January 12, 2012

Bruins' flagship station finally gives hockey fans a home

By Jesse Connolly

It was the spring of 2009. Despite a gut-wrenching, Game 7 loss in the second round to the Hurricanes, only a fool failed to realize the Bruins were a team on the rise. 

Afternoon drive-time co-hosts Michael Felger (left) and Tony Massarotti have helped drive the Bruins’ talk renaissance on 98.5 The Sports Hub. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

After a decade of mediocrity (or worse), hope was renewed that a once-revered, Original Six team could reclaim a region that was fondly deemed the Hub of Hockey.

However, that feeling of optimism didn’t catch on everywhere. That was especially true at WEEI, where the longstanding radio giant continued to ignore, hang up on or even ridicule Bruins fans for their passion for the sport and their team.

One group of savvy individuals decided enough was enough, and that hockey deserved a proper home on the airwaves. They laid the groundwork for 98.5 The Sports Hub, an all-sports, FM station that would serve as the flagship radio home for the New England Patriots and Boston Bruins.

From the moment they went on the air in August that year, hockey fans were welcomed with open arms.

“We knew we’d be able to talk about hockey and talk about the Bruins more than what’s ever been covered before,” Sports Hub program director Mike Thomas said. “Prior to us coming on the air, hockey was pretty much ignored. We knew they basically didn’t have a place to go prior to us being on the air. Hockey fans are passionate fans, especially in Boston. We felt like it wasn’t going to hurt to give them a place to talk about the sport.”

While the decision to focus on hockey was certainly a collaborative one, no one was more passionate about that plan than Michael Felger. Tapped as co-host of the station’s afternoon show alongside Tony Massarotti, Felger grew up in Wisconsin, where he regularly attended the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals games and made the occasional family trip to Chicago to catch the Blackhawks before his education at Boston University — and subsequent career at the Boston Herald — brought him to Boston.

As a fan of the game himself, Felger understood how frustrated Bruins fans were.

“I wanted to do it right from the get-go. I’ll be honest: I didn’t know that it would work ratings-wise,” Felger said. “I was just beaten into that mentality around here for so many years with ’EEI and everyone else that you couldn’t talk hockey. My thought going in was that we were going to talk it, treat it like a real sport, be critical and all that stuff. If we didn’t get the ratings to support it, it would have to be a fourth consideration and not a big part of it.”

Much to Felger’s relief, ratings went through the roof from the get-go, allowing him to talk less about the sports he’s not very fond of.

“I really enjoy tweaking basketball fans and ripping basketball. I think it’s a terrible sport,” Felger said, fresh off of wrapping up an undoubtedly arduous segment on Celtics guard Rajon Rondo during the show’s simulcast on 98.5-FM and Comcast SportsNet.

“I think the treatment that hockey got from them has made all hockey fans a little feisty,” he continued. “The sport has been put down for so long in this market when the fact is the people putting it down are basketball fans, and basketball sucks. All the basketball guys in the media whine about why we have to compare the sports all the time. Michael Holley (of WEEI) says it all the time. And this was after the basketball people spent two decades ripping hockey. So they can dish it out, but they can’t take it. They can rip hockey, but as soon as you turn around and tease them for their terrible sport, they don’t like it.”

Unfortunately, the masses had plenty of ammunition to rip on the Black and Gold at the tail end of the Sports Hub’s first season on the air. After jumping out to a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the 2010 playoffs, the Bruins inexplicably fell apart, losing four consecutive games to disgracefully bow out of the postseason.

Felger’s on-air partner, Massarotti, who primarily has covered baseball for the better part of two decades in Boston, didn’t think the Bruins’ implosion would send potential hockey fans packing. Instead, he expected just the opposite.

“The same sort of phenomenon is kind of happening to the Red Sox now,” Massarotti said. “When you have that kind of failure, the scrutiny gets greater and people watch you more closely to see how you react to it. I think that series, in an odd way, kind of helped the Bruins in terms of the interest level and honestly in terms of the motivation. They were inspired to go out and get Nathan Horton, then a month after they lost to Philly they drafted (Tyler) Seguin. It was really this convergence of elements of one thing after the next that really put them back on the map.”

Mike Thomas, program director, 98.5 The Sports Hub. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

In 2011, as everyone that hasn’t been living under a rock knows by now, the Bruins went beyond putting themselves back on the map. They climbed to the top of the NHL mountain and captured their first Stanley Cup in 39 years. After the Bruins escaped an 0-2 hole in the first round against Montreal and began to build momentum, callers began coming out in droves.

“We were wall-to-wall Bruins for like two months,” Massarotti said, perking up after a quick catnap on a coworker’s couch before the show. “The whole postseason, I remember I was getting a little burned out in the middle of it, and Mike said to me that we had to keep doing it because it was the main story. I wasn’t saying we shouldn’t do it but that it was a little bit of a grind. But we both knew it was the biggest story going.

