Southern Hockey on the Skids: Stop Macon Sense

Thanks to Red Rooster Hockey

The first in a biweekly series this offseason where I let it all hang out. I will invite readers of Flyers Faithful to take a break from the maddening crush of rumors, draft picks, trades and free agents this Summer to read on and find out how I got here, and why I think, feel and write the way I do about the game hockey, the vagaries of the business and culture after almost 15 years navigating rough waters in sports media.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away before massive internet proliferation made actual human contact between two concerned parties largely obsolete, I hatched the brilliant plan to make dozens of cold calls over a series of several months to find a suitable minor-league market willing to take a bright, young, energetic, cynical but knowledgeable 22-year-old hockey fiend ready to begin his career in sports broadcasting.

After feeling the sting of rejection (the likes of which Jordan Kuhns and others attempting the same thing today might really never recover from) more than 30 times in conversations with front office personnel everywhere from Mississippi to Mississauga, from Key West to Long Beach, someone was willing to take me.

The Macon Whoopee.

That’s right. A minor-league hockey team nestled deep in the heart of high-school football heartland in the South based on an ancient show tune written about a fossilized euphemism for the nasty.

Pictured above was their old, original logo from the one-shot Southern Hockey League in the early 1970s which went belly-up despite national exposure surrounding the salacious nickname and old-school Biblical nod to the Garden of Eden. By the time the Whoopee were re-introduced in the Central Hockey League in 1996, the logo was just as cheeky but a bit more explicative.

The capricious nature of minor-league ownership didn’t take away from the fact that cities like Macon, for however long their teams managed to survive, were often nothing more than a small stepping stone towards greater reward for a number of AHL and NHL-level talent that graced the airwaves. Some came to play, some stayed, some left and rose through the ranks, but hundreds took the chance.

I’ll never forget that day in May of 2001 when their General Manager spoke the words to me over the long-distance telephone line that I didn’t know I longed to hear: “Don’t bother coming down for the interview. We’re all out of jobs and the new owners are planning to take the team to another league.”

One product of the system, current Flyers radio play-by-play man Tim Saunders, advised me of that path back in January of 2001. In perhaps the only instance in my career of the requisite butt-kissing at lower levels being the gateway to the higher-ups, I made enough of an acquaintance of then-WIP update anchor (now on WXPN) Bob Bumbera during my internship at the station in the Summer of 2000 that he connected me with Saunders and suggested I pick his brain about the prospects of starting from the bottom and eventually working back to Philadelphia.

I finally was able to meet with Saunders mid-season, where he was generous enough to hook me up with my first major press cred for a Flyers-Kings game before being kind enough to break it all down for me, one professional to a neophyte. His advice and information was eye-opening, honest and at times brutal, and stood in stark contrast to his own sharp rise to an NHL broadcasting booth. It did little to put me off the chase.

By that time, I had begun the arduous task of searching the ECHL, CHL, SPHL, WPHL and WCHL league sites to find which teams might be searching for a combined broadcaster/salesman, along with the individual phone numbers and names of each team’s general manager, and worked my way through in no particular order, starting with the Mississippi Sea Wolves one day, then Memphis, Albuquerque, Indianapolis, Pensacola, Wichita, Las Vegas, and so on. Everyone I encountered on the other end was cordial enough, mostly female, but it seemed the man in charge was always in a meeting.

One morning as I slogged away at a low-level job at a local university which was my first legit long-term, post-college employment — a random search turned up something which provided a shock down my spine — a provisional logo for the Atlantic City Admirals, the club the ECHL’s Hampton Roads Admirals were rumored to be morphing into after gaining approval to jump leagues. That was a tremendous false flag. The phone number provided never seemed to work and nobody else knew anything about a move.

One important oversight which hindered the goal, was the lack of a solid resume tape to ship along with the resume and cover letter.

Despite working 20 games at Boston College my senior year, including the Beanpot and both the national semifinal and final, there had to be another current call of the game as the capper. College radio was college radio, and I wasn’t any different than anyone else in that regard who dove in the deep end right away with the knowledge that it was only college radio. It was a slow process, working up to something good in only five months, and after a long, hard listen, only parts of three games fit the bill.

