Walking along Park Avenue in New York City, Steve Mears spots a restaurant he wanted to try. It’s called Hillstone. He heard Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist say it had the city’s best burger.
How comfortable is Mears, the former Penguins on-air talent, in his new city and role with the NHL Network?
Lundqvist actually is seated a few tables over, with teammate Carl Hagelin, devouring a cheeseburger.
“There’s always something popping up,” Mears said of his new job and new life. “That’s what makes it exciting. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Yeah, like bumping into Lundqvist after you vouched for his taste in food, something so coincidental you think they planned it.
Mears, 34, a Murrysville native and Franklin Regional graduate, co-hosts NHL Live from 5-7 every weeknight alongside E.J. Hradek.
The show previews that night’s games and covers pertinent storylines for a national audience.
Mears also anchors video segments on NHL.com and will call play-by-play — handling color commentary will be former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma — for the World Junior Championships around the holidays from Malmö, Sweden.
It’s a life that Mears admittedly loves. It’s also one that’s a little different from his years in Pittsburgh, when he worked for the Penguins Radio Network for four seasons and was a contributor to PensTV and a regular on-air personality for Root Sports.
Once thought of as the heir apparent to Mike Lange, Mears doesn’t rule out the return to a Pittsburgh TV or radio station. He also says that he’s not actively looking for such a thing.
“Working in the NHL is all I ever wanted to do,” Mears said. “Whether it was working for a team and now the NHL Network, I have no complaints. I’m very fortunate.”
Mears’ relationship with Lange cannot be overstated.
His impression of Lange, 66, is spot-on. Scary, even. They exchange text messages frequently.
Mears admittedly got emotional when a friend sent him video of the ovation Lange received on opening night against the Anaheim Ducks to commemorate his 40th year calling Penguins games.
“You know how Vin Scully is so revered in baseball,” Mears said, referencing the Dodgers’ legendary announcer. “The timing isn’t exact, but Mike Lange isn’t too far from hockey’s version of Vin Scully. He’s the greatest.”
The respect is reciprocated by Lange, and their face-to-face interactions are a riot. Lange jokes with Mears about his new, New York City style — playfully stuffing a napkin in the pocket of his suit coat to mimic Mears’ pocket square — but Lange clearly enjoys his role of mentor.
“I was befriended by someone in my early days that really helped me,” Lange said. “I don’t know any other way. To me, if you want to learn and you’re willing to ask and be a part of it, I’m more than willing to help.”
Mears became hooked on hockey with the Penguins’ Stanley Cup teams of the early 1990s. Lange’s voice and his signature goal calls were a huge part.
“There was this unbelievable team, the greatest player and the greatest broadcaster who’s narrating this whole run,” Mears said. “A soundtrack enhances a good movie, and (Lange) provided that.”
Mears’ workday begins around 11 a.m., when he arrives at the office and starts catching up on the previous night’s games, plus any trades or suspensions.
Show preparation begins around 1 p.m. The biggest change from his previous gig is covering 30 teams instead of one, Mears said.
“It’s like homework when you were a kid, but it’s fun homework,” Mears said.
Talking to his co-host, it’s clear Mears has earned a passing grade.
“He’s prepared,” Hradek said. “He does the work. That’s the biggest thing.”
After the show, Mears will take the subway to Madison Square Garden if the Rangers are at home or return to his apartment to watch as many games as possible, occasionally squeezing in what Mears calls “a life.”
“It’s what you want from any young person,” Lange said. “You want that unbridled passion to want to do something.
“He’s got himself into a situation here with the NHL Network, which is in its embryonic stages; you don’t know where it’s going to go. It really could become a very huge thing. And he’s in the driver’s seat.”
Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.