Nobody Loves Hockey More than John Buccigross

John Buccigross credits his adoptive father, Edward, for his love of sports — in particular, hockey.

Growing up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, John would sit next to his father as they listened to the Bruins on the radio, and the elder Buccigross took notes on who scored and assisted on each goal.

“I’ve always said that I was at my dad’s hip so much that if he had been a drug dealer, I would have grown up a drug dealer,” John Buccigross said. “That happens in real life, and I would have been one of those kids. That’s how much of an impact my dad had on me.” 

That bond inspired Buccigross to become one of the most widely recognized sports broadcasters in the world. He joined ESPN in 1996 and has been a major presence on its airwaves as a host of “SportsCenter” and other studio programs, as well as a play-by-play commentator.

Buccigross’ role at ESPN has grown even bigger with the company’s reacquisition of NHL rights prior to this season, as he hosts the weekly hockey program “The Point” and covers play-by-play for NHL and college hockey games.

The 56-year-old will host and provide play-by-play for the NHL Skills Challenge on Feb. 3 in advance of the All-Star Game in Las Vegas and host “The Point” there on Feb. 3-4.

Sports Section’s Chris Kuc caught up with Buccigross to talk about life, hockey… and chicken parm.

I know your dad’s passion for hockey helped get you into the sport. Did you play a lot as a kid?

I watched the game, consumed the game, read about the game, skated, and played street hockey. 

I could always handle the puck and shoot a wrist shot, but there was no organized ice hockey where I grew up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and later Steubenville, Ohio. They had skating rinks, and we could just public skate, and then if we went to a pond it was unbelievable to have a stick and a puck and just stickhandle.

I think it’s a game that I would have really, really loved to play because I was kind of a chippy athlete, very intense, too competitive — almost embarrassingly. Looking back, sports were life or death. They meant the world to me. So I ended up playing basketball, baseball, and golf growing up in the Midwest. 

It’s unfortunate that I never got to play youth hockey because I had pretty good hands and pretty good size at 6-4. I probably would have been a good defenseman, being a left-handed shot while playing with a little bit of an edge. 

Although, I was a pretty good high school basketball player. Our team [Steubenville Catholic Central High School] went to the Final 16. 

How did you transition from an aspiring player to sports broadcasting?

Your dream as a kid is to be a professional athlete, and eventually you slowly realize either subconsciously or very consciously that it’s not going to happen. 

I wanted to go to a small D-III school that had sports, but also had a radio station, TV station, and a school newspaper, so I went to Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, and it was a great four years. 

I graduated the same year my dad retired from his job, and he had always wanted to move back to Boston where he grew up, and I started to realize I wanted to go back with him. He always had jobs in kind of tough areas with mining and steel mills, and so Boston always seemed like a utopia for me because the economy was doing well, the sports teams were doing well, and all my relatives were there.

So I went back to Boston with him to look for my first job, which I found on Cape Cod because my parents retired in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is just a half-hour from the Cape.

In 1988, I looked in the phone book and just went down to a station and offered to work for free and ended up finding a job at a tiny cable station down there for five years. 

My first boss was Martha Cusick, the daughter of Bruins Hall of Fame broadcaster Fred Cusick, so I’ve always had this hockey connection with my TV career. 

I was there for five years, then went to Providence, and that’s where I covered my first Frozen Four in 1995. I got a taste of that for the first time, and I was like, “Whoa, this is so cool with all these bands and people wearing sweaters from schools that weren’t even at the Frozen Four — they just go every year.” It was like a whole other taste of hockey I had never experienced.

I eventually got to ESPN in 1996 when I was 30.

You’ve had a ton of roles at ESPN from writing a column to play-by-play to anchoring. 

I like doing a lot of different things because I get bored. I enjoy the different tasks from anchoring, studio host, play-by-play. I wrote a hockey column for ESPN for 15 years and wrote a book with Keith Jones [“Jonesy: Put Your Head Down & Skate. The Improbable NHL Career of Keith Jones”], so I really enjoy different things. 

Play-by-play was always my dream as a kid. I would turn the sound down on the television and broadcast it on a tape recorder in high school. That’s what I wanted to do. It took a long time to get there, but now I’m here, and it’s the highlight of my day. Nothing gets my heartbeat and blood flowing like doing play-by-play at the rink.

I like the challenge. I like calling the game. I stand up, I’m really focused, I want to get every name down, I work hard, and I prepare. As soon as that game is over I’m onto the next game.

It’s a challenge to nail those calls and to make it flow, and then to be able to make the big call, have your voice rise above the crowd, help people enjoy it, and make it fun. 

I want to do it a little bit differently and have it as a conversation but respect the game, respect the big moments, and show the passion and fun that this sport is. Let’s keep it fun and keep it like a rock concert wrapped around a competitive game and really try to do it just a little bit differently, without being distracting.

I admire your style of being informative while also entertaining. Where does that come from?

