That may have been the beginning of the Sullivan we hear today. His broadcasts style is like a combination of the follow-the-puck precision and tons of backstory and context – context rich with the experience and wisdom of a guy who has followed the team for nearly two decades. He’s been there during the lean years, years when the Mavericks hockey team fought to stay out of the last place. And he’s been there during the heyday when the team was ranked No.1 in the nation. He rides with the team on their away games, gets to know the players and coaching staff. “ Traveling in the planes, trains, automobiles or buses. You get to know everybody and they get to know you. I don’t know the best word to describe it. It has a family feel. There’s no doubt about it. You learn to care for these people and they feel like family to you and you’re interested in what they do and what becomes of them after they leave here. And I’ll say that the people associated with MSU are just the best. I mean they’re not just great coaches, but great people, and it’s a privilege to be a part of that. Sullivan says no part of his job is more important, though than the relationships and trust he builds with his listeners.
Sullivan takes that role seriously. He says he understands that, for many fans, he’s their connection to the team. It is through his voice that many get the information they need to be angry, excited, confused, elated (sometimes all of those, all in the same game, even the same period, maybe even the same shift!) He understands that telling someone when a goal is scored in an athletic event isn’t earth-shattering, but nurturing a fan’s relationship with a team they love is meaningful in a world where people look for escape and long to be a part of something. To the fans of a sports team, the act of following their wins and losses and learning about the players is important to them. And Sullivan understands his part of that grand drama.
His first time doing play by play for hockey was for an Austin, Minn. high school game. Eventually, a United States Hockey league team came to Austin, the Austin Mavericks (which would later become the Rochester Mustangs) and he broadcast those games, too. “So that’s where I kind of cut my teeth for hockey,” Sullivan said. And then it’s like anything else: The more you do the games, the better you get .” Still, there are times when hockey isn’t an easy beast to tame. The game is fast, and there are many names and numbers to memorize. Following the names of all the players is quite another. And speaking to that puck: It’s little, and it can be difficult to spot sometimes, especially when there’s scrum in front of the goaltender, and if that’s happening, there’s a decent chance the puck will go into the net, which means an announcer needs to be ready to for that app important goal call.
“ You’re part of a live event people to turn on the radio to hear; you’re a connection to it,” he said. “ It’s kind of like the old ‘Star Trek’ or Spock doing the mind meld… I’m putting my hand on the event, I’m the channel.” Sullivan says he really became aware of just how important connection is when the games began streaming online. “ Up until that point, you were confined to the range of the broadcast towers,” he said. “ And that was your audience. Usually parents and fans, whatever, maybe a couple of towns over. But when the (streaming started) I had people come up to me at the Verizon Center and they’d look at me and I’d never seen them before in my life. And I’d kind of look at them and they’d ask who I was. And I’d tell them. And they’d say.’ yeah, we listen to you and I’m so and so’s parents from British Columbia.”
There was a time, though, when no one heard Sullivan’s voice. It was 2013, and Sullivan had been experiencing some hoarseness in his voice. “That’s a bad thing for a radio guy,” he said. “That’s your bread and butter.” Voice problems, he said aren’t uncommon for people who make their livings with their voice. Usually, it goes away with rest. This one, however, persisted. He found himself unable to finish a Maverick football game one night and decided to get help. After doctors in Mankato couldn’t diagnose the problem, Sullivan went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester where they found a cyst beneath his vocal cords. When surgeons removed it, they found it was larger than they’d thought, which lengthened Sullivan’s rehab time. He wasn’t able to talk for several days, as talks could damage the surgery area. A week later, he went to work. He still couldn’t talk but he could do some of the off-air work his job requires. And he was doing voice rehab at Mayo. He was itching to get back behind that mic, though.