When a chorus of boos rains down on Bobb Vergiels one more time at the Walleye game on Sunday, it will be a bittersweet moment yet music to the ears of the local hockey legend.
Vergiels, the longtime public address announcer and rink-side voice of Toledo hockey for the last 20 years, is stepping down.
He announced the first goal scored in the history of the Storm organization at the venerable Sports Arena. He also announced the first Walleye goal in 2009 at the newly opened Huntington Center.
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The outgoing and fun-loving Vergiels has developed memorable catch phrases. He has presided over nearly 800 games with mic in hand and energy in his voice.
“It has been 20 years — 16 with the Storm and four with the Walleye — and that is a nice round number,” he said. “I was around from the beginning of two organizations. It will be strange walking into a game next year as a fan.”
Vergiels, who celebrated his 61st birthday on Sunday, is greeted before every game with a hardy heckle. The tradition started in the early days of the Storm when a Blade reporter suggested the fans should boo Vergiels because he was the only announcer in all of sports that would introduce himself.
“It is a tradition in sports that likely is not repeated anywhere else,” Vergiels said. “Everybody who went to games in the Sports Arena knew why they were booing. But with the Walleye a lot of fans find the tradition peculiar.”
Vergiels said memories come flooding back as reflects upon his career. He’s been hit countless times with pucks during Chuck a Puck promotions. Come Sunday, Vergiels hopes to implore the crowd to count the number of goals Toledo has scored with his “Hey T-Town, let’s count ’em up.”
“A Hooters girl once hit me in the forehead with a Frisbee as I stepped onto the ice,” he said. “It sunned me. I just couldn’t figure out how she didn’t see a 6-foot-4, 225-pound guy with a microphone.”
Vergiels said old Sports Arena crowds were good for two goals a night for the home team. He said “Church Night” were guaranteed sellouts — and some of the most fight-filled games.
“The most watched hockey fight of all time on YouTube, Ken Tasker’s fight with Trevor Senn, happened right in front of me,” he said.
Vergiels has mixed emotions on another unique Toledo tradition, when the fans scream “Hit Somebody” during the national anthem.
“Once you realize that the fans mean no disrespect to their country it’s really quite innocent,” he said. “They are calling out the opponent because they do disrespect that visiting team. But I see why there are people who do not like it.”
Vergiels said he formed special bonds with the other off-ice officials. He said he hears criticism that the Huntington Center doesn’t have “hockey character.”
“But the Sports Arena had a half-century to build up that character and we have only been here for four years,” he said. “Every night I have to pinch myself that I am announcing minor league hockey in a truly major league facility.”
Vergiels will continue his PA duties for the Detroit Tigers and University of Michigan basketball and baseball teams. His voice was heard on national TV during the World Series in 2006 and last fall.
In his 16 years with the Storm, the team missed the playoffs just three times. He said the Riley Cup championship win against Wheeling in double OT to cap the 1992-93 season was the top memory.
The Walleye, who host last-place Evansville today, have not qualified for the playoffs since their first season. Toledo holds the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with six games left.
“They have a real good chance of going deep in the playoffs,” Vergiels said. “I hope it’s not my last game on Sunday. I hope we go several rounds.”
Vergiels said he hopes he’s remembered for making the games more fun. “No one ever bought a ticket to hear the announcer — they came for the hockey,” he said. “But if I helped them to have a more memorable, enjoyable night, then I did what I wanted to do.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.