Dean Vrooman enjoys 20th year with Hawks radio, ad sales and media
Twenty years ago, on his first major road trip as the Portland Winter Hawks' radio play-by-play announcer, Dean Vrooman earned his nickname. And he hasn't been the same man since.
'Nobody calls me Dean anymore,' he says.
The team was practicing in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, when two players and trainer Innes Mackie, still the neighborhood bully, surrounded Vrooman and told the newcomer they wanted him on the ice. A busy Vrooman declined.
'Well,' Vrooman recalls, 'they manhandled me.
'I had never been on ice skates. Made me put on skates, and I wore Ray Ferraro's, because they were the smallest. Wore a helmet that was way too big. They purposefully made me look like a buffoon.
'I was hanging on the boards, wondering 'Why am I here?!' ' Vrooman continues. 'Next thing I know, Ken (Hodge) blows his whistle and yells, 'Wallies!' starting a drill where they go board to board as fast as they can. The whole team was coming at me. Tim Lorenz, our 6-foot-4, 225-pound tough guy, is coming at me, and he looked like a raging bull.
'I got on my hands and knees and started scooting off the ice.'
As the 5-7, 145-pound announcer scooted, Jim Playfair launched what would become the announcer's identity, chanting: 'Scooter! Scooter! Scooter!'
Today, a fully initiated Dean 'Scooter' Vrooman, 48, may be the most recognizable face, figure and voice of Portland's hockey team É even more recognizable than General Manager Ken Hodge, coach Mike Williamson and all the boys past and present with masks over their faces and scars on their noses.
Vrooman also might be the most beloved member of the Winter Hawks.
Team executive Jann Boss says: 'There's not a soul on Earth who could dislike him.'
Vrooman's value to the organization, which has been in Portland since 1976, cannot be overlooked. The late Brian Shaw and Hodge were the ones who led the Western Hockey League franchise's move south to Portland, but Vrooman has been the public's eyes and ears around the team for 20 years.
Vrooman scores in three areas Ñ a hat trick of sorts Ñ and only one as an employee. He handles media relations for a nominal fee, enough to cover his health insurance. He does the play-by-play and all the corporate advertising and sponsorship sales through his company, Northwest Sports Broadcasting.
All ad revenue after expenses goes to Vrooman. It makes for a good living. It allows his wife, Jan, to raise their two children, Kimberly, 15, and Todd, 13, at their modest Tualatin home.
But, over 20 years, Vrooman has fallen in love with the fifth member of his family, the Portland Winter Hawks. His golden throat has called more than 1,400 regular-season games, another 180-some in the playoffs and two Memorial Cup championship victories. His ice-clear memory bounces from one player to the next like a Joe Balej assist to Paul Gaustad.
'If I could work for the Winter Hawks in Portland forever, that would be the ultimate,' says Vrooman, whose only serious interest in another job came when the St. Louis Blues called. 'Then I'd retire and play golf with my wife.'
Vrooman's voice booms over KUPL (970 AM), a far cry from the garage of his folks' Beaverton home, where as a 4-year-old he would throw a ball up and play radio announcer, not athlete.
Some journalists are labeled frustrated athletes, but Vrooman hardly claims to be an athlete. He played freshman basketball, was on the high school golf team and tried his hand at professional bowling. 'Averaged 209 in a Sunset Lanes scratch league one year,' he says.
At Sunset High, he handled public address duties for Apollo football and basketball. Later, he studied the craft at the University of Oregon from 1972-76.
Early radio career stops in John Day and Astoria paved his way to Portland. Vrooman remembers doing 'everything from emptying the garbage to voice-overs.' His first paychecks were $400 gross, and 'I paid $225 in rent.'
Living in Portland and engaged, he hooked up with the Winter Hawks in 1982 ÑÊand got fired the first time around.
Cliff Zauner, now a Woodburn state legislator, and Ivan Kafoury handled radio and ad sales for the Winter Hawks in the early 1980s, but Shaw's relationship with Zauner grew tempestuous. 'And I ended up in the middle of it,' Vrooman says.
'Brian wanted me to take over, but I worked for Cliff and Joc Sports Network. I kept trying to put Brian off.'
With the '83 Memorial Cup in sight and fanfare spreading, Shaw asked Vrooman to negotiate with other radio stations to get the Hawks off the weak-signaled KAAR (1480 AM). He did, but Zauner got wind of it and said, 'You did this the wrong way. We have to fire you.'
