Who would’ve thought New Haven, Connecticut would be the incubator for every California NHL team’s audio broadcast?
The San Jose Sharks’ Dan Rusanowsky, the Anaheim Ducks’ Steve Carroll, and the Los Angeles Kings’ Nick Nickson all called play-by-play for the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks before making the NHL.
And Roy Mlakar, President and General Manager of the Nighthawks from 1976 to 1986, hired them all. Nickson called New Haven games from 1977 to 1981, Carroll was there for the 1985-86 campaign, and Rusanowsky took over until he joined the expansion San Jose Sharks in 1991.
“It’s crazy how it all works,” Carroll chuckled.
Funny enough, Mlakar didn’t necessarily hire the two future Hall of Famers in Nickson and Rusanowsky and a deserving Hall of Famer in Carroll for their broadcasting chops. Nickson was recognized with the Foster Hewitt Award in 2015 and Rusanowsky was recognized today.
“Radio basically was, especially in the American League, a [money] loser,” Mlakar explained. “You try and sell as much advertising to support the rights and the expenses and the travel. One of the things that we always had to do was make sure who we talked to about broadcasting games, recognize that’s not the most important part of your job. I need you to sell tickets, PR, group sales.
“If you can’t sell, I don’t need you to broadcast.”
And while the 26-year-old Rusanowsky, who was coming from broadcasting NCAA St. Lawrence Saints games, didn’t necessarily have that experience, he had the do-anything attitude that Mlakar was looking for.
“Just his willingness to do anything for the job,” Mlakar said of Rusanowsky, who he affectionately referred to as “Snooze”. “Dan wanted the job so bad, he’d sell eggs to the farmers.”
“I was effectively selling the advertising that paid my salary,” Rusanowsky said.
That meant literal boots on the ground.
“The week before the first season, one of the sponsors of our show, decided not to renew. That was half my salary,” he recalled.
So Rusanowsky went to a local car dealership.
“Just like anybody, when you’re selling, you go and make your presentation. You hope they buy it,” he said. “They don’t buy it, then you go to the next one.”
The dealership bit, and Rusanowsky’s salary was saved.
“You find out about how this is a product that is sold, not bought, and how the AHL in particular is sold, not bought,” he said. “You have to approach your businesses very differently. You’re doing a lot of work with individual people, families, and so I learned the ropes pretty quickly. But it takes a while to build that base.”
Anyway, it’s not as if Mlakar didn’t have an ear for broadcasting talent. Mlakar, when he worked for the Cleveland Indians, Cavaliers, and Barons from 1970 to 1973, had spent a lot of time with future Basketball Hall of Fame announcer Joe Tait.
It actually took Rusanowsky some time to win Mlakar over with what his then-New Haven boss described as an “over the top” call. But like sales, Rusanowsky just put in the work.
“He was always driven to succeed. Never late for anything. He wasn’t prepared for games. He was ridiculously overprepared for games,” Mlakar said. “His sheets, his lines, his percentages were far before [the time].”
For example? Keep in mind, this is the ‘80s and most definitely not the NHL.
“‘Now the Bears come into New Haven. Their power play is clicking at 19.8 percent. That’s 11th…’” Mlakar said in a Rusanowsky mock call. “Everybody’s probably going where the hell did he come up with that?”
“Dan was a creator of more innovative broadcasting elements than I had ever heard anybody from any other team at the time,” he remembered. “He became a better everything everyday.”
So when the San Jose Sharks’ first president, Art Savage, called Mlakar, now a VP with the Los Angeles Kings, for his thoughts about hiring Rusanowsky to be the voice of the fledging franchise in 1991?
“You’d be making a wise choice. Talented guy. Hard worker. Great experience now. Obviously, a go-getter,” Mlakar told Savage.
The San Jose Sharks haven’t looked back.
And neither have the Kings, who have had Nickson on the air since 1981, and the Ducks, who have had Carroll on the air since 1999.
“There’s certain guys that are more knowledgeable than others,” Carroll said, when asked what he admires about a Rusanowsky broadcast. “When you listen to somebody, you can tell if they’ve prepared, if they enjoy their job. And I want to hear something that I haven’t heard from anybody or haven’t seen on a website, that kind of thing. So those three areas are probably three things that stick out to me.”
“When Dan became the Sharks radio voice, I was very pleased that another hard-working AHL broadcaster made the jump,” Nickson said. “The two of us have always remembered our roots and because of our backgrounds, it’s always been a treat to see and talk with Dan. He is most deserving of this honor. I, for one, can appreciate all he’s done to grow the game and Sharks hockey in the Bay Area, aside from his wonderful description of the game when he is on the air. He is a true credit to our profession and the game of hockey.”
“TV guys usually get all the credit,” Carroll laughed. “It’s good that they recognize hockey out here.”
It’s amazing how far – literally – Rusanowsky, Nickson, and Carroll have come.
“You talk about a trio, having Nick, Danny, and Steve,” Mlakar said of his New Haven alumni. “I mean, that’s a hard act to follow.”
The Sharks, Kings, and Ducks agree, for sure.
Special thanks to long-time Clarkson, St. Lawrence, and Manchester Monarchs coach Mark Morris for his invaluable help with this story.
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