I've been a hockey fan since 1992, when my then-hometown Tampa Bay Lightning first took the ice as Phil Esposito's expansion franchise.
Those early seasons at St. Petersburg's "Thunderdome" (now Tropicana Field) featured fan-favorite skater Brian Bradley, with first-overall franchise selection Roman “Hamr Time” Hamrlík on defense, enforcer Enrico Ciccone, and the veteran netminder Darren Puppa. The Bolts broke attendance marks by bringing a new brand of scrappy, fun, rock n' roll hockey to the NHL, leaving an indelible imprint on my impressionable sports psyche.
These days I’m primarily known for baseball, and my work with the San Diego Padres and MLB The Show. If the past year's events reinforced anything however, it’s to remain nimble, adaptive, helpful, and willing to learn.
Enter: "Hockey Alex."
In early January, the American Hockey League announced the 2020-21 season would get underway February 5th--after a four-month delay--with 28 of the 31 clubs opting to participate.
According to a concurrent team release, the San Diego Gulls would also temporarily relocate to Irvine's FivePoint Arena "to ensure all players within the [Gulls and parent Anaheim Ducks] organization are in one location under the same health protocols."
The intimate arena, part of the massive 280,000 square-foot Great Park Ice complex, also serves as the NHL franchise's official practice facility.
In addition to the team's provisional move north, the league realigned into five divisions of regional play, with the Gulls playing affiliates of eventual Stanley Cup contenders like the Vegas Golden Knights (Henderson Silver Knights), Colorado Avalanche (Colorado Eagles), and Edmonton Oilers (Bakersfield Condors). These matchups would take place over a planned schedule of 44 games in a re-formed Pacific Division.
Given California's strict COVID-19 restrictions, fans could not attend in person, however a selection of 13 regular season games would be carried live on the local San Diego FOX and CW television affiliates.
Up for the challenge, I decided to jump in.
Although this season would be my first announcing professional hockey, it wasn't my first working with the Gulls organization. For the 2019-20 season, I lent my voice to the opening video of the team's pregame show.
And given the circumstances, I wasn't new the proverbial sports "bubble" either. Under stringent health and safety protocols at Petco Park, I recently worked through a shortened Padres campaign. Afterwards, Major League Baseball selected San Diego as the neutral host site for the American League Postseason.
My familiarity didn't end there.
Like baseball, hockey is a sport deeply-rooted in tradition. Stories of legendary barns, players, and dynasties are woven into its lore. It thrives in both the smallest of towns and the largest of cities; in frigid climates and those sun-kissed. Its appeal is global, yet rarely strays from its North American origins.
For me, Irvine was a rare, blank-canvas opportunity--to work within a championship organization, to learn a new show, to experiment in a fresh environment, and to develop a sound that both respects the past, yet captures the excitement around the future of this franchise.
Fans or no fans, the show goes on.
And on the ice, what a show it was.
Behind top Anaheim Ducks prospects Trevor Zegras (selected 9th overall, 2019), Jamie Drysdale (6th overall, 2020), and Jacob Perreault (27th overall, 2020), the Gulls opened the campaign with a franchise-best six-game home victory streak, and finished an electrifying regular season with a .602 win percentage (26-17-1).
Forward Andrew Poturalski earned Pacific Division All-Star honors, as well as the John B. Sollenberger Trophy as the AHL's leading scorer--the first player in Gulls history to do so.
Unlike the rest of the league's divisions, who concluded their campaigns at season's end, the Pacific held a postseason tournament to determine its winner. The Gulls reached the semifinal round, losing a deciding-game overtime heartbreaker to the eventual champions, the Bakersfield Condors.
Heading into next season, the parent Ducks look to stock the system even further as they select third overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, their highest pick in 16 years. The Gulls return home to San Diego's Pechanga Arena to play a full 68-game schedule beginning October 22nd.
So, what did I learn in my first season?
A lot of French-Canadian, Eastern European, Scandinavian names, for one! Foreign-born players make up roughly 72% of National Hockey League rosters, far exceeding MLB's 29%.
I also gained a new sense of timing, in how to talk during gameplay, as opposed to between it. Communicating directly with officials is also critical in obtaining information on scoring and penalties, and not something done in professional baseball.
Play was thrilling and fast-paced, but when one of your sport's top films is Slap Shot, I also enjoyed a certain level of tongue-in-cheek presentation. Top-to-bottom, the experience provided a fresh perspective, and one I thoroughly enjoyed from face-off to the final horn.
“Hockey Alex” is here to stay.
For more of Alex's live announcing work with MLB's San Diego Padres, take a look at his Live TV & VO Demo. It features footage broadcast coast-to-coast during the 87th MLB All-Star Game live on FOX.