Whether it was at a circus, a wrestling match or, more importantly, a hockey game, Chris Treft often gazed up at the Memorial Coliseum press box and dreamed of the day he would sit there, microphone in hand, and be a professional broadcaster describing the events to listeners wherever they may be.
"I would look up there and think, ‘Someday, that’s going to be me,’ " Treft said.
On Monday night, years of hard work, in the midst of many doubters, paid off. Treft is in his first season as the voice of the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators and called their 4-0 loss to the Komets, the team he grew up adoring and which supported him as he pursued his dream.
"I walked into the building and it smelled the same. It was so familiar. I felt at home. It was awesome. Some of the best moments of my life have been spent in that building," said Treft, who was positioned 20 feet away from his mentor, Komets broadcaster Bob Chase, who also helped teach Mike Emrick, a native of LaFontaine and now the lead play-by-play announcer for NBC Sports’ NHL coverage.
Treft didn’t get to call a goal for the Gladiators, thanks to a 21-save shutout by Fort Wayne goaltender Pat Nagle, but a smile was still affixed to his face as he waved to family and friends, got congratulatory handshakes from passers-by and was presented the puck from the game’s opening faceoff by public address announcer Larry Schmitt.
Treft, 25, served as a reminder that following your dreams can pay off, regardless of what others say.
Treft grew up in Roanoke, attended his first Komets game at 18 months old and instantly fell in love with the sport. He regularly attended games with his grandfather Harold – a fan so big that he was buried in a Komets sweater after his 2009 death – and when they couldn’t afford to go to the Coliseum, they would sit in a car and listen to Chase on WOWO.
Harold had come from a large family with little money and had to claw for everything he got. In the Coliseum stands, he would chomp on peanuts and drink beer and tell his grandson to never stop believing he could make it to the press box if that’s what he wanted to do.
"He would sneak the beer and peanuts into the Coliseum in my diaper bag. The ushers finally started catching on. ‘Why are you bringing a diaper bag? That kid is walking,’ " Treft said, laughing.
Treft’s mother, Yvonne, joked early on that her son’s two passions were talking and hockey, so it’s natural that he would want to be a broadcaster. And it was apparent she was correct; he would spend every day on their four-acre property shooting pucks and doing commentary of it.
But the passion to be a radio or TV broadcaster – "I just wanted to get paid to talk about hockey" – wasn’t always nurtured, Treft said, recalling a teacher who told him he should train for manual labor or he "wouldn’t amount to anything."
Treft went to Huntington North High School and was the first person from his family to play organized hockey, which wasn’t easy since it required traveling to Fort Wayne to get started.
"I came from a low-income house in a small town and small towns can be judgmental," Treft said. "I had bad (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) growing up and it was hard for me to focus. But I could focus on hockey. If you asked me what 3 plus 4 was, I couldn’t pay attention. But if you told me that Joe Sakic had 3 goals and 4 assists, I’d know that was 7 points. My teachers didn’t always get or nurture that."
As he worked in the classroom, Treft also worked on his game. After playing several years of roller hockey, he finally began skating on ice at 12 and eventually played travel, high school (in the Fort Wayne club league) and then for IPFW as a forward. It wasn’t uncommon for him to do play-by-play from the bench of a game in which he was playing.
Before graduating from IPFW with a degree in media and public communications – he minored in media production and public relations – he got work, much of it unpaid, wherever he could to prepare him for a career as a hockey broadcaster. He called high school games, roller hockey tournaments, IPFW games and junior hockey. The Komets created a position for him in the 2013-14 season to help with their video, radio and social media, and he found time to assist Chase and do color commentary alongside Tommy Schoegler on MyTV broadcasts.
Last season, he got an internship as a broadcast assistant in Glens Falls, New York, with the American Hockey League’s Adirondack Flames, the top minor-league team of the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
"I had no source of income and took a risk. I just up and moved my life. I switched my last three classes (at IPFW) to online. I wasn’t supposed to be on the air, but I would stay at the rink 18 hours a day and do anything they asked me to do. They said I was working too hard," said Treft, who eventually was given a paycheck by the team to sell tickets and do color commentary on the radio.
He parlayed that into a job this season with the Gladiators, whose players couldn’t help but give him a hard time about the smile glued on to his face when they arrived at the Coliseum.
"It was a reward because there was a lot of sacrifice. A lot of people told me I would never be able to do it," he said. "I was a crazy hockey kid down in Roanoke. But the Coliseum was there through the hard times. I had that building to go to. I played hockey there. I graduated there. I attended Komets games there. To be able to walk through the doors as a broadcaster was amazing."
While Treft believes listeners on 97.7 FM and online through Mixlr can hear some of Chase and Emrick in the way he calls a game, he wants to be original. Unfortunately, the Komets and Gladiators would only play again this season if they meet in the playoff finals.
"That was a bit of a disappointment that (the Gladiators) didn’t score (Monday). But it was so surreal to even call the game there," he said. "I was doing my postgame and it got real emotional. I remembered my grandfather. Nothing could ruin that game. The score could have been 10-0 and it would have meant the same to me."