses to describe the action during a broadcast in order to avoid being repetitive.  So, as part of his game day preparation, in addition to his usual study of the opponent’s lineup and tendencies, Matthews reviews his “terminology notebook,” a journal he has compiled that contains over 2000 words and phrases that he uses to describe certain things that happen in a hockey game. “It might be a giveaway, taken away, turned over, errant, astray, doesn't click, doesn't materialize, cut off, broken up, picked off, intercepted, incomplete, doesn't hit the intended receiver, no one on the receiving end of that one.” Matthews rattles them off with ease and that signature old-school delivery. “There are fifteen terms right there,” he says with perfect accuracy. “That's the neat thing about radio. You don't just describe who's got the puck, but you have to set the table and describe things differently all the time. So at the end of the night, my energy is gone.”

Humility is another character trait that Matthews obviously buys into. “I've called somewhere between 2000 and 2500 games,” Matthews says matter-of-factly. “I've never called a perfect game, and I never will. Whether its radio or TV, there's too much happening in three hours of coast-to-coast action to get it right 100% right every time. There's the odd mistake. You try to keep it to a minimum.”

Most of those 2000+ games were racked up for a small local radio station, CJRW-AM 1240 in Summerside. After playing two years of college hockey at the University of Prince Edward Island, he came to the realization that he wasn’t good enough to play at the pro level – there’s not much of a market for 5-foot-5 goalies in the pro game – so he decided to concentrate on earning his degree and embark on a teaching career. He got married to his wife, Debbie, and decided that he needed to do something to “help pay some bills.” He approached CJRW and, parlaying his notoriety as a college player, asked if they might have an opening as a color analyst for their coverage of local junior hockey games. “I thought I might dabble in it,” Matthews remembers, “and if I could make a little money doing that, even better.” When he graduated three years later he was determined to focus on his career as a teacher. He figured his broadcasting career was over and resigned from CJRW. After a month, the radio station called him and asked him to consider coming back on a part-time basis. “I went from there to be their longest serving part-time broadcaster. I worked there 25 years. I covered everything from junior hockey to college hockey and the American Hockey League,” Matthews recalls.

Although it was the need to make an extra buck that prompted him to get into broadcasting, it really wasn’t all that lucrative. “I worked for $10 a game. I worked for $5 a game. I worked for free because the radio station was in trouble and they needed as much money generated from the hockey broadcast as possible,” recalls Matthews. “I worked for a year for nothing to help them out, because for me it wasn't about the money. It was about the joy of being able to do what you want to do.” For most of 25 years, Matthews worked five days a week as a teacher and called three games a week for CJRW.

“It would be nothing for me to get up at six o'clock in the morning, go to my teaching location which was an hour away, take that drive, begin teaching at nine o'clock in the morning, and then try to find another teacher to take my last class of the day, which was often difficult to do. And then I might have to drive up to four hours to get to a broadcast location at 6:30 in the evening, broadcast a game at 7:30, finish the game around 10:30 and drive until three or four o'clock in the morning to get home. I would get a couple hours of sleep and then be right back at school teaching in the morning. “

Matthews stops to reflect at what he just described, and seems himself to be in a bit of awe.

“Now, if somebody had told me that I had to do that, you know what I would have told him. But we all have a passion in our lives for doing something. Broadcasting hockey is my passion.”

And so, for 25 years, George Matthews already considered himself a lucky man.  “I really enjoyed teaching,” Matthews says, “but if I had a bad teaching day -- there weren't many – I would think, ‘well, there’s a broadcast tomorrow night.’ Or, ‘this weekend I'm looking forward to the two AHL games we are going to broadcast.’ So preparing for the games was a diversion for me. If things weren’t going well for me in the classroom, rather than me taking things back to the classroom with a negative attitude the next day, I would go back in with a fresh attitude. So it was a real plus for me to have that outlet.”

Matthews has such a warm and engaging presence. One can easily imagine that as much as he loved teaching and interacting with his students, the feeling must have been mutual. And as it turned out it was a former student that had become an NHL scout who prompted him to apply for his first NHL broadcasting job with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1996. Matthews submitted his audition tape almost reluctantly. “That's on the West Coast and I'm on the East Coast,” Matthews remembers. “I'm 3000 miles away. I’m married. I never even told my wife I sent the tape. I didn't think I would get a reaction from them.”

