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California Native Lange Returns Home for Cup Final

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

SAN JOSE – On the bus ride to practice this morning, Pens Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Lange was chatting with the driver.

“I asked him where he was from,” Lange said. “He was from Boston and he said he came out here to California. I said well, thank you because I took the covered wagon and went back the other way. He looked at me and then he got it.”

Lange is from Sacramento, which is about two hours outside of San Jose, and travels to the Golden State almost every year to visit with his family. His mother is still living and his grandmother passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 102. His siblings are all still in the area, and he loves coming back to spend time with them.

While he won’t be able to see them on this trip, it’s always special for Lange to return home – especially for a reason like this, to call a Stanley Cup Final.

“I was born and raised here,” Lange said. “We’ve got five generations of people from as early as the Gold Rush days. I’m a true native Californian. It’s warming for me. I’m just so happy to see the growth of hockey, not only in California but everywhere now in the States.”

Lange knew he wanted to be a broadcaster when he was just 9 years old, but his interest was always more in baseball and basketball. That began to change while attending college at Sacramento State University.

One day, his friend Len Shapiro – who was also a broadcast major – stopped by Lange’s apartment and asked him if he would like to go to a hockey game.

“I said ‘Leonard, I don’t know a blue line from a red line. What do I know about hockey?’ And his words were, ‘you never know,’” Lange said with a smile. “That was kind of the key phrase, ‘you never know.’”

So Lange decided to accompany his buddy to the game at a tiny little rink in Sacramento, where the teams in the league played 4-on-4 hockey. About midway through the season, Lange began working in the penalty box.

“Those were on either side of the Zamboni and you had to have communication with the PA announcer, who was up above, because they didn’t have a clock and you would tell him how much time was left,” Lange said.

“Fortunately, I was pretty decent at math and I would give it to him, and he would announce to the crowd that there was one minute left on the penalty or whatever it was. So the other side of it was that while he was doing the game and being the PA announcer, he would call the game in the building. It was actually very fascinating. It was really good.”

After that season finished up, Lange and his friends tried getting the college professor who served as the advisor to let them air the playoff games on their radio station.

“We had done football and basketball and baseball, and that’s where I got my start learning how to broadcast,” Lange said. “He said I don’t think so. So all right, we lived with that.”

The next year, that same advisor asked Lange if he would come back. And since Lange had so much fun helping out at these games, which drew around 400-500 people a night, he agreed.

Right before the season started, that advisor came to him and said that the guy who had been handling PA announcer and play-by-play duties wanted $10 a game to do the games. The advisor said they couldn’t pay him that, so would Lange do it for $5?

“It didn’t take more than a split second and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Sign me up,’” Lange said. “Because at that time, five dollars could buy me a Shakey’s pizza, a full one at $1.35, and a pitcher of beer and I’d still have money left over. I was thrilled to death as a college student and ready to go. Sign me up and that was it.”

At the end of that season, they again asked their advisor if they could air the playoff games. And this time, he said yes.

“I kept those tapes and that’s how I ended up in hockey, believe it or not,” Lange said.

As if it all couldn’t be more full circle, the friend who first asked Lange to accompany him to a game, Len Shapiro, will be at Game 3 on Saturday in San Jose.

“As he said, ‘you never know,’” Lange smiled. “We’re still lifelong friends. So that’s how it kind of came about for me being involved in hockey.”

From there, Lange started to move East. He sent out a bunch of tapes all across the country, one of them going to the general manager of the Phoenix Roadrunners of the Western Hockey League – who responded, telling Lange he liked what he’d sent him but didn’t have anything open at the moment.

After the months stretched on without a job or any more replies, Lange decided to pack his bags and move to Phoenix – where, as he put it, he “hounded that poor man day after day after day” by going to his office and asking him if anything had opened.

“I befriended the guy that was doing broadcasts for their minor-league team,” Lange said. “I went to him to see if I could get a job, talked to him. He knew how passionate I was. He kind of took me under his wing and said, ‘well, I might need a guy to maybe help me with the stats or something.’ So I started doing that for no money. I would broadcast there at the arena away from him and then he would listen to it and give me ideas and stuff to do.”

After a few months of that, Lange finally caught a break that January when the hockey club called and asked if he was still interested in working for them.

“That was an easy answer,” smiled Lange.

From there, Lange worked as their public relations director and then as the color analyst, where he got the opportunity to work under the man who would become his mentor, Al McCoy.

“I got to really kind of learn the game from the bottom up,” Lange said. “And then Al McCoy went to the Phoenix Suns the next year and he’s been the voice of the Suns ever since. He’s still there. He’s the most tenured broadcaster in the NBA. We’re still lifelong friends and dear friends. So I took over the first year and all we did was win a championship.”

Now, in his 41st season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Lange is calling his fifth Stanley Cup Final with the franchise and has watched them capture three so far – which he didn’t necessarily think would be the case during his early years with the team.

“When you look back on it, how blessed can I be to have all the chances to work these Final series,” Lange reflected. “In the early going, in 74-75 and until 91, it didn’t look very promising at that point if I was ever going to go back to a championship situation. But dramatically turned around with the arrival of Mario (Lemieux), there isn’t any question he was the big difference. When you look at teams in this league over the last 25 or 30 years, who’s had more star great players than the Pittsburgh Penguins? I don’t know another team. And I got to see them all, be around them, call the games night after night, offensive thrills galore.

“I mean really, I am so blessed with what’s happened to me as far as being with the Pittsburgh Penguins and doing games. It’s pretty simple.”

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