“And then them winning it, my goodness. The Vancouver series was as compelling as it gets. Really, all of them were, even the Philly series. Our highest weekly rating in the two-plus years we’ve been on the air was the week the Bruins won the Cup. That should give you some sort of indication of where they are now in the hierarchy of Boston sports. The ratings that week were insane. Everyone was listening to the Bruins, talking about the Bruins and watching the Bruins. All we had to do was come on the air and open the phone lines.”

One of the Sports Hub’s biggest strengths is the fact that, despite their wide array of backgrounds, every host on every program has not only put in the time and effort to immerse themselves in hockey but truly enjoys doing so.

“I think everybody has been willing to learn what they needed to learn,” said Massarotti, a graduate of Tufts University. “You develop labels. People see me as a baseball guy. They see Andy Gresh and Scott Zolak as football guys. But I don’t think anyone has gone into anything and said they’re not interested and don’t want to talk about it. I think the willingness of the people here to talk about it and to do it helps. But I also feel like that’s the right, professional thing to do. You talk about what you need to talk about. Whatever the story is, that’s what you learn.”

Because of that all-in effort from everyone involved, the Sports Hub enters 2012 after yet another successful showing in the ratings. After earning the Marconi Award as the best sports station in the country in September, the CBS-owned station trumped WEEI in the morning, midday, afternoon and evening segments once again this fall.

Felger believes a big part of the success stems from the station’s willingness to call things like they see them when it comes to the Bruins.

“We’re critical, we second guess, we challenge and that’s the treatment the other teams get in this town,” Felger said, squeezing in a few chicken wings during a break before a scheduled segment with Bruins president Cam Neely. “It’s not just, ‘Whee! Look at the Bruins. They’re winning!’ It’s not just celebrating they’re back; it’s ‘Why’d they sign him? Why’d the make that trade? Why is Claude playing him?’

“And we’re wrong plenty, but that’s how it works with other teams, too. You pore over the Patriots draft picks, you pore over the Red Sox free-agent moves, and I give the Bruins the exact same treatment. It’s what are they doing right and what are they doing wrong, and who (screwed) up and why?”

As of late, little has gone awry for the Bruins. After suffering through a bit of a Cup hangover, starting the year 3-7-0, the Black and Gold began a remarkable run that saw them win 21 of their next 24 games, ascending to the top spot in the NHL in the process.

And though they didn’t put all of their eggs in one basket, taking the gamble of being hockey centric and succeeding has been a rewarding experience for Felger and company.

“What was more gratifying for us, from this standpoint, is we talked hockey from Day One and it worked from Day One,” Felger said. “We knew ratings would be great when they went to the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s a no-brainer. But they were pretty damn good when they lost to Philadelphia. Knock on wood, we’ve done pretty good. The springtime during the Bruins the last couple years have been good.”

So how do they keep riding the wave of the Black and Gold’s success? 

Michael Felger, co-host of ‘Felger & Massarotti’ on 98.5 The Sports Hub. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

“As long as they stay at a certain level, I don’t think there’s going to be any issue ever again,” said Massarotti, who regularly queries the station’s broadcasting duo of play-by-play man Dave Goucher and analyst Bob Beers for hockey info. “And the good news for them, obviously, is they’re built for the long haul at the moment. You look at their roster, and it’s a bunch of guys in their 20s, if that. You know, I felt this way to a degree when the Red Sox won in 2007. Last year’s championship didn’t feel like the end of a drought. It felt like the beginning of the next great era in Bruins history. That’s how I look at it, and I think that’s how people feel.”

As for helping to reignite a passion for the Bruins throughout the region, Massarotti believes he’s more of an effect than a cause, placing himself among those that have been fueled by Felger’s passion and the Bruins’ entertaining brand of hockey.

“If our show has somehow created a greater interest in hockey, it’s all Mike,” Massarotti said. “Fred (Toucher) and Rich (Shertenlieb) in the morning are hockey fans, Damon Amendolara is a fan of everything, I think, but if anyone at this station suggests that anyone other than Mike was leading the way, I would disagree with them. I wouldn’t fight with them over it, but I think Mike led the way. It pushed me to sort of start paying better attention.

“I watch almost every game now. There was a period of time when I never watched them. Now I watch pretty much every game. It’s a blast. A lot of it is the team, right? They are so wildly entertaining and competitive. They’re not a likeable team, they’re a loveable team.”

Felger would rather not verbally anoint himself as the catalyst for the Bruins’ rise in popularity, but there’s no denying that everyone at the Sports Hub, from top to bottom, has played a role.

“I think the station’s been important for it,” Felger said. “It’s given fans a voice and a place to go, especially after being belittled for so long. Us treating it like a real sport has been a very small part of what’s gone on here.

“I didn’t do it because I thought it was good for ratings. I hoped it would be, and now that it is it’s certainly one of the reasons we go back to it, but I did it because I love the sport.”

As for what WEEI — which jumped on the Bruins bandwagon last spring — thinks about the current landscape of hockey coverage throughout the region, the station was contacted multiple times to voice their input. No one replied.

Fortunately for Bruins fans, at least someone’s talking hockey these days.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseNEHJ. He can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com