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Sticks and Sounds: A Love Letter to Hockey on the Radio

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There’s something special about listening to the (takes breath) Eldorado Gaming Scioto Downs Blue Jackets Radio Network

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at St. Louis Blues Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

I drive a lot during the fall. Usually I’m driving at night, for long stretches at a time, so I’m not always able to watch Columbus Blue Jackets games live like I’d prefer. But when you have an hour of highway in front of you and technology hasn’t yet allowed us to legally project live television onto our windshields, you’re lucky to have the Eldorado Gaming Scioto Downs Blue Jackets Radio Network.

Not to be Barry Pasternack from “Hot Rod” here, but live sports on the radio seem to have lost some their appeal with the advent of mobile apps and the ability to watch just about anywhere. A generation of sportswriters used to wax philosophic about sneaking transistor radios into school to catch World Series day games or huddling under the covers past bedtime, fiddling with the dial to pick up far-flung contests with the better reception night time would bring.

Those days don’t exist anymore. That’s probably for the best. But there’s something magical about listening to Bob McElligott describe a net-front scramble and being at the mercy of Bob and your imagination. Sure, you know what a wrister from the high slot looks like, but you’re not seeing it with your eyes. Years ago, he once dutifully read the team’s then-slogan “Gotta See It Live!” before pausing to add “…even if only in the theater of your mind’s eye.”

The radio’s more accessible that way, too. Rick Reilly wrote a column years ago about a blind Islanders fan who never missed a game on the radio. It’s also free.

Hockey doesn’t have the long stoppages that bookend quick bursts of action like baseball or football. Hockey players substitute on the fly, eschewing the formalized check-in process of basketball. Hockey flows freely and quickly. That works well for the man they call Bobby Mac, who’s all alone in the radio booth. He, like so many of the players in the league, came up through the AHL ranks. He called games for former affiliate Syracuse Crunch before jumping to the NHL as a color commentator. Now he’s the lone man on the call (in addition to all the other interviews and features he does). That’s constraining in some ways—there’s nobody else to bounce questions off of, nobody else to offer perspective from someone who played the game or knows the players in a different way. On the other hand, a one-man booth allows McElligott to pontificate at his own pace. There’s no awkward transition between folksy anecdote and on-ice description, because he knows where the story’s going to end.

The radio gives a better feel for the rhythm of the action. The ambient noise of skates and sticks and shouts are more pronounced with the visuals taken away. The description can flow along with the movement on something like a power play, with McElligott chaining last names together in rapid fire succession as the puck tic-tac-toes its way through the zone.

And when the play stops? You hear Bob take a pause before ending his thought with “and the Blues ice it.” In that brief pause you hear a whistle and an organ flourish…and we’re on to the next ad.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at St. Louis Blues Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

With nothing to see, advertisements lose whatever subtlety they might’ve had. (It is called the Eldorado Gaming Scioto Downs Blue Jackets Radio Network on every single reference, after all.) Take pregame uniform combinations from Thursday night:

“…Blue Jackets with the white helmets tonight, and those helmets are made whiter by Kinetico Water Systems!” Or how about late in the game Tuesday:

“Momentum is not on the Jackets’ side, and time is running out. But don’t forget, if the Jackets score twice, you get half price pizza tomorrow at Papa John’s…”

It’s hilarious to hear the players, too. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Seth Jones hurriedly navigate through a True REST Float Spa spot.

McElligott also explores the space he has to editorialize. Korpisalo doesn’t make another late-game save, he “bails them out again.” Or perhaps the “defensemen are leaving Bobrovsky out to dry.” Be sure to “let me tell you about Boone Jenner.” It’s a conversation, it’s just that you can’t exactly talk back (although you can tweet). It’s a breath of fresh air from the perpetual positive spin you usually see on the television broadcast.

Not everybody loves Bobby Mac, of course. The goal calls can seem forced, and as mentioned earlier, it’s a one-man booth, so there isn’t anyone around to break up the only voice. But you can’t deny that “I got two words for you: GAME OVER” occupies a special place in CBJ fandom. He’s earned it spot.

This year, try listening to a game on radio or the NHL app. You can try to sync it up with your video, but give the radio call a shot by itself. You might see the Blue Jackets a little differently in the theater of your mind’s eye.