It wasn’t until midway through the first period of his first National Hockey League TV game that Farmington Hills native Jason Ross Jr. learned of the historical significance of the broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago.
The 23-year-old Ross Jr. became the first Black TV play-by-play announcer in the history of the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 8, 2022, but he didn’t know about it until color analyst Colby Cohen gave him the heads up.
After the Blackhawks’ 2-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Chicago captain and three-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Toews congratulated Ross Jr. on the milestone and the team presented the rookie broadcaster with the game puck.
“That was beyond cool,” Ross Jr. said. “I didn’t know how they knew I had become the first Black TV play-by-play broadcaster, but they found out.
“Afterwards, I was getting messages from people who said I could be an inspiration for the next generation of broadcasters who want to see someone who looks like them on the air calling an NHL game.”
Ross Jr. also became the the youngest TV or radio play-by-play broadcaster among the 32 NHL teams and the second Black announcer after 32-year-old Detroit native Everett Fitzhugh of the expansion Seattle Kraken.
Ross Jr.’s rapid rise to the NHL doesn’t come as a surprise to Bally Sports Detroit reporter Trevor Thompson, who met the aspiring broadcaster at the 2016 Horizon League Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament at Joe Louis Arena.
“I remember this young kid who looked like he was about 14-years-old, introducing himself and telling us how he wanted to be a play-play-play announcer,” said Thompson, a five-time Michigan Emmy Award winner who has covered the Red Wings and Tigers since 2000.
“From that time on, he continued to ask questions, to push, to look for opportunities, to seek advice. He would come down to the Joe and Little Caesars (Arena) and practice calling hockey and basketball games into a microphone, all unpaid. He took full charge and earned it.”
A graduate of the media communication program at Lawrence Tech in Southfield, Ross Jr. started out with freelance work at Oakland University, Detroit City FC, Detroit Sports Media and the United Shore Professional Baseball League.
After launching a sports TV show with Genna Rose in 2021 called The Motor City Roundup, they both joined the Blackhawks in fill-in roles this year and he’s now living in Chicago and doing play-by-play in hockey and other sports for the Big Ten Network, as well as ESPN.
With Hockey Hall of Famer and former Michigan State and Grand Rapids Owls play-by-play announcer Pat Foley retiring after 39 years at the end of this season, Ross Jr. will continue his Blackhawks audition Wednesday when the Blackhawks open a three-game road trip against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
“I texted Trevor the good news right after I found out about these next three games,” Ross Jr. said. “He laid the foundation for what I’m doing now. He’s so composed on the air, so confident, so incredibly kind. He’s been my mentor in life.”
The 54-year-old Thompson said he’s “encouraged” that young Black broadcasters can “follow and be inspired” by Ross Jr.’s story of perseverance, which just happens to coincide with Black History Month in February.
“If you don’t see it, you’ll never really believe it,” Thompson said. “It takes a certain skill-set and commitment to get to the NHL. That’s what you want to be recognized for, that you were good enough to get there, on your own because of hard work. Period. Not because of the color of your skin.”
Ross Jr. said he began thinking of a career in broadcasting after watching and listening to sports with his mom and going to Detroit Red Wings games with his father.
Throughout his childhood, he consumed anything broadcast-related from books, podcasts, and documentaries to studying and meeting play-by-play announcers, including Hockey Hall of Famer Mike “Doc” Emrick of St. Clair Shores and Foley, who he says captures “the energy in the big moments.”
“I would listen to the voice behind the highlights and try and learn the proper words to match the picture, to narrate the events,” said Ross Jr., who also learned how to play the game at age 9 with the Livonia Knights. “I started to realize that was a job I could possibly do, to be that person at the game.”
During three years at East Middle School in Farmington Hills from 2009-2012, he played floor hockey with Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat, who leads the team with 26 goals, including two goals during Ross Jr.’s WGN-radio call of a 4-3 overtime loss against the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 4.
“Even back then, he (DeBrincat) was amazing,” Ross Jr. said. “We looked like we were in slow motion. He was killing it and he’s gone on to be an All-Star (picking up three points in Saturday’s All-Star Game in Las Vegas and participating in Friday’s NHL Breakaway Challenge).”
Ross Jr. was also one of the first recipients of the Black Play-by-Play Broadcaster Grant and Scholarship Fund started by collegiate broadcaster Adam Giardino to address the scarcity of Black announcers throughout sport.
He said the historic nature of his broadcast with the 96-year-old Blackhawks franchise has begun to sink in now.
“It was an honor and a privilege if a young Black broadcaster tuned in to an NHL game that night and saw me in that chair,” Ross said. “As Trevor said, hopefully we can start to kind of normalize that and make it more common.”
As for advice the 23-year-old Ross Jr. would have for an even younger generation interested in broadcast journalism, he said “it’s the often overlooked skills of simply being a good listener and carrying yourself with humility” that can make a difference with any team in any profession.
“There are a lot of people behind the scenes in our Chicago offices like directors, producers, audio and graphic people who come together to produce one show you see on TV,” he said.
“It’s like being an athlete. You develop team chemistry, you practice through the week and then when game time rolls around, you can win the game and succeed.”