Steve Mears living his dream with ‘the greatest job in the world’
Steve Mears was in a unique sort of awe when he frequented the old Pittsburgh Civic Arena. Attending a hockey game as a child did not stand out because of the players, as it does for most young fans.
Instead of focusing on the ice, he was looking up towards the ceiling, realizing he was in the same building as ‘his idol,’ the legendary Mike Lange, who was calling games for the dominant Penguins teams of the early ’90s.
When most his age were intent on emulating the men at ice level, Mears was inspired to focus on his dream of calling NHL games himself one day.
“I remember being in ‘The Igloo,’ and I remember one game, it was the Penguins-Rangers game, specifically,” he recalled to Pucks and Recreation. “I’m sitting there and nudging my brother and pointing up to the press box, and I said ‘Look, up there.’ This is as the game is going on. ‘Look, up there, no not that booth, that one there, with the light. That’s Mike Lange, that’s where he sits and that’s where they announce the game from.’
“Two booths down, I look and, ‘Oh that’s Sam Rosen. That’s the voice of the Rangers, and he’s with John Davidson.’ I could see their shadows up there. It seemed like miles away, but that was as the game was going on, and I was fixated on the press box dreaming of being up there one day.”
To achieve a dream, one needs passion. Mears was able to develop this passion, in part, because of the success of the Penguins during his childhood. He was able to witness star players Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr raise two Stanley Cups for his hometown team.
“He enhanced all of it, the same way a good soundtrack would enhance a movie.” – Steve Mears on Mike Lange’s broadcasts of the early-’90s Penguins
While he enjoyed the play on the ice, it was listening to Lange complement the game so perfectly that made him develop a love for the game, and for the Penguins. These factors combined to make him dream big.
“It was about hearing that voice and the excitement and the passion you heard in the way that he called the game,” he explained. “I’m a kid thinking, ‘He gets in for free. Not only does he get in for free, he gets paid to do this.’ I just thought that was the coolest job in the world. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
“The role that he played as I was a young fan made it even more appealing to me. It wasn’t just the team, and they had a lot of success, no doubt about that, but he enhanced all of it, the same way a good soundtrack would enhance a movie.”
As he grew up, Mears lived each day of his life working towards his dream. During his school years, his daily routine consisted of going to school, coming home and playing street hockey, eating dinner, then ensuring his homework was finished in time to tune in to the broadcast each game night.
He also began practicing his trade, calling the pickup games on the street with his brothers and friends, and adding his own commentary to NHL video games. He truly grew up as a part of the growing Pittsburgh hockey scene, enjoying every moment of the dominant Penguins seasons, playing some hockey in high school and really experiencing the growth of the game firsthand.
‘At a lot of schools, that’s unheard of’
When it came time for Mears to take a serious step toward achieving his dream, his Pittsburgh roots played a role in his decision. Attending a college with strong a strong broadcasting education program as well as a good hockey team was desirable. To make things better, he could get both of these essentials just a few hours from home, at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“It turned out to be even greater than I ever could have imagined,” he remarked. “As a freshman, I got to call play-by-play, hockey play-by-play on the radio, as a freshman. At a lot of schools, that’s unheard of. So I was really fortunate and got the opportunity to call games, host a talk show, do updates and all the things that get you started.”
He was able to travel throughout the country with the team, and most importantly get his “reps” in, getting used to the flow of hockey and calling games.
Bowling Green offered him these great opportunities while on campus from a career-skills perspective. It also gave him a unique connection to another legend in the NHL broadcasting world, Mike “Doc” Emrick. Emrick attended Bowling Green, and also is a noted Pittsburgh Pirates fan. To this day, the two speak about the Pirates and Bowling Green, perhaps more than they talk about the NHL.
While a student, Mears was able to “have” an extremely unique experience with Emrick before the two ever met, which he considers one of the greatest moments of his college days.
“I knew he had gone there, and I admired him so much,” he said. “One time I was at the school library and I just happened to be on the computer for the database with everything they had in the library and just happened to search Emrick, Doc Emrick, Mike Emrick, just to see if anything came up. I don’t know why I did it, just randomly because he was an alum.
“Sure enough, there was an entry, and it was his doctoral dissertation. He got his doctorate degree, which is the reason they call him Doc. He got that degree at Bowling Green and had to write this big dissertation as part of the degree, and there was an entry in the library.
“So I went back into the bowels of this library, deep into the ground floor, weaving through all the columns of books. I found it, and I pull it off the shelf, and it’s covered in dust and it’s like this puke-green color and it’s a hard bound book. I crack it open, the pages felt like they hadn’t been turned since the ’70s, and it was from the late 1970s, clearly written by a typewriter and had yellowish pages.
