As Allen throws on his headset, “Every 1’s a Winner” by Hot Chocolate blares through the speakers. As he prepares to take his seat, he suddenly goes over to a window in the studio overlooking Highway 100 and quietly recites a prayer.
When he’s finished, he turns around, returns to the microphone and like that, as he’d probably say himself… “‘9 to Noon’ is LOOOOOOSE.”
Leaving his comfort zone
Everything about Allen’s pre-show routine says he’s done this a few thousand times before.
He began at KFAN more than two decades ago, first as a part-time host, then beginning full-time in this time slot in 1999. Allen has been the race track announcer at Canterbury since 1995 and the radio voice of the Minnesota Vikings since 2002.
Allen has become a staple in the Twin Cities media scene, like a warm blanket on a cold Minnesota winter’s night to thousands of local sports fans over the past 20 years. He’s called more than 35,000 races at the track and this past football season, he voiced his 400th Vikings game.
But Allen is about to take one giant step outside his comfort zone next week when he enters Suite 25 at Xcel Energy Center for two games when the Wild hosts the Vegas Golden Knights on March 21 and the Vancouver Canucks three nights later.
Not because he’ll be watching a hockey game, but because for the first time in his life, he’ll be broadcasting one.
Allen was set to call two games for the Wild in 2020, but just a few days before he was set to fly with the team to Chicago and Winnipeg, COVID-19 shutdown the season, and Allen’s first foray into a hockey broadcast booth was stymied .
“I was dead-set to do that and I was super excited to work with Tom Reid and just to bust out of my comfort zone,” Allen said. “Obviously, when the pandemic hit, that was thrown to the side, as were eight million other things for people in their lives. I didn’t have enough time to really miss that opportunity or to wonder what would have been, because heads were spinning so fast with what was hitting with the pandemic. Not doing those games was the last thing on my mind.”
In the run up to that, Allen sat in a radio booth inside the Wild press box and quietly called nine periods of hockey as practice, both in his head and how dozens of current broadcasters got their start, reciting play-by-play into a handheld recorder to listen back to and criticize later.
And while bits and pieces of Allen’s practice calls have leaked onto the radio airwaves, thanks in part to his “9 to Noon” producer Eric Nordquist, Allen’s call of the game against Vegas will be his first public call of a sporting event other than football and horse racing.
Allen has been in the Al Shaver Press Box at Xcel Energy Center for recent games against the New York Rangers and Nashville Predators, once again doing solo broadcasts to practice. He’s also invested in the NHL television broadcast package, where he’s been a semi-regular viewer of the Golden Knights and Canucks as he attempts to learn those rosters.
Associating names with numbers on a jersey is only part of the challenge, however. Allen has done so many football games that he can identify players by how they look or simply their body type without even waiting for confirmation on the digits on their jerseys.
He’s efforting that with the Golden Knights and Canucks too, doing everything he can to memorize what Jack Eichel or Jonathan Marchessault look like without having to wait for a glimpse of a No. 9 or a No. 81.
That, in theory, will move the signal in his brain more efficiently to his lips and onto the airwaves, which will make for a better sounding radio call.
“This year, I’ve spent more time just following the puck and where it is, parts of the ice,” Allen said. “I’m trying to anticipate where the puck is going so I can get my eyes there while I’m describing where the puck is. That’s what I do when I call horse racing. God has gifted me with the ability to look at one thing and describe it, while my eyes go somewhere else and I’m thinking about it.And that’s a key with hockey, the anticipatory skills of what is coming next.
“Wayne Gretzky once said that a key to his greatness was he didn’t go to where the puck was, he always went to where it was gonna be. And I’ve never forgotten that.”
Allen’s play-by-play career began modestly at a very young age. His first “broadcasts” came as a kid living in Washington DC, when he would call Redskins, Bullets and Capitals games off the television for his audience of one, Shirley Allen, his beloved single mom who raised him into the sports-loving rube he is now.
“I was in love with Guy Charron, Dennis Maruk and with a goalie named Bernie Wolf,” Allen said of his favorite former Caps. “I remember vividly, messing around at ages 13 and 14 and learning to pronounce Gilbert Perreault, learning to pronounce Guy Lafleur. And Guy Charron was a member of the Caps and it was cool.
