FAIRBANKS, Alaska — After nearly a quarter-century broadcasting Alaska Nanook hockey games, the numbers surrounding Bruce Cech are starting to sound more like milestones.
He's called more than 800 Nanooks hockey games during the past 24 years, and estimates he's traveled a half-million air miles to get to those contests. The era he's spent calling UAF hockey games includes eight coaches and at least a half-dozen athletic directors, he said.
His wife of nearly 13 years, Gloria, proposed to him during a hockey road trip. He once called a UAF hockey game on the same day he attended his mother's funeral, making a quick trip from Michigan to Elmira, N.Y., to meet up with the Nanooks. His mother, he said, would have wanted it that way.
Ask him about his favorite Nanook memories, and he unleashes a stream of rapid-fire tales of last-second goals, unexpected victories and NHL-bound stars. This stuff, Cech admits, is what he lives for.
"I don't know who gave him the name 'The Voice of the Nanooks,' but he is," said Erik Drygas, his broadcast partner for the past 15 years. "People grew up listening to him."
Cech, 55, has a few hobbies — he enjoys music, bowling and the house full of pugs he shares with his wife, Gloria. But his spare time, he admits, is dominated by athletics. When he isn't calling a local hockey or football game, Cech is busy following the Detroit pro franchises he spent his Michigan childhood watching.
"Sports is 95 percent of my life," he said with a smile. "My wife learned it's something she had to get used to."
Cech got his break in broadcasting almost by chance, after spending time in college studying engineering and business administration. His neighbor had dated a man who worked for a local AM radio station, and Cech developed a relationship that allowed him to get on the air in 1979 in Saginaw, Mich., hosting a religious program called "God Squad" on Sunday mornings.
After several years of bouncing around radio stations and various music formats near his hometown, Cech said he was ready to move away from the struggling Michigan economy. He placed an ad in a broadcasting magazine in 1984, expecting to find a job at another station in the upper Midwest.
To his surprise, Cech got a call from KBCF's Chuck Benson soon after the ad appeared. As soon as Cech heard Benson's radio station began with a "K'' he realized the ad had a greater reach than he'd anticipated.
"That's west of the Mississippi," Cech remembers thinking. "When he said Alaska, I started laughing my you-know-what off."
Cech remembers his first day in Fairbanks, when he arrived in August to a snow- and rain-filled 43-degree day. His job was to host "Tradio," an on-air flea market on the oldies station.
"I'm thinking, 'What did I get myself into?'" he said.
But not long afterward, Cech realized he was hooked on the opportunities Fairbanks provided. Although his career has meandered, including a few years back in Michigan when the Alaska economy soured, his presence on the air in Fairbanks has been almost constant.
At various times, Cech said he's worked as a sportscaster for each of the local commercial television stations. He's also shifted among several radio stations, including KIAK, KSUA and now KCBF.
Cech has sampled a little of everything. He called Fairbanks Grizzlies indoor football games, worked UAF basketball tournaments, and announced countless high school football games. He's even handled a few sports he knows little about, he admits, like dog mushing and the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.
His best-known work is as the longtime on-air voice of the Nanooks.
His favorite moment came at the end of a 6-5 road victory over highly ranked Michigan State, when Wayne Sawchuk scored the winning goal with 3 seconds remaining. UAF, still in its early years as a Division I team, routinely had been pummeled during its road trips.
But Cech can rattle off the details of countless other games as well — a triple-overtime victory against Nebraska-Omaha, the goal-scoring skill of former undersized center Dean Fedorchuk, and some rough road trips soon after the Nanooks joined the CCHA.
Some broadcasters have a "radio voice," Cech said, that they turn off and on. His inflection is permanent, however, and can be heard over the loudspeaker at his regular job at Safeway, where he works as a manager at the customer service counter. If you hear a familiar voice announcing a produce special or urging someone to retrieve a lost dog from the store, it likely belongs to Cech.
Safeway is supportive with the travel required to follow the Nanooks around the country, Cech said. Using a combination of vacation days and regular days off, he has enough flexibility to call every game.
Drygas said Cech's commitment to the Nanooks is astonishing, considering he does the job in the off-hours from his full-time work. Cech hosts hockey luncheons, travels with the team, sets up equipment for broadcasts and uses his personal leave from Safeway to devote more time to broadcasting.
"I don't think anyone realizes the time he puts into Nanook hockey," Drygas said.
Cech hopes he can keep it up for quite a while longer.
His role model for longevity is Bob Chase, an Indiana broadcaster who has been working games for the minor-league Fort Wayne Komets hockey team for nearly six decades, and is still working at age 85.
"I'm hoping I can be like him," Cech said. "I'm only 55 — maybe I can go another 30 years of calling Nanook hockey."
Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com