Since the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2015-16 season, Wade Minter had settled into a pretty normal routine. For every Hurricanes home game, he’d be stationed in the penalty box, calling out goals, lineups, penalties, announcements, promotions, etc. as the team’s PA announcer.
Between that, his “day job” as a Product Principal at Dualboot Partners, where he brings his years of technology leadership experience to new projects, also PA announcing for NC State hockey, doing improv at ComedyWorx, RTP180 - a monthly talk series run through the RTP Frontier co-working space and playing on two beer league hockey teams, Minter had plenty to occupy his time. But then, along with the entire world last March, all of that came to a halt at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the NHL hitting pause on its season, there were no games to call. Minter found himself in an unusual situation, with much more free time than normal on his hands.
“It was like somebody flipped a switch and I had nothing to do,” Minter said. “It was hard for me, I think, to adjust to that much free time. I love my wife and I love my kids, but that very abrupt change in routine and the dopamine hit that I get from being in the arena with the fans and being a part of the whole game experience, that sudden shut off of all of my creative outlets, it hit me and it took a little while to kind of adjust to that new reality.”
As everyone was challenged to do with life as we know it turned upside down, Minter found new ways to occupy his time. He busied himself with catching up on technology projects, rewriting an old software program for the sound system at his improv group, and developing a way for ComedyWorx, where his oldest daughter, Hayley, had also begun performing pre-COVID, to do improv shows online.
Starting last fall and into early December, Minter was able to get back to playing with his beer league teams, the Raleigh Puckaneers and Motley Crew Hockey, before rec hockey was shut down again due to COVID spikes. Minter unfortunately contracted COVID around the holidays, but has long since recovered.
While he found things to keep him engaged and entertained, the news of the NHL’s return to play was more than welcome. Minter called finding out that, of all the potential scenarios floated, NHL teams would be playing in their home arenas, which would mean a return to work for him, “a delight.”
“When it came out that the teams were going to be playing home games in the real game production and it was going to be broadcast on TV, that was something that really gave me a little glimmer of joy and hope after a pretty tough year,” he said. “So I was able to get a couple NC State games under my belt to knock the rust off, then get right back into calling Canes games.”
However, it quickly became apparent that, as with every other facet of life that’s resumed in the time of COVID, the experience would be different.
Sometime before the Hurricanes’ season was scheduled to begin, Minter returned to PNC Arena for a game production dry run that included the artificial crowd noise, DJ Mista Illz playing music and Minter practicing calling goals through a wireless mic off an old game on the jumbotron.
Already, there were signs that things were going to be different, with most of PNC Arena boarded up, and Minter’s seat moved from the penalty box to a table set up in section 119. Still, he acknowledged that practicing his role inside PNC Arena for the first time since February 2020 was an emotional moment.
“The first time on that simulated game that showed up on the jumbotron that I got to call out a goal, I’m not going to lie, I got a little teary, because it had been a very long time since I’d been able to do that,” Minter said.”
Of course, with no fans outside of a small group of player friends and family in the lower bowl, Minter knew his announcing style was going to change dramatically. After all, he’s someone who very much tries to feed off the crowd, and there would be no crowd.
Minter decided he still wanted to play to his audience as best as possible, even if his audience was mostly watching from afar.
“For me, the challenge I gave myself was, if there were no fans in the building, or minimal fans in the building, and most of the Caniacs are watching the game on TV, what can I do from my role to make sure that this comes across really authentic and fun on TV,” he said. “Because that’s going to be a little bit of a different approach, then how is this going to come across in the arena bowl. So I’ve tried tweaking a few things and changing some timings, so that if you’re watching at home and you hear me, it feels like a Canes game.”
For Minter, changing his process included “making things on the mic a little bigger and more pronounced” so his announcements and calls could be heard on TV, and making announcements such as “Caniacs get loud, your Hurricanes are on the power play,” after the puck drops, when such announcements would have previously been made in-arena during TV timeouts.
“I’m really just trying to be cognizant of the fact that the majority of the people listening to what I’m saying are doing so in a very different medium,” Minter said.
Of course, starting this Thursday, Minter will again be adjusting, as the Hurricanes will begin allowing fans up to 15% of PNC Arena’s capacity.