“As a 13-year-old, you look at it as ‘Guy’ [emphasizing the English word ‘guy’]. But then you figure out that it’s pronounced [Ghee] and things like that stick with you forever when it comes to pronouncing names the right way. I fell in love with those French names at a young age.”
After moving to Southern California, Allen would spend his evenings listening to some of the biggest names in the business, legends that each had a tremendous impact on him as a youngster aspiring to break into the industry.
“When I was in high school, I was the kid who would go to bed and listen to Chick Hearn call Lakers games, Vin Scully call Dodger games and Bob Miller, he was unbelievably good doing Kings hockey,” Allen said.
More recently, Allen says he’d stop and listen to just about anything being announced by Doc Emrick, the longtime voice of NHL broadcasts on NBC who retired in 2020.
“He’s one of my two or three favorite broadcasters even though when I started watching him, I didn’t know as much about hockey as I do now,” Allen said. “The piercing nature of his voice, the way he builds a growing … and it may seem chill, and then all of the sudden, something happens. There’s up and down with it, I really, really like that and Doc is as good as anyone I’ve heard in my life at going from zero to 100.
“From a flair standpoint, Doc Emrick is pretty much above anybody in any sport.”
Locally, Allen said longtime former Wild radio announcer Bob Kurtz, who wrapped up his career earlier this season before passing the baton to new radio voice Joe O’Donnell, was also good at telling a story with the tone and tenor of his voice.
Staying true to himself
Still, Allen acknowledges he won’t be trying to impersonate anyone else’s shtick when he sits in that chair, nor is he trying to take anyone else’s job.
He’s going to be authentic, he’s going to be himself, and he knows he’s probably going to make a mistake or two along the way.
But that’s all part of the fun.
“Being KFAN raised, and being bit-raised, I’m going to drop in some copyrights and try and make them fun,” Allen said. “I’m going to do some things that are not wholeheartedly self-deprecating, but I’m not going to come in there and try to sell that I’ve been doing this my whole life. There will be missteps, so what do you do with the misstep?
Allen said working with longtime radio color analyst Tom Reid will be a treat for him, and will hopefully help smooth over any of those “missteps” along the way.
“He’s kind of a prankster in his own right, so I can make fun of little things I may not get and Tom will pick me up, but he’ll also make fun of them,” Allen said. “I’m not going to say this is going to be turned into a comedy show, because it’s not. There is a game to call, people who care about the team and the game and they want an accurate description.
“But given this is the first hockey game I’ve ever called in my life, the first non-football game I’ve ever called in my life, first and foremost the goal is to be accurate. The second goal would be to entertain those who have taken time to listen.And third, it was important to me to do it with fans [nearby].”
Allen spoke recently with former North Stars broadcaster Ralph Strangis, a longtime voice in the NHL, who advised him to avoid distractions while the game is going on.
But that’s simply not Allen’s style. This is a guy who routinely mixes it up verbally with opposing fans in visiting stadiums during commercial breaks and has a steady stream of folks walk through his announce location of him at Canterbury Park to watch him live there as well.
He’s also done occasional races from the front stretch of the track in front of thousands.
Allen feeds off that energy and vibe, which is why he’ll be doing the games at Xcel Energy Center from a suite with fans just feet away.
“They’re like, ‘the last thing you need are distractions,'” Allen said. “That’s not who I am. I love when people come up [at Canterbury], I love when people are in the VOX Box at US Bank Stadium around me, because it feels like you are playing to an audience, and you have a built in audience in there. There is some showmanship with these jobs, therefore, it was important for me to be around fans.”
By the time the final horn sounds next week after the game against the Canucks, Allen said he’s hoping to check only a couple of boxes.
A pro’s pro in every sense of the word, he wants as clean and as accurate a call as possible, but he also wants it to be memorable for all the right reasons.
“I want the Minnesota Wild and their fans to leave this thinking it was a cool idea, I’ve handled it well and made it fun,” Allen said. “And hopefully, the Wild win both games.”
Main photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings