Around here, Sean McDonough is probably most renowned for his 1988-2004 run as the Red Sox’ superb television play-by-play announcer, mostly on Ch. 38. It feels like a treat to have him calling approximately 40 games on the radio this season, as he has for the past couple of years.
Nationally, he’s called so many huge events — everything from World Series to “Monday Night Football” to premier college football games to golf majors — that chances are his voice is associated with the highest level of whatever your favorite sport happens to be.
McDonough has accomplished so much that, as it turns out, it’s easy to overlook his bona fides in another sport: hockey.
“I’ve heard a little bit these last few days, ‘He’s done hockey? When was the last time he did hockey?’ “ said McDonough, laughing, during a conversation this past week, a couple of days after ESPN announced he would be the network’s lead play-by-play voice next season when the NHL returns to the network for the first time since 2003-04.
“Well, you can only do what you have, right? I’d love to do hockey, but ESPN didn’t have it. Neither could [ESPN personalities and hockey aficionados] John Buccigross or Steve Levy or any of the other people at ESPN who love hockey and would have loved to have been doing it all these years. I’m one of just many people who is super excited that the NHL is back.”
ESPN and the NHL announced in March that they had reached a seven-year broadcast rights deal that includes four Stanley Cup Finals. (Turner Sports landed the second part of the rights package several weeks later, which includes three Cup Finals.) When he learned about the deal, McDonough almost immediately let the ESPN executives in charge of such decisions know that he was interested in being one of the play-by-play voices.
“I had been hoping ever since it left that it would come back,’' said McDonough. “I reached out pretty quickly to [ESPN president] Jimmy Pitaro and [executive vice president and executive editor, studio production] Norby Williamson and told them I’d be very interested to be involved at the highest level I could be involved. They both received that well, said they were happy to hear that, and then I basically waited while they were busy assembling our great roster.”
Other play-by-play voices include Buccigross, former NESN personality Leah Hextall, and Levy, who will also be the primary studio host.
“I think they knew the play-by-play people were basically going to come from within, so I think they were more focused on analysts and studio hosts and people that would be coming from the outside,” said McDonough.
McDonough may be associated with a variety of other sports, but he does have a long and varied background calling hockey, including the NHL on ESPN before it lost the rights all those years ago. He called the men’s Frozen Four several times for ESPN, and his roots in college hockey go back to NESN in the ’80s, when he’d announce the Beanpot and Hockey East championship games, among other assignments.
“When I got to NESN, Hockey East was just starting out,” he said, “and I think NESN was in 3,000 homes, which is basically one neighborhood. It’s obviously changed a lot since then.”
McDonough said it’s a lifelong dream to call a Stanley Cup Final. But what’s his favorite moment broadcasting the sport so far in his career?
“Probably the highlight was the ’98 Olympics at Nagano when I was at CBS,” he said. “It was the first year that the NHL players could play in the Olympics and it was the first year that women’s hockey was on the Olympic menu. It was a great time to do that.”
Hockey, because of its pace, is generally perceived as the toughest sport to call. McDonough said it is in some ways, but a lot of times the quality is dependent on the broadcasters’ vantage point.
“In the old Boston Garden’s hockey broadcast position, you were in the front row of the balcony,” he said. “That balcony hung right over the ice, You felt like you could reach out and pull the helmet right off the top of the players’ heads. You were that close. It was really easy to identify the players, the numbers, and really have a sense for what was going on.
“Now, the broadcast booth is on the ninth floor [at TD Garden]. It’s much harder to see.
“I’ll tell you, though, I don’t know how anybody does hockey on radio. At least on TV you don’t have to describe every pass and every movement of the players. Even on the radio, the best radio guy can’t do that. The puck and the players are moving way too fast. It’s not possible. On TV, we don’t have to do that.
“But it’s fun. The pace of it makes it fun. I think it was NBC that had the ad campaign, ‘There’s nothing better than the Stanley Cup playoffs.’ I saw that and I was like, ‘Damn right.’ “
McDonough said he’ll continue to call high-profile college football games for ESPN and ABC, but his college basketball workload could be affected. He wants to continue doing Red Sox games on the radio next season, though the schedule may have to lean toward later in the season since the Stanley Cup playoffs run into the summer.
“I’d like to be able to continue to do all of the stuff I’m currently doing and basically add this, but if any of them goes away, it might be the basketball,” he said. “But that hasn’t been determined yet.”
McDonough chuckled when recalling a recent conversation with Dan Berkery, a legend in Boston media circles from his time as general manager at Ch. 38 in the ’80s and ’90s. Berkery hired McDonough in 1985 as the Bruins’ between-periods host and made the decision to name him, at age 25. as the Red Sox’ play-by-play voice three years later.
“Here’s the guy who gave me my start in baseball, who took that chance on me that launched my career,” said McDonough, “and he tells me the other day, ‘I really hope you get this hockey thing. I’ve always thought it was your best sport.’ I laughed and said, ‘You know something, Dan. So do I.’ I’m really excited to do this.”