Mick Holien accepts invite to return to the air, makes me a very happy man

Holien

Mick Holien, the iconic Voice of the Griz for 31 years, will return to the air Thursday, Feb. 23 at 9 p.m. as a special color commentator for Anaconda vs. Libby in the Western B Divisional tournament being played in Ronan. COURTESY PHOTO

Can you pinpoint the moment in life where you’ve crossed paths with your idol?

As a life-long sports fan, a few big sporting events stand out for me. Billy Packer calling, “Back screen to George Lynch!” as the North Carolina star powered home an allyoop dunk from Derrick Phelps in the 1993 National Championship game against Michigan always brings back good memories. But getting a chance to rub elbows with Ken Griffey Jr. while local star Rob Johnson was playing with the Mariners – eventually learning Junior was just a down-to-earth dad beaming at the chance to mention his kids and their athletic achievements in conversation with complete strangers – and interviewing the iconic Jack Nicklaus during his appearance for the 20-year anniversary at Old Works Golf Course this fall are tough moments to beat. Locally, calling back-to-back championship games for the Anaconda High girls’ basketball team in 2008-09, Ali Hurley breaking the All-Time scoring record at Anaconda High or the remarkable 28-27 comeback against Polson in the 2006 Class A football playoffs are times I’ll never forget.

Those moments always get me rolling down memory lane. But hearing that raspy, enthusiastic, energetic, emotional voice of Mick Holien was deeply embedded in my mind. “Touchdown Montana!” crackling over the huge crowds at Washington Grizzly was even more impressive than going to the games live for me. It was radio bliss.

Holien is and was Montana Grizzly royalty, there’s no other way to put it. His coverage of football and men’s basketball games were bigger than the games themselves. Griz fans were just along for the ride.

Except for meeting Griffey, I knew I was never going to call a National Championship game on CBS, play a round of competitive golf with Nicklaus or work with Holien. Those events were above my pay grade, especially when I had no idea my path in life would be in radio after chasing a print journalism career.

In the beginning, I dabbled in radio. Dabbled meaning I hosted a radio show onboard the USS Nimitz with a man named Charles Yablonski, hosted a morning show at KMSM on the campus of Montana Tech and I filled in as a color commentator for KANA covering Copperhead football games after being discharged from the Navy in 1997. Early on I didn’t take the gig seriously, unless you consider my KMSM on-air joke, “Why is there a fence around the Lady Of The Rockies? To protect the last known virgin in Butte” acceptable radio. Happily, those days are behind me.

But in my hometown, I was one of an utterly replaceable cast of characters behind play-by-play rebel Bill “Wheezy” Shegina. Bob Mehrens, Steven “Beak” Blodnick, Bill Sather, Dennis McKenna and I did our best to not let Wheezy derail a broadcast into banter not associated with the game. Looking back, I realize what Wheezy was doing was entertainment. He piqued the interest of the listener. People tuned in to hear what outlandish things our leader would discuss, how a team from Anaconda, the ‘Heads, would be penetrating into Dillon territory (make your own assumptions referring to Dillon’s mascot), or when “Beak” proclaimed how he really felt about Belgrade folks – who just so happened to be receiving a feed for a football game at Mitchell Stadium. And in true Beak fashion, he held nothing back.

We had Wheezy, Holien had Scott Gurnsey, the abrasive color commentator who never had a problem relaying his disdain for officials or for opposing fan bases – an opinion earned while recording a historically-great career as a Griz receiver. Looking back, both booths were a struck match away from a dumpster fire.

I was always in awe what Holien brought to a broadcast. He wasn’t just the “Voice of the Griz” – he WAS the Griz. Being a poor student at Montana, working on Saturday’s was par for the course. Listening to the game was always much better anyway. His exuberance as the football team raced through the Big Sky season and into the playoffs was unmatched by any I’ve heard – then and now, and his proclamation to those not at the game to turn down the television and turn up his call to get a better feel of the game wasn’t a request, it was a demand. He commanded the attention of the listener whether you were a Griz fan or not.