But the Ducks liked the tape and Matthews became one of four finalists. “They ended up going with their AHL guy who had been in their system for awhile,” says Matthews, “and I was actually relieved. I was happy. I was thrilled that I didn’t get the job. My blood pressure was skyrocketing, thinking that I was going to have to move to the west coast, not knowing anybody out there and all that. So about a month later, I was getting ready to do college and junior hockey again, and then all of a sudden it hit me. I'm saying to myself, ‘Wow! Was I stupid to be that close to an NHL job and be so excited about not getting it!”

Only one year later, Matthews would get another chance, this time with the Philadelphia Flyers. Again he made it to the final four, but again it was not meant to be. Matthews took it all in stride. “I wasn’t a full-time broadcaster. I was a part-time guy doing three games a week. And I also had another career going. My reference list was not as strong as some of the guys who do it full-time. Doug McLean, who was a friend of mine from Summerside, said, ‘George, you're never going to get an NHL job because you are never going to send your tape out.’ And that was accurate,” Matthews admits.

It was McLean who would give him his first crack in the big leagues when he brought Matthews with him to Columbus to become the radio play-by-play voice of the expansion Blue Jackets for their inaugural season in 2000.

“I'll never forget the first NHL game I ever did. I'm sitting with Bill Davidge. It's in Pittsburgh. There's Jagr. There’s Lemieux. There’s Straka. I looked at Bill and I said, ‘Man, this is pretty neat, isn’t it?’ He was smiling; his dimples were showing. And all of a sudden McLean walks in. He said, ‘Boys you look pretty calm. This is a pretty historic night. This is the first ever game of Blue Jackets hockey.’ I can't quote the exact words that he used because I’m sure you have limits on what you can print, but he said, ‘This is not the AHL, this is not college hockey or junior hockey. This is the NHL. Don't screw it up!’ I looked over my shoulder and laughed and then I said to Billy, ‘Well if this is the only NHL game I ever get to call at least I got to call one game.”

After spending 25 years in the minor leagues, Matthews' big break ended up being in a city that was trying hard to shed its image as a minor league sports town. It was a perfect fit. Matthews identifies with Columbus and it identifies with him. He's a brother from another mother. And, says Matthews, Columbus feels like home. "When I am in Columbus, or other parts of Ohio, I just feel like I'm in Canada. Because it's grassroots people, hard-working people, blue-collar people. And here in Columbus, just like back home, people say hi to you, they smile, they shake your hand.”

Last season, another unrealistic dream came true for Matthews, calling an NHL playoff game when the Blue Jackets met the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings in the first round. It was the culmination of over 35 years of dedication to his craft, of long hours with little or no pay, of traveling on his own dime for hours to chase his passion. And then, almost as soon as the Blue Jackets playoff run was over, things took an unexpected turn.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that the Blue Jackets brass might clean house in both the TV and radio broadcasting booths. What happened next, by all accounts, was that the team's front office, the radio network and the Dispatch were flooded with letters, emails and voicemails in support of Matthews and Davidge. The Dispatch printed several of them in the Letters to the Editor section. Fans threatened mutiny if they were not retained.

When asked what this outpouring of support meant to him personally, Matthews finds himself at a rare loss for words. “I don’t want to get emotional about this . . . . . , but it’s something that . . .. .”  He pauses, and the look in his eyes speaks with as much passion as any goal call he has ever made.  "It’s something that I will carry with me for a long time,” he confides. "A long, long time.” When you pour your heart and soul into something for as long as Matthews has done it, 35 years and counting, it's nice to know that people appreciate it. That they care. And Matthews clearly feels that. A smile reappears on his face.  It hints at validation.

The crisis was averted and both Matthews and Davidge were retained for the 2009-2010 season, but not without some collateral damage. Davidge was moved to the TV side of things to work as a color analyst with Jeff Rimer. Matthews took on former Syracuse Crunch play-by-play announcer Bob McElligott as his new partner in the radio booth. Matthews says it has been an adjustment. He and Billy were like "ham and eggs." But he has the utmost respect for McElligott, whom he calls a true professional, and says that he is pleased with the chemistry the two are developing already.

