Cincinnati Cyclones broadcaster obliterating barriers with excellence

Cincinnati Cyclones radio broadcaster Everett Fitzhugh has a unique place in hockey. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

A few years ago, when he was broadcasting Bowling Green men’s hockey games, Everett Fitzhugh was preparing to call a road contest in Marquette, Mich. He was watching the morning practice when a man walked up to start a conversation.

“Are you with the team?” the man asked.

Fitzhugh explained that he was and his purpose.

“Don’t see a lot of you guys in hockey,” the man said.

Nonplussed, Fitzhugh said, “Well, you’d be surprised, there are more than you think.”

“I doubt it,” the man said before walking off, shaking his head.

Though he’s the only African-American play-by-play man in professional hockey, the voice of the Cincinnati Cyclones, blows off cliches like that. His Twitter description says, “Working in an industry I love, breaking down walls & defying stereotypes.”

Fitzhugh, 29, has torn down a few of them, not with physical force or stubbornness but with class, preparation and calm confidence.

“It’s one of those things where I’m an easy-going person, and I don’t take myself too seriously,” he said. “Some people have probably said something to me, and I’ve just let it roll off because I don’t have time for it. I’ve never gotten the whole, `You don’t belong here because you are black.’ Thank God, but I know people who have.”

But he also doesn’t see himself as any kind of pioneer. If it happens that he serves as an example to helping other potential minority broadcasters’ dreams, that would be wonderful. His goal is to be seen and accepted as a professional broadcaster dedicated to his craft and serving his listeners with consistent quality. The rest will take care of itself.

And that’s exactly how Fitzhugh is perceived by his peers.

“He’s just a joy to be around,” said Indy Fuel broadcaster Terry Ficorelli, the veteran of all ECHL play-by-play men. “He’s a real asset to our league. None of that other stuff seems to phase him at all, and he’s always very gregarious, extroverted, engaging, affable and personable. I always enjoy his company and conversation.”

Komets broadcaster Shane Albahrani said, “When I see the schedule before the season, I always look for the Cincinnati games first so I know when I’m going to get to hang out with Everett. We love to razz each other after games, and each of us loves to have the bragging rights until the next game. He’s a better dresser, but I’m better looking.”

To be honest, to those who work regularly with him Fitzhugh’s race is irrelevant. Last year, in only his second season with the Cyclones, he was voted the ECHL Media Service Award winner by his peers and media members.

“Just think about how he had to go into his career, thinking about what broadcaster does he want to be like,” said former Cyclones broadcaster Nick Brunker who preceded Fitzhugh. “I can’t put myself in his shoes. This isn’t about the race thing, it’s about him saying, `I love hockey and just want to call a good game.’ That’s what is so cool to be about him. He’s just Everett, and that’s cool. To see him succeed is outstanding.”

When he was growing up in Detroit, Fitzhugh knew he wanted a profession in sports but wasn’t sure which one. He became a hockey fan during the third grade because he attended a predominately white private school.

“All my classmates loved hockey, and of course you want to fit in and they were trading hockey cards every day,” he said. “You’re from Detroit so I watched a hockey game here or there, though I wasn’t a fan yet. I went home and turned on the TV and the Red Wings are playing Edmonton, and I saw Mike Grier and Georges Laraque playing for the Oilers, and two years later they bring in Anson Carter. That was it.”

His early heroes were ESPN’s Stuart Scott and the Tigers’ Ernie Harwell for play-by-play with nods to former Komet Kevin Weekes of the NHL Network, ESPN’s John Saunders and Hockey Night in Canada studio host David Amber.

And, yes, he’s heard a million questions asking why he didn’t choose basketball or football. He loves hockey, the sport, the players and those who work around the game. He’s known this was his calling since Jan. 28, 2007 when he worked his first Bowling Green game.

Since then, he’s worked to develop his own style, not as the first black broadcaster but as a broadcaster with a unique, very descriptive voice. He’s not subtle but often neither is the game he’s describing. If anything, sometimes he’s been accused of being a little too honest. He’s not overly editorial but will say honestly how the Cyclones are playing.

“I kind of pride myself on being a little bit different and not following the mold,” he said.

But being the only black face in the press box or one of the few in the arena every night can’t be forgotten. Fitzhugh said he’s worked with four African-American Cyclones during his three seasons.

“As much as I love this industry and this business, it can get discouraging sometimes when every rink you go to, and in every fanbase you see there aren’t a whole lot of folks who look like you,” he said. “Through no fault of anyone’s, every coaching staff, front office, everyone you see doesn’t look like you.

“But then sometimes you see some other people on TV working in the industry. When you start to see more people who look like you, you realize you are on the right path and this is all going somewhere. These people have inspired me to keep doing what I’m doing, and I’m hoping that someday, someone comes up and says, `You know, I wasn’t a hockey fan but then I heard you and now I’m into hockey.’ ”

Fitzhugh’s ultimate goal is to become an NHL team’s broadcaster by the time he’s 40. Even then, he knows there will be doubters.

“No one is going to say it outright, but there are a lot of times when I tell people that I’m a hockey broadcaster that I’ll get a `Really?’ in response,” he said. “`Really, you do hockey?’ After about the seventh `Really?’ it finally settles in.”

He really does hockey, and he’s also really good at it.

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