While he’ll have a live audience to read and react off of again, Minter anticipates using a hybrid of his old and new styles with most of his listeners still taking in the action from home. He’ll make calls that will read and react off of the audience that he can see and hear, but keep some of his changes such as making the power play call after puck drop.
“I think the thing that I’m interested to see is that I think the game production staff is still kind of working out how much of the fans in the arena stuff that has been dropped off of the game production comes back,” Minter said. “Right now, I basically introduce starting lineups, anthems, goals, penalties, end of the period, one minute. All of the kind of game logistic stuff. …
“So I’m wondering, and I don’t know the answer to that, how much of that pre-pandemic game presentation is going to be coming back. I’m sure they’re not going to have fans on the ice because the way they’ve segregated everything, but are there going to be any giveaways? Are there going to be features on the video board? If so, how does that play to the people in the audience as well as the folks watching at home?”
Unfortunately for Minter, some of the things he’s missed most about having fans in the building, such as hugs and high fives on the concourse, and fans banging on the glass are not likely to return anytime soon.
Still, Minter has found positives to his new station. Sitting higher up in the stands, it’s a lot easier for him to actually watch and take in the game action than it was from down in the penalty box, and with fewer announcements to make than there were with fans in the arena, he has more of an ability to do so.
“It is fun watching the game,” Minter said. “I think the reason all of us are fans and support the team is because it’s such a fun game to watch. When you’re working during the game, it’s a little bit of a different approach. This is kind of a hybrid where I’m certainly working, I’m certainly having to do my job, be fun, be professional, but there’s more time to look back on when I could just sit there and watch plays develop, see what the coaching strategy was and what the players are doing. So if you’re looking for a silver lining, that’s certainly one that I’ve enjoyed.”
That new ability Minter has to watch the game is something he’s tried to share with the audience at home through analysis on his Twitter account.
He’s tried to point out odd or good plays where the TV cameras might not be pointed, or help people feel more connected to the game they’re watching.
“I’ve tried as hard as I can to kind of be the proxy for the fan inside the arena, because they can’t be there but I can,” Minter said. “So I try to look for things that might be relevant, might be missed on TV, things the fans might have noticed if they were in the building sitting where I’m sitting, and try to provide that perspective on social media, really to just enhance people’s viewing of the game and enjoyment of the season.”
Of course, engaging with the fans is nothing new for Minter.
Interacting and engaging with fans, particularly on Twitter, is something Minter’s strived to do even before this season.
For Hurricanes road games, he records videos of “road goal calls” and posts them on his Twitter account. Anyone who follows Minter knows he’s always good for a gif, joke, quip, bun, banter or just some good hockey discussion.
First career goal for @slorentz96 makes for special #RoadGoalCalls #LetsGoCanes pic.twitter.com/itGYWofomD— H. Wade Minter (@minter) March 3, 2021
“I love what I do,” Minter said. “When you love what you do, you want to share it with other people. So for me, being able to know that I’ve made somebody laugh, given them a little bit of insight or created a moment in a sea of calamity that might have made their day a little bit better is really important to me.”
For Minter, who is a longtime Hurricanes fan and could be found in the stands on a nightly basis before taking over as PA announcer, remembers how much any interaction with someone involved with the team used to mean to him.
Minter tries to make himself accessible, and by engaging with the fans, he’s hoping to provide that experience to someone else.
“I’m hoping by making myself accessible, bantering and doing things that are fun in a positive way that the folks who might Tweet at a player and not get a response and be like ‘Oh, that’s disappointing’ can Tweet at me and get a gif back or fun remark, some banter and feel like the team as a whole knows that they exist, values them and is having fun,” he said. “Canes social media is top notch. That’s the official team stuff. They do an amazing job and have really upped the bar for fan interactivity. I really just try to ride their coattails a little bit and make sure that folks who want to interact with the team’s PA announcer have a good experience doing so.”
In a year where fans are separated from the team, Minter finds making himself accessible and trying to find as many different ways to engage with the fans as possible to be even more important.
“There’s a lot of things I can’t do, but there are also things that I can try and innovate and do something to bring a little closer connection between the fans and the team through some of the things that I can do, which I think are especially important in a year where that connection is more tenuous, because you’re not in the building,” Minter said. “You’re not with your fellow fans. You’re not tailgating. So if I can find little ways to make people feel more connected to the team, I feel like it’s part of my job description just like calling out goals.”