One of them that didn’t pass muster was the time I had the brilliant idea of joining Hampshire vodka to Lipton Brisk iced tea before the BC-Northeastern Beanpot semifinal. I don’t sound wasted, but I was trying too hard to shout over an enthusiastic crowd and wasn’t in sync with my broadcast partner for the entire first period. I have the tape, tucked away under guard. Nobody will ever hear it.

In any case, enter Saunders once more, who hooked me up with an empty booth for a Flyers-Wild game in March. Minnesota didn’t send a crew to Philly, so this was my time to shine. Long story short, after working the game and then advising me on which cuts could be considered tape-worthy, I had a full sample with which to shop my wares.

Thereafter, a cold call with sweet talk to the first person who answered the phone in Peoria, Shreveport, Huntington and Dayton wasn’t just five minutes a pop out of my spare time to gather information and assess need: I had an in, and there were finally GMs willing to listen. Six weeks into the chase with renewed vigor and multiple trips to the local post office to weigh the bulky envelopes on which my future presumably rested, I received a call on the parents’ answering machine from South Central Georgia.

The next day I called back and spoke directly to the man behind the Whoopee, team Vice President Darren Roberts. I recall the conversation being cordial, but pointed and professional, and I did most of the talking since I needed to explain in detail exactly how that one year at WZBC-FM in Chestnut Hill, MA plus one random Flyers game qualified me for the next level.

At the time, the club was part of the CHL, but had only won one playoff round in five years while missing the playoffs entirely in 2001. An older, smarter person would have seen the writing on the wall, but I was just trying to get a job, so the blinders went up. I must have done a great job of convincing him the first time around, and received a second call-back less than a week later and Roberts made it a point to praise the tape I sent right off the bat, leading to the set up of an in-person interview, in Macon, the following week.

As the Shermanator famously said in the original “American Pie,” confidence was high. I even dared to do the one thing nobody is EVER supposed to do under pain of death: I quit my job, giving two weeks notice the day before I was to head down to Georgia for what I believed to be the clincher. That was a Wednesday, with Thursday a travel day and Friday set for the interview.

Maps bought, route planned, cash grabbed, hotels scouted. There was only one problem…another message from Roberts, this one audibly more urgent, when I arrived home that evening.

Less than 60 seconds later, I was on the horn again, with the full explanation, which went something like this: the ECHL was looking to expand without having to court expansion clubs, and weaker teams from across the other minor-pro Double-A level were trying to get a taste. The Whoopee were struggling at the gate after being mediocre to bad for the last five years, and the current owners figured that jumping up one league would garner more prestige and goose the fan base into buying season tickets with better competition. So what did they do? Junked the old franchise, assumed a controlling interest in the dormant Tallahassee Tiger Sharks, then re-branded with the old team’s name and logo.

In addition, the CHL was expanding into non-traditional markets in Texas and the owners felt Macon was a better fit geographically with Augusta, Pensacola, Mobile, Baton Rouge and Columbus — which also made the leap up the ladder. Therefore, they couldn’t have a CHL-level staff working for an ECHL-level team. Thank you, drive through.

Mouth agape, I hung up the phone and started to laugh. At 23, it’s the only way to deal with absurdity and bad decisions made with too much confidence and too little foresight. Yep, I had no job but at least I wasn’t hung out to dry having to put 1,600 useless miles round-trip on a Kelly Green 1994 Lincoln Continental for what amounted to a phantom position.

The writing was on the wall. Hunting high and low for that elusive first step was a sucker’s game. I put in 4 1/2 months of intense effort and that was it.

Macon lasted exactly one more season, before bolting for Lexington, Kentucky and then oblivion. The Bird and the Bee wouldn’t be seen again until 2006, in Los Angeles. The Titans brought me in for an interview a week after that, and I sat with Rich Lisk and then-Titans GM and now current ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna for more than an hour but wasn’t hired. I got back on the trail of the Admirals, found out they dropped anchor in Norfolk instead and the Boardwalk Bullies were born with all of their jobs filled.

Not too long after that, I started the interview rounds with legitimate 9-to-5 jobs, and eventually settled into a windowless office as a financial aid counselor. How’s that for being born under a bad sign?