CRANBERRY TWP — A few times a week during the winter and spring, Ryan Mill makes the trek from Cranberry down Interstate 279 to PPG Paints Arena. Once inside, he takes his place and prepares for three hours of intense hockey action, using the physical gift he's been given to, hopefully, send fans home happy.
While Mill isn't exactly taking shifts with the likes of Crosby and Malkin, he is a part of the action, his clear, measured voice booming over the public address system as the red goal lights flash and the packed crowd bounces along to the celebratory music, exchanging high fives.
“Thhhhheeeee Pittsburgh goal ...,” the common refrain begins, followed by Mill putting his unique take on the scorer's name.
For nine years, Mill has been the voice of the Pittsburgh Penguins, serving as the team's public address announcer, a role steeped in history for the club. But for Mill, his connection to the team is no different from the fans who pay to sit in the stands below his perch.
“I'm just a fan they gave the microphone to,” he said, “There have been and there will be bigger pieces of this pie than I ever will be for the game. ... But if I can play a small role to help you enjoy the game, I've done my job.”
That job is one in a career that Mill never believed could happen: relying on his voice to pay the bills as both an announcer and a voice-over actor
“If you would have asked me when I was 14 years old, 'Do you think you can work for yourself voicing something?' I would say no,” he said.
When he isn't following the action on the ice, Mill can be found in the basement of his Cranberry home. There, a world-class studio has been constructed for Mill to perform his day job. From inside the rustic space, Mill lends his signature tone to companies like Eat'n Park and PNC Bank, as well as television networks like Oxygen and Discovery Channel.
It's a long way from when Mill was 14 years old, touring a radio station in Greensburg and realizing the path he wanted his life to take.
“I fell in love instantly,” he said of the AM station. “It was magical to me.”
At 16, he began working weekends and overnights at the station's FM Top 40 outlet, missing proms and homecomings in favor of pop music and polkas. He also began finding his voice.
“I thought everyone in the world is listening to this right now, this is the most important thing I'll ever do,” he said.
After attending the University of Pittsburgh, Mill did an internship with the B94 radio station, which led to 15-year career in which he did everything from host shows to manage the office. He was working his dream job, but began realizing the day-to-day grind was becoming less fun.
Then, in 2008, his dream job was gone, his position the victim of downsizing. Though he was shocked, Mill wasn't without a thought for his future.
“I knew probably two years before that that I wanted to go home and work for me,” he said.
Within three days, he had signed with a talent agency, putting his years of voice work, technical skills and ear for production to use. The transition, though, didn't come without challenges.
“I was used to putting out fires all day long,” he said. “Now, it's just me, and if I don't have a whole stack of auditions waiting for me, what do I do?”
Mill made a promise to himself that he'd treat each day as if he were going to work, posting up in his studio and auditioning as much as possible. The work, though, was slow in coming.
“I hadn't found my voice yet, and I was doing a lot of 'try to sound like this guy or try to sound like that commercial',” he said.
Mill began taking voice and acting classes to find new life in the voice he'd relied upon for so many years. A chance phone call with voice actor Don LaFontaine, the unofficial voice of thousands of movie trailers, gave Mill more insight into the process of becoming marketable.
“The best thing he ever told me was don't give them your best stuff on your first take,” Mill said of the audition process. “It wasn't until I stopped trying to sound like someone else and started to sound like me that it sounded more genuine.”
Eventually, Mill began to figure out the process and his voice, and work began to flow his way. He began to build a reputation for his quickness and professionalism. An NBC/Universal representative said, “Words are just words written on paper until Ryan reads them and brings them to life,” echoing the words of numerous other talent directors for whom Mill has done work.
After a year of working for himself, Mill said, a friend alerted him to a job that seemed too good to be true: public address announcer for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Mill applied for the position online and landed an audition. Though he had spent decades talking for a living, the territory was new for him.
“At my audition, they asked me 'How many games have you been a public address announcer?' and I said 'Do you mean high school and college and everything?'” he said. “They said 'Yes' and I said 'Zero, I've never done this before.'”
Though he lacked experience, Mill got the job. He would be replacing John Barbero, who served as the Penguins' announcer for 36 years and had become an iconic piece of the team's history. Mill was very familiar with Barbero's calls, having heard them bouncing around the Pittsburgh Civic Arena as he worked a food services job in the concourse.
Because Barbero had done the job for so long, and because he was battling a brain tumor and unable to work with Mill during the transition, Mill was left without much guidance. He knew, though, that some time-honored traditions — Barbero's insistence on calling it “the Pittsburgh goal” and notifying fans of “one minute remaining in the period” — couldn't be changed.
“John didn't really leave a road map for how this was supposed to happen,” Mill said. “It was going to be a big enough change going from him to me, I can't change everything. That would be crazy.”
As if the challenge of replacing a legend wasn't enough, Mill's first game was at the start of the 2009-10 season as the team raised its Stanley Cup banner from the previous year. Looking back, Mill can see the shortcomings.
“I was more than nervous,” he said. “I was horrible. ... I look back at the video now, and I sound like I'm 10, I'm screaming ... it was just bad. For people to put up with that and give me a little leeway ... I'm more than grateful.”
In the nine years since, Mill has grown into the role, putting his own touches on the job and paying homage to Barbero in subtle ways. When team captain Sidney Crosby nets a goal, Mill follows with an elongated “Sidneeeey Crosby,” a nod to Barbero's famous “Mario Lemieuuuuuux” call. He's created signature calls for the likes of Evgeni Malkin and other top stars.
He's also collected some hardware along the way, including two Stanley Cup rings and four Mid-Atlantic Regional Emmy Awards for his contributions to the Penguins' “In the Room” documentary series.
Those pieces shine beneath the window of the recording booth at his home studio, a reminder of the success he's achieved since setting out on his own path. However, more than any award, Mill said being able to take care of his family is of the utmost importance.
“Being able to feed my family ... just on my own abilities and merits, I never believed I could do it,” he said.
Despite being the voice behind brands with national and international appeal, Mill said he enjoys the anonymity that comes with voice work.
“I like to let it be like the man behind the curtain,” he said.