One new element that has emerged this year is “Minter Mail,” in which Minter selects fans to receive his call sheets from a Hurricanes home win. The idea actually stems from a postgame tradition Minter started pre COVID, in handing the sheets over the back of the penalty box to fans nearby following wins.
That, of course, isn’t possible this season, so Minter adapted once again in turning it into a virtual giveaway.
“In the vein of what can I do within the limited scope of control I have over fan experience to bring people closer to the game, it was kind of a case of ‘I’ve got these things. They were part of a game that I’m sure you wanted to be at, but because of current circumstances couldn’t, would anyone find this to be an interesting souvenir, a snapshot of a moment in time that you couldn’t be at but you really wanted to, but yet here’s a piece of paper that was there that can remind you of whatever that game was.’
“I just kind of threw it out there, and a few people were like ‘Yeah, that would be fun, I’d like that.’ And then a few more and then a few more. Now, the last time that I threw one out, it was over a couple hundred people replying saying they want it, which is gratifying that this little thing that is not really a big imposition on me is something that people value. Now I’ve got something that I can do for the rest of the season to hopefully make people feel a little more connected, and give them a little keepsake that maybe they’ll value.”
However, any who follow Minter know his penchant for creativity. It’s not just any response to a Tweet that will make someone eligible for “Minter Mail.” Throughout the season, Minter has done different contests for the sheets, such as having Twitter users send their best memes and allowing his daughters to pick their favorites.
Minter even alluded that a future contest might see him ask fans to step into his shoes and send a video of them calling out a goal for their favorite player, and he and/or his family will pick their favorites.
“I try to make it fun,” Minter said. “One of the things that I’ve learned from 20-plus years in comedy is that there’s a lot of different ways to make things entertaining. Part of it is trying to keep it fresh so that it’s not just ‘Oh, it’s after a game, I’m going to replay Hi, and it’s going to randomly pick something.’ I want to keep people on their toes, make it fun. … So I’m trying to keep it fun and different so people have something to look forward to, like, ‘Oh, what weird thing is he going to do after this game to give the sheets away?’”
One of Minter’s more engaging giveaways was one that involved replying with something nice about someone else on Twitter, one that provoked a heartwarming display with nearly 200 responses of people complimenting their fellow fans.
GIVEAWAY TIME! I have five PA sheets from Monday's 7-3 win over Columbus to give away. To enter, reply to this tweet with something nice about someone else on Canes Twitter. I'll pick five actually-nice responses at random to get one of the sheets! #LetsGoCanes pic.twitter.com/i1175L51H1— H. Wade Minter (@minter) February 16, 2021
For Minter, it was a way to spread positivity in an online environment that is all too often lacking it.
“It means a lot,” Minter said. “Twitter, like the rest of the Internet, is highly problematic in a lot of cases. Especially if you’re a woman or a minority, it can be a pretty vicious place, which isn’t how things should be, but unfortunately they are. So the thing I really like about Canes Twitter is that by and large, it’s a very supportive group. People generally come into it with good intentions and good faith. I think we all like each other to a large extent. So the idea was, there’s a lot of really cool people in Canes Twitter, there’s a lot of cool people that I don’t know about and I don’t follow because it’s bigger than just I am. If we can just take a moment to talk about how much we appreciate folks in the community who are helping us get through this crazy time, then all the better. If you win a sheet by doing it, awesome, but if not, you’ve told somebody that their contributions and personality are meaningful and we all need to hear that sometimes.”
As this season continues, Minter isn’t sure what things will look like for his experience and duties as the circumstances change with fans beginning to return.
One thing’s for sure, he’s doing something he loves, and something the past year has given him an even greater appreciation for.
“To me, it’s really meant a connection to a team that I started watching when I moved to Raleigh in 1999, then followed the ups and downs,” Minter said. “I had the opportunity in the 2019 season to call an Eastern Conference Final game or two, even though it didn’t quite turn out the way we wanted it to. After a 10-year playoff drought and what was looking to be another good playoff season when COVID hit, I was able to record a couple of things for the Toronto bubble which were nice, but not really like being there. So from the excitement of an Eastern Conference Final run, through a really good season that got cut short and then completed in my absence, being able to be back in the arena and be back on the mic has been a continuation of a lot of really good feelings and something that for me is a very meaningful part of my life.”