Jordan Staal slowly glided to center ice and got in position opposite Detroit’s new captain Dylan Larkin, ready for the opening draw in Little Caesars Arena on the eve of the Carolina Hurricanes’ season opener.
As Canes fans tuned in for the start of the game, a familiar voice welcomed them in. However, it wasn’t the usual play-by-play voice, but instead that of the former sideline reporter, Mike Maniscalco.
While Maniscalco had called games for the team when the NHL returned to play last year, he didn’t view that opportunity as an official thing.
“I’ve had experience, but it was just filling in,” Maniscalco said about calling the games in the bubble during the contract dispute between the Hurricanes and John Forslund. “You want to do a good job, but it was one of those things where you knew that you were just filling in.”
Now however, the Buffalo native isn’t just filling in. Maniscalco was announced as the play-by-play voice of the Hurricanes for the 2020-21 season and he already has a few games under his belt.
For Maniscalco, his dream has now become a reality.
But Maniscalco hadn’t always dreamed of being a sports broadcaster, though. Instead, like many, it wasn’t broadcasting sports that he was interested in. It was playing them.
Maniscalco enrolled at SUNY Buffalo State College in 1993 with plans of playing football. While he didn’t get to play his freshman year, he was dedicated to making the team the next year. The summer leading up to his sophomore year he committed himself to training and lifting.
Then he injured his knee, putting those football plans on pause.
While looking for something to occupy his time, Maniscalco wound up in the lobby of the student radio station, where he overheard a certain problem.
The station’s play-by-play voice wasn’t going to be able to cover games due to conflicts with his new internship and they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to do the broadcast without him.
Overhearing this, Maniscalco couldn’t help but interject. “I can do it,” he said. “I used to call my highschool games.”
Except the thing was, Maniscalco had never called a game. He played in his high school football games, and it’s kind of hard to call a game from on the field. But he knew the game and was familiar with the team, so he felt confident.
“I became the color commentator for that season and in the next year, I became the play-by-play voice on the student radio station for Buff State and that was it,” Maniscalco said. “I knew what I wanted to do.
“So since I was 19 or 20 years old, this has been the dream. For 25 years, this is what I’ve wanted to do. It was also pretty clear that I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete. It wasn’t the injury, but the lack of talent that really was going to impede me from being a pro athlete.”
And for those 25 years since, that has been the driving goal for Maniscalco. His journey has taken him through quite a few different broadcasting jobs, from Buffalo to Richmond, until he eventually landed in Raleigh in 2007 with a new job as the pre and postgame radio host for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Maniscalco became a staple for Hurricanes fans looking to connect with the team from his radio segments to the popular Canes Corner events that saw him sit down with players and coaches for hour long segments.
His hard work led to an eventual promotion in 2016 to the video side of things as the Hurricanes LIVE! host, web host on CarolinaHurricanes.com, and as a sideline reporter on FS Carolina and now he has made it to his dream job, a professional play-by-play broadcaster.
Asked if he was nervous leading up to his first game , Maniscalco agreed, but more so argued that it wasn’t from a fear of mistakes, but of living up to the legacies of those before him.
In true Maniscalco fashion, he rattled off a movie quote that encapsulated the moment for him.
“The great line from Gene Hackman to Keanu Reeves in The Replacements, ‘I was like a duck on the water. On the surface everything looked calm, but beneath the water my feet were going a million miles an hour.”
The Hurricanes, in their relatively short history, had been blessed with some of the sport’s greatest talents when it came to broadcasting.
From legendary radio broadcaster Chuck Kaiton, who called every game from the Hartford Whalers induction into the NHL through relocation and up until the 2018-19 season, to John Forslund, one of the best play-by-play voices, and the only ever of the Hurricanes, those legacies left huge shoes to fill.
But Maniscalco isn’t a small man and in his 14th season with the organization, Maniscalco isn’t some new, fresh face either. He’s a pro talent, and one of the most loved members of the organization, respected by not only the fans, but the players, coaches and staff as well.
“You get nervous leading up to it, but once you’re there, you just do the job,” Maniscalco said. “That’s what it is. I’ve called play-by-play before. I can rely on that experience and the fact that I know this crew, not just the on-air talent, but the talent that is behind the scenes that really does an amazing job. All I have to do is keep the car between the line right now and everybody else takes care of everything.”