“It turns out that he had done a profile of all the broadcasters in Major League Baseball at the time. So he reached out to Ernie Harwell, Bob Prince, Harry Caray, Vin Scully, all the legends. He reached out to all those guys and did a gigantic profile on their background, their current life, their family situation, their interests outside of sports broadcasting, their career paths, and was this profile of all of these legendary announcers, and to me, as a college student it was like finding a hidden treasure.”
That dissertation, which can be found under “Michael Emrick,” can still be found at the university library. It is something that Mears thinks he would be just as fascinated to read if he were to go back and read it again today.
— Steve Mears (@MearsyNHL) March 16, 2017
‘I didn’t know what I was getting into…’
As a new college graduate, Mears moved to Louisiana, over 20 hours away, where he got a job with the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs of the now-defunct Central League. The experience was extremely valuable for him, and comparable to “earning his masters degree” in the industry.
His job allowed him to learn various aspects of hockey, both from a game and business perspective. As a staff member for a minor-league team, he played numerous roles, gaining experience in PR, team relations, logistics, sales, community relations and marketing on top of his broadcasting duties.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he recounted. “I didn’t know what the experience would be like in minor league hockey in Louisiana, of all places. But I went down there, and it was the greatest four years I could have ever asked for.
“I was blessed to be there for four years and to learn so many more things about the business side of hockey. But also, at the same time, doing hundreds of games, and again it goes back to doing those reps, over and over again.
“I’m in the middle of Odessa, Texas on a Tuesday night and who knows how many people are listening, but I treated it like it was game seven of the Stanley Cup Final. Every game was a really big deal to me back then.”
Traveling by bus all throughout Texas, and as far west as Colorado, allowed Mears to form bonds with the players and management. He remains in touch with them to this day, and they are the source of many great memories. Along with that, the passion and overall kindness of the fans throughout Louisiana stood out to him.
Most importantly, however, Mears was able to sharpen his skills and work on his trade. The practice paid off, as he was able to reach the NHL calling games on the radio for the New York Islanders. Mears spent three years on Long Island, which was his first full-time NHL gig. After this stint, he returned home to Pittsburgh, serving various hosting and reporter roles for his favorite team.
‘We knew it was going to be fun…’
After four years doing with the Penguins, he moved back to New York, this time for a role with the NHL Network. Mears really emerged with the network, whose U.S. edition had launched early in the 2007-08 season, becoming a staple of “NHL Live” with EJ Hradek. The role was incredibly enjoyable for him, thanks to the fantastic work environment and excitement day in and day out.
“We knew it was going to be fun,” he remarked,, “and we knew we were going to speak with some of the biggest names in the sport, and that’s another perk of working there.
“I think back to some of the people we’ve interviewed over the years. From Bobby Orr to Wayne Gretzky to Patrick Roy to Teemu Selanne. I mean, these were all my idols from when I was a kid.
“Also the current players, I remember one day we had (Sidney) Crosby and (Alexander) Ovechkin on the same show. They both called in. We had numerous conversations with Connor McDavid when he was a junior player, and so many other ones.”
Mears and Hradek discussed every major story in the hockey world over a five-year run on the show, and obviously were able to give the fans access to so many great players. However, Mears was able to do more than just host the daily show with the NHL Network. He provided coverage of the playoffs, the draft and more.
— Steve Mears (@MearsyNHL) July 21, 2017
‘A dream scenario’
Besides hosting, Mears’ NHL Network tenured allowed him to continue sharpening his broadcasting skills, serving as the play-by-play voice of the network’s coverage of Team USA at the World Junior Championship. This offered him the opportunity to witness so many future star NHL players on an international stage. The list included players like Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, John Gibson and Seth Jones. In his five years covering the tournament, he called gold-medal wins in 2013 and 2017.
“Nothing will beat this past World Junior,” he said. “Being in Montreal, the gold-medal game is U.S.-Canada, it goes to overtime, it goes to a shootout and the United States ends up winning it in Canada and at the Bell Centre, which is probably my favorite venue to call a hockey game in. I don’t know if you could top that.
“If you could have scripted it, and asked, ‘What’s your dream scenario going into the World Juniors?,’ I would have said ‘Prime time, U.S.-Canada gold medal game that’s close and has all kinds of lead changes and goes to overtime, maybe not a shootout in the dream scenario, but either way, close enough.”
The unforgettable experience will not be erased from his memory anytime soon. Experiencing this team firsthand has given him yet another group of players that he will now track as they advance toward the NHL.
As he prepares to move on to his own career change as the TV play-by-play voice of his beloved Penguins, he reflected on the NHL Network chapter of his career.
