Saturday night at Erie Insurance Arena will be a very special night for the voice of the Erie Otters. Play-by-play man Aaron Cooney will be calling his 500th OHL game when the Otters host the Mississauga Steelheads.
Just think for a minute what Cooney has seen and been through in his time with the Otters. From some of the lowest of lows for the franchise to hitting the jackpot with Connor McDavid and then being able to call an OHL Championship, Cooney has experienced a lot of things that many dream they get the chance to experience.
Normally, Cooney is the one getting interviews on gamedays. In honor of his special day, we’ve flipped the script. He was gracious enough to spend time with the Hockey Writers in advance of his 500th game. We go through everything, from memories of his first game in Guelph to his thoughts on calling number 500 Saturday. He also reflects on other memories and shares some great behind the scenes stories involving McDavid and others.
Two things you will notice in all of this. One, Cooney is one of the most respected people in the entire Ontario Hockey League. And two, he has some amazing stories. Sit back and enjoy as he reflects on an amazing OHL career to date. Then at the end, stay tuned for what others around the league have to say about him and reaching this milestone.
Aaron Cooney Reflects on 500
THW: Wow, game number 500. What are your overall thoughts on achieving this milestone?
Cooney: “Well, I’m glad I have the voice to get there after this cold out me on my couch for a day! I know we’re doing this ahead of time and I haven’t had the chance to sit and dwell on this yet. I think about a lot of things, mostly the people in my life that got me to this point. My mother helping me pay for school. Josh Frketic, really the first broadcaster I looked up to, giving me my first shot when he chose me to be his color guy after tryouts at a Point Park basketball game, then handing me the reigns as he graduated. Jeff Hathhorn, giving me an internship at The Fan and really helping me develop interviewing skills. Ray Walker, my boss at the Penguins and their radio networks executive producer until he passed away a few years ago. I learned so much from him and can think of all the ways he prepared me for a real broadcasting job. I still use the presets for Adobe Audition to put over interview audio to make it sound great, the same stuff he used on Mike Lange’s audio. I miss being able to reach out to him for advice but will never forget what he was able to give me in the time I knew him. Tom McMillan. Professors at university. My family. The lifelong friendships I’ve built here in Erie and elsewhere after moving away from home. I think about my very first radio broadcast where I was terrified as a sophomore in college and could barely get the words out about a basketball team I knew nothing about. That one’s in the archives somewhere. One day I’ll listen to it again. I also think about the time I pissed off Rocco Mediate at the 2011 Mylan Classic. It was my first day at my internship for The Fan and I was out solo covering this golf outing and the press area was given the wrong scores somehow. So I was first out there to talk to Rocco, local guy around Pittsburgh and just a few years after he lost to Tiger Woods at the US Open, and I asked him about missing the cut to which he responded “What the hell are you talking about kid.” I froze! Then the tour’s communications guy stepped in and explained we got the wrong scores, and we were cool after that. I think about the restaurants I worked at where I wondered what was next for me and how this wasn’t going to be my life, but taught me to grind away. There’s usually too much buzzing around my brain when something like this comes up, but I think of how lucky and blessed I am that I get to wake up every day and say I’m headed to a job that I love doing.”
THW: So what all do you remember about your first game with the Otters?
Cooney: “My first game…I’ve got a few memories that always come back to my mind. Getting off the bus in Guelph and Hartsy (Chris Hartsburg), Otters assistant coach at the time, looks at me and says, “You nervous, Cooney?” I laughed but I was sweating heading into that first one. I talked with Oscar Dansk before the game then got setup. I was fortunate enough to meet Guelph’s TV broadcast crew (Steve Fitzsimmons and Bill Granger) at the team’s preseason game in Hanover a few weeks before and they were great help guiding me around the building and assisting me with everything I needed. Can’t forget Larry Mellott either, he was quite welcoming to me as the new guy on the circuit. I have a soft spot for our trips to Guelph because the people have been so good to me. The rest of the night was mostly a blur as I got dialed in for my first paid hockey broadcast. I remember the ending and Zac Leslie winning the game in overtime, then sitting there for a moment after the game ended thinking about how all the hard work I put in to get this moment paid off. Little did we know we were watching two eventual Midwest Division juggernauts going at it for the first meeting.”
