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Lightning broadcaster Rick Peckham’s final season not what anyone was expecting

Fans will miss the only play-by-play broadcaster many supporters of the team have ever known.

TAMPA — Close your eyes and picture your favorite sports moment. As the reel runs through your head, you probably hear the play-by-play broadcaster’s voice narrating.

Players and coaches give an organization faces. Broadcasters become its voices.

Rick Peckham has been that for Lightning fans for 24 years. He started in the AHL, calling the Rochester Americans in 1978. He then spent 10 years with the Hartford Whalers before landing with the Lightning. He is retiring at the end of this season, his 42nd overall.

And it’s not the send-off he — or anyone else — was expecting, interrupted by a five-month break due to the worldwide pandemic.

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“I know so many of us (Lightning fans) kept saying if (the coronavirus) lasts, if we don’t actually come back, will (Peckham) consider doing one more year?” said Cookie Gross, 72, of Valrico. “This is not the way I would like to see him retire.”

One year when the Lightning had been eliminated from the playoffs, Gross and her husband heard Peckham calling a national game and were afraid he’d left the Lightning. They were relieved to hear he planned to stay with Tampa Bay.

Kenny Stewart, a Tampa native living in Nashville, posted to Reddit being reminded of Peckham’s retirement was the worst news he’d heard in three months.

Peckham knew at a young age that his love for sports wasn’t going to take him to the big leagues as an athlete, but he grew up as one of those kids who knew all the rosters and watched everything he could.

“Many, many decades ago, there weren’t much sports on TV, but I was fascinated by seeing as many games as I could,” he said. “I knew all the play-by-play announcers, TV and radio. That was my vehicle to follow sports.”

It made sense to turn to play-by-play for his own career. Peckham started calling games in his hometown of Rochester. He did broadcasting, public relations (meaning community and media) and some ticket sales for the AHL’s second-oldest franchise.

He built up personal relationships with people like Geordie Robertson, a friend of 40 years who played for the Americans. Robertson sat out for the first nine games, but kids screamed his name when he made the lineup — kids he met because Peckham had sent him to visit local schools.

“You knew he was going to the NHL,” Robertson said. “With how hard he worked and the preparation he put into it, his voice and the passion he had. He got to know us as players. You could hear that when he asked you a question, he wanted to know about you.”

Peckham doesn’t have a signature call. There’s no “My, oh my!” (Dave Niehaus, Seattle Mariners’ 1995 American League Division Series win) or “Can you believe it?” (Joe Castiglione, Boston Red Sox’s 2004 World Series win).

Fans appreciate Peckham’s even-keeled calls. That makes the moments stand out all the more when he does get excited.

Peckham’s call of Brayden Point’s toe drag to get around Evgenii Dadonov and beat Florida in overtime on March 6, 2018 is unforgettable for many Lightning fans. Stewart said it gave him chills, especially because it was outside of Peckham’s usual.

“OHHHHHH UNBELIEVEABLE!,” Peckham yelled. “BRAYDEN POINT WINS THE GAME IN OVERTIME! AN INCREDIBLE MOVE!”

Fans and colleagues use the same word to describe Peckham: professional.

“The first two words that come to me when you say, ‘Rick Peckham,’ are total professionalism and total class — so, four words,” said former Lightning coach John Tortorella, currently with Columbus.

Peckham called Lightning games when Tortorella was with the team from 2000-2008. The coach has a reputation for being hard on the media, but he turns it on and off. He values the people with whom he has good relationships, and Peckham is certainly one.

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, right, waves to the crowd during an interview with Rick Peckham, left, during the the team's Fan Fest in 2014.

Gerry Cheevers, the former Bruins goalie best known for painting stitch marks on his mask, called Hartford Whalers games with Peckham.

“I was very unprofessional, but he balanced it out," Cheevers said. “I had a habit of not paying attention at times or saying off-the-wall stuff. He’d look at me (like), ‘What are you, nuts?’”

Cheevers now lives in Florida and goes out of his way to watch Peckham call games. He appreciates Peckham’s preparation and ability to pull out relevant facts about a player’s background live on air.

“The hockey world is going to miss him,” Tortorella said. “He is a student all the time. He’s always looking to be better. I know he had a tremendous influence (in Tampa Bay).”

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You don’t have to tell the Lightning. They know what they’ve had and what they’re losing as Peckham steps out of the booth.

“Throughout the almost 30 years of the Lightning’s history, the franchise has had some ups and downs,” general manager Julien BriseBois said in a text message. “However, one area has been consistently strong ever since Rick joined the organization’s broadcast team, and that was the quality of the television play-by-play.

"Rick has provided our fans with world-class game description throughout his tenure, and we have been privileged to listen to him all these years.”

Peckham always planned to retire at age 65, and he reached that point in March. He’ll golf more in retirement, probably with his long-time broadcast partner Bobby “The Chief” Taylor.

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He’ll miss bumping into old friends around the arenas. People like Tortorella or coaches Dave Tippett of Edmonton and Joel Quenneville of Florida, both of whom played for Hartford.

The current stoppage in play has given Peckham time to think back on his career and the games he called in a way he might not have before retirement. He doesn’t remember the calls as much as the moments.

There was a Whalers game in Quebec City in which fans threw rolls of toilet paper on the ice and the Nordiques almost had to forfeit. Whalers forward Kevin Dineen, who was born in Quebec City, said he was renouncing his hometown after that night.

Rick Peckham, left, and ex-Lightning player Jassen Cullimore, middle, listen as former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, right, tells a story at the Tampa Bay History Center in 2014.

“My fondest memories in recent years are the playoff travel with Phil Esposito,” Peckham said of the Lightning founder and radio color commentator. “He always keeps things lively.”

Peckham won’t have those moments this year.

In fact, it’s likely he won’t call another game live this season.

If the NHL returns, one of the national broadcasts (American or Canadian) will carry a world feed that local broadcasters will call from the studio. Peckham’s done that before: he called international games for Versus years ago and has called the U.S. Open since 2007, live on scene but sometimes off a monitor from a different stadium.

“I’ve called a lot of different sports from studio situations,” he said. “You have headphones, so you’re kind of in the moment. It’s not completely unfamiliar, but it’s totally different in the playoffs.”

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The Lightning had planned a send-off for Peckham but will have to invite him back for a game next season to recognize him properly.

This clearly isn’t the ending he envisioned when he announced his retirement back in September. But Peckham isn’t one to complain. After all, he’s the “ultimate pro,” in Cheevers’ words.

Cheevers thinks back to the on-air chemistry he had with Peckham, what he calls the “natural marriage” of Peckham and Taylor, and the flow between Peckham and Lightning rinkside analyst Brian Engblom.

He pauses.

“You look at ‘Chief’, myself and Brian, what’s the common denominator?" Cheevers says. "It’s Rick.”

Staff writer Mari Faiello contributed to this report.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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