DU alumni are the heart and soul of the Colorado Avalanche broadcast team.
The puck glides down the boards, from one Colorado Avalanche forward to another. A pass swings it up near the top of the offensive area, where the team’s star defenseman snags it and settles it down.
“Now Cale Makar, high in the zone,” says Conor McGahey, the play-by-play announcer for Altitude Sports Radio. His voice rises in excitement and anticipation as Makar creeps closer to the net. “Makar holds, shoots.” The puck pings off the post and finds the back of the net.
“He scores!” McGahey bellows. His voice erupts with a growling vibrato, launching into a celebration he personalizes to each player who finds the scoresheet. “All! Hail! Cale!”
Over on Altitude TV, longtime color analyst Peter McNab gasps with exasperation as he adds context to what just unfolded. “So many positive things on that play,” he says in a measured tone, noting the hard work along the boards and the passing that led to the goal.
During the first-period intermission, back in the Altitude TV studio, analyst Mark Rycroft homes in on the goal scorer’s stickhandling. “Watch the sweet play by Cale Makar,” he says with a high-pitched hoot of delight. “You just slide it, pull it and boom!”
It doesn’t take any ice hockey knowledge to notice that the Avalanche on-air broadcast team, led by three University of Denver alumni (plus producer and alumnus Doug Menzies), is anything but homogeneous. Their reactions say it all.
On one hand, there’s McGahey (BA ’07) with a velvety voice that packages his quick wit and poetic turns of phrase.
McNab (attd. ’70–’73) is the even-keeled analyst whose encyclopedic knowledge of the sport and personal stories from the pro game have graced TV sets since the Avs arrived in Denver in 1995.
And then there’s Rycroft (BSBA ’03), who brings a razor-sharp eye, an ever-lengthening mullet and a wardrobe much like the broadcasters themselves: distinctly colorful, disparate and yet, when pulled together, it works.
“Did you see what ‘Ryker’ was wearing last game?” McNab asks in an interview conducted via Zoom.
“No, but I could hear it,” McGahey chirps. McNab laughs and continues.
“He wore something so spectacular, it was unbelievable,” he says. On the night of the Makar goal, Rycroft is sporting a blue and brown plaid suit jacket, a white checkered shirt, a green tie with pink stripes and a not-quite-matching green pocket square. “I was saying to myself, ‘Could I wear that?’ And the answer is no! That’s part of it.
“If you were to sit and analyze the personalities of the group of us, you would come away and say, ‘They’re nuts,’” McNab continues. “I don’t see things like Ryker sees them, like Conor sees them. It’s an interesting way that we ping-pong off each other without even being close to the same personality. The thing that binds us, ties us together, is a true love for the Avalanche, hockey and the whole thing.”
The Avalanche has had ups and downs over the past few years—from a historically bad 2016–17 season to its current, historically superb campaign. But game in and game out, its broadcast booth has delivered a steady diet of description, analysis and fun.
“People can watch blue-collared stiffs all day long,” Rycroft says. “We’re here to entertain, baby; we’re here to have fun. I have one goal in my job, just one. Don’t be boring. If I’m boring, I’m done, that’s it.”
“I tend to agree with that,” McGahey adds. “I’ve used the phrase, ‘the combination of personality and professionalism’ over the years. We seem to have less of the latter. Along with working for this network and working for the team, we also become fans of the team. I know I am, and that’s why it makes it easy to really connect those dots with fans and listeners and viewers and everybody else because they know it’s real. The Altitude Avalanche broadcast—and I’m not being a homer here—is the most genuine, informative and entertaining show in the National Hockey League.”
No one could fault McGahey for being a homer. After all, he grew up watching the Avalanche, commuting with his family from their Breckenridge home to take in the action live. They regularly attended DU hockey games too.
“Hockey was at the core of why I wanted to come here,” McGahey says of his alma mater. He dreamed of working in and around the game. DU, he believed, would give him the exposure to the sport that he craved.
Immediately, the hockey program rewarded him with back-to-back national championships. “While [I wasn’t] playing, hockey was still a centerpiece on campus. To be a freshman and sit in Magness Arena and see [goalie] Adam Berkhoel shut out the Maine Black Bears [in 2005] with a bunch of people I didn’t know before, all of a sudden you have this common rooting interest.”
