On a 20-hour trip to Estero, FL, to play the Florida Everblades, the bus carrying the Cincinnati Cyclones broke down somewhere in rural Georgia. It was miserably humid inside the faulty coach, but going outside meant being swarmed by mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies. So the Cyclones opted to spend most of the several-hour delay inside the sweltering vehicle, where they sweated it out but at least got relief from the bugs. 

As Everett Fitzhugh, now the radio play-by-play voice of the Kraken, and the team fanned themselves inside the bus, there were players that were dealing with various injuries and needed attention from the team’s trainer. “So our trainer pulled out the table and started doing treatment on the side of the road in this abandoned gas station parking lot,” Fitzhugh said with a laugh. The treatment was given, bugs be damned.

Then there was the time when—on the road back from Indianapolis—a major snowstorm had the team’s driver white-knuckling the steering wheel and keeping the speed to about 20 miles per hour on the freeway. He eventually pulled into a Wal-Mart parking lot, where the whole group slept on the bus until about 9 a.m. They then got back on the road and rolled into Cincinnati with just a couple hours to spare before a 2 p.m. home game. Remarkably, the Cyclones won that game.

This was life in the ECHL. Fitzhugh wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world. 

Rising through the broadcast ranks, Fitzhugh got his start as a student calling games for the Bowling Green University Falcons. He spent time in the USHL, then the ECHL, and eventually got a mysterious email from Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke that he first ignored, assuming it was spam. He ultimately replied to the message and had a conversation with Leiweke that led to his ascension to the NHL. 

The ECHL, AHL, NCAA, and CHL are all meant to develop players on the ice. But what is often forgotten is that team employees who help run operations off the ice are honing their own skills to try to reach the upper echelons of sport. 

The arrival of the NHL’s 32nd franchise to the Puget Sound area has allowed dreams to come to fruition on the ice, in the broadcast booth, and in the team’s offices. Decades of hard work and perseverance for people like Fitzhugh have finally paid off, thanks to the birth of the Seattle Kraken. And while there are similarities in the paths taken to get here, each individual has a story to tell about what they went through to work at hockey’s highest level. 

The juice is worth the squeeze

One of Fitzhugh’s colleagues on the airwaves is Mike Benton, the studio host you hear between periods of Kraken games on AM 950 KJR. He has many similar memories from his own days with the Stockton Thunder and Alaska Aces of the ECHL and the Everett Silvertips of the WHL. 

He remembers the fear he felt when—on a ride from Medicine Hat to Calgary during the 2019-20 season—the Silvertips were jolted awake with the violent swerving of the team bus in 30-mile-per-hour winds at 2 a.m. 

Benton also recalls the occasional dread of shepherding entire ECHL teams through airports to catch commercial flights and avoid canceling or delaying games due to travel mishaps. Yes, he was the radio guy, but in developmental leagues, you wear a lot of hats, and one of Benton’s hats was de facto travel manager. 

Mike Benton spent six years as the director of broadcasting and public relations for the Everett Silvertips. (Photo/Everett Silvertips)

“I am begging and pleading with anybody who’s got an official airline uniform on if they could communicate to the ground control over in Denver,” Benton remembers after a team’s flight was delayed en route to its layover stop. “If the next flight can seriously hold up the doors for us and ask our airplane if they can let our team off first, because it’s going to be just a major catastrophe to then try to get flights rearranged, to get bags rearranged all of that.” 

On this occasion, the airline did hold the plane, as the whole team sprinted through Denver International Airport and got on their connecting flight to Boise. As the last player stepped on board, the flight attendants closed the door and away they went. 

The resources in those lower leagues are more scarce than in the NHL, but for Benton, it was worth going the extra mile—both literally and figuratively—to be able to do what he loves for a living.  

“It’s the one line of work I find true happiness with,” Benton says. “For what I do and for the people that I can connect with, it’s been a dream come true for me and a great ride.”

Current experiences prepare you for future endeavors in mysterious ways

De’Aira Anderson, now the corporate communications manager for the Kraken, also fits into the category of having risen through developmental leagues to reach the pinnacle of the sport. She took a slightly different route than Fitzhugh and Benton, though. Anderson got her start in hockey as a social media intern for the University of Pittsburgh men’s ice hockey team. She later became the communications and operations director for the Syracuse men’s hockey team, before leaving the sports world for a couple of years and working for InkHouse, a media and marketing agency. 

The arrival of the pandemic—terrible as it was—eventually brought a positive change for Anderson, who found herself furloughed from her position at InkHouse. “When I first started working at my old agency, I told them, ‘I probably won’t quit for anything, but if there’s one thing I definitely will quit for, it’s if I get an NHL job.’” 

Unexpectedly out of work, Anderson applied for an open position with the expansion Kraken. What initially appeared to be a major bump in the road ended up being the catalyst for Anderson landing her dream job. “I tried on a whim and somehow I convinced [the Kraken] to hire me, which is awesome, and I’ve been here ever since.” 

