SAVANNAH, Ga. – At its base, hockey is a human sport. Too many times, we focus mostly on the sport aspect and neglect the human side. In my career, I have been lucky enough to sit down with some of the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to create these fantastic experiences for people, and they remind me once again of the humanity built into the sport.
For someone who put down roots in multiple cities across the United States, Gary Russin began his story in the small town of Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania. A state that I would soon joke with him must have been the monster truck capital of the world.
Sitting down with Gary allowed me to glimpse into the life of someone who is absolutely ecstatic to have a ticket to the show, and it really highlighted how someone’s life and career can change drastically at any drop of the hat. From running media for professional soccer organizations to making sure that every Enmarket Arena patron is leaving with a smile on their face, Russin has done it all. Which is why it is finally time for us to hear his story.
FIELD PASS HOCKEY: Gary, something that always fascinates me is what drives someone like yourself into the world of sports?
RUSSIN: The first bit of my life, when I was really young, I wanted to be a monster truck driver because one of the things about Pennsylvania is that Alex Blackwell and John Seasock (two-time monster truck jam racing champion) both had shops a few cities away from mine. My family used to drive me out there to hang out near them, and go to monster truck shows.
The real answer, though, came in my senior year of high school. I had an injury to my knee while playing football that either meant my knee was done and needed surgery, or it was a “you will be fine, put on a brace, and be back here next week” kind of injury. I remember thinking my season was over; I had only come back to play my senior year because I wanted to try and get a scholarship. Otherwise, I would have graduated early the year before. At that moment, I had no idea what my future entailed and it really put into perspective that I had no idea what I wanted to do. Afterward, I started looking into broadcasting, production, camera work, and all things sports media. I basically went from thinking I would be a career NFL center to potentially the next John Madden.
FPH: In your journey through the world of sports, how did you find yourself down here in Savannah? What helped you reach this opportunity you now have with the Ghost Pirates?
RUSSIN: It’s actually kind of a crazy story. I was working in the USL2 (semi-professional soccer league sponsored by the United Soccer League) last year doing anything with a camera or video related, basically anything media. It was a great experience, but in the end, they decided they did not need a media guy going into the offseason, so I was out of the job. It was a surprise for me, and I had no plans for that happening. Around the same time, my parents were moving down to South Carolina, and I had nowhere to go.
I was kind of panicking, looking online for openings elsewhere, and I saw something for the Ghost Pirates. I was like, “Oh, they just affiliated with Vegas Golden Knights. I love the Golden Knights; let me see if I can go down there.” I filled out an application, stayed on top of communicating with them, booked an interview, got a position in the organization, and moved down in July.
FPH: You mention the Vegas Golden Knights; is that your team outside of the Savannah Ghost Pirates?
RUSSIN: Definitely, I was a fan of the Golden Knights before they even had a logo. Actually, I became a Knights fan because of a project I had in high school, which was to design their logo. Thankfully, they had actual professionals design their logo; because my logo was terrible. However, I do still stand by my color scheme of gold, purple, and black.
Other than the Knights, I am also a big Rangers fan and New York Giants fan as well. Eli Manning actually inspired me to play football when I was watching him in the 2012 NFC championship. I spent that night watching the San Francisco 49ers obliterate him all game, and I remember thinking, “I can protect him.” I became an offensive tackle that offseason.
I would be remiss if I did not mention wrestling too. There is not a team, but I love watching it, and currently, I have been enjoying AEW.
FPH: Now I know you hold many hats in the Ghost Pirates’ organization; can you explain to people a bit more in-depth about what it is you actually do? What does day-to-day Gary look like?
RUSSIN: Yeah, so I am an operations assistant for the team as well as the DJ for the Savannah Ghost Pirates at Enmarket Arena. On rare occasions, you can also find me down in Jacksonville working the Icemen games as a DJ as well.
