Prusina at home as voice of the Wranglers

Photo: Rob Kerr/Twitter

In honor of Women’s History Month, this week is featuring a multi-part series spotlighting women across the AHL.

📝 by Patrick Williams

Calgary is home for Sandra Prusina, and now the Scotiabank Saddledome broadcast booth is becoming her home as well.

The Calgary Wranglers named her their play-by-play voice last fall, making her the first woman to hold that role in AHL history.

Prusina’s voice is hardly new to listeners in her native Calgary, where she has been a fixture with CityNews 660 AM since 2007. Hockey fans know her from her work calling games for the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the University of Calgary and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. Her resume also includes reporting and anchoring responsibilities, covering the FIFA Women’s World Cup and three Olympic Games.

When the Inferno folded in 2019, and with the COVID-19 pandemic further limiting broadcast opportunities, it seemed that Prusina’s hockey broadcasting days might be over. To start with, those coveted jobs do not come open very often, and there were no such openings in Calgary.

But in 2021, the Flames temporarily relocated their AHL affiliate, the Stockton Heat, to Calgary in order to minimize logistical difficulties at a time when travel and border restrictions hampered movement between Canada and the United States.

Rob Kerr was tapped to call Heat games in Calgary, and he asked Prusina to join him for a three-game set against Belleville. Prusina provided color commentary for the first two games, then handled the play-by-play duties in the finale on Apr. 17, 2021.

“The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (the owner and operator of both the Flames and Wranglers among other properties) has always been familiar with me just because I’ve worked in Calgary for such a long time,” Prusina said, “but I think that’s really what put me on the radar.”

Prusina had shown that she could call a good game in an empty building with a struggling team.

“It was just a really weird situation,” Prusina said of the pandemic season, in which the team played only 11 home games — all without fans. “It was almost eerie, like something none of us had experienced before. This is an NHL building, so it’s huge. It’s also old on top of that, so it’s got this almost mystical feeling. When you have no fans there, and you’ve got this weird noise being piped in, it was just odd.”

If she could make a situation like that work, it boded well. A year later, when the Flames moved their affiliate to Calgary full-time, the Flames’ vice president of communications Peter Hanlon reached out to Prusina to ask if the Wranglers’ broadcast job might be of interest.

She was announced as the first voice of the Wranglers shortly before their Oct. 16 opener.

Now Prusina had to adjust quickly to a different style of hockey. Up until those three games in 2021, her hockey experience had been exclusively in women’s hockey, including several games for the PWHPA Dream Gap Tour during the pandemic — something that she calls “great, but just a bit of a tease.”

However, the men’s game has its own flow and style.

“It’s not very north-south,” Prusina said of women’s hockey. “A lot of it is played east-west. There’s so much battle in the neutral zone, whereas the men’s game is really end-to-end, board-to-board, and your eye needs to be on the puck all of the time or else you might miss something really crucial.”

Most nights, Prusina handles the call solo, without a color commentator.

“It can be absolutely exhausting,” Prusina said. “But then there are certain games where there are very few whistles, the flow is intense, and that just feels like second-nature, because essentially you’re just storytelling, and you’re showing things through your eyes.

“I absolutely love it. There’s nothing better than live broadcasting, because there’s this element of surprise. It’s just being in the moment, and I absolutely love that about play-by-play.”

Sports, and the broadcast booth, have always been part of Prusina’s life.

“I always knew I wanted to be involved in sport,” Prusina said. “I was a fan of sport ever since I can remember. My earliest memories of sport are throwing a ball with my grandpa when I was a little girl in his backyard and watching Hockey Night in Canada with my dad.”

Prusina was also fortunate that her hometown was often in the spotlight.

“The ’88 Olympics (in Calgary) are probably one of my very, very earliest memories, and then a year later the Calgary Flames won the Stanley Cup, so I was really lucky that I was so young but able to experience some of the greatest euphoria in the world of sport.

“I’m also an only child. Being involved in sport, I think, gave me a sense of belonging to community, learning different sorts of social skills, being competitive, and leadership. I don’t know… there’s just nothing like being involved in something and you’re all trying to accomplish the same goal. I remember saying to myself and to my parents, ‘You know, I want to cover an Olympics one day.’”

And she did. Prusina covered the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, the 2012 Summer Games in London, and the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. She thought that she had reached her peak.

But there was more, though she did not know it yet.

“Play-by-play was always my goal, but I didn’t think it was feasible just because as a woman, who was calling games? Nowadays you’re really lucky. You have a Doris Burke to look up to. Beth Mowins. There are certain women that you can look up to and say, ‘Thank you so much for blasting that glass ceiling so some of us can get through.’

“But for me, it was never on the radar. I just have kind of been able to roll with the punches, and I’ve been given this opportunity, which I’m super grateful for.”

Prusina brushes away any talk of herself as a trailblazer, however.

“I mean, it means a lot to me if I can make the path a little bit easier for another woman. I can’t look at things like trailblazing and stuff like that, because there have been other women before me who have done great things in the world of hockey broadcasting. Leah Hextall. Cassie Campbell-Pascall. Jen Botterill. Because they’re there, I’m in the position I’m able to have.

“So I don’t really think about it. For me, I’m just Sandra Prusina, the broadcaster.”

Prusina also sees other women in the AHL as an example, too.

“I think the opportunities are there,” she continued. “I mean, the American Hockey League is a great example. Jessica Campbell, who was a one-time member of the Calgary Inferno, is on the bench for Coachella Valley… It was just such a full-circle moment for me, because you see her behind the bench, but I remember calling her games.

“Girls are going to see Jessica behind the bench and think, ‘Okay, I can be a coach.’ Or you have women in the front office or people at high levels of communications and media relations. And now in broadcasting. I just think as long as girls can see that we’re there, they know that that door’s open for them. I hope that they hear my voice and they might not know what I look like but they can hear that I’m a woman, and I’m broadcasting this game.”

After the Flames’ AHL prospects reached the Western Conference Finals last season, the Wranglers look to be every bit the Calder Cup contender in their first season in Calgary. So has Prusina allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to call a title run?

“I’m just going to try to go into this last homestand enjoying every minute and come what may. Honestly, I’m ready for it all. I cannot wait. I would love nothing more than for a championship to come to the city of Calgary, because this is such an awesome sports city. It is a hockey-loving city, and I just want to see the Saddledome filled with Wranglers fans once these playoffs roll around, because I think — and I don’t like trotting out the word ‘special’ — but I think this team can do something special.

“This success of the Wranglers has just made calling this year an absolute pleasure.”