Buccigross: Life after hockey, and in front of the mic

Updated: June 28, 2005, 9:49 AM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

Last week, I drove down to Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. Quinnipiac is a beautiful university with a Division I NCAA hockey program … and a unique NHL program.

I was asked to speak to a group of retired or soon-to-be-retired NHL players who were at Quinnipiac for a week-long camp to learn some of the introductory aspects of sports broadcasting and some basic journalism practices. Those in attendance were Glenn Anderson, Dave Maley, Bill Ranford, Garry Valk, Bob McGill, Paul Harrison, Jason York and Phil Bourque.

The program is funded by the NHL and NHLPA. Yes, during this year's work stoppage the two sides didn't disagree on everything. They agreed that funding a program to help players adjust from athlete to worker is worth pursuing and preserving.

Let's be honest, while hard working and willing, many NHL players do not have the education background to deal with life after hockey. Most don't have college degrees, and unless they are able to earn and save millions, they are going to have to get a job that requires a skill and a commitment. Some are natural salesmen. Some are natural businessmen and can thrive in that arena. But that takes a special person who has the contacts, capital, no fear of risk, and the willingness to commit long hours. Most of us prefer a job that enables us to live as much life as possible. Hockey broadcaster is that ideal job for a lot of retired hockey players. It can pay well, can be very stable, still has you at the rink, and you still get summers off. The line is long and moves very slowly for NHL analyst jobs.

Barry Melrose could have had more than one NHL head coaching job while at ESPN, but they were not desirable enough to leave the money and job security ESPN provides.

So, the eight men above came to Quinnipiac to see if broadcasting might be for them. They wrote, they reported, they interviewed. And they listened to me for about 20 minutes.

I rattled off my brief broadcasting résumé: Five years on Cape Cod, Mass., two in Providence, six months of bohemian commune living with Al Roker, then Rhode Island, and now approaching nine at the Worldwide Leader in televised poker and men carrying rocks in the shape of Africa. I told them my career really started when I was 11 and my parents gave me their old tape recorder. I turned the sound down on the TV and did play by play hockey games on USA Network here in the U.S. I played disc jockey, spinning my sister's vast 45 collection. "Up next, Andrew Gold and 'Lonely Boy.' " Then I picked a small college (Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Tell them Butchy sent you) that had a campus TV station, radio station (10 watts!), a school newspaper and all the Frosted Flakes I could eat in the cafeteria. Then I told the players at Quinnipiac this:

1. Forget you were a hockey player and act like a worker. This is your life now and treat it as if you were a kid in juniors trying to prove yourself. Darren Pang did that and is now one of the best hockey broadcasters/journalists in North America. Panger breaks stories, writes on the game on ESPN.com and broadcasts with a passion and understanding of the game. He was a finalist for Rookie of the Year in the NHL and is now coaching youth hockey in the Chicago area and directing how the program should be run.

Darren took that tape recorder into a rink and did play-by-play in the last row. He asked for advice, got committed, got organized, and with a long life in the game will someday be in the Hockey Hall of Fame's media wing. He is that good and that committed. A lot of journalists and broadcasters are lazy and just do enough to get by. Panger always has his A effort and most nights has his A game. Ray Ferraro has similar attributes to Panger.

Organized, watches the games, loves the game, and has the perfect amount of ham in him to project through the screen without being phony. Ten years from now, Ray will look at his tapes and say, "Boy, I was horrible." That's how good I think he will be. Melrose, whether you love him or hate him, is a natural. That hair, those teeth, those suits, that laugh. He busts through the TV. You might not like what he says, but he is unforgettable and TV executives LOVE unforgettable. Most of us are not naturals. We have to work at it.

2. When you ask a question, ask a question. Interviewing is a science and an art. The more simple, the better. How, what or why is the best way to ask a question. "Mario, why is the power play struggling?" "Peter, how do you plan to approach life as a New York Ranger?" "Ilya, what is your approach to defense?" Don't make a statement and don't try to prove how smart you are. Tell viewers why something is happening and yes, relate to something you experienced or saw as a player. I like that. But, when interviewing, ask like you don't know. The ex-player has an advantage because he knows what's really important. Ask the right question and ask it correctly.

3. Give me some energy. Television takes life and diminishes it. Like an actor on Broadway, you have to project, enunciate, smile and bust through that screen. That is difficult for some Canadian born-and-bred players. They are a little more reserved and low key. That won't usually work on TV unless you are a reporter. You got to bust through that screen or speaker. There are too many options on satellite TV and satellite radio. Barry Melrose is actually a bit shy and reserved off air. Very Canadian. On air, he is very American. Don Cherry is very popular in Canada because off air he is Canadian and on air he is American. I hate that fake announcer shtick, and since high energy doesn't come natural to me, I've learned to bring it up a notch when the red light comes on without sounding like an often-lampooned Triple A baseball announcer's voice. 4. Have something to say. It is not as easy as it looks. People assume Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick will be media superstars. Maybe they will. Maybe they won't.