THW: How were you able to find the Erie Otters and know they were looking for a broadcaster?
Cooney: “I was fortunate enough to get an internship with the Pittsburgh Penguins Radio Network where I was able to connect with Steve Mears before he jumped to the NHL Network. I would pick his brain at times when I would catch him waiting for the elevators at the iHeart Radio studios in Greentree. One day I asked him about finding broadcasting jobs and he pointed me to oursportscentral.com for minor league team info and told me to be ready to send resumes and demos in the spring. Sure enough, the Otters had a release that made its way onto that site and I investigated further and eventually send my demo and resume to Jaime Cieszynski. The rest is history!
THW: Looking back on that 2014-15 Otters’ team, in Connor McDavid’s draft season, having Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat on it, just how special was that team?
Cooney: “That team was a lot of fun to watch. I’m extremely lucky to have landed with the organization when I did and have the opportunity to watch such a high degree of talent every night during those 50-win seasons. That 14-15 team was extremely special. There were people around the league that thought the Otters should trade McDavid and restock the assets, they were way off. Looking back, that was still a young group. Led by Strome, McDavid and DeBrincat in scoring, we remember the names but that was two 17-year-olds and a late birth year ’97. The right moves were made to compliment around that group, and I think they really bought in for each other. The playoff series against Sault Ste. Marie is still some of the best hockey I’ve seen live. Erie wasn’t given a chance in that series, especially without Kurtis MacDermid until game six from suspension. They played mostly four defensemen with Patrick Murphy jumping in here and there for a shift. There was so much speed and talent out there on the ice at all times, you knew something was capable of happening in the blink of an eye. McDavid took over the series, 19 points in six games, it was like a challenge for him to beat the Greyhounds. The whole series was a treat to watch. They ran into an Oshawa team that clashed their style and was able to slow Erie down. It was a brilliant game plan, but you have to wonder what happens if Erie doesn’t take that delay of game penalty in overtime of game four. If the Otters tie that series on home ice heading into game five, who knows?”
THW: So McDavid. His draft year had to be some kind of spectacle. Give us a sense of just how insane that year was for you from your position?
Cooney: “That year was absolutely wild, and to think the third overall pick in the draft was also on that roster but was shadowed by McDavid. If Strome is on any other team he’s getting much more media attention than he got that year in Erie. I knew the requests were going to be wild, and I worked closely with Connor’s agent and his parents. In the end, we didn’t want to weigh him down, Connor still had to be allowed to be a 17-year-old kid. We had requests from all over, especially after the fight. My phone was ringing nonstop after he left that game, and I had two periods to call still. The ‘farewell tour” in the second half of the year was probably the craziest part about it. He single handedly sold out opposing team’s buildings throughout the league. He was advertised more than the team’s game. And the autograph seekers were so bad to the point that we had to bring our own security on the road with us. We’re in Sarnia for the first round of the playoffs and we had some guy wander into the locker room during the intermission asking if he can get McDavid’s autograph. No joke. The guy just strolled in and our security had to give him the boot.”
THW: Thinking back now on McDavid, what is your favorite story from him?
Cooney: “Aside from the guy coming into the locker room this is my other favorite. We were in Peterborough, part of Connor’s “farewell tour” at the end of the regular season. The bus parks outside the building and our exit is packed with a hoard of people. We start ushering Connor through, he would stop and sign for everyone if it were up to him, but we’d be there for hours. We’ve got to get to the next city, so I have to play the bad guy. Well here I finally get Connor up to the door and on the bus and this older gentleman couldn’t believe I wouldn’t let Connor sign. I’ll never forget what he said to me, “go get a real job, buddy.” It was the best, it still cracks me up.”
THW: Of course McDavid went on to the NHL after going number one. But then the Otters won an OHL championship. What memories do you have of that season?
