A few hours after Bob McElligott was promoted to his NHL dream job on Wednesday, the Somerset native recalled his radio roots in Johnstown.
McElligott moved into a full-time, play-by-play job with the Columbus Blue Jackets after spending the past four seasons as a color commentator.
His new job in “The Show” placed the likeable and good-humored McElligott about a figurative million miles away from his days as Johnstown hockey fans’ overwhelming choice as the best ECHL mascot.
Two decades ago, McElligott played the role of the Johnstown Chiefs’ Iron Dog so well that fans once presented him a replica fire hydrant for Christmas. The guy was an entertainer who at times had a knack for making the action away from the ice nearly as interesting as the play on it.
McElligott adapted and improvised during his mascot days.
He used the role to place his paw into the radio game.
With the support of former Chiefs radio broadcaster Gregg DeVitto, McElligott occasionally manned the microphone for a period or made a road trip with the Chiefs. DeVitto critiqued McElligott’s work and provided advice.
Fast forward to 2013, and McElligott is calling NHL hockey games.
“I think about that quite a bit, especially when I go out and talk to groups, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs,” McElligott said Wednesday night. “My line is always that I went from a job where you’re not allowed to speak at all to a job where all you do is talk.
“When the Iron Dog comes up, I think about how previous to that I was working at WVSC-AM in Somerset. I worked in the crows nest at the War Memorial and did games with the help of (former Chiefs GM) John Daley.”
McElligott already had spent four seasons in the Blue Jackets’ broadcast booth and put in his time for 10 years with the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch, an affiliate of Columbus.
Now, he’s a No. 1 play-by-play man, which is the holy grail among hockey radio gigs.
The 43-year-old McElligott will replace George Matthews, the Blue Jackets’ radio voice since the team joined the league in 2000.
“It feels great to get the job I’ve strived to have for so long. At the same time, it’s kind of bittersweet because George and I had not only a great working relationship, but also a great friendship,” McElligott said. “It’s funny on a day you should be so excited after all these years, you’re also sad because you’re going to lose a friend. You have to respect him. He’s doing what is best for his family. I’m sure going to miss him.”
McElligott is part of a distinguished group of former Johnstown pro hockey broadcasters currently working in the NHL.
Dave Mishkin, who was with the Chiefs from 1991 to 1994, is well known for his excitable calls of the Tampa Bay Lightning games, including their run to the Stanley Cup in 2004. Paul Steigerwald of the Pittsburgh Penguins got his start with the former Johnstown Red Wings. Ex-Chiefs broadcaster John Michael was an in-game reporter during Blue Jackets contests for two NHL seasons before taking a NBA job with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011.
“If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that there were the guys that made it to the NHL, and even the guys that didn’t, but were very good and had the potential,” McElligott said. “Gregg DeVitto went to the American League. If you just talk about me, Dave (Mishkin) and (Paul) Steigerwald, think about it, there are fewer han 120 NHL (broadcasting) jobs in the world and three of us have jobs. That’s a testament to hockey in Johnstown and the opportunities.”
McElligott the mathematician explained.
“There are 30 NHL teams, usually with four broadcasters – two on radio and two on TV,” he said. “Subtract Dallas and Buffalo, who each simulcast. That’s down to 116. Then, Colorado uses only one radio guy, so that’s 115.
“There are not that many jobs,” McElligott said. “These are the best hockey jobs in the world, and, here we sit.”
Not bad for a kid who used to practice by doing high school games on the radio at Somerset’s former IceTRACS and then inched his way into the Chiefs’ historic booth at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
McElligott thanked the late Daley and especially DeVitto for those initial opportunities.
“Gregg had those games when they had the ice rink in Somerset, and WJAC radio had a deal to do so many hockey games,” McElligott recalled. “Gregg told me during those games that if I did OK, he’d let me do two periods of play-by-play. He said he’d grade my work and tell me how to get better.”
Eventually, DeVitto pulled McElligott into the Chiefs’ broadcasts. When DeVitto left for the AHL, McElligott got the Chiefs play-by-play job.
On Wednesday, 16 years in the booth culminated in the big pay off.
“Gregg DeVitto texted me to congratulate me,” McElligott said. “I texted Gregg back and told him, ‘If it wasn’t for you giving me a chance and making me better, I wouldn’t be here.’”
Great call, Bob.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.