written by R.L. Bynum
A quick rise at age 25 to television roles for Labar
In the last 17 months, Abby Labar’s career advanced toward her television dreams along a path that included a few days of mixed emotions.
The in-arena host at Carolina Hurricanes games since the 2017–18 season at the time, her first big break was starting to work as an ACC football sideline reporter for regional sports network broadcasts in September 2019.
The next break was more difficult to process at first. But it gave Labar the chance to prove she could flourish as the host and in-game reporter for Hurricanes TV broadcasts.
Last week, she officially got that job permanently, with her predecessor Mike Maniscalco named the permanent play-by-play voice of the Canes on TV and radio to work with longtime color analyst Tripp Tracy. The first broadcast this season for that crew will be Thursday’s season opener at Detroit. Shane Willis will again appear pregame and during intermissions with Labar.
Labar says that Maniscalco has been helpful throughout the whole process.
“He would come to me first to ask me if I needed help,” said Labar, a 2017 N.C. State Communication and Media Studies graduate. “He’s just so honest and caring and it’s great to have him. And I’m excited to work with him, too. It’ll be really cool to now be in a position where, yeah, I’m stepping into his shoes, but now he’s stepping into a bigger role, too, and we can all be a team.”
Labar’s first chance on that job came for an unwelcome reason.
Maniscalco, early in his fourth season as the host and in-game TV reporter at the time, was hospitalized in San Jose, Calif. Labar found out through a phone call that she would fill in for Maniscalco in the interim.
“It was hard because I think the Mike situation just added so much more emotion to it,” Labar said. “We didn’t know what was happening. So, it was this bittersweet moment. I am getting asked to hop on this broadcast, which is what I’ve worked for. This is my dream to get on TV. And here I am doing it potentially at the expense of somebody else’s life. We didn’t know what was going on with Mike.”
Before Labar worked her first game, she joined many others in being relieved to hear that the large mass removed from Maniscalco’s abdomen was benign.
“He texted me and he was like, ‘Embrace this opportunity. I’m going to be back soon. Just take this time. It’s your show. Do your thing,’ ” said Labar, who calls Maniscalco one of several mentors. “That was the best thing I could ask for — having him as somebody that I could lean on through it all.”
Labar admits that the nerves were there for that first game but once she got through that first game, she knew she could do it.
“When I got into it and we started doing the show, I surprised myself in a way,” Labar said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I know that stuff. It comes in second nature to me. I know this team. I know this organization. I know how to do this job.’ ”
Labar worked five games before Maniscalco returned to his hosting job. By the time the Canes’ season resumed in the Toronto bubble, longtime play-by-play man John Forslund had left the team, Maniscalco shifted to play by play and Labar was the host and in-game reporter again. Those were interim assignments that are now permanent.
Working on the broadcast for a major professional sports team at age 25 is an impressively quick rise. When she took a career decisions class in middle school and was asked to prepare a brochure about careers she’d like to pursue, sportscasting was one of them. At that age, she couldn’t have imagined already being in her current role.
“Everything that I’ve done has led me to this point, and it’s all the little things that add up that get me here,” Labar said. “I really appreciate it and embrace living in the moment these days and — especially this last year — appreciating these opportunities as they come and just doing them to the best of my ability. So, my five-year plan is just to continue to do that, do all the right things and work as hard as I can and continue to show that passion and motivation that I have in any position.”
She will continue to work at Opex Technologies on a part-time basis and likely shift back to full time during the offseason. She’s worked there for more than 3½ years, helping with scheduling, planning and other duties.
Labar has appeared on “Sportschannel 8: The Radio Show” on WCMC (99.9 The Fan) weekly and twice was a guest host. She appeared on Thursdays in the fall, but will shift to Wednesdays during hockey season.
Her first “wow” moment was before her initial football sideline reporting assignment for the Elon at Wake Forest game Sept. 21, 2019.
“Walking the field the day before, I think was kind of a wild moment,” Labar said. “We get there on Fridays and we do coaches meetings. Just walking through an empty stadium, looking around and thinking this is really cool. I definitely had my wow moment when I filled in during the playoffs. I think what would have made it even more of a wow moment would have been if the crowd was behind me. But just sitting there, I had this overwhelming feeling of this is where I am right now like this is what I’ve worked for and I’m covering this historic Stanley Cup playoff run.”
Her goal of getting into sports broadcasting was sealed when she visited the University of Tennessee with her grandfather for a football game during high school and also visited the broadcasting school there.