Cooney: “That whole year was memorable, I keep a lot of it close to me as I was with that core for pretty much their entire OHL careers, as well as Kris’ four full seasons in Erie. Darren set just about every Otters defenseman record that year, Kyle Pettit became just the second Otter to reach 300 regular season games, Strome’s records, Debrincat’s exceptional goal scoring pace, and that’s just the regular season. The playoff run was a roller coaster. A war each round. What a second round series with London, it deserved a seventh game. And what theater we were treated to there. A comeback, a lead change, a late penalty from Foegele to help London tie the game and send it to overtime, then Warren redeems himself with what is arguably the biggest goal in team history to win the series. What a game. I still have the image in my head of Joe Murdaca flying out to near center ice after a free puck with Max Jones barreling down into the Erie zone alone. What a wild sequence! Oh, and I certainly remember the cowbells…I think that conference final against Owen Sound gets lost a bit sandwiched between the London series and then the championship series. That was a tough, tough series. Especially in the three games in Owen Sound. Nerves were running a bit high in game four when the Otters were down 2-1 in the series, but that group answered, like they did all season. Some clutch playoff performers in those games in Owen Sound. You could feel it after the team got through the Western Conference, and through two of the top teams in the CHL, that nothing was stopping them now. It’s nothing against a quality team like Mississauga had, but you could just sense that there was a killer instinct in the group that they weren’t letting this one slip away. I actually predicted Cirelli scoring that championship clinching overtime goal. We’re at intermission following regulation and there was still a calm around the building. I had a friend at the game who texted me during the break about what will happen next, and my reply was something like don’t worry Cirelli will score here. I have that conversation screenshotted. Even the Memorial Cup, I remember each game and the whole event. Leading the media relations and then broadcasts, it was a great time in my career.”
THW: The Otters had the best of times and some of the worst of times. From what you can recall, how close were the Otters to leaving Erie?
Cooney: “To be honest, I’m not really sure. I was following the news like everyone else. There were times I thought “Erie was nice for two years,” and as things progressed it seemed Sherry was intent on making sure the team stayed in Erie. He’s mentioned how that was a stipulation in his negotiations. I can tell you I was sweating a bit when I learned that the new owner was a radio guy. I figured my days were numbered, but at least I had some fun! Luckily Jim Waters wasn’t interested in the broadcasting part of owning your own team. Jim’s been great for the franchise and has helped cement the team in the community. He’s committed to Erie and it shows with the ten-year lease he signed. This fan base deserves that kind of peace of mind for their hardcore loyalty after years of uncertainty.”
THW: So as a broadcaster, who do you look up to in the broadcasting circle?
Cooney: “It may sound a bit cliché since I’m a Pittsburgh guy, but Mike Lange has always been my broadcasting idol. Growing up we’d play hockey in the kitchen or in the street and goals were always punctuated with a bellowing “Heeeeeeeeeee shoots and scores” or one of Mike’s many sayings. As I got older and really listened to the way he calls games you’d pick up on his style, cadence, and presentation. He has a way of feeling the big moment coming and building up this crescendo to the apex where you’re already at the edge of your seat waiting to jump out of it. I bought one of those sports delay radios, where you can adjust them for TV’s 7-second delay, for the Penguins cup runs in 08 and 09. We’d mute the TV and turn up Mike Lange and he would paint this brilliant picture of each game. I started broadcasting shortly after that. I enjoy a lot of broadcasters. Doc Emrick, I love his passion for hockey and the creative way he calls games. I listen to hear his word choice to describe play, its unparalleled. I also enjoy John Forslund. I miss the old Dallas Stars broadcast with Ralph Strangis and Daryl Reaugh, I would watch Stars games on NHL Center Ice just for their broadcast. I’ve become a bit of a Jeff Marek mark. He’s able to make everything sound like it’s a couple of people just shooting the breeze. It’s hardly an interview and more of a conversation. Same goes for Sean McDowell who recently retired from WDVE as their afternoon drive host. He was a voice I heard a lot growing up, and he’s very unique.”
THW: For those that know you, you carry a funny nickname “McLovin.” Tell us where that came from.
