CLEVELAND, OH – “Welcome to The Q!” exclaimed Tony Brown, broadcaster for the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters, who was kind enough to meet with me during the pregame hours of December 28, 2016 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
It was the first Western Conference game of my career, so I was obviously in a state of euphoria just being there. What made the night even more exciting was the chance to also see the Grand Rapids Griffins, the team regarded as the Monsters’ most bitter rival, play.
2016 was a huge year for Cleveland with the first two professional sports championships seen in Ohio in over 50 years coming home to the city. The Monsters won the Calder Cup on June 11, and about a week later, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Championship.
“I definitely arrived in Cleveland at the right time,” laughed Brown, who called his first career Calder Cup to conclude his first season with the Monsters. “Tonight’s a cool chapter, too, because we get to relive the Cavs’ title, and it’s Cavs Tribute Night debuting our new gold alternates. Should be another great crowd.”
Brown, who came in from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel in 2015, also calls games for the Cleveland Gladiators, who along with the Cavaliers make up the complete lineup at owner Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Arena.
“I quickly found out what everyone says about Cleveland is true,” said Brown. “For the AHL for someone in my line of work, it’s gotta be right up there.”
One of the reasons the Monsters’ broadcaster is so enthusiastic about coming to work everyday is the “seamless” operation of his “major league” organization.
“The biggest thing about being here is that the Cavaliers are our family members so to speak,” explained Brown. “The way that we operate is the way that they operate, which is very first class all the way.”
The presence of the Cavaliers is definitely evident by just walking through “The Q,” and naturally, I came to Cleveland with plenty of questions for Brown, who calls play-by-play nightly for the Monsters.
One thing I had to learn more about was the organization’s thought process behind changing the team’s name from the Lake Erie Monsters to the Cleveland Monsters, which became official on August 9, 2016.
“It was something that had been hinted at for a while. The original logo for the Monsters just said ‘Lake Erie Monsters,’ but then later they added ‘Cleveland’ to it,” explained Brown. “Coming off a championship, it seemed just like the right time to pull the trigger.”
Brown also made it clear that the Monsters considered the decision a “brand refresh, not a rebrand.”
“It just pulls us closer to the Cavaliers with the wine and gold coloring, and it just seemed like the natural thing to do with Cleveland hitting this high point the way that it has,” he added.
Almost a year has passed since the announcement, and the results of the name change continue to be nothing but positive.
“It’s been great. For all of the reasons we just talked about, now is the time to be Cleveland’s team,” said Brown. “It’s what we feel like we’ve been the entire time, and now it’s in name what it always was in spirit.”
The 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters, the last squad in franchise history to go by that name, not only won the Calder Cup that season but also brought home the state’s first professional sports championship in 56 years. The Cavaliers won their title soon thereafter.
“It was really a dream-like scenario, and it couldn’t be any better than to have both championships won,” Brown said.
Many sports fans, however, quickly dismissed the Monsters’ victory and credited the Cavaliers for being the team to accomplish this historical feat. According to Brown, it could’ve been a potentially “squeamish” situation had it not been for the family-like relationship shared between the two teams.
“I think the Cavaliers really elegantly handled the situation,” Brown stated. “Of course, there is no denying that the AHL and the NBA are two different things, yet it doesn’t take anything away from the accomplishment of winning the Calder Cup.”
The Monsters were proud (and still are) to share this moment in sports history with the Cavs, even if more of the spotlight at the time was focused on their roommates at “The Q.”
“The way that it worked out with us being able to do it about a week prior, we got to share that in the parade in downtown Cleveland and were the first float in line,” Brown recalled. “Down in that dressing room, all the players know what they did, and we know what they did, and with the Cavs, it just couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Something Brown probably didn’t expect when he first started working in Cleveland was the chance to collect hardware from a different sport, let alone a NBA team, but that’s exactly what happened during his first season with the Monsters.
“The Cavaliers have been nothing but supportive, and every single employee in this company, part time or full time, received both a Cavaliers championship ring and a Monsters championship ring,” said Brown. “It really is a family dealing.”
The next thing I had to hear about was Brown’s memories of physically calling the last minutes of play during the Monsters’ 2016 Calder Cup victory.
“Do you even remember what you said?” I asked of the conclusion of his first AHL season.
“I do, mostly because I’ve had to listen back to the call about 800 times since that night as we’ve been relishing the championship,” joked Brown.
“I got into this business to call hockey games, and I love hockey because I grew up watching the Stanley Cup playoffs and college hockey,” he continued. “Just to have one of those moments be your own is something else. I just feel lucky.”
Brown recalled the final moments of the Monsters’ impressive four-game sweep over the Hershey Bears, in which a scoreless tie in Game 4 forced overtime.
“When it actually happened, the team was on such a run and up 3-0 in their fourth consecutive playoff series here,” Brown said. “At least for us upstairs, we were all really tense the whole time, but in a good way. It was as thrilling and exciting a thing as I could’ve ever imagined.”
With 1.9 seconds left in the first overtime period, Oliver Bjorkstrand scored to secure Cleveland’s first Calder Cup victory since 1964. Brown, who calls games with IHL all-time leading scorer Jock Callander, described his mindset leading into that moment.
“Throughout the playoffs, it almost became the tradition for Jock to jump in for the series-ending moment, and we just experienced it authentically together,” Brown said. “And that’s what it was. It was a genuine thing.”
“I tried really hard, knowing it might be a possibility for us to win this thing, not to have something scripted or preplanned and to just let it go and see what happened,” he continued. “I’m proud of the result, and it’s pretty cool to call the first pro sports title in Ohio in 56 years.”
What stood out most to Brown about that magical night at “The Q” was the “genuine outpouring of support of fans” who came together to cheer on their Monsters, many of whom have supported the team since the Cleveland Barons’ run of nine Calder Cup victories from the 1936-1972.
“What I remember most is that 19,665 people were in this building, the largest crowd for a hockey game in the state of Ohio and by far the largest in the history of the franchise,” Brown said. “To share it with fans that have stuck through a lot of different variations of pro hockey to get to this point, and to share it with Jock who is Cleveland hockey – what a lucky deal.”
With his rookie AHL season now behind him, I asked what Brown thought of the AHL now that he’s had a chance to reflect on the Monsters’ exciting 2016 Calder Cup run and his time with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel.
“The American Hockey League is, as you know, the second greatest league in the world, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” Brown exclaimed. “I love this league. I think it takes you to a lot of different places.”
Brown has not only grown fond of Cleveland but also holds a high respect for other cities in the league’s Central Division as well.
“There are some great hockey cities in addition to Cleveland, like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” he noted. “It should be a lot of fun tonight with Grand Rapids. It’s already Round 7 of 12 this year, and if there is a real, true, bitter rivalry for the Monsters, it’s Grand Rapids.”
Although the Griffins came away with a close 3-2 victory that night, my first experience visiting the Monsters at the Quicken Loans Arena was definitely unforgettable, and I have to agree with Brown that Cleveland should be considered one of the best sports markets in the country.
“This is the place to be. I love Cleveland,” said Brown, “and for someone who grew up in Minnesota, to be able to work in hockey in a market that has had successful teams in the AHL back to the 1930’s is pretty cool.”