Pat Foley, marking his 30th year as voice of the Blackhawks, will be honored before Friday night's game at the United Center against the Nashville Predators. He is not left speechless about his remarkable journey, only reflective.
"It's not supposed to go so smoothly in this business," says Foley. "For a hometown guy to broadcast for the hometown team for so long, to talk about the greatest sport there is to all these terrific Chicago fans … I'm the luckiest guy in the room."
Foley has worked the room through thick and thin, blessed with a booming voice as well as a style that entertains. It is difficult for a hockey announcer to convey personality. The sport is fast, stoppages in play are accounted for, and intermissions belong to studio hosts and analysts.
Baseball is ripe for spinning anecdotes between pitches, the football is alive for only about 12 of 60 minutes, and basketball's clock stops repeatedly for whistles. But to connect with hockey audiences, a play-by-play broadcaster has to follow the puck while also providing a storyline and ample airtime for a sidekick.
Foley excels on all counts, adding a dash of humor and candor to the mix. "You can't fool fans," he assures. If Foley sounds better than ever, it might have something to do with current events. Crowd noise for the Blackhawks is a staple, at home and on the road. This season, the team destroyed a record for best start in National Hockey League history with a Hart Trophy candidate in Patrick Kane, a rookie of the year possibility in Brandon Saad, the perpetual brilliance of Jonathan Toews, and on and on.
"Best team in the league since day one in January," says Foley. "We don't know how this will end, but I see a lot in this group that we saw in the 2010 Stanley Cup team. Hockey is the ultimate team game. These guys like each other and it shows. There isn't any 'Where's mine?' or 'What's in it for me?' on that roster."
Foley landed his dream job the old-fashioned way: He earned it. He grew up listening to legend Lloyd Pettit, studied his craft at Michigan State, then took the play-by-play microphone for the Grand Rapids Owls. Luck helped, but luck is the residue of design. Father Bob owned an automobile dealership, and as then-Blackhawks Vice President Michael Wirtz drove away with another Buick, he noticed that it came with a tape of Pat's work, free of charge.
But if the kid wasn't good, he wouldn't have been hired. And Pat Foley was good. He debuted on Oct. 19, 1980 -- the same night Stan Mikita's jersey was retired at the Stadium. It was the sixth game of that season; the Blackhawks had lost their flagship station and scrambled for a replacement. Foley has been all over the radio dial since, and on TV, save for a brief interruption in regularly scheduled programming.
"No sugarcoating it," he says. "I got fired. But again, luck of the Irish. I went to the Wolves in 2006, the one place to be if you don't have one of the 30 NHL jobs. Great owner, Don Levin, and they won a Calder Cup while I was there. Plus, I'm still home. I got fired by the Blackhawks, and they still couldn't get rid of me in Chicago."
Foley gauged his chances of a curtain call with the Blackhawks as "zero." But when Rocky Wirtz took over as chairman, he hired John McDonough to repair and revive a wheezing franchise. Soon the new president and CEO drove to Foley's house, and his return was among several master strokes by the current regime. Even when the Blackhawks drifted toward invisibility, he was a popular listen.
"Pinch me," says Foley. "Now I'm with one of the best organizations in professional sports. Most nights, I'm beside hockey's best analyst, Eddie Olczyk. I remember how it was, with 5,000 people in the building. And I see how it is now, with more hockey buzz in Chicago than I ever remember."
Foley is famous for a number of signature calls, such as "BAANNER-MAAAN!!" But he doesn't collect them. Instead, he treasures moments with mentor Dan Kelly, and the times he slipped into a booth occupied by Vin Scully, Harry Caray or Ernie Harwell. Also, there was that special interview with a hero, Pettit.
"When Lloyd moved to Milwaukee and became owner of the Admirals, I asked him to come on during one of our Owls games up there," Foley recalls. "One night he said, 'Pat, I listened to a couple minutes at the end of the period while waiting to go on. Keep it up and you'll be in the National Hockey League someday.' Never forgot that."
Editor's note: As part of an alliance with the Blackhawks, the Daily Herald will offer occasional features by Team Historian Bob Verdi, who writes for the team's website at www.chicagoblackhawks.com.