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College students broadcasting Islanders 'living out a dream'

Hofstra's Julian Coltre, left, and Dan Savarino pose

Hofstra's Julian Coltre, left, and Dan Savarino pose before they call the Islanders' game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Credit: Richard T. Slattery

Howie Rose's freshman year at Queens College coincided with the Islanders' freshman season in the NHL, which presented an irresistible opportunity.

The future television voice of the team secured credentials through WQMC, the college radio station, found a quiet corner of the Nassau Coliseum press box and called games into a recorder, making tapes he still has four decades later.

Rose said it was an invaluable experience, similar to one Chris King, the team's radio play-by-play man, would give himself a few years later to begin the long road to the NHL.

That's all very nice, and all a college student usually can do to call games for a major professional team.

So what were Hofstra juniors Julian Coltre and Dan Savarino doing Thursday night sitting not in a corner of the press box but in the front row, beside King and preparing to speak live on a signal reaching most of Long Island?

"Living out a dream,'' said Savarino, who is from East Meadow.

Or as Bruce Avery, the general manager at Hofstra's WRHU (88.7-FM), put it, "It's extraordinary, it's an honor and it's unprecedented.''

That would be the partnership, in its fourth season, between the Islanders and Hofstra, a marriage of convenience conceived in the fall of 2010 that gave the team a stronger signal than it had previously -- and ended an awkward arrangement in which Rose's TV call was simulcast on radio in 2009-10.

Other than King, Hofstra undergraduates run the show, from game analysts such as Coltre to rink-side reporters such as Savarino to producers, engineers, studio update people and so on.

Initially there was understandable skepticism, and fear it was beneath the dignity of a team in America's biggest media market. After all, the Rangers (ESPN) and Devils (WFAN) are on major outlets with sports talk brands and professional staff.

But over time, the students mostly have worn down would-be critics.

"Folks were looking to have us not be successful,'' Avery said. "We were committed to being successful and having a product everyone was proud of.''

Hofstra helps make that so with guidance from the likes of Avery, director of operations John Mullen, King and Ed Ingles, who as "Professional-in-Residence'' has helped greatly elevate the school's sports media profile.

There are other universities, famously Syracuse and Fordham, who offer strong sports broadcasting programs. But there is only one that can hand an undergraduate a microphone on a live broadcast of an NHL game.

Coltre, whose radio-ready voice sounds like that of a man 20 years older, said the Islanders gig was "one of the big deciding factors'' that attracted him.

"It's been unbelievable,'' said senior Rob Joyce, another analyst who had other options. "As a freshman, I was two or three weeks in when they announced the deal. I called my dad and said, 'Hofstra was the right choice.' ''

Joyce's dad, Bob, is the longtime voice of University of Connecticut women's basketball. Now Rob analyzes NHL games, and he has no regrets about passing up Big Mondays at the Carrier Dome.

"The stuff I got there I wasn't going to be able to get anywhere else,'' said Kevin Dexter, a former WRHU analyst from Levittown who graduated last year and works at CBS Sports Radio and News 12 Long Island.

For students younger than Dexter and Joyce who arrived after the Islanders deal was done, managing expectations can be difficult. The station covers dozens of Hofstra sports events and students are expected to take on field hockey and the like en route to pro ice hockey.

The Islanders deal has been recruiting gold for Hofstra, which even has reached out to prospective students in hockey-centric countries in Europe. But there is no guarantee it will last forever, especially after the move to Brooklyn in 2015.

At the least, the team will need another station to extend its reach into the city and beyond Nassau County, now mostly covered by WRHU, and Suffolk, mostly covered by a simulcast on WRCN (103.9-FM).

WRHU's production already has been showcased on WCBS (against the Rangers at Yankee Stadium), as well as on WFAN and ESPN Radio for playoff games last spring.

"That was the ultimate tribute to the students and the job they do,'' King said. "Those [stations] are three of the biggest stages in this city that you can have.''

Even though he grew up a Red Sox fan, Joyce said walking into Yankee Stadium that night was an "unbelievable'' experience, and he dressed for the occasion to demonstrate how seriously he took it.

"That's partly why you do small things, like me wearing a suit to the game when other people weren't,'' he said.

Soon Joyce will be gone, like Dexter before him. It is a reality of relying on undergraduates. "Every year we have to recruit new students, train new students, ramp new students up,'' Mullen said, "and when they get good, they leave.''

Four years on, it is an unconventional arrangement that seems to be working for all concerned.

"Maybe it's an unusual set of circumstances, clearly an aberration, but it's the chance of a lifetime for these kids,'' Rose said. "They are being thrown into the deep end, and I think it's fabulous.''

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