TAMPA, Fla. — There is a tiny dark room tucked into a television studio 180 kilometres north of Helsinki. It is non-descript and empty, save for a laptop, 25-inch TV, headphones and a microphone.
This is where Antti Makinen performs the loneliest job in hockey.
Makinen spends his days poring over articles and watching highlights of games played a continent away. He usually takes a “nap” between 10 p.m. and midnight. Then the voice of the NHL in Finland drives to the studio in the middle of the night and puts words to the exploits of Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews.
It’s a routine he follows as many as 170 nights a year. There is no colour man and no backstage crew.
“In Stockholm I have a guy who is a technician,” Makinen said Friday. “I call him, I secure the lines and after that everything is on me.”
The biggest challenge he faces is not the strange work hours or the solitude. With games starting at 2 a.m. local time, Makinen struggles to keep his vocal chords loose.
It’s given rise to an unusual pre-game routine: He’ll listen to music while walking the hallways and sing at the top of his lungs.
“It keeps my voice clear,” Makinen explained. “If somebody would see me in our studio, I’m pretty sure they would think I’m crazy.”
This is a good job — one that’s made the 36-year-old a low-level celebrity back home — and it comes with an unbelievable perk: Viasat Hockey Finland flies him to the Stanley Cup final so that he can call the biggest games in person.
The practice began last year and he was given Teemu Selanne as a colour man. Professionally speaking, it came with a few challenges. He’d grown accustomed to the quiet offered by the tiny sound booth back home in Tampere.
“All of a sudden I’m sitting in the Staples Center and I’m looking at the people and looking at the game and thinking ‘Oh s—, I don’t know how to do this,”‘ said Makinen.
He made it through and is back again.
This time Makinen has former Finnish national coach Jukka Jalonen beside him, and in Game 1 he got the chance to call a goal scored by one of his countrymen when Chicago Blackhawks rookie Teuvo Taravainen tied things up in the third period.
Understandably, he put a little something extra into that one.
“I screamed ‘TEUVO’ and paused for five seconds,” said Makinen. “Then I said ‘It’s Teuvo time.”‘
He was so enthused it startled the broadcast crew just down the way calling the game in Chinese.
“I’m a little bit of a shouter,” said Makinen. “I shout a lot because I’m in the game. I just put those headphones on and try to get into the game. For me it comes from feelings.”
For him, this is clearly a labour of love.
The father of two young children barely sleeps during the season and knows that only a small percentage of the 5.5 million people in the hockey-mad country are staying up to watch the games.
As Blackhawks defenceman Kimmo Timonen put it: “That’s dedication.”
However, you won’t hear a complaint from Makinen — a once-promising defenceman who had his playing career cut short at age 19 by a serious back injury. That forced him to re-evaluate his priorities and start down a new professional path.
“I started to think of things a little differently,” he said. “I made a goal to myself that I want to be a NHL play-by-play guy in Finland. This is the best hockey in the world and I’m feeling so blessed that the NHL is my work.
“I’m not doing work, I love the work that I’m doing.”
After spending several months in a dark closet, Makinen is seeing the light. He raved about the pre-game ceremony at Amalie Arena and can’t wait to hear the U.S. anthem performed at Chicago’s United Center.
And should Teravainen score again, he’s got an even more lively call waiting in his back pocket.
“When you’re sitting there in the building and you’re watching it live, it’s so much different,” said Makinen. “It gives you a boost.”
It certainly beats the long, lonely nights.