It’s funny how some moments in your career prepare you for bigger and better things later in life, and at the time you may not even realize it’s happening. 

“When I was working at Syracuse, I had the fortunate ability to start their communications program for their hockey team up there,” Anderson says, referencing the introduction of Syracuse’s NCAA Division I women’s program. “The Kraken are a brand new franchise, so I got to start from the ground up and again have a heavy input on how we built our social presence and how we came up in the community.” 

Sure, Syracuse University’s hockey program is a smaller operation than an NHL team, but there’s no question in Anderson’s mind that her experience there helped her get ready for her current role. And the organization that she helped build there is still going strong, as employees and interns have come and gone, following in Anderson’s footsteps with the Orange. 

“I didn’t expect to be like a catalyst for other people when I was on this trailblazing path to becoming what I wanted to become,” she says. “So I think that’s kind of cool because I was like, ‘Well, I don’t think that was what I was expecting.’ I was just really focusing on myself, but having a positive impact when you’re not even trying to [impact others] is really cool.”

Developmental leagues bring development for staff as well as players

While Benton, Fitzhugh, and Anderson all took slightly different routes to the NHL, it is easy to find parallels in their respective journeys. The most glaring connection between the three is that they all found value in juggling many different roles and responsibilities. In prior positions, the teams that employed them had fewer resources, lower budgets, and a fraction of the staffing in place.

“I wore so many different hats,” Fitzhugh said of his time in the ECHL. “I was the PR director, I was a social media manager, I was on the marketing side, I was team services. I did all the travel and hotels and meals and bus schedules and all that stuff, and oh, by the way, I had to broadcast 72 games a year.”

Says Benton of his time with the Silvertips in the WHL: “There was a greater ask of me to really help grow our brand on a digital side when I wasn’t on the air, which I was very, very happy to do. Those [different responsibilities] pretty much hit on all cylinders with what I had trained for, coming up as a college student, an intern, and an entry level employee.”

Fitzhugh estimates that at the ECHL level, he did the jobs of 120 of the approximately 200 people that are now employed by the Kraken. But he sees that as a testament to the quality of talent the organization has hired and the expectations that they have for themselves. “I think it gives you such an appreciation for just how hard everyone in our organization has worked and is continuing to work to put this product on and to be the best team in the best venue in the best organization in the NHL.”

Dreams do come true

Perhaps the 20-hour bus rides or the sprints through airports are metaphors for the journeys that folks like Fitzhugh, Benton, and Anderson have been on in trying reach this level of the sport they all love so dearly. And perhaps that’s why all three were so elated when they got offered jobs to work either for the team itself or—in Benton’s case—for its broadcast partner.

So what do you do when you get the call offering you your dream job, something you’ve been striving for your entire adult life and maybe even beyond? You cry, you smile, you hug, and you call your loved ones. 

Knowing she had interviewed, Anderson says her parents had been checking in daily to see if she had any news. When she finally found out she was getting hired, she called them, along with her grandma, on a group FaceTime. “They were like, ‘Oh, we know that you’re calling to tell us you got it!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, and I am really excited!’”

Benton says he did “about 15 Tiger Woods fist pumps,” then called his wife, Amy, who had been so supportive of him chasing his dream over the years. Together, they then called their loved ones and shared the news. “It’s one of those things that you always think of and you always dream and wonder, ‘What’s it going to be like?’ You put so much hard work and so much intense passion into what you do. It’s like when the moment finally hits you, it’s almost like you have an out-of-body experience.”

Fitzhugh remembers taking the call on speaker phone and sharing the very special moment with his wife, Shelly. “We were laughing and we were crying and we were so excited,” he says. “Then the first person that I called obviously was my mom. And you know, she’s over the moon and ecstatic. She was like, ‘Oh, my son’s going into that dream job!’”

When Fitzhugh’s news went public, the first offer of congratulations came from a surprise caller. It was Ty Eigner, the head coach of the Bowling Green Falcons. “I could tell he was fighting back some emotion,” Fitzhugh says. “He was like, ‘You know, this is just as big as if it were one of our players. We’re so happy for you here at Bowling Green, and you know you are a member of Bowling Green hockey.’ So that was really really cool.” 

For Fitzhugh, the journey came full circle when he received that call from Eigner. For Benton, Fitzhugh, Anderson, and dozens of other Kraken employees, a goal has been reached, and now together, they work to reach the loftiest goal of all. 

Cover photo by Brian Liesse.

Darren Brown is the Chief Content Officer at Sound Of Hockey and the host, producer, and editor of the Sound Of Hockey Podcast. He is an inconsistent beer league goalie who believes that five players have to make a mistake before the puck gets to him. Follow him on Twitter @DarrenFunBrown or email darren@soundofhockey.com.