Cooney: “McLovin, here’s a story. So, the name stuck well before I moved to Erie. I was interning for 93.7FM The Fan in Pittsburgh. I was covering my first Steelers practice and my boss, Jeff Hathhorn, sent me on my own to get sound because it was coordinator’s day. I’m figuring out where I have to go and eventually get to the front desk to check in. At the time it was this guy name Ty who media had to check in with to get their pass (full disclosure, Ty was the man. He set this whole thing into motion but was great to me and helped me out as an intern). Well, on my first day he decided to play a prank on the new intern and as I signed into the sheet he wrote “McLovin” on my media pass, handed it to me, and said “see you later, McLovin.” Sure enough all the reporters took notice and loved it. I just wore it, and Ty continued to put that on my name tags when I covered the Steelers. Fast forward a year to my Penguins internship where I’m again working with a lot of the same Pittsburgh media and McLovin rides again. That was when I started wearing glasses and pretty much leaned right into the movie character. The connection carried up here to Erie and just kind of stuck! “I am McLovin.”
THW: You’ve had the chance to interview many players and figures over the years. Which ones have been your favorite?
Cooney: “Favorite interviews, just to be clear I’m not playing favorites here, so I don’t take any flack! These are a few of the people that stick out as I think back. I can say I have all of my interviews backed up somewhere so I can dig these up one day. Spencer Abraham and Michael Curtis were my favorite interviews from that first team I worked with and they always stand out. They were older guys and had a little more experience talking, but they were thoughtful with their responses and always gave me quality time. I built a pretty good rapport with Patrick Fellows and he was always good for a few minutes of hockey and movie talk. A few others are Kyle Maksimovich, Devin Williams, Travis Dermott, Sherry Bassin, Vince Laise, Wes Wolfe, and most recently Jamie Drysdale (another guy who’s quite thoughtful with his answers despite a young age). Outside of players I did use the Memorial Cup to mark out and chat with Jeff Marek, which was great conversation and perfect for the extended pregame shows we did during the tournament. Another is Sam Cosentino. I’ve had him on the old Otters Hour show a few times and he’s so knowledgeable. I always appreciated his time for those interviews and when the Otters would be on Sportsnet. I’m sure Sam, R.J. Broadhead, and Rob Faulds are sick of me after how much the Otters were on Sportsnet those couple years!”
THW: What are some of your favorite road rinks in the OHL?
Cooney: “I’m fond of a few rinks. I really enjoy Kitchener. You can feel the history each time you enter there, and how each game seems like an event when you begin the broadcast. I like Kingston as well. We only go there once a year but the city is great and the vantage point for the broadcast is perfect.”
THW: What is your favorite part of being a broadcaster?
Cooney: “Calling the games is my favorite part of the job. It’s what I went to school for, it’s the position I aspired to attain, and for 68 nights a year I do just that. However, there are a lot of things I enjoy about the position I’m fortunate to have. Probably my second favorite part is the people I’ve met in the seven seasons here. Whether in Erie or on the road when visiting other cities, I’ve enjoyed meeting and connecting with the people on my path. And I must say, the broadcasting brotherhood in the OHL is a special group to be a part of. Every team boasts quality people and talented voices, and I’m proud to be in the same group as them.”
THW: And finally, what advice do you have for those trying to break into this industry?
Cooney: “Best advice I can give is to not give up, step out of your comfort zone, and always be willing to learn. For one, media is a tough business to get into. I wanted to be on SportsCenter or broadcast hockey. I tried a lot of on camera stuff at school for the first time, but never fell in love with it. It wasn’t until I did my internship at The Fan with Jeff Hathhorn that I found I really dig working in radio, so the chase was on. I chose a university that didn’t have a hockey team, great start when you want to work in hockey. However, Point Park gave me the all the opportunity to work on getting comfortable behind the mic. I did basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball radio broadcasts. I only called a handful of high school hockey games and two showcases before I got the Otters gig. You can find a way to make it happen if you want something bad enough. And when it comes to getting your foot in the door, be prepared to wear a lot of different hats and know that the broadcast is at the bottom of the list of importance, even though it’s your top priority. I can thank Steve Mears for that heads up too.”
