It’s mostly baseball announcers who become synonymous with a team and a city. They’re on the radio or TV every day for six months, so they can become more a part of a fan’s life than a good portion of the family. Whether that will happen again, with so many broadcasters now so polished, clean, rehearsed, they all kind of blend together. Most of them are characterless, giving off the feeling that they could have been produced by EA Sports. Maybe one day soon they will be.
But sometimes hockey announcers can achieve that status for a fanbase and a city, and Buffalo’s Rick Jeanneret perhaps was the leading example. Jeanneret died last night at 81, after 51 years broadcasting Buffalo Sabres games both on radio and TV and from both the analyst and play-by-play chair. Jeanneret transcended just being the “Sabres guy,” given his longevity and unique style, which wasn’t polished or rehearsed. It was genuine, organic. Most of all, it was memorable.
I didn’t grow up in Buffalo or anywhere near it. Nor was my team, the Hawks, any kind of rival of the Sabres. We saw them twice a year. And yet like every other hockey fan, I know exactly who Jeanneret was and why he was so beloved. Perhaps that’s the greatest gift of subscription services like NHL.TV or MLB.TV.
In some ways, baseball announcers have it easy. They come to you through a breezy summer night when you have the windows open or are out in the yard or sitting on a bar’s patio having some cold gold in the evening. All of that probably puts you in a good mood. Baseball just gets to piggyback on all of that.
Hockey announcers, on the other hand, are cutting through the crisp winter air, after you’ve had to scrape off your windshield and wait the 10 minutes for the car’s heat to work while you worry your hands might stick to the steering wheel. Or you’ve trudged through four inches of snow to get home and you’re bunkered in for the evening, dreading the arrival of the morning to do it all again. So there’s an extra urgency to a hockey announcer’s call, making it seem like the most important thing happening in the world at that very moment. Some of that is the nature of hockey, given its spike on the EKG in the big moments, and some of it is justifying why thousands of people froze their balls off to get to a non-warm arena to watch such fare.
And boy, did Jeanneret do urgency. His goal and fight calls are the stuff of legend, and you can see and hear why:
And a personal favorite:
Rare is the hockey fan who hasn’t screamed to himself, when no one’s around, “ADD ANOTHER ONE TO THE POPULATION OF POMINVILLE!”
No one did the big moments like Jeanneret, and hockey is about the big moments. Unlikely we’ll ever hear anyone like him again, given how base-y and rooted announcers want to sound now. Sabres fans will always hear Jeanneret’s voice in their heads and hearts, because he was the only one who sounded like that. Jeanneret danced on the line of a fan who just happened to get into the booth when security got lax. But when you’ve worked for a team for so long, the passion is understandable. Especially for Sabres fans, who rarely have known joy, and certainly not the amount of good memories befitting a place where hockey means so much.
There aren’t any colder nights than the ones in Buffalo, and part of a hockey announcer’s job is to make things feel warm and lively at a time when the surroundings are anything but. Jeanneret reached through that bitter Buffalo air every game, making every Sabres moment feel as if it was the center of the Earth. Which to every Sabres fan, it was, which was what the job required after all.
Jeanneret’s calls harkened back to The Aud and Lafontaine and Hawerchuk through Peca and Hasek, and his excitement carried all those years through his voice. There is a charge through the air, what you hear altacockers talk about with heavyweight championship fights back in the day, on the night of a big hockey game. Something to do with that crispness in the air. Jeanneret was the perfect narrator for that, even if the Sabres didn’t provide him enough big games recently. He fed on it and added to it, without having to pretend or manufacture the emotion. He’ll be missed.
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