I always warn some of our producers when they want to try these little bits that it’s hard to be funny. Even professional comedians aren’t always funny, so I say, “Let’s just have fun and don’t try to be funny.” We’ll be funny occasionally — but just from having fun and being well-read and maybe having a reference and a little bit of wit or wordplay, we can be entertaining and fun.

That’s always my goal. I want to be measured. I want to keep a balance of fun and seriousness and information and knowing the rules, but not taking myself too seriously. 

I think Chris Berman was the Halley’s Comet for broadcasters. There had been some who would do both before him, like Bud Collins doing tennis with a great vocabulary and great wit and a flamboyant wardrobe, but when I saw Berman, he was like Halley’s Comet referencing music history and sports. He was also a history major at Brown, and he kind of molded all of those all together. So that’s definitely a facet of what I want to do.

How difficult was it when the NHL left ESPN in 2004, and how thrilled were you when it came back?

In some ways, it was probably a blessing that it left because then I got to do “SportsCenter,” and that kind of vaulted me into a different level at ESPN. I slowly worked my way up to the 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” in 2011, about seven years after it left.

It got me into college hockey. A couple of years after the NHL left, I went to ESPN and asked if I could do play-by-play for one of the regionals, and they were like, “Yeah, sure, go ahead.” Five years after doing that, I went to them and said, “Hey, I want to be the voice of the Frozen Four” and they said OK — now I’ve got nine Frozen Fours, and that probably doesn’t happen if we keep the NHL. 

So I got recognized maybe much bigger by doing “SportsCenter” for 10 years, and then the NHL came back and put me in a better position confidence-wise and rep-wise to be comfortable.

Is it good for the NHL to be on the Worldwide Leader?

I knew it would be exciting — I knew it would give a jolt to the league and the young players and the fans. When they made that announcement in March, I was blown away on social media at the nostalgia and how much love there was out there for ESPN hockey back in the day.

I think even our executives were really surprised at the outpouring, and it really energized the place. We’ve had a few layoffs the last five, six years, so it’s really like the shiny new toy that the executives are really behind.

And obviously, when it left, they weren’t behind it. We had different executives in charge who tried to get it really cheap out of the lockout. So it’s such a contrast having a weekly studio show that will be daily once the playoffs start, and now, with the streaming service and having hockey on “SportsCenter” more, it has energized us. After being at a place for 25 years that’s pretty rare, and that alone is a blessing. 

We’ve hit the halfway point of the NHL season. What will be the biggest storylines as the season progresses?

The league is definitely open. There are a lot more teams that are involved in it. It’s hard to pinpoint one or two or three teams. Yes, Florida is certainly a storyline. The Panthers were my preseason pick, and I’d love for them to make me look good. 

For storylines, certainly Alex Ovechkin — in a long regular season and his slow march toward Gretzky. Every year it will get closer. That’s going to be a monumental regular-season moment. For these leagues that are looking for relevancy in a long regular season, something like that can really be big. I think he’s going to reach that point in four years or so, and as he gets closer that’s going to be a fun thing for hockey to focus on.

We’ve had really good streaming numbers with Connor McDavid. The hockey fan will find McDavid because he televises Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers. People can look at him and say, “He’s different from everybody else.”

He’s the greatest skater in the history of the sport, in my mind. He’s the Babe Ruth of skating, and we get him now in real time, and it’s just unbelievable. 

What do you like to do with your free time?

I love to play golf, I love to go to the gym. I love fitness and working out — I’ve always been a self-improver. I love to read and just try to get better. 

I love being a dad. My (three) kids are grown now — they’re in their 20s — but I love mentoring and helping, but not doing too much. Don’t water the flower too much, or it will die — but if you don’t water it at all, it will die. So it’s the perfect amount of watering as a parent.

I’m helping with my parents — I moved in with them a year ago. They’re 90, and I’m trying to make their life a little bit easier by cooking and shopping for them. So yeah, everything’s pretty good right now.

I’m in a pretty decent place with loving work as much as I do, and my kids are all doing really well. They’re well-behaved and have good manners, and they have a great energy about them. You hear stories about so many kids being down or battling depression, but they have a really great light about them. Me and my ex-wife did a great job raising them, and they’re just a pure joy. So, yeah, right now I’m in a pretty good spot.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your love of chicken parm. What’s the deal?

It started way back in the “NHL2Night” days. Ray Ferraro would come and work on the show, and he became a great friend.

Before a game, hockey players get their nap, and then they wake up and have their chicken and pasta, usually chicken parm, so he kind of unveiled that world to me. 

When he went back to play for the Atlanta Thrashers, I called him “Chicken Parm Ray Ferraro” on “NHL2Night.” That became his nickname. When he walks through airports people yell, “Hey, Chicken Parm!” The man’s nickname is named after a dish! Can you imagine, “Hey, Meat Loaf! Hey, Chilean Sea Bass, what’s up?” It’s so absurd. 

But, yes, the chicken parm thing is now on a whole other level. It got a little traction, and I’ve just followed up on it. It’s now another brand of mine. 

Hey, there are worse legacies.

Exactly, exactly.