First and Black: How Everett Fitzhugh became an accidental NHL trailblazer

Growing up in Detroit, the Red Wings were very much part of Everett Fitzhugh's life. How could they not be? After an extended slump from the late 1960s into the 1980s, it was just as Fitzhugh was coming of age as a sports fan that the Red Wings rose to the top of the NHL again with back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998.

But for all of the team's success in that stretch, there was not a single player on the Red Wings roster that looked like Fitzhugh — or, for that matter, that looked like over three-quarters of Detroit's residents: African American. Brian Johnson and Tony McKegney had played 17 games combined for the Red Wings in the 80s, and Nathan Robinson played a handful of games with the team in 2004.

And there certainly wasn't anyone talking about the game that looked like Fitzhugh either.

Still, the team and the game were ubiquitous in the city, and while Fitzhugh grew up playing baseball, he was drawn to the sport.

"There's a huge hockey community and a huge hockey fan base in Detroit," Fitzhugh told Yahoo Sports. "So you're kind of predisposed to it as an early age, no matter where you're from in the city. And no matter who you are, Black or white, people know the game of hockey. You still didn't have a lot of minorities playing the game or maybe interested in the game, but you're definitely exposed to it from an early age, just being in the city."

As a freshman and aspiring broadcaster at Bowling Green State University, Fitzhugh got the chance to serve as color analyst for a hockey game and was instantly hooked.

"I remember calling my mom either that night or the next morning. And I said, 'well, we're going to put all the eggs in the hockey basket'," he recalled. "It was a lot of fun and I genuinely enjoyed it. I pursued my career from there."

Little more than a decade after that first game at Bowling Green, Fitzhugh made history last August when the Seattle Kraken named him their team play-by-play voice, making him the first Black broadcaster in NHL history. He had spent the previous five seasons as the voice of the Cincinnati Cyclones ECHL team.

Fitzhugh knows how significant it is that he will become the voice of a top-tier hockey team.

Seattle Kraken broadcaster Everett Fitzhugh is a
Seattle Kraken broadcaster Everett Fitzhugh is a "first" in the NHL. (Seattle Kraken)

"Representation matters," he said. "I look back to me growing up in Detroit, being that 9-year-old Black kid who really likes the game of hockey, but you didn't see a lot of folks who look like you in the game. I didn't have a lot of those positive Black influences in the game of hockey to look up to. And the ones that I did have, it let me know that there was a place for me and my voice in the game of hockey.

"It can be lonely sometimes, being a Black hockey fan and being able to see other players make their own way at such a young age it was huge and very inspiring for me. Now, fast forward, over 20 years later, I see this as an opportunity to serve as that person that I never had growing up."

The accidental trailblazer

He didn't set out to be a trailblazer. Fitzhugh loves the pace of hockey, the beauty and the grace to be found in the sport, among the speed and the occasional fight. He did what any minor-league team employee does that dreams of making it to the big show: he honed his skills as a broadcaster while also working marketing, public relations, social media and the occasional shift as team mascot for the USHL's Youngstown Phantoms and then the Cyclones.

The Kraken, an expansion team that begins play in the 2021-2022 season, have been deliberate about being a new breed of NHL team: diverse and inclusive, things the league at large continues to struggle with. They sought out Fitzhugh, and his personal goal — "NHL by [age] 40" — got a serious fast-forward, as the Kraken hired him when he was just 31.

But now that he is Black History, Fitzhugh relishes everything that comes with it.

"If you're in that position [as the first], if one finds themselves in that position, you owe it not only to the sport and the culture, but I think you owe it to yourself to take on that responsibility because hockey is a growing game, and you see a lot more Black people, a lot more minorities, a lot more women getting involved in the game."

"It's really great to see. He's going to do what he's done in other jobs he's had in the past: he's going to kill it," said Evan Moore, a culture and entertainment writer for the Chicago Sun-Times who is also co-authoring the upcoming book, "Game Misconduct: Hockey's Toxic Culture and How to Fix It" with Jashvina Shah.

"I don't think a lot of folks have actually heard him call a game, and he does it with a lot of a flair and panache, and I mean, he's engaging," Moore said, preemptively pushing back on anyone who might try to paint Fitzhugh as an "affirmative action hire."

"He's from that school of Doc Emrick and what we have here in Chicago locally with Pat Foley; he has catchphrases and you can tell by talking to him he knows the game, and he's the perfect person to introduce hockey in Seattle."

Moore and Fitzhugh met in 2013 at the Hockey City Classic played at Soldier Field. Fitzhugh was working PR for the college doubleheader, and Moore was there as a member of the media. But as the only two Black men in the press box, they gravitated toward one another, at first offering the head nod familiar to so many Black men in similar situations, and then striking up a friendship over the years.

Fitzhugh one of many diverse hires in Seattle

Under president and CEO Tod Leiweke, the Kraken have quickly become the standard-bearer for what NHL teams should look like off-ice: in addition to Fitzhugh, Tim Ohashi, the team's lead video analyst, is Asian American, vice president of game presentation Lamont Buford is Black, the top two members of the communications department are women (one white, one Black), business executive Sam Bridgman uses a wheelchair, and the team has already partnered with the Black Girl Hockey Club, taking its "Get Uncomfortable" pledge to disrupt racism in the sport and selling special-edition winter hats to help fund BGHC's scholarship program to help subsidize the cost of playing hockey for Black girls and young women.

Everett Fitzhugh will serve as the radio voice of the Seattle Kraken. (Seattle Kraken)
Everett Fitzhugh will serve as the radio voice of the Seattle Kraken. (Seattle Kraken)

In other words, for Seattle so far, hockey really is for everyone.

"He was a hockey fan for a long time growing up," Moore said. "We all know in sports there's a good ol' boy network and friend-of-friends, and we have all seen these people in these situations ending up hiring folks who remind them of themselves. In hockey's case, it's a white man hiring another white man. But this is someone who got a job based on his merits and he happens to be Black too."

Since being announced as the Kraken's new radio voice, Fitzhugh has been in contact with two young Black men who are aspiring hockey broadcasters, calling games at their respective colleges, who reached out to him. He's happy to be a sounding board and offer encouragement.

And to be aspirational to other kids like he was back in Detroit, who love hockey and now see themselves not just on the ice, but in key roles off it.

"For me, it's important to show that 9-year-old Black kid in Detroit today that there is a place for him or her in this game of hockey. And that goes for the next generation of hockey fan, a broadcaster, media member, player, whatever the case may be. There is a space for that kid in the game of hockey today," Fitzhugh said.

"I hope that there is a young kid right now who is getting into the game of hockey, who was starting to watch hockey, to play hockey. I hope there is a young broadcaster that I haven't met yet. Who is kicking on my heels right behind me, ready to break into broadcasting."