Everett Fitzhugh and JT Brown have long known this day was coming at some vague point in the future. And now that’s it’s actually here, they are embracing the NHL history they will make Thursday night.
Fitzhugh, usually the radio voice of the Kraken, and Brown, the analyst on the Kraken’s television broadcasts, will work together in the TV booth when the Kraken meet the Jets at Canada Life Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
It will be the first all-Black TV broadcast in NHL history. Fitzhugh will slide into the seat of the Kraken’s regular play-by-play man on ROOT Sports, John Forslund, who is doing the national broadcast of the Vegas Golden Knights-Colorado Avalanche game in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Brown will maintain his usual role as the color analyst.
To Fitzhugh, it is the latest iteration of an important theme: Representation matters. He had already become the first Black play-by-play radio broadcaster in the NHL when the Kraken hired him away from the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). Brown, who had an eight-year NHL career and retired after playing in Sweden last season, is the first Black in-game team analyst in league history.
And now they will be partners, if only for a night. That’s long enough to send a powerful message.
“I’m hoping that there is a young Black boy or girl, or anyone who is a part of a historically underrepresented community, watching that game who may be on the fence about becoming a hockey fan, becoming a hockey player, becoming a hockey broadcaster,” Fitzhugh said. “And they see JT and I, and they say, ‘OK, I can do that now. They’re doing it, why not me?’ ”
Dating to summer, when Fitzhugh and Brown did mock games together in the ROOT studios in Bellevue, they have known that eventually Forslund would have to leave for a national game. In the meantime, their friendship and chemistry has had six months to grow even stronger. They both say it is an especially close-knit broadcast crew; Fitzhugh and Brown, along with Forslund and radio analyst Dave Tomlinson, have become nearly inseparable companions.
“Going to a workplace, you never know if you’re going to like your co-workers, or who’s going to be this, who’s going to be that,” said Brown, who re-watches every broadcast to see where he can improve. “And it’s just been an easy, flowing conversation.”
Fitzhugh said that on one level, he views Thursday as “an opportunity to broadcast a game with my friend.” He notes that with 49 games under his belt this season, Brown is comparatively the seasoned hand in the television booth, even as a rookie in the industry. Fitzhugh has just one television appearance in his 10-plus years of hockey broadcasting, serving as a sideline reporter for the NHL Network’s telecast of the 2018 ECHL All-Star Game in Indianapolis.
“If I’m nervous about one thing, that’s it,” said Fitzhugh, who will be replaced in the radio booth Thursday by Ian Furness. “I’ve been calling games for radio for the past 13 years, essentially. So it’s going to be pulling out a few words and laying back a little bit.”
It’s not the play by play that worries him — “that’s the easy part,” he said — but rather the mechanics of it, such as having a producer talking in your ear and seeing yourself on the monitor.
“I keep telling myself it’s not like I’m getting a pilot for a sitcom,” Fitzhugh said with a laugh. “I’m going to be on camera for all of three to five minutes. But the audience is going to be bigger, it’s going to be a lot wider. A lot more eyes and opinions are going to be on us.”
Fitzhugh said he and Brown “share something that other folks don’t. We’re two Black men in hockey, and I think that gives us an even tighter bond and connection, one of those unspoken things. I can think of many times that him and I will give each other a look, and we instinctively know what that look means.”
As an NHL player for Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Anaheim, Brown said he has always striven for growing the demographics of hockey. And that includes the press box as well as the ice.
“Coming over to the media side, you still see that there’s not a lot of people that look like Everett or I covering hockey, whether it’s writing, whether it’s in the broadcast,” he said. “So to be able to have that representation, to give someone who maybe wants to be a journalist or broadcaster, they can see that it’s possible; this will be the first, but we just don’t want it to be the last.”
Fitzhugh hopes there’s a day coming when such “firsts” no longer need to be noted, because they’ve all been crossed off the list. But he added, “I will never not be a cheerleader for firsts. … It lets us know as a society how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go. Because we’re in 2022. And we’re just now having the first all-Black broadcast booth.”
Growing up in the midst of Red Wings fanatics in Detroit, Fitzhugh became an Edmonton Oilers fan because they had two, and later three, Black players on the team.
“To see people who look like me playing a historically white man’s game was big for me,” he said. “I don’t think anyone ever sets out to be a trailblazer, and I don’t think anyone ever sets out to be that ‘first.’ But when you do find yourself in that position I think it’s a responsibility that you owe to the culture, to the community, to the sport, and I think most importantly to yourself, to be that influence that you may have never had.”
Both men may try to obtain a puck from Thursday’s game as a souvenir of their role in NHL history.
“I just want to live in the moment when it’s happening,” Brown said. “I don’t think it’s truly going to hit either of us until after it’s over with. Then we’ll be able to sit back, relax and just be like, ‘Man, that was pretty cool.’ ”