Keith Jones was great with the media. Funny, quick and smart. He came to ESPN when he knew his knee would not allow him to play anymore to begin what everyone thought would be a natural television transformation. Well, the first period ends on Keith's first TV job and they come to the studio with me and Keith, and I say, "Well, Keith, how about that first period?" He has 20 seconds to be smart, maybe funny, and concise. He's not in his jock strap, sweating and shooting the spit with some writers. He is in a suit, wearing makeup and bright lights are all around him, and I'm staring at him with my enormous head. After Keith's forgettable analysis, we went to a commercial. I look over and Keith is sweating like Brett Hull after a 5K road race chewing on a piping hot baked ham. Keith looks at me and says, "This is a lot harder than if looks." Keith realized right away that this was a whole new ballgame, that you have to coach yourself to be forceful and relaxed, to have to have something to say, and say it with ease. Today, if I was starting an NHL studio show, Keith Jones would be one of my first hires as a studio analyst or game analyst. He figured out that TV is not a big deal. Don't take it so seriously, because viewers don't want to see someone uncomfortable. But, they want you to say something. Prepare, read, rehearse, and then project like it's the first time you ever thought of it.

Anderson, Maley, Ranford, Valk, McGill, Harrison, York and Bourque all seemed to get this right away. Will they apply it and work at it and get it? From what I saw they were coachable and hungry to learn. But, they have to do it every day. The competition will be fierce as more and more players retire. If they apply the above principles with a commitment and courage to never give up, they will be content and probably find work.

And that goes for Hull and Roenick as well. If they really want to be broadcasters, they need to apply the above principles. Like a player, if you want to be great, you need talent, smarts, relaxation, reps, effort and a will to win. Hull and Roenick are Hall of Fame players. But, if they think they can walk right in and be Hall of Fame broadcasters, they are mistaken. The eight men who attended the program at Quinnipiac are already a stride ahead.

The Mailbag

John,
You said, "Personally, I don't care where Crosby winds up. I will watch every game he plays anyway." Do you know something I don't? I can't even find out for sure if Center Ice is something the league will be able to continue to do financially. Do you actually think there will be a way for a fan in Alaska to watch NHL games if they do resume in the Fall of 2005? Please be honest.

What Chris LeDoux was to the Western Underground...So was John Buccigross to NHL Tonight!

Mark Steele
Fairbanks, Alaska

I e-mailed the NHL your concern, Mark, and they assured me there will be an NHL Center Ice Package next year.

John,
What's the argument against the "reintroduction of tag-up offsides"? I don't remember why it was pulled in the first place -- do you?

I'll give today's rule one thing -- it's good for beer breaks while at a game but that's about it. Is this really worthy of a debate as big as Hagar vs. Roth? Why not go back?

Keith Holleman
San Jose, Calif.

The NHL wanted its defenseman to handle the puck more and perhaps develop better skills. My argument against tag-up offside has always been, Hal Gill will not turn into Nicklas Lidstrom no matter what you do. And all that usually happened was that play would just stand still, while everyone waited for skaters to clear the zone, and the defenseman would just chip it off the glass anyway. USA Hockey recently announced it was staying with the no-tag-up offside. While at first I didn't like the rule change to no-tag-up by USA Hockey, and still wonder if it puts kids in a vulnerable position to get slammed, it does train kids to hold the puck, skate backward with it, and go D-D once in a while.

The debate is not quite Roth vs. Hagar, but more like Hagar vs. Cherone.

Hey Bucci,
With Neely's recent induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, it got me thinking about Pavel Bure, who is in somewhat of a similar position. A great player who could have been one of the all-time greats if not for injuries and having to retire because of them. The numbers are actually better than Neely's by a little bit (437-342-779 in 702 games and 35-35-70 in 64 playoff games) but he was not the overall package that Neely was. I think he gets in eventually because of pretty solid numbers and in my opinion he was THE premier goal scorer in the NHL when he stayed healthy with three years of leading the league in goals, another year in the top five in goals ('92-'93) and a top three ('97-'98). He was also the only player who seemed to continue to score at will even as the league stopped doing so (putting up 58 and 59 in '99-'00 and '00-'01 respectively). Plus, was there anyone more exciting on a breakaway? Anyways, I've rambled on a bit much. What is your take on Bure and the HHOF?

Nick Lamb Irvine, Calif.

