By Bill Vilona
Pensacola News Journal
PENSACOLA, Fla. – Paul Chestnutt realizes there never is a perfect way to say goodbye.
He is certain, however, it’s time.
In what promises to be an emotional evening for Chestnutt, he will work his final game tonight as the radio voice of the Pensacola Ice Pilots. After 10 years as the hockey team’s only play-by-play broadcaster, Chestnutt, 41, announced his resignation Jan. 19 to spend more time with his family and pursue other business opportunities.
“I don’t know what to expect, to tell you the truth,” Chestnutt said Wednesday as he prepared notes for the Ice Pilots’ two games against the Phoenix RoadRunners at the Civic Center.
“I’m going to go in there and enjoy it. I’m going to try and do the best job I can.
“And when it’s all done, I’ll give (management) the keys, say thanks and move on to something else.”
Chestnutt plans to spend more time with his wife, Brenda, and 3-year-old son, Matthew, who has cerebral palsy. Eventually, he would like to get back into radio, at least part time.
Chestnutt built a reputation as a consummate professional. That’s how he wants to go out, without burning bridges with the team’s new ownership. Underscoring the team’s uncertain future, no replacement has been announced.
But for loyal supporters of the Ice Pilots such as Cindy Tilgham, a Pensacola resident who has been a season-ticket holder since the team’s inception in 1996, losing Chestnutt is the ultimate void.
“It’s like a death in the family,” Tilgham said. “That’s exactly how we all feel. Chester (his popular nickname) was part of who we were. He’s been one of us, like part of a family.
“He’s been the only constant element in this team, through all the changes. He’s been such a great asset to this community. There will never be another voice of the Ice Pilots. It will never be the same.”
In a fitting tribute, arranged through a local sporting goods store, hundreds of fans are expected to salute Chestnutt tonight by wearing T-shirts with his image.
On the front will be Chestnutt’s signature call of an Ice Pilots’ goal: “He Shooots … And Scores!”
In a deep voice, thick with a Pittsburgh accent honed from his hometown, Chestnutt made that call a memorable part of his broadcasts.
His final game will be the 758th broadcast with the Ice Pilots. He missed only two games in 10 years, both when his son was born. Chestnutt estimates working more than 900 games in the ECHL.
Before his arrival in Pensacola, he was the radio voice of the Erie (Pa.) Panthers. When that team moved its ECHL team to Baton Rouge, La., in 1996, Chestnutt began looking for a job.
He applied with the Ice Pilots, who moved from Nashville, Tenn. Chestnutt had visited Pensacola in 1982, seeing a friend who had a brother living in the city.
Chestnutt initially was hired for $75 a game. He took a leap of faith and left Pittsburgh, where his mother and grandmother lived, to explore unchartered territory for professional hockey.
“I remember that day, leaving my mom, my grandmother, and they’re both crying,” Chestnutt said. “I had loaded the car. I told my mother, ‘You know what? I could be back here next week, but I’ve got to take a chance. I’ve got to see what this is all about.’
“And it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.
“It’s been a fun ride. There’s a ton of memories, a ton of relationships. I’m still going to be around. I’m just not going to be voice of Ice Pilots.”
Chestnutt quickly gained a full-time job with the Ice Pilots, working play-by-play, doing a three-times-a-week radio show with the team, and being the director of community relations.
“He gave the team an instant identity,” Tilgham said. “He took it personally if a guy didn’t show up on time, whether it was to sign autographs at Wendy’s or speak at a civic function.”
The Ice Pilots were an immediate success, both on the ice and at the box office. The team back then was led by its most popular coach, Al Pederson, the former standout defenseman for the Boston Bruins. Pederson and Chestnutt quickly connected, often exchanging playful barbs on post-game radio shows or the weekly call-in programs.
“In the first years when I was playing, he really enhanced the relationship between players and the fans,” said former Ice Pilots star Chad Quenneville, who led the Pilots in a 1998 post-season run into the Kelly Cup Finals. “Paul has been one of the backbones of the Ice Pilots. He had a lot to do with the success of the team.
“He was a good bridge between a lot of the fans and the players. And he obviously called an excellent game.”
Quenneville has remained in Pensacola after his playing days. He works as a financial advisor for UBS Financial Services. He frequently speaks with Chestnutt. Like everyone who has known him, tonight’s broadcast brings a difficult experience.
“I’m sad to see him go,” Quenneville said. “He’s really the last connection to the old guys. … He’s brought so much to the team and has such a great link with both.”
Chestnutt is hopeful of launching a new phase in his career, but he has a bigger wish: He wants to see his son be able to talk and walk one day. He is grateful for what his job meant, headlined by the day he met his wife, a Pensacola native.
“I really believe in what I’m doing,” said Chestnutt, referring to his sudden resignation. “My family means everything. I love my wife. I love Matthew so much. He needs me more than the Ice Pilots do.
“I start thinking about this last year. My little boy is not walking and talking. I want so bad for that to happen. What has kept me going is the fans, the community.
“The fans are really what make it happen for me. I thank them so much for letting me come into their lives, their homes, their businesses. They keep saying thank you to me. I should be saying thank you to them.
“They really accepted me in this community, and I appreciate it. I love this community. I’m going to stay here.”
The flashbacks of Chestnutt’s tenure are filled with happiness. The playoff run in 1998 was a special period in Pensacola’s sports history. The Ice Pilots sold out the Civic Center for every playoff game. They won a dramatic double-overtime game to advance to the finals.
They created a buzz in the community that never existed before with a minor-league team.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Chestnutt said. “There’s a ton of memories, a ton of relationships. I’m still going to be around. I’m just not going to be voice of Ice Pilots. With the demands of this job, I can’t do it anymore.”
For fans such as Tilgham, it was Chestnutt who helped introduce ice hockey to a region where the sport had no history.
“I could close my eyes and listen to him call a game, and I could see it,” she said. “For people like me who don’t understand hockey, that was so informative.
“It was the way I truly learned the game.”