Penguins public address announcer Mill finding his own voice
Ryan Mill is more than halfway through his fifth season as the Penguins' public address announcer. This means that many fans of the team believe he has just arrived.
“People still think he's the new guy,” said his father, Bob Mill.
Ryan Mill chalks it up to the nature of a city that hugs history and tradition with a full-body squeeze. He figures he has “about 10 more years” before the newness wears off. Then, again, he's had a tough act to follow.
For 36 years, Mill's predecessor, John Barbero, filled Mellon Arena, the Igloo, with his smooth delivery and signature calls (“Mario Lemieuuuxxx!”). He was a familiar, even beloved figure. The label, “iconic,” has been applied.
“John sounded like your kindly uncle, your kindly neighbor, a guy you wanted to mentor you,” Mill said. “He was unlike any other announcer because he wasn't yellin' and rantin' and ravin'.”
Which, he added, “I got flamed for.”
Critics charbroiled Mill, proving again it is better to be the guy who followed the guy who followed the guy. Barbero was definitely the guy. In the minds of many, he still is.
“Replacing a legend is never easy,” said James Santilli, the Penguins vice president of marketing. “And John Barbero was a Pittsburgh legend.”
Mill is different. He wants to be different. He is more animated. There is yellin' and ravin'. But he has a polished, professional voice, spawned by a long career in radio. He started out at 14 spinning polka records in Greensburg. He makes a nice living at his day job as a voice talent reading commercials, voiceovers, narrations and anything else that requires skillful speaking and varied intonations.
Yet he continues to draw unfriendly fire. That comes with the job. Also, he simply is not John Barbero. He gets that.
“If someone had asked me if I wanted to work for the Penguins, I would have said, ‘Absolutely,' ” he said. “If someone had asked me if I wanted to replace John Barbero, I would have said ‘No, I'm not interested in replacing John Barbero. No one's replacing John Barbero.' ”
But Mill's esteem is rising. According to Santilli, regular fan surveys and meetings with season-ticket holders reflect that he is “growing in the hearts of Penguins fans. He's really growing in popularity.”
Mill is a hockey lifer. At 42, he still plays in an “old-guy league.” As a kid growing up in McCandless, he liked to trace over a Penguins license plate, vainly attempting to improve the logo. He cut out pictures of his heroes from the paper. Later, working as the food services supervisor at Mellon Arena, Mill got to hear Barbero regularly. Bob Mill even covered the Penguins for three years as a newspaper reporter in the 1970s.
In February 2009, Barbero became ill with what turned out to be a brain tumor. He kept working through the season, and it was assumed he would be back, but the Penguins hired an assistant PA announcer after Mill blazed through two auditions. With Mill filling in, Barbero missed the 2009-10 season and died the following July.
“When I was hired, I wasn't hired to replace him,” Mill said. “Going into the new building (Consol Energy Center), I knew they'd do more sales things. It's a big building to support, so there would be more sales announcements than what John was doing before. I thought maybe that's what I'd do. I'll just do the ads all night long and John will do the game stuff.”
Mill never spoke with Barbero, never learned from the master. His first regular-season game, opening night, happened to be the banner-raising for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“I had been on a microphone most of my life, and I couldn't have been more nervous,” he said.
Mill introduced the players, mindful that “I had nothing to do with that team,” he said. “John should have been doing it. That was tough. And I got killed (by fans).”
“We knew that any change was going to be difficult,” Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan said. “(Barbero's voice) was a sound we'd heard for more than three decades.”
But, McMillan added, Mill would be well-suited for the new and larger arena and for added voiceover duties on Penguins TV commercials and the “In the Room” series featured on the team website.
Mill has avoided emulating Barbero while accentuating his own style. Many announcers, Barbero included, usually draw out players' last names. Mill does it with first names and adds his own twists, like affixing a “growl” to rugged players like Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland.
“I'm more comfortable,” Mill said, “I'm a little out of John's shadow. ...What's helped a little bit is it's a new building. I'm not sitting in his old seat and wearing his old head set. Fortunately, I'm able to create something on my own.”