“It’s tough to leave, it really is,” he shared. “The thing I’m going to miss most is going in and wondering every day during the season what is going to happen. ‘What is the big storyline, what trade is going to be made, what are the storylines in the matchups tonight, what type of news is going to happen?’ That was the most fun part.
“I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity that I got there and I’m going to miss everyone, but I’ve told everybody that I’m going to be back to visit quite often. The Penguins are in the same division as the Devils, Rangers and Islanders, so with all these trips to the tri-state area, I’ll be coming back to Secacaus, N.J. to see everybody, and hopefully they’ll put me on.”
“I’d love to know what the odds were of that happening. Probably not great, but I realize how fortunate I am to get that opportunity, and I’m just excited.” – Mears on returning to Pittsburgh as a full-time Penguins play-by-play announcer
‘…to know what is ahead is really exciting’
As he travels around with the Penguins for his new gig, Mears knows that it comes with significant responsibility. He is now responsible for telling the story of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. His voice will be repeated over and over again with highlights of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Murray.
Lange enhanced Mears’ hockey-viewing experience as a child, which is something that Mears will now do for the current and future generations of young Penguins fans.
Pittsburgh has also really blossomed as a hockey city in recent years in areas besides the Penguins. A number of Pittsburgh natives have emerged as solid NHL players, such as Brandon Saad, J.T. Miller, Vincent Trochek and John Gibson.
The city hosted the NCAA men’s Frozen Four in 2013, and is going to host it again in 2021. The nearby Robert Morris men’s and women’s teams have both made the NCAA tournament in recent years. Robert Morris also hosts the Three Rivers Classic each year at PPG Paints Arena, bringing various college hockey teams to the area.
The Penguins-sponsored UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in the Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry was the neutral site of the NWHL All-Star game and has hosted numerous USHL games. The arena also houses the boys’ and girls’ Pens Elite program, which offers the opportunity to develop high-level hockey players in Pittsburgh. Scholastic hockey programs have also risen in popularity, with this arena serving as another premier facility for some of those games.
Mears grew up contributing to and witnessing this growth. He’s been able to enjoy it as he’s gotten older, but knows there is more to come.
“To have that growth in relatively a short amount of time, and to know what is ahead is really exciting,” he said. “I’m a byproduct of that. My generation benefitted from the Lemieux, Jagr Penguins and the ’91 and ’92 Stanley Cup championship teams.
“Now there is a new generation that is benefitting from the Crosby and Malkin Penguins and the championship teams of ’09, 2016 and 2017, and now I’m joining in and know how important the grassroots are for the sport.
“It means more because I know the history and I’m proud to say I’ve been a small part of it as a young kid that really lived and breathed hockey from 1990 on.”
— Steve Mears (@MearsyNHL) April 9, 2016
‘…it’s a dream come true…’
However, the excitement does not stop there for Mears. Aside from being a prominent figure in his hometown’s hockey scene as the play-by-play voice of the Penguins, his job also will allow him to work closely with his idol, and the most influential non-family member in his life.
As Lange remains the radio voice of the Penguins, he will essentially be Mears’ coworker, an arrangement that Mears cannot wait to experience.
“His influence on me is huge,” he reflected. “To this day, I text with him all the time. If I have a question or if there is something that pops up, whether it’s broadcasting-related or career-related, he’s always been willing to listen and be helpful in every way possible.
“To say that I’m going to be calling Penguins game alongside him, in a booth a couple doors down, just is incredibly thrilling to think about.”
As Mears spoke with Pucks and Rec, he was preparing to travel to New York City to host his daily show one last time with Hradek. The day was a significant one, as he officially closed the book on a momentous chapter of his broadcasting career.
His journey to this point has produced countless memorable moments. Some are well-known, like WJC gold or interviewing Crosby and Ovechkin. Others are more private, like his experience in the Bowling Green library or moments on a bus with the Mudbugs.
All of them have combined to lead him to where he is today, just a few months away from realizing the dream he developed as a young boy watching the Penguins play in Mellon Arena. As one would imagine, the first game cannot come soon enough.
“I wanted to specifically be an NHL play-by-play announcer, and if the stars aligned I thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great to be the Penguins announcer someday and be just like Mike Lange,'” he remarked. “I’d love to know what the odds were of that happening. Probably not great, but I realize how fortunate I am to get that opportunity, and I’m just excited.
“I’m very lucky to be entering at this time, and with my the love for the city and the team itself, because there aren’t many announcers, even some of the best ones, that can say they called games for the team they rooted for as a kid. In hockey I think that list is pretty short. So it’s a dream come true, and I can’t wait to get going again.”