Everyone who comes through the Cincinnati Cyclones organization dreams of one thing: getting to the National Hockey League. David Desharnais, the ECHL’s 2008 Rookie of the Year, went on to play eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. Goaltender Jonas Johansson, who spent parts of 2018 and 2019 here, is now with the Buffalo Sabres. And each of the Cyclones’ last four coaches left to work for NHL organizations, albeit for their American Hockey League affiliates.
But Everett Fitzhugh, the team’s director of public relations and broadcasting since 2015, just might top them all. Not only is “The Voice of the Cyclones” going to The Show, he’s joining the newest and hottest team in hockey—even though it doesn’t technically exist yet. Earlier this month, the expansion Seattle Kraken, who play their first NHL game in fall 2021, made Fitzhugh its first radio/TV hire. While his exact role is yet to be determined, the 31-year-old, who was already the only Black play-by-play broadcast man at any level of professional hockey, is poised to be the first Black broadcaster in NHL history.
A Detoit native, Fitzhugh began his radio career as a college freshman calling games for the Bowling Green Falcons. He first came to Seattle’s attention in February, when he was profiled by Ryan S. Clark of the sports website The Athletic. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the interview process was slow and mostly via Zoom. But in July, after one in-person visit, he got the job… even before the franchise had a name.
After much speculation around the Pacific Northwest and the hockey universe, the Seattle Kraken name was unveiled to the world on July 23; two weeks later, Fitzhugh’s hiring was officially announced. “When I was out there for the interview, I tried to drop a couple of hints to see where they were [in the naming process],” he says. “I didn’t want to come right out and ask. They were being pretty tight-lipped.”
A lot of people have understandably started out by asking how it feels to get this job, but here’s the first thing I want to know: How stressful was it for you and your fiancé to take a cross-country flight?
You know, I think that was probably the most stressful part. The interview itself was great. I mean, it’s a job interview for the NHL, so obviously you’re gonna have some nerves. But it was a little tense for both of us just getting on that plane for the first time. And it wasn’t a flight up to Detroit. We flew to Chicago and had a layover in O’Hare, and then a four-hour flight out to Seattle.
After about 25 minutes, you don’t even notice that you’re wearing a mask, but it was a little bit jarring and a little bit nerve-wracking being in a crowded airport and then being on a plane and all that stuff. The ride back was easier. Once we got back, we kind of self-isolated and breathed a sigh of relief.
So when Seattle hired you, they basically said, We don’t know what your exact job is going to be, but you’re our guy for now?
Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what they said. My title is Team Broadcaster. A lot of people have said I’m going to be the first play-by-play announcer, and while that’s something I would definitely like to do, my role will be on the broadcast team in some capacity. In the interim, my role is a lot of web content, a lot of video content, and tons of speaking engagements to get out in the community and really give a face and a voice to the organization.
Have you begun practicing saying, RELEASE THE KRAKEN!?
I’ve gotten a couple in. A few people have asked me that question. It’s such low-hanging fruit, but you can’t not do something with it. “Release the Kraken!” or “Unleash the Kraken!,” whatever variation you want. I have definitely been playing around with it.
In February, Cyclones General Manager Kristen Ropp told The Athletic that she expected to lose you to the NHL eventually. What did you think of that at the time?
I didn’t think it would be in a few months, that’s for sure. [The Cyclones front office] has always been so supportive. They told me early on, “Our goal is to get you to the NHL, if that’s what you want.”
Was it a big factor in the hiring that you also did marketing and communication for the Cyclones?
For sure. I remember back when I was graduating college and I was one of the finalists for a job. They told me, “You have a really good voice, but this other guy has the PR side.” So to run a PR department here in Cincinnati, in a large city, having to jostle for attention with all of the other sports teams, and all of the other things going on, I think it really helped me.
The Cyclones and the ECHL were shut down on March 13, before the season could wrap up. How high were expectations for the playoffs?
They were high, man, very, very high. Last year, we won a regular season championship and a division championship and were ousted in the second round of te playoffs, which left a bad taste in people’s mouths. I think that this season’s team was poised to make a deeper run. I don’t have a lot of regrets, but one thing I’m going to regret is not being able to finish this season. [The Cyclones’ 2020-21 season is scheduled to open on December 11.]
What’s your favorite Cyclones memory?
For me personally, it had to have been the ECHL All-Star Game I got to do a few years back. And every year my favorite game is Throwback Night. I think we had 14,000 fans two years ago.
But honestly, the high point has just been being able to broadcast professional hockey for such a great organization. I mean, I hate to pull out all the cliches here, but from the second I got to Cincinnati the community, our fans, obviously our staff, all the coaches we’ve had, and all of our players that have come through our locker room have been nothing but kind, supportive, and welcoming. I’ve gotten calls this week from players who played here for a couple of years and players who were here for a couple of weeks. I felt right at home from the second I got here, so this is definitely a bittersweet moment. I’m leaving a piece of me here.
What do you think you’ll miss the most about the city itself?
I think the passion that people here have for their sports and just for their city in general. I mean, people love Cincinnati. I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t leave Cincinnati, and I think it’s for good reason. They may go away to college for those four years, but they always seem to find themselves back here at home. They’re passionate about sports, they’re passionate about East Side versus West Side, and they’re passionate about their chili.
So did you have a favorite chili?
I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t a huge fan of Cincinnati-style chili overall. Being from Detroit, we have our own Coneys up there. But my favorite in Cincinnati was definitely Skyline.
Detroit is Hockeytown, and that’s where you got interested in the game, but the team you actually rooted for was the Edmonton Oilers. You’ll have to give that up when you move to Seattle.
I was in the third grade, and I saw a game between the Red Wings and the Oilers, who had Mike Grier and Georges Laraque on the same team. For me to be able to see two Black players competing at a high level, that was fantastic. They were my hockey role models when I was 9, 10, 11 years old. And then a few years later, Anson Carter joined them. It was really cool to be able to look at that team and say, “OK, hockey is for me. This can be my sport. I can be a hockey fan.”
A group of NHL players formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance this summer, and the NHL gave them a platform at the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Did you get to watch Matt Dumba’s speech?
I did, and I was very moved. I’ve always been a proponent of society being comfortable with being uncomfortable. I think that, a lot of times, talking about racism and diversity can be uncomfortable or seen as controversial. I hope that we can get to a point sooner rather than later where that’s not the case.
You’re seeing a unified attempt across multiple cultures, multiple people, multiple backgrounds to try drawing attention to a problem that frankly hasn’t gone away in our country. And there’s still a long way to go. But the steps that have been made this summer are great. I really like seeing white players now speaking out and joining players in either taking a knee or raising their fists, whatever it may be. A lot of times Black people are left to deal with the struggle all by themselves. Whenever you can have someone else standing with you, that’s only going to help us get there faster.