The email from Flyers broadcaster Tim Saunders landed in my inbox on a Saturday morning in late February. Tim was traveling with the team in Ottawa but had just read my column about blind broadcaster Matt Wallace and his friend Sam Fryman. The story had made it to Canada online and left an impression.
The story had intrigued Saunders. But then he clicked a video we’d produced to go along with it. In it, Sam masterfully calls a Penn women’s ice hockey game against Villanova while Matt, his fellow Temple alum who’s been blind since birth, delivers sterling color commentary.
Saunders was blown away.
So the man whom legions of hockey fans turn to for game broadcasts decided that he now had to meet two relative strangers in the kingdom of crazed hockey fans: Matt and Sam, 26-year-old friends and Temple University grads, with a story of talent and determination that really makes you think twice about the world.
Saunders wanted to know: Would these two guys mind if he gave them a ring?
I wondered how long to withhold the news from the guys. Do I torture them for minutes, hours, or days? For them, the words Tim Saunders Wants To Talk To You are quite possibly more exciting than having the Eagles win the Super Bowl. I had some power here.
But the softie in me won, and I told the guys immediately. Three weeks later, I was lucky enough to be there when the dazzling broadcaster met the dazzling duo whose supernatural knack for the craft had given even a pro like Saunders pause to reflect about the work he has done all of his life.
On Thursday night, Sam and Matt walked into the 97.5 Fanatic broadcast booth at the Wells Fargo Center moments before the puck dropped for the opening faceoff. It was Flyers vs. the Blue Jackets of Columbus: two NHL teams scrapping toward the playoffs on the ice far below a booth where two young guys from the suburbs were chasing their own dream of hockey greatness.
I had all but begged Saunders for permission to tag along with an Inquirer and Daily News photographer. He wanted no publicity. But I pleaded and he said OK.
“Good to meet you!” Tim said as he spotted the guys walking in. He rushed over and took their bags.
Sam stood right behind Tim and Coatesie, as Steve is known on air, where he’d watch the game hovering over their shoulders. This would come in handy during goals, as Sam could high-five audio engineer Pat Conneen to his left. This booth was all business. No bells, whistles, or pretense — but all homers in the house.
For Matt, the prime spot was a chair against a wall beneath three sets of headphones and facing a tall metal cabinet of Codec equipment. Listening was how he’d watched since he was a kid in Delaware County.
But on Thursday night the voices in his ears weren’t bouncing toward him off radio or cell towers many miles away. The men audibly painting the picture of this game for him were close enough to touch. Matt sat down and clenched his fingers into balls so he could focus.
“Giroux continues his MVP season,” he heard Saunders rat-a-tat. “He is the straw that stirs the drink in Philadelphia.”
And Coates, a former player, colorfully noted that one guy in the Columbus lineup was coming into the game with bruised ribs: “That. Means. You. Go. After. Him.”
For all that brass-knuckles chatter, Coates is the one who says that good broadcasting is actually like dancing or playing volleyball. One guy serves, the other guy pounces.
“It’s a set,” he said, “and it’s a spike.”
Saunders had weeks earlier asked the guys for audio resumés and said he’d help any way he could with the job hunt. But this night was special. Saunders had only ever brought aspiring broadcasters into the booth about 10 times in more than 20 years. In between periods, as he gave them his full attention for long conversations, I think I figured out why.
Saunders had put the two guys into his and Coatesie’s chairs and they gabbed like drinking buddies.
“It occurred to me, after I talked to you a couple of weeks ago,” he told Matt and Sam, “my whole audience is blind.”
He now tries harder to describe where on the ice players are making plays. It’s something he noticed Sam does with Matt, he said.
They had humbled the pro. And he was humble enough to say it.
“That was ridiculous,” Matt said, stepping out of Coates’ chair as the next period began. “I can’t see, but that’s still amazing. Mind-boggling. I’m very much in awe right now. It’s an honor. It feels amazing. It just feels really good. I’m in my happy place.”
Moments later, the Flyers scored.
“Just taking it all in,” Sam said. “This is pretty crazy.”
This was a surreal way to spend a night. Sam is working at Whole Foods after losing one radio job to downsizing. Matt is living in a trailer home after losing his dad last year. And yet, there they were, in the third period of a Flyers game, being name-checked during a Flyers broadcast.
>>LISTEN: Hear Philadelphia Flyers play-by-play radio man Tim Saunders and color commentator Steve Coates name-check Matt Wallace and Sam Fryman during the third period of a game against Columbus on March 15, 2018. The pair were in the broadcast booth when Tim and Steve mentioned the suburban Philly pals to listeners.
Then it ended.
“We’ll see each other again,” Coates, 67, reassured them. “Never say goodbye.”
“It’s been an honor,” Matt told both men, “getting to know you.”
Matt still can’t find someone who’ll hire him for a basic job to pay the bills. But Saunders sounded hopeful for the long term:
“I have no doubt I’ll be hearing you in the future,” he said. “Just promise me you will not take our jobs.”