As an operations assistant, I am basically the swiss army knife of the company. So for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in the merch store fulfilling orders. However, if we have an event, I am in for it. If we have community outreach, I am there. My favorite part about what I do is that I never know what my day could entail. I could be doing a school event, I could be helping out with the phantom member boxes for season ticket holders, I could be in a sales meeting, or I could be traveling with the team. I never quite know, and that is what is so fun about it. Granted, if I was 40-plus, I may not be saying this, but as a 21-year-old, it is pretty exciting.
Then as we spoke about earlier, I get to DJ the games at Enmarket. I get to be involved in creative meetings where we discuss what we want to add to the experience, and what videos we want to make. Then sometimes it is just like, “Hey Gary, do you want to go to Jacksonville this weekend? they need a DJ.”
It’s something different day-to-day, which makes it so special. You never fully know what your day is going to look like. So you have to constantly stay on your toes, and it is a lot of fun.
FPH: When I first reached out to you to speak with me, it was much earlier in the season, and at the time, you were an intern. Since then, you have moved up in the organization. I was wondering if you could touch on what that means to you?
RUSSIN: It meant the world to me. I hoped it would happen, but I knew it was never a guarantee. In sports, you never really know if you are being kept in the offseason even. It was just one of those things where I worked in the industry for two years, and I knew If I bit the bullet while I was still young, it could mean so much for me and my career. I worked my butt off, I commuted, I stayed long hours, and I didn’t complain. I think that is part of my linemen mentality. I am here to do my thing, have fun doing it, and help everyone be successful.
So yeah, It meant the world to me to get that phone call. Sure there were times when I doubted myself, but I had faith in both my ability and people noticing what I was doing. With a new team, there are a lot of opportunities out there, and I am lucky to be one of the people that got this opportunity.
FPH: Speaking of it being a new team, you have got to be a part of an extremely unique experience by being involved in Savannah’s inaugural season. I was wondering what that has meant for you personally, and if you had any memorable moments that stick out to you this season so far?
RUSSIN: Being a part of this season has been incredible; it is something I could never imagine. You still kind of pinch yourself to make sure you are not dreaming. It is very special, especially meeting and introducing hockey to an entirely new group of people is something that most people, even in the NHL, do not get to do. Just to be a part of watching all these people that are so happy to be at our games, even if we are losing, everyone is having a good time. It is such an awesome feeling.
In terms of special moments, I was invited to go to the first-ever game the Ghost Pirates had, which was in Greenville. I also got to work our inaugural game. It’s so hard to point to one specific moment: we won a game with 1.3 seconds left on the clock and I do not think I will ever forget the feeling. I am sitting in the booth pressing the goal horn, almost forgot to press the goal song because I am freaking out so much. It was an incredible feeling.
It is just a lot of overall joy in this season. There is hard work, tough moments, sleepless nights, and stress. But at the end of the day, I get to be a part of one of the best productions in the ECHL. I get to be a part of one of the best brands in the ECHL. Overall, I just get to have a ton of fun with a lot of talented, smart, and incredible people.
FPH: Where do you see yourself 15 years from now with your career and how has your time in Savannah helped you in that regard?
RUSSIN: You know, that is a question I ask myself a lot, because all I ever wanted was to be in sports, and I accomplished that. I have had to look at setting new goals for myself, and where I want to be in the future.
Production Gary wants to work with the Golden Knights because what is better than the Knights’ production staff?
But Sales Gary is like, what do I want to do in sales?
I have not defined that yet, and there is also a part of me that really enjoys podcasting and creating videos. Maybe I will do something in that realm.
I am in the process of setting new bars for myself because I accomplished the initial goal I had set for myself of making it into sports. I am kind of in this reconstruction phase of what I want. Right now, I have it, but I do not like to be complacent. That is very alien to me.
For Savannah, this organization has helped me out in more ways than they probably know. They have exposed me to so many possibilities and really ingrained me in all of the aspects of sports. For example, I had no idea what sales were. My father was a sales guy, but all I knew was my dad did business. I didn’t know what he really did, but now I have done sales. Which introduced me to a whole new world I didn’t even know I liked.
I had always done community outreach, but I had never thought about doing that on a professional level.
I never worked retail, and it’s been something I have enjoyed as well.