Not everyone was in Matthews’ corner during the contract negotiations. Oddly enough, his detractors cite as criticism some of the very qualities that have won him so many fans amongst the flag-carrying Blue Jacket faithful – the hectic, fast-paced, hyper-drive style, the rhymes, the bluster. They call it fluff and say they want more substance. Matthews acknowledges that his approach is “old school”, and that perhaps it doesn’t play as well to a younger audience nurtured on television, where everything unfolds visually. He admits that he tries to describe the game so that it can be viewed in the “theater of the mind,” like the radio guys used to do it, back in the days before regional sports networks began broadcasting an entire season of games on television. Like Danny Gallivan did it for the Montreal Canadians when Matthews was growing up.

He recalls an experience he shared in the booth one night with Bill Davidge to illustrate his approach:

“One season, I think it might have been year two or three, we had a young girl by the name of Chelsea Dye. She still listens. She emailed the show and said she was sight-impaired. And she had a seeing-eye dog. And she said that she listened to the games on the radio because of the description. She could see the games in her mind as compared to perhaps TV, which is more analysis of what's happening because the video is already there. So she would listen to radio, and she decided that she would like to come into a game one night. So I checked with our director of broadcasting and I asked if there was a way we could bring her up in the broadcast booth, and let her sort of feel what's going on. I thought maybe she could listen to me and listen to Bill and maybe feel a little bit closer to what we're doing.”

“So she came up with her seeing-eye dog. I'm sitting in the chair and all of a sudden the play is going left to right, and there is great action around one of the goals. And I think it might have been Denis in goal, and I’m saying, ‘Scramble out in front! Denis is down! Where is it?’ And I'm out of my chair. I look over to my left and she's out of her chair. And she is shaking, but she can’t see what is going on. And I look at her and I look at Bill and I was like, ‘Oh my.’ We get further into the game, and a minute or so later there's more action in front of Denis. ‘There’s a shot! Pad save made! Rebound out front!" I look over and she's doing the same thing again. She's up and she is shaking again. And I said to myself, ‘My goodness. Each and every broadcast, we are broadcasting to the blind. We help them ‘see’ what's going on in their mind.’ And in 25 years I had never really thought of it that way. But that's what we were doing.”

One of the most entertaining aspects of a Matthews’ broadcast is the trademark rhymes – Count the cash! Rick Nash! . . . Mason’s been a whopper of a stopper here tonight! . . . Return to sender! What a tender!  The list is long. It’s all part of Matthews’ commitment to bring as much entertainment value as possible to what he does. His favorite line, and the one that has become his signature phrase is: Holy Moly! What a goalie! And it comes as no real surprise that there is a reason it is his favorite line, a reason that taps into something else he was passionate about -- his relationship with his late father.

“I came up with that one when I returned from my father's funeral. I had never used it in Columbus or anywhere else. I was back home talking with some people about hockey, and I was talking about what a fantastic job LeClaire, or maybe it was Denis, was doing, and I said, ‘Holy Moly! What a goalie!’ and everybody liked it. It's become my signature line and I'll take it with me whenever I leave Columbus."

After acknowledging that the ride will not last forever, Matthews pauses as he contemplates further what he has just said.  But again, the smile creeps back onto his face.  It's a smile that says he is having the time of his life, even the part where he finds himself sitting in front of a part-time writer with a digital recorder who wants him to talk at length about hockey, and teaching and unknowingly chasing a dream because he was just doing what he loved to do. It’s a smile that says this is still more fun than driving eight hours across the deserted roads of Eastern Canada to and from a hockey arena in the middle of the night.  It's a smile that says there is not enough time in the day to long for what might be, and risk missing the here and now.

“I love Columbus,” he says. "And when my run comes to an end here I'm going to miss this city and its people. They've been terrific to me, and have supported me and what I do here. And I will be a Blue Jackets fan forever.”

Patience is a virtue, but after 25 years even George Matthews didn’t think that there would ever be a place in the NHL for a 5-foot-5 net-minder like himself. Holy Moly! What a goalie!  Indeed.

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