For the last nine years Rick Peckham, the well-modulated TV voice of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has been broadcasting Bolts’ games in tandem with color analyst Bobby “The Chief” Taylor. He has soldiered on through the bad old days that only ended a couple of seasons ago. He has called the play-by-play for a hockey team that had become all too familiar with 50-loss seasons. They were the Devil Rays of hockey.
“That was tough — not being able to win,” acknowledges Peckham. “You keep trying to look for positives in a young, inexperienced team. The Chief and I would pray that the opposition would call someone up (from the minors) in time for the game so we would have something to talk about.”
But as bad as those days were, the last two years have made it more than worthwhile, says Peckham. There has been no dearth of positives to chat about.
“Sure, it’s exciting,” says the 49 year old whose broadcast experience also includes 11 years with the Hartford Whalers (now Carolina Hurricanes). “Watching and covering a winner is always more fun, but it’s also the professional satisfaction. When we have our production meetings the morning of every telecast, we look at all our options. And there are a lot more. There are graphics to choose and topics to talk about. These days, as you can imagine, there’s a vast array of topics to talk about.”
Among them, the lack of respect accorded the Lightning by the national media. It’s especially apparent in the ESPN studio.
“People are just learning about the Lightning,” notes Peckham. “They are relative newcomers without a lot of familiar names. But they went 8-1 in the first two series. They outscored Montreal 14-5. It takes time, but I think people are waking up to just how good this team is.”
The success, says Peckham, has to do with more than talent, although that is obviously in ample supply. “They have the parts you need,” he stresses.
They have the cornerstones: 24-year-olds Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards. They have the undersized Martin St. Louis, who led the NHL in scoring, and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who has been playing up to his elite status. They have veteran leadership in Dave Andreychuk, Tim Taylor and Darryl Sydor. They have a bunch of non-marquee names who know their roles. They have a taskmaster with a deft touch in head coach John Tortorella. And they have a general manager in Jay Feaster who is as astute as he is anonymous.
“Tortorella is very cognizant of players’ needs, especially for rest,” says Peckham. “He gives them days off down the stretch. He’s also a good communicator — very articulate.
“I think a lot of people would be surprised at how patient he can be,” adds Peckham. “He won’t yank a guy for making a mistake — especially if it’s one of commission. He knows which buttons to push. His style is to forecheck and apply pressure, which creates a high tempo. Players enjoy that. He’s got all the bases covered.”
But there’s also a downside to the upsurge in Lightning fortunes. Peckham and Taylor worked more than 60 regular season and playoff games for the Lightning’s contractual partner, Sunshine Network. But after they called Game 3 of the Montreal series, it was au revoir for the season. It was their last play-by-play telecast. Now that the team has gone where no Lightning franchise had even dared dream of going before, Peckham and Taylor are no longer on board to officially chronicle history. It’s strictly a national network tie-in now.
“It’s something we have to deal with,” Peckham says. “You’d like to be calling every game — especially now — but the networks (ABC/ESPN) have exclusive rights. We’ll try and stay as involved as we can and roll with it.”
As it turns out, that involvement — thanks to an arrangement between Sunshine and the Lightning — means that Peckham, Taylor and Paul Kennedy will be doing live pre- and post-game shows.
Speaking of talking, when Peckham isn’t doing it from his broadcast perch, he finds the experience nerve-wracking.
“I’m edgier when I’m not doing the game,” he explains. “I’m kind of nervous for them; you want to see them succeed. I’m much more emotionally involved. I don’t really relax.”
Peckham’s comfort zone is the broadcast booth — and while he does other sports (he called the ArenaBowl last spring on radio) — the up-and-down, rapid personnel-changing blitzkrieg that is hockey is his game. The key, he emphasizes, is self-discipline.
“In hockey there’s so much going on that you can’t describe every pass,” points out Peckham. “You have to edit yourself, so you don’t fall behind the play. You need to kind of edit on the fly.”
Peckham also edits out any temptation to speak in the first person plural. The Bucs’ Gene Deckerhoff and the University of Georgia’s legendary Larry Munson, for example, are graduates of the “we” school of home-team broadcasting. A lot of hard-core fans love it; many others don’t.
“This isn’t a criticism of anybody else, but that doesn’t work for me,” says Peckham. “I try to paint a picture of what’s going on, and that includes good plays by the other team. Now we don’t call it down the middle, but I don’t think we take the cheerleading approach.”
He says he and Taylor — not unlike the Lightning players — spend a lot of time on video critique sessions. He mainly uses the Internet to familiarize himself with Lightning opponents.
And whether it’s the Lightning or their opponents, he says, hockey players — for all the mayhem often associated with their game — are the easiest athletes to deal with of all the major sports.
“They have a reputation for being approachable and easy to talk to, and it’s well- deserved,” notes Peckham. “And the Lightning are a good example. Not just nice guys, but also savvy. You won’t see them talking out of turn or being brash. They aren’t that way, and they know how to stay out of (media) traps.
“I think people would find them very down to earth and even funny,” adds Peckham. “In fact, some of the funniest people are hockey players.”
Just don’t ask the New York Islanders, the Montreal Canadiens or, hopefully, the Philadelphia Flyers.