Today is a red-letter day in Caps history, as Ron Weber is being honored with the Foster Hewitt Award by the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. To play-by-play men, as Ron was for the first 23 years of the Caps' existence, this honor is the pinnacle. It is the equivalent of a player being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
We had a chance to sit down and have a short chat with Weber before he left for today's festivities in Toronto. Here's how that conversation went.
How did it all get started? Tell me about getting hired to call Caps games.
“Three things happened. I had applied for baseball, hockey and football jobs. I got close, but it didn’t come through. When I was hired to do the Capitals, I beat out 250 other guys. I asked Don McFarlane, the general manager of WTOP radio back then, ‘What happened, how did I get it this time?’
“He said, ‘Well, three things. First of all, I got a letter of recommendation from John Downing, the vice president and general manager of CBS radio, the owned and operated station where I had worked before, WCAU in Philadelphia. He laid it on so thick, like you were the greatest thing since sliced bread. Second thing is, I went to a cocktail party at the Wharton Park hotel here in town, a meeting of the CBS affiliates. One of the young men there was a salesman and he told me that CAU letting [Weber] get away was one of the dumbest things they’ve ever done because he was a really good play-by-play man.’
“The clincher was when McFarlane was hiring radio guys, a different guy named Rick Sharp, who would be the first director of Capitals television, was taking in tapes for TV. I didn’t even try for that, because they were only doing 15 games. I couldn’t buy groceries with that; I wanted to do the full radio thing.
“McFarlane was at his desk, and Rick Sharp came down from the floor above and said, ‘Don would you do me a favor? Come up and watch these three guys’ tapes that I’ve got. I’ve been watching so many tapes that my mind is boggled. Tell me which one you like best. Don said, ‘Okay, but first listen to this guy.’ He turned on his tape recorder and listened for about a minute or so. And Rick Sharp said, ‘He’s better than any of the three guys I’ve got up there. If I were you, I’d hire him and go out and play golf this afternoon. You don’t have to look any further.” And I was on the tape. From that moment on, McFarlane said I was the standard. He tried to find somebody he liked better but everyone was compared to me.”
“In late August of 1974 I called him up and I said, ‘People are asking me if I got the Caps’ job.’ Because he wouldn’t say it was mine in so many words. He said, ‘You can tell them you’ve got it.’ I was in my parents’ house in Northwest Washington and as I hung up the phone – my kids and my wife were there – and they said my smile literally went from ear to ear. And I said, ‘I’ve got the job!’
“Eighteen months earlier when it was announced that Washington and Kansas City were getting NHL franchises, I said to [my wife] Mary Jane, ‘That’s a job that for me that wouldn’t be a stepping stone. That’s a job that, if I got it, I could just keep it and do it the rest of my working life.’ And that’s the way it worked out.
What was travel like for you and the team then?
“Commercial. It was all commercial. Well, not quite all. Once in a while – especially getting to Quebec City, which required like three flights from here in those days – we would charter. And they would charter occasionally at other times.
“I remember one time we played in St. Louis at night and then had a day game at home the next day. we chartered then. I’d say we had maybe six charters a year. The rest was leading up to one of the funniest stories. I plan to tell it in my induction speech.
“The VIP travel agency that handled the Capitals and the Bullets in those days were told that other things being equal, take the cheapest flight there. So they got us a good rate on a TWA flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles, only the reason it was cheap is that they had instituted a new ‘no frills’ thing where you could actually get tickets that had no food. In those days, everybody got a meal on the plane.
“So we lose to the Kansas City Scouts one night and the next morning there is a practice from like 10 to noon, and then we head to the airport for this flight to LA, without lunch. We were going to eat on the plane, right? Only we had been booked in the ‘non food’ section. We were sitting in the back of the plane and the galley was right behind us. As they were bringing the food up that we were not to get, this one player says to the flight attendant, ‘Could you slow down please, so I can sniff it?’
“And then he goes up to Milt Schmidt, the general manager and says ‘Milt, do you know a good shoe store in Los Angeles? I might need to get a comfortable pair of shoes because we might be standing up on the next trip.
“That player was Ace Bailey, who died in the twin towers thing.”
What was that first season like?
“I’ve told this many times. It was said, and probably with some truth, that there were only two people who weren’t glad to see the season end. One was me and the other was Bill Lesuk, a first-year left wing, second liner, who was an eternal optimist. He was always, ‘We’ll get ‘em next game. We’ll get ‘em next game.’ He didn’t get down at all. I was just glad that I was finally the No. 1 guy at a major league sport. I had done things before, I had done some Bullets basketball but I was the second banana behind Jim Karvellas. I had done Big 5 basketball and Penn football so I was getting close. But to be the voice of a team, I was a pig in slop. I was happy doing it.
“Of course I hated to see the season end. We didn’t make the playoffs, but I talked Frank George, the program director at WTOP, into sending me around the east and I covered – not doing play-by-play, but updating every half hour – the playoffs. I saw probably 24 or 25 playoff games, probably more than any other broadcaster that wasn’t affiliated with one of the teams or the CBC network. I traveled as far west as Chicago and I saw all six games of the Philadephia-Buffalo final series. I was still coincidentally living in Philadelphia because I hadn’t been able to sell my house up there and relocate down here.”