So, Vrooman missed the playoffs, but by the time Portland played host to the Cup, the Winter Hawks had joined with KYXI (1520 AM) on a three-year deal, with Scooter Vrooman behind the mike.
Making his living
The business arrangement started right away: Vrooman would serve as press aide and sell much of the advertising and sponsorships to make his radio broadcasts self-sufficient. 'I've paid my way,' he says.
When Vrooman won Oregon Sportscaster of the Year in 1997, he attended the national awards banquet in Salisbury, N.C. 'I'm the only guy I've met who does it my way. Ever,' he says. 'But it's very hard to make a living as a play-by-play announcer, even at the pro level.
'My talent is not my broadcasting but being able to sell advertising and garner sponsorships.'
Vrooman has cultivated many corporate relationships, including Fred Meyer Ñ 'the one and only major sponsor from Day One. A level of their own' Ñ and Shilo Inns and smaller businesses such as Kerr Properties and D&F Plumbing. He regrets losing only one, Papa Murphy's, by his own mistake.
'Scooter has a very good deal,' Hodge says.
Vrooman estimates that he works 60 hours a week during the season, not including the miles and miles Ñ 50,000 to 60,000 each year, roughly 1.2 million in his career Ñ sitting on the bus as the Hawks travel across western Canada and Washington. In addition, there are 20 to 30 hours a week during the summer, much of which includes client golf.
'I've got a very understanding family,' he says.
From the start, Mackie has been both the tough, big brother type and one of Vrooman's biggest supporters. He'll rough up Vrooman's thin and fading hair, then brag about him. They have roomed together on the road for 17 of the 20 years.
'He snores,' Mackie says. 'That, and he wears knee-high socks to bed. Says he's cold. He's a big-time wimp.'
'Man,' assistant coach Shaun Clouston says, ' 'Inch' just tunes on him, always giving him a bad time. But they're probably best buds behind the scenes.'
Vrooman recalls Shaw holding court in his office, telling old hockey stories and puffing on his cigar. He also remembers the owner's disposition after losses. 'Cantankerous,' he says. 'He'd make everybody around him miserable.'
Vrooman defends Hodge at every turn, even though he concedes that some people see the GM as 'aloof or stuck on himself.'
'So misunderstood. So loyal. So down-to-earth,' Vrooman says. 'He taught me the game on those long bus rides. When I caught him in a talkative mood, he was a wealth of knowledge.'
One of the first befuddlements: Vrooman watched Seattle's Dwight Boss and Portland's Gordie Walker fight like 'junkyard dogs' and get gross misconducts one night, then sit together and eat popcorn the next.
'I thought, 'This is some culture!' ' he says. 'But it's on the ice and never carried over.'
Broadcast reporter John Kirby says he, Vrooman and radio analyst Ron Ross can claim to be one of the longest-running teams in the country, although the Intel engineer hasn't had time to gather the facts to prove it. Vrooman's strengths: research and detail.
'He's so freakin' smart,' Kirby says.
Mostly, Vrooman recalls the good times É players such as Ken Yaremchuk, John Badduke and Adam Deadmarsh É the 1983 and 1998 Memorial Cup-winning teams.
The most forgettable event? In 1985, here against Prince Albert. A bench-clearing brawl took place, and Portland had only 14 players to PA's 20. It all began when the late Scott McMichael slid over the boards to help Dave McLay in a fight. 'Very, very, very ugly,' he says. 'It was a bloody mess. I hated it.'
Scooter recalls being the brunt of many practical jokes, of being ribbed at every turn. It's part of the job, he says.
'Schonz would tell you the same thing,' he says of former Blazer commentator Bill Schonely. 'You need comic relief.'
Former Hawk Troy Mick was one of the big culprits.
'Garbage can of cold water in the shower,' Scooter says. ' 'Leaners,' meaning a garbage can of cold water leaning up against the door. 'Shoe checks,' where they put mashed potatoes and gravy on my shoes at dinnertime.'
Hodge says: 'Innes is the one who plays all the dirty tricks. Scooter is a little bit intimidated by him, and somehow he gets totally shocked by them. He gets caught with the same thing four or five times.'
But neither Hodge nor Mackie, nor anyone in the organization, will hear Vrooman seriously complain.
'He hardly has an ego,' Kirby says. 'That's the best thing about him.'