CRANBERRY TWP. — It is little wonder that Steve Mears feels so fortunate.
Few people have career clarity at an early age. Even fewer ever wind up in the job of their dreams.
Mears is in his first season as the television play-by-play broadcaster for the Penguins. It was the team he grew rooting for in Murrysville and became fascinated with during the 1990-91 season when the Penguins and Mario Lemieux won the first of five Stanley Cups.
Mears was 10 years old and would time his evenings, so he could watch Mario Lemieux and the Penguins shine on the ice while intently listing to Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Lange’s call of the game.
“The timing was perfect,” Mears recalled during a recent practice at the UMPC Lemieux Sports Complex. “They had the best team in hockey, the greatest player and, of course, the greatest announcer. I thought Mike Lange had the coolest job ever.
“The routine became come home from school, finish dinner, finish homework as fast I can then watch Mike and Paul Steigerwald do the Penguins’ game. Little did Mike know at the time, but he was teaching me how to do play-by-play.”
Mears learned his lessons well as he has ascended to one of the top broadcasting jobs in the NHL, working with analyst Bob Errey in a hockey-mad market for a team that draws huge television ratings on AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Mears said. “I wish we had a few more wins but, as an announcer, you have absolutely not control over that, so you enjoy every game and wait for things to get better.”
While Mears is experiencing a bit of a transition this season, he is no stranger to the market or the Penguins. He spent four years working on their radio and TV broadcasts from 2009-12 as well as hosting “Penguins Live” on Penguins 24/7 Radio and contributing to PensTV on the team’s website.
In 2013, Mears moved on to the NHL Network and was one of the hosts of NHL Now before returning to his hometown this past summer.
“It’s a huge advantage,” Mears said of having Pittsburgh roots. “That is the one of the things that made it feel so comfortable going into it. There is the familiarity with the city, familiarity with the organization from having been here before and knowing players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
“Then so many of the players came on our show at the NHL Network as well as (coach) Mike Sullivan and (general manager) Jim Rutherford. So, it’s a case of they know me and I know them, and it has made it very beneficial coming into a new position, knowing the DNA of the organization and the fans.”
Paying His Dues
Though the 37-year-old Mears is now in his dream job, he had to make his way up the ranks like most other broadcasters. However, he felt he caught a big break by deciding to attend Bowling Green University following his graduation from Franklin Regional High School and receiving the opportunity to call Falcons’ games on the college radio station as a freshman.
“I knew Bowling Green because of the hockey program and because many NHL players have gone there,” Mears said. “Then I researched the broadcasting program and learned that many of the graduates had gone on to the NHL, as well.
“I remember the feeling of doing a game for the first time. It was like playing street hockey in the driveway as a kid, where I would be in the flow of calling the play-by-play while we were playing. I got a chance to do it as a freshman and a lot of guys wouldn’t have gotten that chance until they were seniors. That was huge. I would not be in this position without such a great opportunity.”
Mears’ first professional job came in, of all places, Louisiana in 2002. He was the voice of the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs of the Central Hockey League for four seasons before being hired by the New York Islanders in 2006 to do play-by-play.
Mears spent three seasons on Long Island before coming to the Penguins for the first of two stints. While Mears has reached the big time, he has not forgotten those roots in the South when he also served as the Mudbugs’ general jack-of-all-trades, including doing media relations, community relations, sales, marketing and handling travel arrangement for the team.
“I learned so much there,” Mears said. “Play-by-play is probably about 10 percent of the job when you are in the minor leagues. There are so many other responsibilities that come with the job, but you really learn the business side of things and some of the people that worked in the office there remain some of my dearest friends.
“And, this may surprise people here, but Shreveport is really a great hockey market. People love the sport there.”
People love hockey in Pittsburgh, too, on a larger scale. Thus, Mears doesn’t take his new job for granted.
“I think back to when I was a kid and I’d be playing video games and doing play-by-play,” he said with a smile. “Now I’m doing it for real for the team I’ve loved since I was 10 years old. I don’t think you could ask for anything more than that.”
John Perrotto, a long-time reporter for the Beaver County Times and Fan Rag Sports, is now part the Pittsburgh Hockey Now team. In addition to being a baseball reporter for USA Today, John will be covering the Penguins for PHN. Please follow him on Twitter @JPerrotto