'Dream come true:' Detroit's Everett Fitzhugh first Black NHL team broadcaster
Detroit native Everett Fitzhugh can't wait for the expansion Seattle Kraken to play the Detroit Red Wings for the first time at Little Caesars Arena in the 2021-22 season.
Fitzhugh, who was named the first Black NHL team broadcaster by the Kraken last week, said "that game isn't even on the schedule yet and I've already got about 20 ticket requests."
A hockey trailblazer at the age of 31, Fitzhugh said the game in Detroit will be a tribute to his family, especially his mother, who adopted him on her own and raised him to believe in his dreams.
"I definitely will be shedding some tears before my first NHL game in Detroit, back home," Fitzhugh said.
Fitzhugh grew up as an only child on the northwest side of the city at Eight Mile and Meyers and attended Tappan Middle School and Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor before starting his hockey broadcasting career an hour away at Bowling Green University in Ohio.
It was at Bowling Green after a game against Alaska Fairbanks in January 2007 that Fitzhugh told his mom about his dream.
"I remember calling her and saying, 'This game went fantastic and I'm now putting all my eggs into the hockey basket. We're going to the NHL,'" Fitzhugh said. "She kind of chuckled and said, 'All right, well, you can do it. Let's see if we can get you there.'"
Fitzhugh's journey to the NHL began in third grade when he watched a game on TV between the Red Wings and Edmonton Oilers, who featured Black players Mike Grier and George Laraque.
"I remember running through the house and saying, "Mom, mom, there's two Black guys on Edmonton and they look like me," he said. "That was the coolest thing to see because there weren't a lot of people of color or minorities especially at that time. That gave me role models and people to follow.
"When I was a kid, there weren't a lot of Black kids in Detroit who were into hockey. I was made fun of some times by my classmates and friends because I liked hockey a lot. My mom always told me to never let that stop you. There are no black and white sports. If you're a hockey fan, be a hockey fan."
While he's proud to be a role model for other minority hockey broadcasters, he credits Black announcers like NBC's Anson Carter and Mike Tirico, SportsNet's Dave Amber and Anthony Stewart, Kevin Weekes of the NHL Network and the late John Saunders of ESPN for setting high standards and giving hope to a younger generation of hockey fans.
He also said the new Seattle organization is "really carrying the torch when it comes to gender diversity and racial diversity and reflecting where the game is going and where it should be."
Fifty-four percent of executive vice presidents are women, 35-40 percent of the overall staff are either women or people of color and Hall of Famer Cammi Granato is the NHL's first female pro scout.
"The NHL has had the reputation of being that old boys club," Fitzhugh said. "They've done a phenomenal job in recent years embracing diversity but they still have a long way to go. In my opinion, you can never stop talking about diversity. To put your best foot forward, you need different voices, different backgrounds and different ideas."
Fitzhugh feels he's been treated fairly and without prejudice during his career with the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones, the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League and at Bowling Green, but he wasn't surprised when The Seattle Times had to disable its comments section on the weekend after publishing a story on his ground-breaking hiring.
The paper didn't specify the nature of the comments but in an editor's note said, "The comment thread on this story has been removed due to too many comments violating our code of conduct."
"You can leave all the comments you want to," Fitzhugh said. "I've got a pretty thick skin. You're never going to please everyone. It goes back full circle to my mom telling me to block out all the noise and don't let the haters get you down. Go out there, be the best you can be.
"At the end of he day, they'll see you for who you are and they'll regret the way they treated you in the past or some of the negative comments they made. It's on them."
Fitzhugh says negative comments do "provide a little bit of motivation" but he said it's more of a sign of the times than anything he's done to offend anyone heading into his first year as either the TV or radio voice while handling social media, video and community duties.
"I understand I'm not everyone's cup of tea and I understand there are people who don't care that I'm the first Black team broadcaster," he said. "They don't care that I'm Black. Can I do the job? OK, great. That's all that matters.
"I've been fortunate and blessed to have met people from the NHL on down who don't say, 'Oh, he's good for a Black guy.' They see me as a person who is competent in this industry, who sounds pretty good and puts on a good broadcast. Those are the folks I listen to."
Growing up during the heyday of the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings in the 1990s, Fitzhugh listened to and tried to emulate local announcers like Ernie Harwell, George Blaha, Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond and the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasters on Windsor-based CBC television.
"Ernie Harwell was the soundtrack of my summer and for thousands if not millions of people," he said. "I loved his descriptiveness, his phrasing like, 'He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched it go by.' Detroit broadcasters have been phenomenal and have had a profound impact on my life and my career."
As for his career now, Fitzhugh said he "hasn't been able to grasp or put into words what it means to be the first Black NHL team broadcaster" and what it will be like "going into a non-traditional hockey market and bringing some of that Red Wings' magic."
He plans on moving to Seattle in mid-September, maybe talk his mother into coming out to the Pacific Northwest and also prepare for his marriage to fiancee Shelly Pinto in Rhode Island on Oct. 15, 2021.
"I used to say I wanted to be in the NHL by age 40," Fitzhugh said. "To get there nine years earlier, I never could've imagined. I also get to introduce inner city kids, minorities and people of color to a game which historically hasn't seen a whole lot of non-white faces."
In hindsight, he says he was "very lucky to be adopted" by his mom, a former probation officer who works at the Third Judicial Circuit Court in downtown Detroit and is still a Delta Sigma Theta member whose sorority sisters were like "second and third and fourth mothers to me."
"She's been my rock," Fitzhugh said. "I tell people all the time we love each other like mother and son. Sometimes we'll bicker like brother and sister but she's always been my biggest supporter and cheerleader through this entire journey.
"She encouraged me to explore my likes and interests so I'm very grateful now to share all of this with her and my uncles and cousins. My family is just over the moon and thrilled. It's really been an amazing experience."
Everett Fitzhugh glance
Who: Everett Fitzhugh
Historic hire: First Black NHL team broadcaster, hired by the expansion Seattle Kraken, who will join the league in October 2021 and will play at the Climate Pledge Arena, the old home of the NBA Seattle SuperSonics.
Hockey background: Play-by-play announcer of the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones, the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League and the Bowling Green State University Falcons.
Quote: “As someone who’s worked in hockey for over a decade and who has a long-held passion for broadcasting hockey, to be named a part of the broadcast and content team for a brand-new NHL franchise is a dream come true,” Fitzhugh said.