And along with that, Maniscalco has a steady rock in his corner: the Hurricanes’ color commentator and analyst for the past 22 seasons, Tripp Tracy.
“[Tracy]’s the best, honestly,” Maniscalco said. “I could not ask for a better analyst because of the position that I am in. He knows the drill. His hockey knowledge sometimes I feel gets overshadowed because, since he understands the entertainment aspect of it, he’s willing to say some things that are a little off the wall to get a laugh, but he really knows what he’s talking about.”
“He also knows everybody in the league. He’ll be like, ‘Hey did you get this pronunciation? Do you want me to call someone and get that for you, because I’m not sure if you know the guy or not?’ He’s just willing to do that, so he’s been great to work with.”
And having someone you can depend on is vital, especially in this season which is seeing a lot of changes from the traditional broadcasts.
For one, the season opener was called over 500 miles away, with Maniscalo and the Carolina Hurricanes broadcast team situated in PNC Arena to do the game remotely.
With only a single game feed in front of them, the broadcasting team is reliant on only that view just like everyone else watching.
“It’s not as hard as people are going to make it out to be, but it’s not easy,” Maniscalco said. “Whatever is on that monitor, that’s it. That’s all I have. If anything is happening behind the play or if the puck goes off the screen you can’t really see it until the camera catches up. It’s not easy, but once you settle into a rhythm it becomes a little bit more comfortable and hopefully sounds a little bit more natural.”
There is also the prep work that has to go into the broadcast. It isn’t just knowing the names and showing up.
Maniscalco takes notes on rosters, line combinations and pronunciations, which he said is one of the most important aspects of the broadcast, for both teams days before the game. He also watches game film for upcoming opponents to try and learn tendencies and impact players as well as watching back his own calls to see where he can improve.
But what really makes a broadcast special is the little details that can be interspersed during a whistle or stoppage.
“You keep track of if someone is one game away from a milestone,” Maniscalco said. “One goal away from 200 career goals or one point away from 300 career points. You do the same for the other team too, because I think the fans, while we are a Canes broadcast, want to know if someone on the other team does something special.”
Not just milestones, but anecdotes, player quotes and stories that Maniscalco and Tracy can bounce back and forth and really bring the fan experience to another level. That’s a large part of what goes into the prep. Finding out these stats and stories.
Maniscalco has a few stories that he said he’s keeping in his back pocket, waiting for the right moment to bring them forth, so fans will have to stay tuned in to the team’s broadcasts to hear them.
Maniscalco was dialed in for his first game, but when the broadcast came to a close and the cameras turned off, he said that’s when the emotions began to well up inside of him.
“Relief was the first thing I felt,” Maniscalco said. “I also had a sense of pride, because this is what I wanted to do. Seeing that I actually could do it and that I now have this opportunity. I also thought of pretty much all of the folks that helped me get here, and there were a lot of them.”
Maniscalco, while happy to have earned his dream job, isn’t content with just having it.
“After the game, I thought of the things I could have done better,” Manisacalco said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to walk out of a broadcast, being like well that was great. To me there’s always something that you can do better. But it was number one and they say you never forget your first, so for me, I’m going to remember it.”
For those wondering if the Big Rig will have a snazzy tagline or catchphrase, you’re going to have to wait on it as Maniscalco said he isn’t forcing anything.
“I think those things are best if they just happen organically,” Maniscalco said. “Tripp even asked me if I had been looking in the mirror and practicing my calls. I’m not just sitting there going, “Sweet, sassy, molassey. What a goal!” I’m not trying to do that. I think it will just happen.”
Even though many fans remember the “Dear Gussy!” call from the Rangers series, Maniscalco explained that that was fulfilling a request from former Hurricanes communication director Pace Sagester.
Dear gussy, had been a phrase Sagester’s grandmother used to say, so he requested that Maniscalco find a way to slip it into a broadcast.
“I was like ‘Dear gussy?’ Maniscalco recalled. “I’ve never used that in any of my sentences, ever, but I’m like, ‘You know what, for you Pace, I will find a way to put that in.”
While Maniscalco may not have a signature yet, there is one phrase he has found himself using quite often. As the puck drops, Maniscalco can be heard saying, “And away we go.”
A simple phrase, but one that captures the moment, whether for the first puck drop of a new season, or the start of the next chapter for the new voice of the Carolina Hurricanes.