My instinct on Pavel Bure in the Hall of Fame is yes. You mentioned the massive numbers he accumulated. He was immensely popular in his early Vancouver days. He tore his ACL in November 1995, came back to score 50 goals and then was traded to Florida which nearly rendered him irrelevant despite, as you mentioned, scoring goals when no one else could. He was cool toward the media, but my autograph-seeking friends say he was one of their favorites. That's more important to me. He was not a leader of men, but he appeared to be always in great shape and played with great emotion. He obviously loved to score goals. The knocks against him was a disregard for defense, a holdout while under contract, alleged Russian mob ties, and a mean independent streak which can be destructive in a sport like hockey. Talent and numbers say yes. But, the other stuff will likely keep Bure out for a while. It's a shame, too, because it's so easy to have basic manners. And it's so empowering and fun to bond with a locker room of athletes in search for a common goal. But, maybe that's the deal with Pure. He loved scoring goals more than he loved winning.

Hey John,
Just read your latest article on Sidney Crosby and noted that, in suggesting a name for Mr. Paulsen's coming daughter, you cited Angela Ruggiero as the greatest American defensemen in USA Women's hockey history. I went to high school with Angela, who was a year below me. Doubtless that many of the Varsity Women's Hockey Team had her to thank for a large percentage of their attendees at home games. I sat in the freezing cold (the arena is unheated) for a number of games in the hopes of catching her going end-to-end -- what a sight. Here's hoping for a season full of end-to-end rushes in 2005-2006.

Best,
Tom
New York, N.Y.

Hi John,
With all the talk about changing the rules to make the game flow more, I am amazed to hear people still suggesting making shootouts part of the game. In my opinion, ending a game in a shootout will ruin all the intensity involved in hockey, especially in the playoffs. What is more exciting than watching a Stanley Cup Playoffs game go into overtime. Shootouts are too trivial to be able to determine who wins a game. If the NHL does introduce shootouts, it will be ruining the best thing it has going for it, overtime hockey.

Andrew
New Jersey

As much as we know now, shootouts will only be used in the regular season.

Bucci,
Now that the Board of Governors has approved the sale of the Ducks, can we (hopefully) expect a name change?? I'm sure Disney has "Mighty Ducks" copyrighted, so wouldn't the new owners HAVE to change it?

Bill Wyce
Philadelphia

I'm sure the name could have been passed on as part of the purchase price, but I'm pretty confident Brian Burke would not have taken the job to run a hockey team if its name was Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. My inside Anaheim sources tell me Brian Burke would only take the job if the Ducks name was changed to one of the following: 1) The Fighting Irish of Anaheim 2) Bono 3) The Anaheim Edge 4) The Van Anaheims.

Hey John,
I'm a little concerned about the future of Carter and Richards with the Flyers. If they end up becoming free agents or re-entering the draft, will the Flyers at least get a chance to sign them before that happens? What do you think the probability is that the Flyers might lose these guys?

Thanks,
Zac

Philadelphia is among the Top 3 U.S. based hockey markets in the NHL. I don't know why any player wouldn't want to play there. The Flyers sell out, pay well, and Atlantic City is driving distance away. The Flyers will probably buy out John LeClair and Tony Amonte. Sean Burke is probably going to retire. After the 20% or so rollback, Keith Primeau will make about 3.2 million. The Flyers shouldn't have cap issues and would outbid anyone for young talent anyway.

John,
I love your column and I always find that you are a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for hockey fans everywhere. But … You are wrong to want larger nets in the NHL and you always will be wrong. Change any other rule, (including smaller goalie equipment) but do not make the nets bigger. Making the nets bigger only increases the quantity of goals, not the quality. Has basketball ever made its nets bigger? No, it just made certain types of defenses illegal. Has baseball ever made the bat or the ball bigger? No, it just had umpires call smaller strike zones. Has football ever made the end zone bigger? No, it just installs offensive minded rules. The number one priority for hockey should be to eliminate clutching and grabbing and make some rule changes to benefit offenses. This will increase quality of goals. No one wants to see the same crappy 2-1 games we have been seeing; only now they are4-3 games because of the larger nets. Igenerally agree with most of your hockey ideas John but you got to get this larger net stuff out of your head. Keep up the good work,
Mike Ellerman

Those are fair and well-stated arguments against larger nets, Mike. But, as humans get bigger every century, and the way goalies no longer have a fear factor, and the way nearly every NHL player moves so well to cut down on good scoring chances, I think a higher percentage of those scoring chances need to go in to inspire more goal-scoring celebrations for players and fans and to have more comeback victories. But, the most important factor for a better NHL game is for the players to have fun. Players don't look like they are having fun. If the players are having fun, fans and viewers have fun.

John,
That one-armed hockey player is in fact a former Everett High hockey player named Daniel Salerno. I watched him play when I was growing up and played with his brother (I am from Everett and played at the same high school a few years later.) He was incredible to watch and a very good player, not a very good one-armed player, but a very good hockey player. Michael Walsh
Everett, Mass.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.

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