Mike Sullivan, the “ Voice of the Mavericks” has been telling us who scored for 19 years. When Mike Sullivan was in 10th grade, he remembers grabbing an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and, with his brother and a few buddies, they’d go around just….recording people. Like, just for fun. Asking them questions. Recording their answers.
“We would do anything when we’d get a tape and we’d have a grand time with it, “he says. We’d come up to people and they didn’t know we’re going to make them comment on something. We thought we were just hilarious.” And occasionally, Sullivan (known by friends and coworkers at KTOE radio as “Sully”) while his friends were playing old school box hockey, he would pretend to do sports play-by-play. Making up names or using the names of professional players, he’d do a running commentary while friends slapped their little plastic puck around a pretend hockey rink. And then, as is often the case when a parent notices their kid is good at something, Sullivan’s dad made a suggestion. He told his son he should consider a career in broadcasting. “I think you’d be pretty good at it,” his dad told him. Recalls Sullivan, “ And that sort of stuck in the back of my mind.”
This month, as the Minnesota State University men’s hockey team begins the 2018-19 campaign, Sullivan’s voice will once again be in the car radios and home hi-fi systems of hockey fans (for the record, he also handles broadcast duties for the Moon Dogs game, Mavericks football, and other sports.) Sullivan, the radio voice of the Mavericks, has been broadcasting the games for 18 seasons (this will be the 19th). Despite a health scare that nearly threatened his career a few years ago, Sullivan is still going strong at 64.
Growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s, Sullivan was watching the world change. He says he watched rock ‘n roll “kick down the door” of the music world, and saw the Beatles on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Getting into a career that brushed shoulders with famous people, with musicians, with newsmakers didn’t seem like a bad idea, so he did some research. Turned out one of the best schools in the country for learning the art of broadcasting at the time, Brown Institute was just down the road. So Sullivan followed his father’s advice and, after graduating from De LaSalle High School in Minneapolis, he enrolled at Brown.
But it wasn’t easy. Sullivan says the program had some built-in: weeding out periods to get rid of people who weren’t cut out for broadcasting. And there really wasn’t any other good way to learn to do play by play other than actually doing play by play. But instead of sending students to Twins or Vikings games, they were sent somewhere a little less glamorous: men’s softball, 98th, and Nicollet Bloomington. “The first night we went there I told the other two guys I was with ‘Hey, I’ll go ahead and get the lineup,” he said. “So I went down to the park and I asked one of the guys “Hey, can I get your starting lineup?’ and the guy said ‘yes but we’re short in left field if you want to go play.” Instead of playing, Sullivan did his broadcasting and turned it into his instructor. “We made up the stats, we made up stories about the guys, and I remember the teacher goes ‘where did you get this stuff? It was just great! And I said, ‘Well, we made it up’, and he goes ‘Well it helps quite a bit.’
That may have been the beginning of the Sullivan we hear today. His broadcasts style is like a combination of the follow-the-puck precision and tons of backstory and context – context rich with the experience and wisdom of a guy who has followed the team for nearly two decades. He’s been there during the lean years, years when the Mavericks hockey team fought to stay out of the last place. And he’s been there during the heyday when the team was ranked No.1 in the nation. He rides with the team on their away games, gets to know the players and coaching staff. “ Traveling in the planes, trains, automobiles or buses. You get to know everybody and they get to know you. I don’t know the best word to describe it. It has a family feel. There’s no doubt about it. You learn to care for these people and they feel like family to you and you’re interested in what they do and what becomes of them after they leave here. And I’ll say that the people associated with MSU are just the best. I mean they’re not just great coaches, but great people, and it’s a privilege to be a part of that. Sullivan says no part of his job is more important, though than the relationships and trust he builds with his listeners.
Sullivan takes that role seriously. He says he understands that, for many fans, he’s their connection to the team. It is through his voice that many get the information they need to be angry, excited, confused, elated (sometimes all of those, all in the same game, even the same period, maybe even the same shift!) He understands that telling someone when a goal is scored in an athletic event isn’t earth-shattering, but nurturing a fan’s relationship with a team they love is meaningful in a world where people look for escape and long to be a part of something. To the fans of a sports team, the act of following their wins and losses and learning about the players is important to them. And Sullivan understands his part of that grand drama.
His first time doing play by play for hockey was for an Austin, Minn. high school game. Eventually, a United States Hockey league team came to Austin, the Austin Mavericks (which would later become the Rochester Mustangs) and he broadcast those games, too. “So that’s where I kind of cut my teeth for hockey,” Sullivan said. And then it’s like anything else: The more you do the games, the better you get .” Still, there are times when hockey isn’t an easy beast to tame. The game is fast, and there are many names and numbers to memorize. Following the names of all the players is quite another. And speaking to that puck: It’s little, and it can be difficult to spot sometimes, especially when there’s scrum in front of the goaltender, and if that’s happening, there’s a decent chance the puck will go into the net, which means an announcer needs to be ready to for that app important goal call.
“ You’re part of a live event people to turn on the radio to hear; you’re a connection to it,” he said. “ It’s kind of like the old ‘Star Trek’ or Spock doing the mind meld… I’m putting my hand on the event, I’m the channel.” Sullivan says he really became aware of just how important connection is when the games began streaming online. “ Up until that point, you were confined to the range of the broadcast towers,” he said. “ And that was your audience. Usually parents and fans, whatever, maybe a couple of towns over. But when the (streaming started) I had people come up to me at the Verizon Center and they’d look at me and I’d never seen them before in my life. And I’d kind of look at them and they’d ask who I was. And I’d tell them. And they’d say.’ yeah, we listen to you and I’m so and so’s parents from British Columbia.”
There was a time, though, when no one heard Sullivan’s voice. It was 2013, and Sullivan had been experiencing some hoarseness in his voice. “That’s a bad thing for a radio guy,” he said. “That’s your bread and butter.” Voice problems, he said aren’t uncommon for people who make their livings with their voice. Usually, it goes away with rest. This one, however, persisted. He found himself unable to finish a Maverick football game one night and decided to get help. After doctors in Mankato couldn’t diagnose the problem, Sullivan went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester where they found a cyst beneath his vocal cords. When surgeons removed it, they found it was larger than they’d thought, which lengthened Sullivan’s rehab time. He wasn’t able to talk for several days, as talks could damage the surgery area. A week later, he went to work. He still couldn’t talk but he could do some of the off-air work his job requires. And he was doing voice rehab at Mayo. He was itching to get back behind that mic, though.
“That was the first time I appreciated what an injured player goes through when they’re out of the line up for a while,” he said. “ It’s a lonely feeling. You’re kind of off to the side. And I remember talking to a couple of the injured guys. We were joking, calling each other spare parts, because that’s what you felt like: a spare part. And those guys eventually all got back into the lineup. And I was the last of the spare parts. And then t finally came at the big series against Ferris State… I was primed and ready to go.” As a sports guy, Sullivan likes to talk stats on the air. But there’s one state he won’t mention, and it’s very meaningful to him. The other day, while getting his stats ready for a Maverick football game, he wrote down the number 248. “This week written down my sheets will be number 248,” he says, referring to the number of games he’s broadcasted since his surgery. “ Because I don’t take it for granted. I don’t take it for granted. And hopefully that all remain in the rearview mirror.”
(Story by Robb Murray From CONNECT MAGAZINE).