By his reckoning, Jerry L. Bowman is a rarity in the hockey world – a play-by-play man who also happens to be African-American. Making his story even more unique is the fact Bowman comes from the South – the deep South.
Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Bowman stumbled upon hockey back in the original World Hockey Association days when he was just a child.
“It happened quite by accident,” he said. “We had an old transistor radio and I just happened to be turning the dial one day and a Birmingham Bulls game came on.”
The Bulls, who dressed big names such as Michel Goulet, Paul Henderson and even Frank Mahovlich back in the late 1970s, also had a radio man in Eli Gold who sold Bowman on the sport.
“I begged my parents to take me to some games,” Bowman recalled. “My family thought I was bonkers.”
And while Bowman has spent a good portion of his life pitching the game to his community, his love of hockey hasn't wavered. He earned a degree in broadcast journalism from Troy University in Alabama and set off to make a name for himself in the hockey world.
But Bowman never wanted to be a novelty act and was conscious about his career. Like many hockey players, he felt he should work his way up from the minors and hopefully, one day, be good enough to get a shot at the NHL.
During the 1997-98 season, he called 10 games for his hometown Bulls (now a completely different franchise playing in the ECHL), as a substitute for the regular play-by-play man. From 2000 to 2002, he had a regular gig with the Tupelo T-Rex of the Western Pro League and then the Central League. If you want to hear about hockey in a non-traditional market, Bowman has seen it.
“It was two different atmospheres,” he noted. “In Birmingham, they've had hockey since the 1970s. That was different from Tupelo, Miss., where there had never been a team. It's kind of an uphill battle. With hockey's rapid expansion in the 1990s, a lot of it was in non-traditional markets. You have to market your team, but you also had to teach people the game.”
For me, the most fascinating thing about low-minors hockey is the lifestyle. What drives the players to continue on season after season, playing for a slim paycheck and often little glory? Bowman, who spent a good deal of time with the T-Rex players, saw the tough decisions the guys had to make, especially when they were married with children.
“With some guys, there was always that hint of, ‘maybe someone will call,’ ” Bowman said. “They were conflicted, being on the road so much, knowing they weren't going any higher.”
And while Slap Shot forms our initial template for low-minors hockey, Bowman said it wasn't all fisticuffs, even though he acknowledged fighting can be a great marketing tool in non-traditional markets.
“I thought the quality of play was surprisingly good,” he said. “But I also covered some games where there were a lot of mitts and twigs on the ice.”
Currently, Bowman is looking for a hockey job. Now living in Tennessee, the Nashville Predators have given him access to a booth in their press box, where he has called games for the purposes of putting together a demo CD. He sounds pretty good, too.
As the NHL gets more diverse, it's cool to see the off-ice community spread its wings as well. With any luck, Jerry L. Bowman won't be such a rarity in the future.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday.
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