That is the thing; I do not know what my future will be, but I would love to try other things too. That is what the Ghost Pirates opened my eyes to. I do not have to just be Gary the media guy. I could do more; I could offer more.
FPH: Stepping back to you as the Enmarket DJ for a second, I am curious about how that game flow works for you up in the sound booth. Does the flow of the game, the fans, or any other factors really affect your mentality of how you approach the night?
RUSSIN: You know it is a balance; we are very fortunate to have a crowd where even if we are down, they are very loud. They are very much into the game, and they just want to see a good thing happen. If we are losing 4-0 and we score; it’s hey, we scored a goal and they are still making noise for it.
I come from the New York Rangers fandom, where if they are down 4-0 and score a goal, we are probably going to boo them. It is the Broadway boos. So, when it comes to playing music, I try to play thematic music.
If we get scored on, I will play something sad or something to try and get us back in it. It depends on how the crowd is feeling. I try to feel them out, and I also have other people in the booth with me who help me out.
We also have songs for specific segments, so I have to hit them regardless. Then, we have songs that have been requested to be staples, so I have to play those.
I can’t control the play on the ice as much as I’d love to. If I could, we would win every game. What I can control is the fan experience and, hopefully, play the music they find fun, want to sing along to, or at least get them pumped up for the game.
Based on how our crowd reaction has been, I think we are doing a good job. I feel we have a great production staff with a ton of talented people, and I hope they know it. Even when we lose, I do not see people leaving that arena miserable; they are like, “Hey, at least we had fun!”
That’s all I want, as long as you leave a Savannah game saying I had a good time; I am more than happy.
FPH: Continuing down the musical route while I have you on the topic, I was wondering if you had a team yourself what would be your ideal goal song for them?
RUSSIN: That is difficult because without knowing what my team is, I do not think you can have a goal song. In terms of what goes into making a goal song, I think it has to have complete synergy with the brand and city you are in, whether it is from the artist being from there or it being iconic due to historical purposes.
For example, the Rangers one was written by a former player and they have been using it ever since. In Dallas; their song was written by a local band. Vegas has ‘Vegas Lights’ and nothing more has to be said about that. I think it is important to have complete synergy.
FPH: Before we head out of here, Gary, I just have one more question for you. If you had something that you wanted people to know about you outside of the world of sports; what would that be?
RUSSIN: Honestly, it’s that I am a big family guy. I found this out the other day because my coworkers were picking on me when my partner visited me for New Year’s. Apparently, it turns out I am a girlfriend guy, I am always hyping her up, and talking about my family. It’s just that I love being around them. I am the booster club for everyone around me. I just want everyone to be successful.
The takeaway from this is you could tell I played offensive line. O-line is a position with no glory in it, you are never going to win an award for it, you don’t get credit for a touchdown, and you don’t get any cool stats. You only get noticed when you suck and the quarterback gets sacked. It never mattered to me. I always just went into the trenches, did my job, and hopefully, we won.
I was always a “we” guy, which is why even though I played football and had never played ice hockey, something about the whole “we mentality” really stuck with me. The reason I am in hockey, and not football, is because I think hockey has the same mentality as every lineman. We are part of something bigger than just one person.
As I finished talking with Gary, I was taken aback by how happy he was just to be involved in something bigger than himself. That kind of unbridled joy in the work he is doing is something you do not find every day and is a constant reminder of the work the Savannah Ghost Pirates have been doing in forming this group of people. Though Gary may not realize it, the city of Savannah is lucky to have someone like himself working behind the scenes to provide them with the best show on ice that you can get.
Of course, in his typical ‘we mentality’ fashion, Gary wanted to make sure I did not leave without him bringing everyone the credit they deserved. He told me about everyone from the production staff to the cleaners. He spoke about how much everyone works together on such a large scale, and even in discussing that, you could tell that just having this ticket to the show was such a joy for him.
At the end of the day, we have to remember, hockey is a human sport first. It is people like Gary who help show me that every time I speak to them.
Editor’s note: The interview in this article has been slightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
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