This one sort of snuck up on me, but by going through some other records, I realized I did my first hockey broadcast for pay (as opposed to a student station), on this date in 1974 – yes, 41 years ago!
A great deal of my youth was spent reading and watching sports, but I also spent a lot of time with the radios in our home, tuning in to games from all across the Midwest. In the summers, I regularly tuned in to Harry Caray and Jack Buck and the Cardinals on KMOX, Bob Elson and the White Sox on WMAQ, Ernie Harwell and the Tigers on WJR and many others. In the fall, it was Joe Boland or Van Patrick calling Notre Dame football with my dad joining me by the radio. The winters were reserved for Lloyd Pettit and Chicago Blackhawks hockey:
His “supercharged” calls of the adventures of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Glenn Hall (later Tony Esposito) and the Hawks of that era caught my attention on those winter nights. (And I was just as charged-up when the Nashville Predators joined the NHL and Petit’s Milwaukee Admirals became the Predators farm club!)
In any case, it was those times listening to the radio, absorbing all I could, that drew me to the business and the games. I wanted to be able to call hockey like Lloyd Pettit! (The current Voice of the Blackhawks, Pat Foley, was a “member” of the same club!)
So, I got to Notre Dame just as varsity hockey was coming back to the school, and the Irish became full members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in my junior year. They no longer had to depend upon a frozen St. Joseph Lake to play; they had an indoor facility in the North Dome of what opened as the Athletic and Convocation Center in 1968. Charles “Lefty” Smith was the coach they brought in from St. Paul, Minnesota to oversee the rebirth of hockey in South Bend, and he oversaw the program from 1968 to 1987.
He was a great “father-away-from-home” to all of his players and the rest of us around the program. I was sitting at my computer in early 2012, ordering a birthday gift for him when I got the word he had passed. That was not an easy day.
Lefty was so patient to teach the intricacies of the game to so many, and was always very generous in the time he gave me. He also introduced me to the other giants of college hockey: Murray Armstrong of Denver University (winner of five NCAA titles), John MacInnes of Michigan Tech, who won three; “Badger Bob” Johnson, who won three championships at Wisconsin before moving onto the NHL; and, of course, Herb Brooks, who won three titles at Minnesota, along with the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid.
It is all well and good that I had this ambition to get paid to broadcast my alma mater’s hockey games. In the spring of 1974, I learned that the man then in that saddle, Tom Ballinger, was going to give up that job to remain at WNDU Radio in an administrative role. So I set up a meeting with him to see if I might be able to become his successor.
It was set for the afternoon of April 4, 1974. I was sitting in the reception area of the station, the TV tuned to the afternoon’s NBC programming, when an announcer broke in, informing us that in Cincinnati, Henry Aaron had just hit his 714th home run, tying Babe Ruth’s record. Knowing that was going to come sooner or later, it was really no shock. What happened next was. A gentleman came out, introducing himself as “Station Operations Director Chuck Linster. Did you have an appointment with Tom Ballinger?” I replied that I had indeed. “Well he is no longer with us. Could I help you?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Are you guys looking for someone to replace Tom doing the Notre Dame Hockey games?” Within a few minutes – or so it seemed – I had achieved my goal!
That began a two-season stint broadcasting Notre Dame hockey on radio and anchoring weekend TV sports – and occasional weeknight fill-ins for Tom Dennin. (He played himself in the movie “Rudy:”)
Those two years in the WCHA brought me into contact with announcers Chuck Kaiton (Michigan and Wisconsin, then Hartford and now Carolina), long-time Rochester Americans voice Don Stevens (North Dakota) and Rich Marotta (Colorado College), now calling boxing for Fox Sports, whose spot I took next to Bob Miller (Wisconsin) on the Los Angeles Kings broadcasts several years later.
After that, I moved to Buffalo and in addition to covering the NBA, NHL and NFL there, I was able to do a lot of college play-by-play, including University at Buffalo hockey. UB had a young center, Frank Anzalone, who went on to a long coaching career at Lake Superior State, winning the Frozen Four title in 1988. A future Predators defenseman (Dan Keczmer) was on that time, as well as a future Predators broadcaster (Mike Greenlay).
I had no idea of the journey that was beginning at that time, and I have had no legitimate complaints about any of my three NHL stops: Los Angeles, Buffalo and Smashville!