All the while, McGahey was broadcasting games—taking any opportunity he could find. He once slid out of the pep band and behind the microphone at a basketball game when the announcer didn’t show. He lobbied Angel Field, now DU’s senior associate athletic director for external operations and service, to work as the public address or play-by-play announcer for DU lacrosse, soccer, gymnastics and, of course, hockey.
“DU gave me so many opportunities that led me to where I am now,” he says. And he doesn’t mind returning the favor. At the Pioneers’ championship celebration in April, he served as a spirited master of ceremonies.
For Rycroft, the University of Denver represented a different sort of opportunity. With the Pioneers, he had a legitimate chance to crack the lineup in his first year. A visit to campus sealed the deal.
One look at Denver and DU, he says, “and I canceled everything else. That was it. I knew where I was going.”
Small and scrappy, Rycroft quickly learned what it would take to make it as a pro player—and he rose to the occasion. Just shy of 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Rycroft was named captain his junior season. He led his team in both game-winning goals and penalty minutes before jumping to the NHL.
“Thank God for college,” he says. “Some kids are built physically ready at a young age. I was a late bloomer and without college, I just never would have developed the strength to play the pro game.”
After eight seasons in the big leagues—including one with the Avalanche—he joined Altitude in 2008. At first, Rycroft remembers, he felt stiff in the studio. He took his job so seriously and stressed over perfection.
“And I realized I can’t do this if [it feels like] a job,” he says. “So once it became fun, then people started to like the show and then you realize we’re in the entertainment business.”
McNab took a similar path to the broadcast booth, where he’s perched since his playing days ended in 1987.
Over the course of his storied career, McNab netted 363 goals and 450 assists, good for 19th all-time on the NHL’s list of top American scorers. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last year.
But it all began at DU, where he entered with a joint hockey-baseball scholarship. In each of his three years with the Pioneers, McNab led the team to a top-four NCAA finish.
“It was a really, really great decision to come to Denver,” he says. “There’s no question. It changed everything in my life.”
He sharpened his hockey skills, but more important, he says, he built relationships that have lasted a lifetime. McNab was one of eight freshmen to join the hockey team in 1970, all of whom remain his close friends.
“And whenever anybody has a problem, it’s not just my problem; it’s our problem,” he says. “When anybody has something not going right, we’re right there.”
McNab feels the same way about his colleagues on the Altitude broadcast team. They have an absolute, dyed-in-the-wool trust and loyalty to one another, he says.
They’re not just coworkers; they’re friends. On road trips with the Avalanche, whether on the bus, in the team hotel or at the dinner table, McGahey, Rycroft and McNab are usually together, and they’re almost always laughing.
“These guys, Conor and Ryker, represent the friendships that I had [at DU],” McNab says. “I can honestly say that every single person that I’ve met that’s been a hockey person at the University of Denver is [the same]. It’s just the way that it is. When you’re a DU guy, you’re a DU guy, that’s it.”
It’s part of the reason why watching or listening to an Avalanche broadcast can feel like hanging out at the bar with a few friends. The warmth is palpable.
On the broadcasts, they cherish little slip-ups and bloopers. They embrace their roles as “homers,” bringing Avalanche fans the information they want to hear, centered on the players and team they care about.
“Nobody’s faking anything,” McGahey says. “I think people appreciate things that are real. All the personalities that Maxy [McNab] has described, everybody is pretty much as authentic as possible.”
Nobody is hiding their DU pride either. The broadcast is just one more way DU’s hockey program is leaving its mark on the sport at large.
“If you’re listening to Colorado Avalanche hockey, you’re listening to Conor,” McNab says. “And Conor comes from where? He comes from the University of Denver. And I’ll be a son-of-a-gun if he doesn’t represent that, us, all of us so well.”
Travel and overlapping schedules make it tough to maintain a campus presence, but all three broadcasters still follow DU hockey closely.
McNab will sometimes sneak over to Joy Burns Arena to watch the team practice. Things have changed since the 1970s. There’s a spiffy new locker room now. Equipment and strategy have evolved.
But McNab watches the team finish its drills for the day. He sees the smiles on their faces.
“And I leave feeling like, man, I remember.”