Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of the story misidentified Matt Dumba’s ethnicity.
Trey Matthews thought there was no way he could be the only one.
He was right, but only barely.
A student at Adrian College, which is about 70 miles southwest of Detroit, Matthews wanted to do play-by-play and joined the school’s TV station last fall. He was assigned to hockey, a sport he had little knowledge about.
His first broadcast, in his words: “absolute disaster.” So much so that complaints to the station eventually led to a reassignment. Matthews, determined to stick with hockey, asked to cover another of the school’s seven teams. He was eventually assigned the Bulldog ACHA Division 1 women’s squad on a trial basis.
He immersed himself in the sport. He bought a hockey video game and played it until he could recite the rules. With each broadcast, he progressed. Yet, as a Black person calling hockey games, he still felt alone and unseen, isolated in a field nearly universally white.
Matthews’ father told him to do some research, to see if there was anyone else like him out there.
Matthews found Everett Fitzhugh.
At the time, Fitzhugh was the play-by-play announcer for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, a mid-level professional hockey league. He was the first Black announcer at any level of pro hockey.
Matthews tagged Fitzhugh in a Twitter message. They later exchanged emails. Fitzhugh asked Matthews to send him tape of some of the games he has called and offered feedback.
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And then in August 2020, Fitzhugh was named announcer of the NHL’s newest expansion team, the Seattle Kraken, making him the first Black announcer of an NHL franchise.
“Without him, I’m not in this position that I’m in,” Matthews told USA TODAY Sports. “That someone who’s also from Detroit, someone who’s also Black, someone who’s also told me that he had a similar road to the one I’m on – it just means it’s possible for me to make it. If he could do it, I can do it.”
Though Fitzhugh, 31, won’t call a game for another year – the Kraken will drop the puck for the 2021-22 season – the significance of his hiring isn’t lost on him.
“To hear that other people are chasing their dreams and trying to become hockey media members, writers, broadcasters – even fans – that is something so special because I was that Black kid growing up in Detroit who didn’t have those influences,” Fitzhugh told USA TODAY Sports.
The Kraken have embraced diversity in building their organization. Vice president of human resources April West told USA TODAY Sports that as of last week, the arena company and hockey operations team were 43% female (including 31% in positions of vice president or above) and 27% people of color, just shy of goals set last year of 45% and 25%, respectively. Last September, the Kraken made Cammi Granato, a former U.S. women’s hockey star, the first female pro scout in NHL history.
“It’s hard for young people or really anyone to envision themselves doing something or being part of a profession, a sport, or anything, if they don’t see themselves represented in the room,” Kraken vice president of community engagement and philanthropy Mari Horita told USA TODAY Sports. “If you really want to include everyone, it can’t just be by words on a piece of paper, it has to be in actions and example.”
Though details are still being finalized, the Kraken are planning on hosting speaking engagements and community events intended to showcase Fitzhugh as a prominent face of the communications arm of the franchise.
Fitzhugh’s presence is groundbreaking, especially in the NHL, which is a league with 95% white players and no coaches or general managers of color. Kim Davis was hired in 2017 as the NHL’s executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.
Davis said the NHL recently started a program for players of color who are interested in coaching, providing educational resources on how they can transition in their post-playing careers. The league also invited minority coaches in June to a development summit, in partnership with the NHL Coaches Association, to help groom and prepare them for future opportunities.
“Representation and connection counts,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports. “Billie Jean (King) often says: ‘If you see it, you can be it.’ I think this is a prime example of that. For sure, young and old alike will not only enjoy Everett’s commentating, but also see themselves as part of the sport and the future of the sport.”
The league has also attempted to be more inclusive with a “#WeSkateFor” campaign that has included “Black Lives.” Seven current and former players also developed the Hockey Diversity Alliance on their own with a goal to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.” One of its executive committee members, Matt Dumba, a defenseman on the Minnesota Wild, became the first player to kneel for the national anthem.
“I see my job to be as accessible, to be as approachable, as willing and able to do anything for the organization,” Fitzhugh said. “For me, it’s doing the job well. Being visible is the most important thing. Because I’ve always said, ‘I don’t want to be the best Black broadcaster. I want to be the best broadcaster, period.’”
Before joining the Kraken, Fitzhugh, who has invested more than 10 years into developing his career, spent five seasons with the Cyclones and maintained two jobs at once: director of media relations and broadcasting and the team’s spokesperson. Fitzhugh broke into the industry – much like Matthews has – as a student radio color analyst for Bowling Green’s hockey team.
“It’s not fair,” Fitzhugh said. “My mom always told me that sometimes being Black in America means you have to be twice as good to be considered average. It’s something I know a lot of minorities face. I’ve just always believed in letting my work and letting my passion and letting my love for what I do speak for itself.”
When Fitzhugh makes his first call with the Kraken, it won’t be his first in the NHL. Washington Capitals radio play-by-play announcer John Walton has made it a habit to invite up-and-comers to do preseason games to bolster young talent and extend an opportunity to people who typically haven’t had them.
After Washington won its Stanley Cup in 2018, Walton called Fitzhugh, whom he had heard on Cyclones broadcasts. Fitzhugh accepted. And the audio from that call was included in Fitzhugh’s presentation to the Kraken in their hiring process.
“This blows the race barrier away,” Walton told USA TODAY Sports. “Anybody who is the first at something sets the tone for the rest who come after. For Everett, it won’t be any different. But there is no more glass ceiling for anyone to break through in Seattle. This is just all they’ll know, which is great. He changes everything.”
Matthews is now a rising junior. In January, he was named the play-by-play voice of Adrian College’s ACHA women’s D-I team. Matthews said he has watched Fitzhugh’s calls and will closely follow his path to see if he can pick up any traits, any nuances. Anything to make his own broadcast stronger.
“I see a lot of similarities between us and stuff I can use to polish my game,” Matthews said. “He was told once that his voice doesn’t match his face and I was one time told my voice didn’t match my face because of the way I look. You’re saying that I have to stereotypically ‘talk Black’ because I’m from Detroit?
“If you’re letting other people say you need to change who you are, then you need to walk away. Judge me for what I say, not for how I say it. He has been a great role model in helping me see that.”