How did you go about preparing to call games and learn about the visiting teams in those pre-internet days?
“I had done American Hockey League games for the Baltimore Clippers from ’70 to ’72. I think the only two guys that knew the stats in those days were Gordon Onziano, the PR guy for the AHL, and myself. Because the first year they only came out once a week on Fridays, there was a press release with the updated stats. So if you did a Friday game you had everything up to date. The second year it was Tuesdays and Fridays, so twice a week. And you couldn’t cut stuff out of the paper. I used to check, and almost invariably even the standings were wrong. In fact, the bad paper in Springfield always left out one of the teams in their standings. It was difficult. That’s when I started doing all that stuff myself.
“Bill Mikkelson got shafted a little bit. He wasn’t minus-82 that first year, he was minus-81. I kept the stats and there was one time they stuck him with a minus that didn’t belong. So I kept my own stats.
“I am still looking in my basement right now for old Clippers stuff. The archivist and curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame would like them. By the way, I’ve given them all my notebooks, and my depth charts and my scorebooks. They’re all in the Hockey Hall of Fame. They beat me by about two or three weeks.”
Tell about how your thoughts and your feelings when that long overdue call finally came from the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“You know what? It came the morning after the Caps were eliminated by Montreal in the playoffs. I was told not to tell anybody but my immediate family. They said it would be two or three weeks; it turned I had to sit on it for five weeks.
“So here I go out to play tennis at the club I belong to, and people are saying, ‘Aw too bad about the Caps losing to the Canadiens,’ and I would try to get a frown on my face and a glum look. But I was so pumped up that I had made the Hall of Fame, that it helped me shake off the effects of that loss, that upset defeat which is still galling.
“I was, what’s the cliché? On cloud nine, floating along. And still am.”
What are one or two of your favorite memories and least favorite from those 23 years?
“Least favorite, losing the first four-overtime game on Pat Lafontaine’s goal. I’m known for two things. One is being at every game for 23 years, 1,936 games. The other is doing that first four-overtime game without leaving my broadcast spot. I was on the air for seven hours and four minutes, from 7:15 in the evening to 2:19 in the morning, April 18, 1987. And then of course there was another four-overtime game nine years later, but that time I had a broadcast partner, so I could find my way to the bathroom. That was the worst.”
“The best was the Dale Hunter goal that eliminated the Flyers from the playoffs in 1988 in the seventh game in overtime. That was the best Capitals’ moment I think, yet. I say ‘yet,’ because hopefully there will be a greater one, one of these times here.”
Let’s take ability entirely out if the equation, forget about winning games. Who was your favorite coach of all the ones who were behind the Caps bench during your years on the job?
“Well, I spent the most time – nine years – with Bryan Murray, so he’s the first one I would think of. But to put him ahead of his brother Terry, I couldn’t do that. They’re both class acts.”
How about general manager?
“Well, David Poile was here for 14 years. In a way I guess it’s unfair, but I’d have to say Milt Schmidt. I was in awe of the guy. He was a Hall of Famer. He was known as a hard-nosed player, but he was such a gentleman and such a classy guy. He’s still up there in Boston and in his 90s. Uncle Miltie. I’m sorry, David Poile, but there was an aura that I felt around Schmidt.
“I remember a guy came up to Milt in the airport once and said, ‘I understand you didn’t have any say in the hiring of your broadcaster.’ Which was true, because WTOP would only take the rights if they could pick the guy and the team had no say. We pick the guy, you have nothing to do with it.
“Back then Shelby Whitfield had written a book [“Kiss it Goodbye”] where he was paid to lie by [Washington Senators owner] Bob Short for the Senators, saying, ‘Come on out, the weather is great’ when a thunderstorm was coming, and glossing over Senators’ obvious errors and misplays and things like that.
“WTOP was defensive about that. They had me read a disclaimer before every game: ‘I am neither hired nor paid by the Washington Capitals.’ It was that way for 12 years.
“So this guy says to Milt, ‘You don’t have any control over it.’ And Milt looked at me and says, ‘Yeah, but he knows there are no pinball machines at the bottom of the sea.’ I used to play pinball machines in the airport back then for amusement while we were waiting for the plane. That was Milt’s way of saying, ‘Yeah, we don’t have any control over it, but if we really didn’t like the guy we could work around it.’”
Give me a handful of the best guys/players who stand out, again, taking ability out of it.
“I mentioned Lesuk. He’s one, just an eternal optimist. One of my best friends from the very first year would be Ron Lalonde. He and his good buddy Jack Lynch were both great guys. Mike Gartner is right up at the top of the list, a real class act. There were so many fact, of the 200 guys whose play I broadcast during my 23 years, I’d say there were only about 10 guys I wouldn’t want living next door. Ten jerks out of 200? I wouldn’t have found that in any other sport.
“Hockey is No. 1. For the people and the game. When played right, it’s the best game ever invented.”
Congratulations, Ron. The Capitals are proud of you, as is an entire generation of hockey fans who learned the game from listening to you call those 1,936 consecutive games.