After moving into a vacated role at KANA in 2002 to call more and more color games, the gig opened up full time in 2004. I remember the first games I did were horrible at best. I didn’t realize the work that went into preparing for a broadcast. It gave me a new understanding of what the likes of Holien went through to produce excellence every time he was on the air.

Now, I feel my work is solid, but far from perfect. Taking photos, doing live stats and calling the game with no color help can become a little cumbersome, but from what I’ve found as long as I keep the emphasis on the players it all seems to come together. I have to thank guys like the late Tony Laslovich and former boss Ron Davis for teaching me what it takes to not only be dedicated to a craft but to also adhere to the mantra of always keeping the emphasis of the call on the players and not on questionable officiating. In prep athletics, especially in Montana, that’s a must – a lesson I had to be taught the hard way.

Last week in Hamilton, I had a great color man in Craig Hurlbert – a Billings West native famous for having guarded (or as he puts it, tried to) Anaconda’s Rob Hurley the night he set the Anaconda High scoring record at 44 points against the Bears in The Golden Dome.  I enlisted his help because the flu has wreaked havoc on my voice and I wasn’t 100 percent sure I’d be able to call that many games back-to-back. I trusted him after hearing some of his work, albeit a small sample, at KLYQ in Hamilton calling Broncs action.

Immediately I realized having a solid color man is such a nice change of pace. Back in the day, Mike Miller and Bryan Lorengo were my guys in basketball while Cory Orrino and Kyle Moore all did that for me in football, but over time nobody has wanted to fill that bill. And with zero radio experience, all were excellent in those roles even if Lorengo baited me into toeing the line of acceptable content – however entertaining nonetheless.

I brought Hurlbert in for another reason, too. I wanted to brush up on my game working with another announcer for what was becoming a possibility for the following weekend in Ronan.

In October, I crossed paths with Holien while he was doing a guest public address gig for Florence High School. I did what I refused to do with Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon outside Safeco Field in 2004 and Griffey in 2010 along with every other semi-celebrity I’ve been in the presence of – I asked for a selfie. I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for those people in public settings, especially when they are  carrying on with a normal day. However, I really wanted a photo with Holien, and he was more than happy with the request. Afterwards, I was glowing the entire broadcast hearing his voice in the background from the PA speakers. It brought back such great memories.

During our brief conversation before the game, we spoke about his dismissal from Learfield Sports – the sports broadcast partner of the University of Montana – and knowing that ending hurt him deeply I said if he ever wanted another opportunity to broadcast a game I would love to be the one to give that to him. At the time I knew Anaconda had a good chance at playing in his neck of the woods for the Western B Divisional Basketball tournament in February, and getting the chance to work with him would be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Even as a resident in Polson, the prospect of getting it all to work out would take some work. Holien isn’t in the greatest of health battling the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis, and working in high school gymnasiums that aren’t normally equipped with handicapped facilities for broadcasters was an issue.

But, just last week, Holien responded to my previous request after declining in January sighting the previous issues. He made a concession, he would reconsider if he could do color instead of play-by-play. SCORE!

Because of the late games associated with a 16-team tournament at one facility, Holien’s availability is still in question. However, as of right now he is on board and looking forward to returning to the airwaves with yours truly to bring you Copperhead basketball on The Mighty 580.

It’s definitely not the caliber of athletics Holien is accustomed to calling, but for our fans and those around Montana who grew up listening to the only Voice of the Griz I will ever refer to, it will be treat.

So chalk up this event on the professional bucket list for me, and please feel free to log in and listen to Anaconda vs. Libby boys basketball action at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 on KANA 580 AM in Southwest Montana, kana580.com or via the KANA live streaming app available in your Apple or Google Play app stores.

So where were you when you crossed paths with your idol? Find me Friday and I’ll tell you all about it.

Blake is the general manager and play-by-play announcer for KANA 580 AM in Anaconda – a part of the AWARE Inc. Business Network in Montana.