Chicago Blackhawks announcers Pat Foley (left) and Eddie Olczyk with Kid Reporter Will Foster
I arrived at the United Center two hours before the start of the Chicago Blackhawks’ December 20 home game against the San Jose Sharks. I had been sitting in the reception area a short while when a Blackhawks staff member arrived and took me upstairs to the broadcast booth for my interview with the Hawks’ local TV announcers.
When I arrived, play-by-play man Pat Foley and analyst Eddie Olczyk were preparing for the night’s game, which they would be calling for Comcast SportsNet Chicago. Paper was strewn across their desk. There were handwritten notes, as well as official information packets provided by the teams. A couple of television monitors showed a bunch of flashing colors, but they would air CSN Chicago’s game broadcast once it began.
“It takes a couple hours,” Foley said of his typical preparation for a game. “I’ve got to know names and numbers right away. There’s memorization, and I talk to people involved with teams to try to get background on the players.”
“For our team it’s relatively easy because we know our team so well,” Olczyk said. (The pair calls most Blackhawks games together for a local TV network — either CSN Chicago or WGN-TV.) But, Foley added, “We’ve got to familiarize ourselves with the team they’re playing against.”
In addition to calling locally broadcast Blackhawks games, Olczyk is also part of some national telecasts on NBC. “That’s even more intense,” Foley said. “He’s got to be familiar, at all times, with the entire National Hockey League. Right now, I don’t know or care what Carolina’s doing because we don’t play them for a while; when we do play them, I have to know about them. That’s how it works in my world; he has a more expansive world.”
During a game, Foley has a different job than Olczyk. “I’m calling the plays,” Foley said. “Eddie is trying to analyze plays and be able to tell fans the strengths and weaknesses of players. He has to know every guy in the league. He’s got a much bigger job than I do.”
Olczyk said that nothing he and Foley say during the game is pre-scripted. “All improvisation,” Foley added.
I wondered how one announcer knows when to speak and when to let the other talk. Do they have to signal each other?
“When the puck’s in play, I talk,” Foley said. “When it’s out of play, Eddie talks. There are variances of that, but that’s the general outline. We’re really good friends and know each other well. If I’m calling the game and he has something to add, he knows my speech pattern so if I’m taking a breath maybe he’ll jump in and make a point. That’s the rhythm we have; we don’t really have to signal each other very often.”
“My job is to give my partner the opportunity to take a deep breath,” Olczyk said. “Mistakes are going to happen since it’s live TV, but we have a great respect for one another. It’s all teamwork, and I think we have a great team.”
During a typical game, Foley and Olczyk, like most sports announcers, will mention a ton of statistics. Where do they get all of these?
“Some of them I keep myself,” Foley said. “A lot of it comes from game notes we get for every game. I keep a notebook here for every game and I’ll make a few notes I think are relevant and I’ll drop them in there when I can.” Additionally, there is a statistician that can feed them statistics. “It’s a fast game; sometimes I get caught trying to jam a stat in when a great play happens,” Foley said. “I try to be informative and entertaining.”
Speaking of entertaining: “We laugh more than probably any other NHL broadcast team,” Foley said. “And hopefully you’re laughing at home, too,” Olczyk added. “We love to have fun.”
Getting Better Game by Game
For sports players, learning from mistakes is crucial. It’s no different for broadcasters. Olczyk said that he watches replays of his telecasts as much as he can. “I’d like to think I do see most of our games over the course of the year, just because I want to see if I missed anything or how would I handle a play differently.”
Olczyk got his start in broadcasting while he was still a player in the NHL. (He played for six NHL teams during his career, including Chicago. He was the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins at one time.) “I got asked to do radio,” he said. “They liked how I did interviews as a player, and then they asked me when I was out of the playoffs one time, ‘Would you like to maybe do color for a playoff game?’”
“I knew in high school that I was going to try to do this,” Foley said. “I wanted to be a play-by-play guy, so I was pointing in that direction all the way through. My high school did not have a radio station, so I never got to do any games until I went to college. I got the chance there to get some experience. But I started later than kids today would have an opportunity to start. I feel very lucky hockey is the way it worked out — it could have been basketball, or baseball, or something else, but hockey is the route I was allowed to take, so I took it.”
What advice do Foley and Olczyk have for kids who want to be sports announcers?
“Listen to broadcasters if you want to be an analyst,” Olczyk said. “Something I learned a long time ago is you’re there to tell the story, not be the story. I think you can have a strong opinion and inform people, but you can’t put yourself ahead of the game. Do a lot of reading. Talk to people. I started in radio and it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Radio forces you to be so descriptive.”
“I grew up listening to Pat on TV and radio,” Olczyk continued. “I first heard Pat on radio and I thought, ‘What a call.’ I could close my eyes and know what’s going on on the ice. I’d encourage anyone to start in radio, whether it’s play-by-play or an analyst.”
“If you’re thinking about doing this, do it as soon as you can as often as you can,” Foley added. “If your high school has a radio station, get on it. Broadcast any game you can broadcast. If you like hockey and you can do a baseball game, go do a baseball game. If you can do a water polo game, go do a water polo game. If you can do an interview show, go do an interview show. Get in front of a microphone as much as you can as early as you can. And then you’ll be able to go back and listen to those tapes and see what worked, what didn’t work, what did I like, what didn’t I like. If I’m a listener, what do I want to know from this broadcast? There’s no better teacher in this world than experience.”
When asked what he thinks of his job, Foley said, “We do a lot of work, but it’s fun work to us. We both love it.”
“We love what we do,” Olczyk said. “There’s a passion there. We work at our craft, our job, but I don’t look at it as work. It’s passion. It’s hockey.”
Photo: Will Foster (with Kid Reporter), CLTV.com (broadcasting)