Strangis: Olczyk brings horse sense to Cup Final

Wednesday, 06.03.2015 / 10:00 AM
Ralph Strangis  - Special to

Ralph Strangis, the former play-by-play voice of the Dallas Stars, uses his lengthy and varied career in hockey circles to tell unique stories about the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the people who define the tournament. Follow Ralph on Twitter @ralphstrangis.

Horse players remember the misses more than the hits. The ones that didn't pay are the ones they talk about. Cashing tickets are part of the routine, even the big ones, and they all run together. Mostly they're just vouchers for the next play anyway.

So when Eddie Olczyk tells you about his 2015 spring, the first story he'll recite likely will concern the unprecedented daily double he missed by a nose.

When the New York Rangers lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to the Tampa Bay Lightning, it took away the opportunity for Olczyk to work the Belmont Stakes and the Stanley Cup Final on the same day.

Olczyk will call the Belmont on Saturday and rejoin the Stanley Cup Final for Game 3 in Chicago on Monday. The Final starts with Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Game 2 is Saturday in Tampa, the same evening the Belmont will be run just outside New York City, where the Rangers would have hosted that night had they made it.

Olczyk is as comfortable and discerning with the Daily Racing Form as he is with a set of game notes and a package of stats. The likable and genuine guy's guy moves as easily through a paddock as he does an NHL dressing room. He has friends and is respected in both worlds.

Olczyk was a member of the 1994 New York Rangers who won the Stanley Cup. He might be the only guy to ever have his day with the Cup at Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey. A picture with the Stanley Cup, trainer Nick Zito and Zito's horse Go For Gin is big stuff for a kid from suburban Chicago who played his youth hockey at local rinks and cut his handicapping teeth at Arlington Park.

"I always looked older, so maybe there was a time or two when I was a teenager and I went for an ice cream cone and came back with an exacta ticket by accident," Olczyk said. "… I was amazed at the size of the animals, the fitness of the jockeys, and an atmosphere that I had never seen before."

That June 30, 1994 visit to The Big M started his broadcasting career.

"The Meadowlands TV people called me and asked me if I wanted to be on their show, handicapping and talking horse racing. Ralphie, they were paying me to go to the track!" Olczyk told me. "It was my first experience on camera, wearing an [ear piece], listening to directors, preparing for broadcasts, multitasking, and I loved all of it."

"Eddie O" finished his playing career, coached the Pittsburgh Penguins, and found his way back to the booth. This time, it was the NHL. He did TV and radio on his way to becoming the League's lead analyst for NBC Sports.

In 2002, I worked with Olczyk for the first time. Greg Baldinger at NHL Radio reached out and said he needed a play-by-play guy to come to Denver for Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. My partner for that game was Eddie. We had met a few times but hardly knew each other, until lunch that day when the conversation drifted to horse racing over a few Diet Cokes. We immediately bonded and the connection spilled over to the broadcast.

Olczyk was just starting his hockey broadcasting career in earnest, but I was struck by how easy it came for him to analyze the play quickly, and how naturally generous he was as a partner. We'd talk during commercial breaks and he'd ask me questions. During the game, we had a blast.

Legendary Chicago play-by-play man Pat Foley, Olczyk's partner for his main job on Blackhawks broadcasts the past seven seasons, nailed it, per usual.

"Eddie understands that this is the entertainment business; he likes to laugh, and he knows that if he's having fun with the game, the audience will too," Foley said.

Olczyk has a coach's eye and a handicapper's instincts.

"He's got a photographic memory. Anybody can show you on the first replay where the guy ends up, but Eddie knows where the guy came from," Foley said. "And near the end of a game, he gets feelings about what could happen and where things might go, and he's usually right on."

Foley was asked if he's been to the track with his partner.

"Oh yeah … I called my parents on Thanksgiving one time and said if I gave you a thousand tries, you'll never guess where I'm spending the day," Foley said.

It was at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles on an off day between games.

"I don't remember if we won any money, but I'll never forget that we were there," Foley said.

I've been to Hollywood Park with Eddie too, and Lone Star Park in Texas. And when you're with him at the track or at dinner, you laugh a lot, meet a lot of people, and you never get the chance to pick up the check. That's Eddie.

About a half-dozen years ago, Olczyk spent $168 on a Hollywood Pick 6 ticket. He hit, for about half a million bucks.

"He only needs two more of those and he's even," said Bob Miller, longtime Kings play-by-play man who worked with Olczyk on NHL Radio.

Olczyk is adamant he's in it for the fun and never bites off more than he can chew.

"Ralphie, some people buy art, some people buy sports season tickets, some people travel; I get my entertainment from the track," he told me. "It's fun and it's challenging and I've met some great people."

He's been trying to parlay his offseason passion into paying work, and about a year ago, NBC sent Olczyk to what is now the Santa Anita Gold Cup. With pencil and racing form in hand, he went 2-for-2 handicapping that day, hitting with She's a Smoke Show at 10-1 and then Majestic Harbor in the feature.

This spring, he's doing it all, working the Stanley Cup Playoffs and taking a starring role at the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown.

"It's center stage for both sports, and people come out of the woodwork," he said. "When I'm at the Derby, the jockeys ask me about the NHL playoffs, and when I'm at a playoff game, everybody wants race picks

"What's similar is that even though people see the stars in both sports, there are so many great people behind the scenes that care so much about what they're doing."

He's coy about his prediction regarding the first potential Triple Crown champion in 37 years, but hints that a foul forecast from the weatherman would be good news for American Pharoah.

He won't get that unheard of broadcasting daily double. But he's winning, and so are we.

"I want to be a spokesman for both, I want to do good work for both, and I want everybody to enjoy the best time of the year," Olczyk said.

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