“That might have been the moment that I was like, ‘this is definitely what I want to do.’ I knew that before starting college and got my foot in and never looked back,” said Labar, who grew up in a Wolfpack family and didn’t really consider attending college anywhere else.
Labar says she would have been open to any sort of television job covering sports, including TV news, and is happy for the opportunity that the Hurricanes gave her. She knew there were similar paths, such as Molly McGrath, who started as an in-arena host for the Boston Celtics and is now a sideline reporter and host for ESPN.
“I quickly realized being an on-site reporter and host was the perfect, coolest opportunity,” Labar said. “I get to be that reporter and I’m very involved in the game and what’s going on but then I also get to show my personality and have a little fun by being at a desk and doing the show as well. I’ve always envisioned myself being a part of a ‘College GameDay’ type atmosphere and this is the perfect position. Everything I could have asked for.”
After only doing promotions during the 2017–18 season, her first with the Canes as in-arena host, her role expanded to reporting, hosting pregame and intermission shows for CanesVision and creating more web content.
“I was thankful that they gave me an opportunity to kind of enhance that in-game host role and in-game host reporter role. One of the cool things about that — one of the reasons I stuck with it for so long — was getting so much great experience doing that and I started to fall in love with the game and the fan base. I would have never seen it turning into what it is today but it’s really cool to see that happen.”
That experience made the transition to TV easier, as well as having been a football sideline reporter a few times before she first filled in for Maniscalco.
“The hosting for the pregame show and the in-game hosting set me up for that because I never use a teleprompter for that,” Labar said. “We don’t have a teleprompter for ‘Hurricanes Live.’ It’s a lot of ad-libbing, thinking on your feet. Just trying to be creative and keep the show rolling. I want to say it’s got a little easier, going from in-game hosting to sitting at the desk because I had Shane to bounce off of.”
Hosting and reporting from Raleigh when the games were in Toronto created plenty of challenges. But that experience will be helpful considering that, at least for now, the broadcast crew will do road games from Raleigh and she will get no in-person interviews with players and coaches this season. They’ll all be via Zoom or done remotely via a live video feed. Carolina’s first four games will be on the road.
“I think the biggest thing for that was not having the access and I think that’s going to be a tough challenge going into this season,” Labar said. “There’s something special about understanding the dynamic of the locker room and what’s happening off the ice as a reporter and a host. That was really challenging for me. I really struggled to get stories from the bubble. I just felt like I wasn’t as in touch as if I have all that access.
“It’s going to be very similar this year. We’re going to have to get creative on how to bring the players’ personalities and emotions to the table without being able to be around them as much,” she said. “So, that’s definitely challenging. It was good that we have that experience and we can kind of take that into this season, reminisce on what worked and what didn’t. And, hopefully, we can knock it out of the park.”
Hockey wasn’t even on her radar as a kid growing up in Denver, a town 26 miles northwest of Charlotte. Her sports at North Lincoln High School were cross country in the fall, basketball in the winter (for her first two years) and soccer. She stopped playing basketball to concentrate on soccer, which she considered her main sport.
Although she took up running again during the pandemic, she admits that she hated cross country and only participated to get in shape for other sports. She also was a good swimmer and rode horses for about 10 years.
Labar says that she hadn’t even followed hockey and didn’t know much about the game when she first took the in-arena host job with the team after graduating from N.C. State.
Previously, she had covered Wolfpack athletics for Wolfpack Sports Television (host, reporter) and PackPride.com (reporter), various sports as a 2016 intern with Spectrum News and baseball as a 2016 video/reporter intern for the Coastal Plain League but never hockey. She also was a digital media reporter for GoPack.com from January 2016 to May 2017.
“I maybe went to one or two games as a student. I was familiar with the organization but I didn’t really understand the game of hockey and I went into my audition and they were like, ‘So, how much do you know about hockey?’ ” said Labar, who admitted she didn’t know much but was willing to learn. “I showed that passion and motivation to learn the sport and it’s surprisingly worked out. Here I am. I would have never seen myself in hockey, I can say that.”
She brought in-game host experience, having worked with the Mooresville Spinners and the Kannapolis Intimidators baseball teams in 2015.
When she started as the in-arena host, she read books on hockey and watched lots of games. She still asks Willis plenty of questions.
“I drive him crazy,” Labar said. “I ask him questions all the time. I’m like what is this? And I ask him the dumb questions, too. I’m like, Shane, these are not going to be intelligent hockey questions sometimes. He doesn’t make me feel like an idiot though, which is great. He’s awesome.”
There are no questions about her ability to do the job, and she’ll no doubt keep growing in her first full season.
