By Nicholas Niedzielski | AHL On The Beat
Jason Shaya is a familiar voice for most Charlotte Checkers fans; he’s been the team’s broadcaster since its ECHL days in 2007. The Detroit native has also been known to fill in between the pipes at practice for both home and away teams over the years.
But on Sunday, a different opportunity come his way.
“I was actually skating with the injured guys on the ice,” said Shaya. “Then coach [Mike Vellucci] walked out there and said ‘Ned’s not going to make it, I want you to back up the game.’”
Despite picking up a win the night before, netminder Alex Nedeljkovic woke up sick Sunday morning, unable to even get to the rink. With no other goalies on the roster and in need of a body for that afternoon’s tilt, Shaya was the next choice.
To those out of the know, having a broadcaster serve as a backup goaltender for a professional team sounds like a wacky, novel idea – and it kind of is – but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more qualified replacement than Shaya.
“I really started goaltending seriously when I became a broadcaster,” said Shaya. “For my first team in the UHL, I practiced almost every week because our starting goalie played every single game and never wanted to practice on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. So I would practice on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and it just snowballed from there. The one thing about being a goalie is, if they need one, you’re in the net. Over the last 12 years of playing with these guys, you just get better because they make you better.”
A consummate pro, Shaya’s first thoughts were toward his main line of work.
“My concern was with the broadcast because that’s what I do, I’m the broadcaster,” said Shaya, who will make his NHL debut in the booth next month when he fills in for John Forslund on the Carolina Hurricanes’ television broadcast. “But we got that situated pretty quickly and I said I’d do it.”
Slated to become the second emergency backup goalie to dress in Charlotte’s AHL history – last season, University of Manitoba netminder Byron Spriggs came to the team’s rescue on the road in his home province – Shaya had some things to take care of before puck drop. First and foremost was preparing the night’s radio broadcast, which would be handled by Checkers VP of hockey operations Derek Wilkinson and director of finance Jamie Black, both of whom had extensive pro hockey careers. While the rest of the team began their warmup processes, Shaya made sure his makeshift broadcast duo was ready to go.
“Wilky seemed pretty excited and he’s very, very good on the mic,” said Shaya. “His ability to talk and ad-lib is so underrated. But play-by-play is a skill set and it’s very hard to just jump into it. The entire game I was wondering how it was going. I was looking up going ‘What could they possibly be saying right now?’ But I’ll go back and give it a listen and I’m sure they did OK.”
With his actual job covered, Shaya turned his sights to his job that night, which in his mind was pretty simple.
“The big thing for me was staying out of the way,” said Shaya. “I didn’t want to be a distraction to anyone and I didn’t want anyone to change what they normally would do. I just wanted the guys to do their thing as if I wasn’t there, and I think I was almost completely invisible.”
Having somewhat of an outsider on your bench can obviously be a strange situation for players.
“Guys get into their routine and they don’t like change, at least when I played,” said Black. “But you need to fill a body. We had to do that a number of times with guys in the area having to fill in. As a player, you have to focus on what you have to do and not worry about that stuff.”
This Checkers team didn’t seem to let it affect them and they put their full support behind Shaya.
“The guys were really good about it and it was really nice,” said Shaya. “I was very thankful. I’ve done this before and some guys don’t like it, they don’t want the radio guy on the bench. I understand that, I don’t want a player sitting next to me in the broadcast booth just to sit there, right? I don’t want to be in their space. I was just happy that everyone was cool about it and coach was very supportive.”
With Shaya watching on from the bench, starter Jeremy Smith pitched a stellar contest between the pipes, stopping 40 shots in the Checkers’ shootout loss. There were a few instances, however, when a mass of bodies congregated around Smith and reminded everyone just how close Shaya could have been to entering the game.
“I watched the game and based on my count of what it would be like if I was in the game from the very beginning, the Checkers would have lost by about 15,” said Shaya. “And that’s being pretty generous to me. Thank God, he didn’t get hurt.”
The game finished without incident and Shaya’s AHL career came to a quick end – for now. And despite the limelight cast on him for the day, that’s how he wanted it.
“That was the goal, it’s not about me, it’s about the team,” said Shaya. “I’m just helping out in case, God forbid, there’s an emergency. The biggest thing I’ve learned is don’t take yourself too seriously out there. Don’t think that you’re suddenly becoming a pro hockey player because you have a jersey on with your name on it. I’m not a pro hockey player, I’m not even close to these guys.”
While Shaya has played it cool, it obvious to those around him how big of a deal Sunday was for him.
“He has given a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the years in various ways to this team, from the road trips to packing the gear,” said Checkers COO Tera Black. “He’s always filling in where needed. I know how much this meant to him, especially from the thank you text he sent me. He was over the moon. It was so great. It’s everybody’s dream to have that kind of opportunity.”