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An inside look at Blackhawks’ rebuilding year in broadcast booth

The Hawks have been pleased with what they’ve heard from their fill-ins for the departing Pat Foley, and more voices are in the offing.

Pat Foley is in his 39th and final season as the voice of the Blackhawks.
Sun-Times

While late Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray recovered from the stroke he suffered before the 1987 season, WGN-TV filled his seat with celebrity guests. They ranged from Bill Murray and Jim Belushi to Bob Costas and Pat Summerall.

That revolving door of broadcasters comes to mind whenever a Blackhawks game comes on NBC Sports Chicago. Not so much for the array of talent — with all due respect, WGN put some of the best in the media world in Caray’s chair — but for the different voices replacing a legend.

The Hawks have employed several to sit in Pat Foley’s seat this season, the Hall of Famer’s last with the team, in what amount to live auditions. They have been pleased with what they’ve heard, and more voices are in the offing.

To be sure, Foley fill-ins Chris Vosters, Stephen Nelson and Mike Monaco have performed well. But, through no fault of their own, it has been a bit jarring to listen to Hawks games on local TV called by unfamiliar voices. It takes time to get accustomed to an announcer’s sound, rhythm and cadence, which are part of the viewing experience.

Foley won’t be easy to follow. He didn’t create his own language, like former White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson did, but fans often can tell how the Hawks rate in his eyes by the tone of his voice. Foley has been around hockey for 40-plus years; he knows what he’s watching.

That’s not to say the aforementioned trio are hockey neophytes. Vosters and Monaco have called college hockey, and Nelson has called the world junior championships. But the broadcasting industry stresses versatility these days. Foley’s specialization is going the way of the cable bundle. It will be hard for anyone to match his knowledge. Who else is such an authority on the off-ice lives of linesmen?

So to rate what we’ve heard, we’ll need to judge just that — at least for now. All three have a professional sound. They know what they’re doing on the air. They seem to be comfortable and affable and speak smoothly. But some differences stand out.

Vosters lacks a goal call. That must be addressed. Every goal doesn’t have to sound the same (even Foley deviates from ‘‘He scores!’’ on occasion), but the vast majority should.

Nelson went for a laugh a bit too often. That’s his personality and broadcasters need to be themselves, but they also need to be aware of themselves. That comes with time.

Monaco was helped by having the best game the three got to call — a 5-4 overtime victory against the Capitals — and he rose to the occasion. But he also went quiet at times rather than call the action.

Fans heard another voice when the Hawks were in Dallas on Saturday. Ralph Strangis, an Emmy Award-winning announcer who called the Minnesota North Stars in the early 1990s (we won’t hold that against him) and the Dallas Stars for 20 years, isn’t in the running to replace Foley. The Hawks hired him in the offseason as a broadcast consultant, and he’s helping lead them through this transition.

Strangis is working with the broadcasters. He has gone over game video with them in the Hawks’ offices and has offered advice. If you caught the game he called, that’s the type of broadcast the Hawks want. Strangis had energy and clearly tried to keep the mood positive as the Hawks got off to a terrible start before rallying and losing in overtime.

The next new voice fans will hear is Alan Fuehring, the voice of the Bridgeport Islanders of the American Hockey League. He’ll call the Hawks’ game Jan. 2 against the Flames. Other voices we won’t hear might be considered, as well. The Hawks are making themselves open to anything, even the possibility of having two play-by-play voices replace Foley.

They’re also working to do right by Foley, who has been involved in the process and has a great relationship with Strangis. The Hawks have asked Foley which games he wants to call and with whom. He’ll be celebrated April 14 with the Sharks and their general manager, Doug Wilson — a former longtime Hawk and Foley friend — in town.

So consider this a rebuilding year in the broadcast booth. The Hawks are mixing up their pairings and trying new tactics. And, just like you watching at home, they don’t know where it will lead.

Other observations of Hawks’ new-look TV broadcasts

His fashion sense aside, content analyst Colby Cohen has been the best addition. He has added insight in the studio, the booth and rinkside. His commentary from between the benches during the game Dec. 17 against the Predators complemented Eddie Olczyk’s always-sharp analysis. The game wasn’t great, but the broadcast was. Hopefully, the Hawks will station him there more. Cohen also proved prescient about the NHL’s crackdown on cross-checking, which he examined in a pregame show early in the season.

• Andrew Shaw might have been a barrel of laughs as a player, but his personality was MIA when he joined the pregame and postgame shows early this season. He’s new to TV, obviously, so we’ll cut him a break. The same goes for another former Hawk, Colin Fraser, but he should bring more to broadcasts as a full-time amateur scout for the Hawks. That’s a rare combo in the industry and should be developed.

• Caley Chelios has been a nice addition. She joined the Hawks’ crew after five years as a commentator on the Lightning’s broadcasts. The pregame show with Chelios and her father, Chris, a former longtime Hawks defenseman, was enjoyable. Look for more family fun with Olczyk and son Nick, who has joined radio voice John Wiedeman as an analyst.

• Speaking of Hawks radio, it was wonderful to see and hear Troy Murray back in the booth recently. As he battles cancer, expect to hear more from Fraser, Caley Chelios, Nick Olczyk and Paul Caponigri in the analyst chair.