Matt McConnell…the Atlanta Thrashers’ original TV play-by-play man has, in his own words, quite the whirlwind journey in life so far…but his travels have brought him back to Thrasherville for his second tour of duty for the team and he’s loving every minute of it.
McConnell was born in Gary, Indiana and his father worked for a steel company…a job that would eventually move the family around quite a bit. He lived in Indiana for the first 12 years of his life and that’s where he became a fan of hockey…a big Chicago Blackhawks fan, he told me.
“I remember one night when I was about 4 or 5 years old”, McConnell recalled, “My dad turned on a Blackhawks’ game on WGN and I just kinda started watching it…and just really seemed to enjoy it”.
Then his dad came home with some tickets and he soon got his first taste of live hockey action. “That became something we did ten times a year”, Matt recalled. “We’d go to Blackhawks games… those Sunday night games. I grew up loving the game and following guys like Bobby Hull, Stan Makita and Tony Esposito. They were all my heroes”.
In 1975, just before Matt went into the seventh grade, his dad was transferred to northern Minnesota…a town called Virginia. “John Harrington, who played on the U.S. 1980 Olympic team was from that area”, McConnell remembers…and that’s where he began playing bantam hockey himself.
“Basically, I got my butt kicked”, he told me with a laugh. “And I realized it probably wasn’t going to be anything that was going to take me very far”.
In McConnell’s tenth grade year, his dad’s job took him to Pittsburgh where they lived between ’78 and ‘81…and naturally, he began to follow the Penguins.
After high school, McConnell was off to Michigan State where he got his first taste of broadcasting. “I started out as an accounting finance major but quickly telecommunications with an emphasis in economics. I also began working with the campus radio station…and they had a really good hockey team at the time, always went to the tournament. In my senior year they were upset by Provenance, which was a monumental upset…but they had some really good teams up there and that’s when I began broadcasting”.
After college he did some play-by-play work in the International Hockey League for a few years… “Making about $250 per week in Flint, Michigan in 1985”, he remembers. “The team almost folded mid-season, then went to Peoria for a couple of years. And then my big break came in 1993 when I got hired by the Ducks in Anaheim…so I was the first guy to do Ducks games”.
Given that he was there to see the startup of both the Ducks and Thrashers organizations, I asked him to discuss the similarities between the two.
“I think there are a lot of similarities…I think you always try to build through draft picks. But the fun part about starting up with a franchise is the buzz, you know…the initial buzz with everyone so excited about the team being there and they have the franchise in place. In Anaheim we won, I wanna say, nineteen road games and were in the playoff race the first year right until the final weekend when Winnipeg won a couple of games to take the final playoff spot. So that was a lot of fun”.
Continuing, he added, “I think when it’s an expansion team… everybody’s new, everybody’s kind of coming together as a family. We had a really good group out there…and I think Atlanta was the same in a lot of ways…you know, non-traditional hockey market, so I was used to how all of that unfolds”.
“There was an incredible buzz here those first few years [here in Atlanta]…and the team wasn’t very good back then. But now we’re fighting for a playoff spot”.
After about three years in Anaheim, McConnell returned to Pittsburgh where he did some TV work between 1996 and ‘99. “Working with the Penguins was fun…I got a chance to call games with Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis”.
He then came to Atlanta for their inaugural season in 1999. After the 2002-’03 season, though, it was off to Minnesota for one year before returning to Atlanta. Once back, he did some freelance work for college sports television, doing college hockey, basketball and lacrosse.
He also hosted Thrashers Live for two seasons…2006-07 as well as 2007-08.
“It’s been a whirlwind, for sure…and I’ve truly been blessed to have worked for some very good people, “he said while nudging Darren Eliot to his right. “This guy is one of the handful of people who can really break down the game analytically and not just regurgitate replays”.
“It’s been a lot of fun and I hope it can continue for many more years”.
Regarding this current edition of the Thrashers and their chances of making the playoffs, McConnell told me he likes what he sees for the most part… but there is that issue of playing the full 60 minutes. Sure, they don’t get blown out of the barn, but the slow starts are somewhat of a concern.
“The fact of the matter is that we are in the middle of a playoff race. They are fun to watch…very talented. Ya know…you see flashes of what this team can be. They go into Philadelphia and get down 3-1, come back to win it. But I think since day one, it’s really been a matter of consistency…when are we gonna see a run of consistency over the course of a number of games? …I think that’s the next hurdle and I think that they’re really close”.
“We’re going to have this incredible spring in March with all of these home games…there is so much parity right now, it’s one or two games [separating several playoff contending teams]…so it’s exciting from that standpoint”.
“The thing that I’ve taken away from this team just being around them is that they don’t seem to let a lot of things bother them. I think the chemistry this year has been as good as I’ve seen. They seem to genuinely have a good time, they seem to genuinely want to play for one another. And I think with those attributes I’m pretty bullish that they’re gonna stick around and make a serious run for a playoff spot”.
Regarding his comments about things not bothering them…I asked if that was true during the recent drama surrounding the Kovalchuk trade situation as it unfolded.
“If it did bother them”, he responded, “Then they did a pretty good job of keeping it behind closed door. I thought John Anderson had a great quote when said that if Don and Jay had done a good job of keeping the negotiations in the board room and not letting it effect that team”.
When I asked Matt what were the best things about his job, he again directed my attention to the man he shares a broadcast booth with. “When I was down here for the first tour of duty, we lived closer together and so we would drive in together, carpool to the airport and we’d have long talks about the team and about the shows and I think that really helped us initially get to know each other”.
“But he’s as easy going as you’ll find…and I don’t know what it is, why we don’t always step on each other, but for some reason it just flows”.
“Besides working with Darren…who teaches me something new every day…what I like is just being around the game. Ya know, I found out in bantam hockey that I never had the ability to play professionally like these guys do, so I like being around the game and I have fun calling the games”.
Matt went on to add, “What else makes it fun is all of the stories. Not just from the present-day players but being around a group of guys [that date back over the past]. When I was working in Peoria, we had a game in Salt Lake and our coach was Rick Mohar, the All-American at B.U…and he told me, ‘Hey, I’m going out with a bunch of guys from the 1980 team that are in town’. He was a good friend with Mike Eruzione…and he asks me if I wanna go and I say ‘sure’. So we walk across the street to this hotel and there’s about eight or nine of them in this mini-reunion of the 1980 players. And as like to tell Darren, for the first time in my life I shut up for about two hours and just listened to the stories”.
To which Darren interjected…”I only wish I could have been there to enjoy it”.
McConnell also says he enjoys the travel that comes with his profession…getting to go to different cities and see different things. But overall, it’s the entire hockey experience that he enjoys…being around the game and the players that make and have made it what it is.
Of course, the big question for anyone so close to the Thrashers is…what will it take for the Thrashers to make the playoffs and what are their chances of doing so?
“For me, I’m going to keep my eye on special teams”, Matt said. “That’s going to be key. And we’ve talked a lot about secondary scoring and how the emergence of a guy like Jim Slater…which I think is a big deal. But I really think that they’ve got what it takes…but I think they would be in a much better position if they came out and started dictating play more, especially on home ice with all the home games coming up”.
Either way it unfolds, Matt McConnell will be there bringing us these all-important games the Thrashers will be in…and alongside him will be his partner Darren Eliot, who we’ll hear from later in the week.