Hardin, Cotten, Hahn win state NSMA honors
Ed Hardin, who Lee Enterprises laid off from the News & Record of Greensboro last year, is the National Sports Media Association’s North Carolina sports writer of the year for a record-tying fifth time.
Hardin joins Wilt Browning of the News & Record and Greensboro Daily News and Ron Green Sr. of the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte News as the only five-time winners. Hardin also won it in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2019.
Sharing the state sportscaster of the year honors are two college play-by-play announcers: Wake Forest’s Stan Cotten and N.C. State’s Gary Hahn. It’s the fifth time Cotten (also in 2001, 2006, 2014 and 2017) has won the award and the second such honor for Hahn (2010).
The awards were announced Monday. Winners will be honored in ceremonies during the NSMA’s awards weekend in Winston-Salem, tentatively scheduled for June 26–28.
Four award winners outside of the state have North Carolina ties:
* Chicago White Sox TV and ESPN play-by-play announcer Jason Benetti — Illinois sportscaster of the year, Wake Forest law school graduate and former High Point University play-by-play voice
* NJ Advance Media columnist Steve Politi — New Jersey sports writer of the year for a third time, UNC grad and former N&O writer
* Grace Raynor, Clemson beat writer for The Athletic — South Carolina sports writer of the year for a third time; UNC grad and Morganton native
* Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga — D.C. sports writer of the year for a fourth time, Duke graduate and former News & Observer writer
Mike “Doc” Emrick is the national sportscaster of the year and The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach is the national sports writer of the year. At 31, Auerbach is the youngest to earn that honor.
Forslund still will call games for NBC
Forslund will no doubt work even more NHL games for NBC with the retirement of longtime lead play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick and with him no longer calling Hurricanes games locally.
Analyst Eddie Olczyk, who was working with Emrick, and Brian Boucher will work with Forslund for Wednesday night’s Chicago at Tampa Bay.
Those pairings don’t necessarily mean Forslund won’t work the Stanley Cup finals. According to Richard Deitsch of The Athletic, NBC said there is no official replacement for Emrick.
Forslund’s first game of the season will be Wednesday’s Chicago at Tampa Bay matchup.
WTVD sportscaster battled COVID-19
Monday on Twitter, WTVD sportscaster Bridget Condon revealed her battle with COVID-19.
She was diagnosed last week and described her symptoms as being “body aches that felt like a Mack truck ran over me.”
She slept between 14 and 18 hours each day for a week and said her shortness of breath improved after five days but, as of Monday, her energy levels still weren’t back to normal.
Pandemic changes big-game coverage
In a normal year, a local team playing in its first major bowl in 71 years would have attracted a large North Carolina press contingent. With access to players and coaches via Zoom the same whether a reporter is at the game or at home, that changed for North Carolina’s Orange Bowl loss to Texas A&M.
Some of it relates to travel restrictions by media outlets concerned for the health of their staff. Financial concerns likely are included in the equation in some cases.
No Triangle television sent anybody to either that game or N.C. State’s Gator Bowl loss to Kentucky. For the Orange Bowl, it was particularly not worth going for stations considering that they wouldn’t have been able to shoot video, even from the stands.
Adam Smith of the Burlington Times-News, who covers Carolina for all of Gannett’s North Carolina newspapers, and Shawn Krest of North State Journal were the only North Carolina newspaper sports writers at the game other than two Daily Tar Heel writers, although N&O photojournalist Robert Willett shot photos at the game.
There were four other N.C.-based media members in the press box, representing three UNC-focused websites.
For the Gator Bowl, The N&O only sent photojournalist Ethan Hyman to Jacksonville. David Thompson of the Fayetteville Observer, who covers N.C. State and Duke for Gannett’s N.C. newspapers, was on-site to cover the game.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
COVID-19 can hit anybody of any age regardless of their fitness level, as Jason Quick wrote in The Athletic. He talked to former UNC player Nassir Little, only 20 years old and in his second season with the Portland Trail Blazers, about his battle that included losing 20 pounds.
In The Charlotte Observer, Scott Fowler wrote the sad story of a beloved coach and teacher who died of COVID-19 at age 51.
In the Winston-Salem Journal, Ethan Joyce wrote about Carter Whitt’s quick transition from high school student last fall to early enrollee at Wake Forest to getting major playing time for the Demon Deacons.
In The N&O, Chip Alexander wrote about the flash and mystique of Pete Maravich 33 years after the death of the former Broughton High, LSU and NBA star.
In the Winston-Salem Journal, John Dell wrote about former Wake Forest wide receiver Matt Jones, who is now starring on ABC’s “The Bachelor.”