Cooney is much more than the voice of the Erie Otters. He’s the media relations contact. He’s their director of sales. So imagine working a 9-5 in one area, only to have to turn around and work nights and weekends, while having some insane travel to boot. Among many things, this is why Cooney is one of the most respected people in the OHL. We thank him for the time he took to do this with us.
But we’re not quite done. We’re going to end this in the best way possible. Let some other prominent folks tell you about the kind of guy Cooney is.
Honoring Cooney’s Achievement
- “What people probably don’t know about him is how much he studies, not only our team but also who our opponents are going to be. I know he takes a lot of pride in that. It’s not that he just shows up to call a game. He’ll spend the greater part of the gameday prepping for it, looking for little tidbits and facts. He’s good at what he does because he’s 100% committed to being the best at what he does. I think that’s what makes him special.” -Erie Otters GM Dave Brown
- “Aaron’s call is so unique to the team and the market. Any broadcaster whose team has had the success that Erie has had has their calls showcased all over the place. A lot of it has been right place, right time and he’s done a great job with all the great players that have come through there, McDavid, the Raddysh’s, the Strome’s, the DeBrincat’s. He’s the soundtrack of those guy’s junior careers. And you know what, he’s a phenomenal guy. I’ve gotten to know him over the last five years. He’s someone I like to bounce ideas off of and talk the game with.” -Saginaw Spirit broadcaster Joey Battaino.
- “Put this into perspective for you. It’s a school-day game. It’s 11 A.M. for the puck drop and I’m there until 11 the night before and I’m just getting home at 8 P.M. today before having to be back at 6 A.M. I’m absolutely gassed. But when you asked about kind words for Aaron Cooney, my whole face just lit up because that’s the type of person he is and that says something after a day like this. Any broadcaster would know. He’s a stand-up guy, outstanding at his job. People say I wear the most hats around town. You’re talking about a guy who’s the director of sales and public relations, communications and broadcasting, video, content and graphics. He’s the first guy to pick you up when you’re in town. When you hear the name Aaron Cooney, how can’t you be thrilled, happy and thankful to just know the guy?” – Flint Firebirds’ broadcaster Dominic Hennig.
- “Cooney is an encyclopedia of Erie Otters knowledge. Aside from having a superb call, when we’re stateside Cooney always makes sure he puts on his concierge hat and makes us feel like we’re visiting extended family. He’s always a pleasure to speak with and eager to extend a helping hand. I’m always eager to hear what RUN DMC lyric from 1984 he’s coming up with next, after an Otters goal. If only he dressed better. I kid. His fashion sense is second only to Wes Wolfe. Here’s to another 500, AC.” -Kitchener Rangers’ color man Chris Pope.
- “Aaron is a tremendous talent whose calls are some of the most creative in hockey. Add to that the fact that he is one of the most accommodating people in the game. The milestone is well earned.” – London Knights’ broadcaster Mike Stubbs.
- “Aaron’s a great guy, easy to get along with and quick to provide assistance when needed. 500 will no doubt be followed by another 500!” – Guelph Storm broadcaster Larry Mellott.
- “I’ll never forget my first interaction with Aaron Cooney. I was a new writer who reached out to him being from Erie and I inquired about credentials on an as needed basis when Blue Jackets’ prospects came to town. Not only did he say yes, he allowed me access to all games. Next thing I know, I’m interviewing Connor McDavid at the beginning of his draft year. I thought to myself holy bleep. I was a nervous wreck. But he, McDavid and the Otters were so easy to work with it made things very smooth. Cooney helped me launch into a role as a prominent writer thanks to his generosity that day in 2014. He is a delight and has a very bright future ahead of him. He deserves to be mentioned as one of the lasting memories of the Erie Otters.” -Mark Scheig/Otters beat writer.
We and they all wish him the very best as he calls his 500th broadcast Saturday night. Cheers to at least 500 more. He deserves it.