The tape came in a plain brown envelope with no return address and was late getting there. Walter Bush didn’t even know what the damned thing was. It just appeared, like most things did, in the substantial pile on his desk he was seemingly endlessly chopping away at one morning a few weeks before the club’s inaugural season opener. So with one eye on an opened file folder and his brain a million miles away he tore open the package and out fell a tape and a hand written note from a sportscaster named Al Shaver who was interested in broadcasting hockey games for the new NHL franchise in Minnesota.
“Didn’t we already hire the guy...?” Bush whined to no one in particular. He probably thought about throwing it in the trash. Truth is if the “delete button” had been invented in 1967 maybe nobody with the Stars would have ever heard of the journeyman broadcaster who would wind up being the North Stars only radio play-by-play man for their 26 seasons.
But Bush took the envelope and mailed it to WCCO radio GM Larry Haig. Walter was like that – always had an eye for talent and a desire to extend a hand. Like he did when he collaborated to bring the North Stars to Minnesota, or help in getting Herb Brooks to coach the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team, or haul a self-made Minneapolis attorney into the mix and later befriend the attorney’s son when he needed broadcasting advice and guidance.
TORONTO, ONTARIO 1967
Al Shaver, his wife Shirley, and their young family bounced around Canada as Al did what all guys who want do this for a living do – take whatever job gets you on the air calling games. Right now Al was doing a little football play-by-play as Sports Director for Toronto’s CKEY radio, hockey wherever he could, which wasn’t much, and daily sportscasts to pay the bills. When the NHL expanded from 6 teams to 12 for the 1967-68 season, Shaver thought he might have a shot.
Trouble was Al needed a real hockey game on his reel and he didn’t have one and he was in Ontario in 1967 and it wasn’t like the local team in Toronto needed a play-by-play guy…
But Shaver had an idea and contacted then Leafs owner Harold Ballard to get him into the rafters of Maple Leaf Gardens for a Leafs playoff game in the spring of 1967. Hugging a steel beam above the Gardens’ ice surface Shaver worked the game into a tape recorder, by himself as Punch Imlach’s Leafs played Montreal on their way to the last Stanley Cup the fabled franchise has hoisted.
“… the game just always made sense to me, to my eye… the players circling and swirling on the milky white ice… it was like… I could see it all unfolding before it unfolded…” Shaver would say later about his predisposition to his craft.
When Walter and Larry heard the tape they could hear the brilliance too and Haig called Al immediately and told him to get his ass to Bloomington, Minnesota.
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, 1970’s
Ralph Strangis, Sr. didn’t play sports as a kid (unless you count the trophy from the Margaret Berry House still on his office shelf that reads “1951 Ping Pong Champion”) but was a great fan of all Minnesota sports and with his business relationship with Walter Bush and the North Stars became an inaugural season ticket holder. He listened to sports on the radio, watched them on TV, and brought his 3 sons and young daughter to as many games as he could. A gifted litigation orator who could also quote Shakespeare and Belushi, Ralph Sr. noticed things like great play-by-play men, and discussed the subject often and at length with his eldest son.
Ralph Sr. loved Ray Scott (“… the score… there is no score…”) and Ray Christensen and Curt Gowdy and Vin Scully and Lindsey Nelson and Al Shaver and would let his boys stay up through halftime on Monday Night Football to hear Howard Cosell’s “Halftime Highlights”.
He spotted his first son’s near obsession with sports broadcasting very early and although was most supportive, strongly suggested Ralph Jr. follow Cosell’s path; law school first and then sports broadcasting.
He bought his son his first tape recorder for his 10th birthday, and through Walter arranged a visit to the Met Center press box 2 years later to watch Al Shaver work for a few minutes.
ME, MINNEAPOLIS, THOSE DAYS
True story. My cousin Michelle loves it and tells it all the time. I don’t remember it but here goes. I’m watching “The Little-ist Angel” at Christmas time on TV when I’m 6 years old with my brother Paul who’s 5. Paulie looks at the TV and says “Ralph – is that the real God on TV?” I say – “Are you kidding… do you know how much it would cost to get the real God on TV?”
I always watched that box differently than most. I loved it. Loved TV and radio. Still do. Always knew I was gonna make a living somehow with it and knew I wasn’t going to law school. I loved Carson and Merv and game shows and sports. When I was 8 or 9 I got a kit AM radio and put it together and hung it on my headboard and listened to Shaver at night during hockey season. Fall asleep with the thing on lots of nights. I could see what he was describing. Man was he good.
I’m 10 when I get my first tape recorder. John Schroeder and I sit in the balcony at St. Charles grade school and pass the microphone back and forth and call basketball and floor hockey games. Put the tapes in the library so other students can enjoy our fine work.
I send away for the NFL Films music album and take my Dad’s 8MM film camera to our grade school football games and then Schroeder and I cut the film with a razor blade and use scotch tape and a record player and tape recorder to put highlight reels together for our football team. We even write a book about our football team. Schroeder wrote most of it really and my Mom typed it – over 100 pages. We were 13 years old.
For my 12th birthday my Dad says I can bring a friend to the North Stars game for my birthday so I bring Schroeder. At the first intermission he walks us upstairs to the press box where we’re given a guided tour and then we’re introduced to Al Shaver. No kidding. I’m 12 and I’m standing right behind him watching him call a few minutes of the North Stars game. I can hear him, I can see over his head at what he’s looking at. And it was at that moment that I said – “THAT! – I WANNA DO THAT!”
Every time after that when I’d go to a Stars game I’d half watch the game and half look up and catch glimpses of Al in the press box. I had lunch with him and my Dad and Walter in 1987 right after I took the AWA gig. Asked him if he thought that doing wrestling would hurt my chances in “serious sports”.
“Are you getting paid?”
“Are the checks clearing?”
“Then keep doing it.”
Al was like that. Pragmatic. Straight forward. 10 years into the gig he walks into Dick Arneson’s office at Met Center and says “Listen, I like it here, my family likes it here, you like that I’m here, sign me up and I’ll be here forever.” And Arneson did. Al would joke with me later about his lifetime contract that, “… it means when they don’t want me here anymore – they have to kill me…”
The AWA folded for good, a short-lived but terrific gig with Women’s Pro Volleyball ended abruptly, and in the summer of 1990 I was earning a living doing college and high school sports and industrial videos. At 29, I was wondering if I was ever going to get a break that would last.
It came with a phone call from a friend of a friend who told me that a guy named Norm Green bought the North Stars, and that they needed a radio analyst and traveling host. Somebody to do the interviews, cover the practices, and give Al a breath on the air when he needed it.
Long story short – I get an audition for a Stars preseason game in St. Cloud, Minnesota. There are four of us working with Al. I get half a period into a tape recorder with Al. Funny thing though – sitting right next to me in the press box in St. Cloud that night for my audition, was local station WJON’s Sport’s Director John Schroeder. Yep – that John Schroeder.
I get the gig, partially because Walter picked up the phone and called the radio station (nobody knew Norm) and have been in the Stars booth ever since. But I remember the very first live broadcast with Al, specifically, how the night ended. I was so nervous through the whole thing and afterward said to Al – “so – how did I do?”
He looked me square in the eyes and said – “Ralphie – this is YOUR job – you do it YOUR way – and don’t listen to me or anybody else on how you should do it.”
For three seasons in Minnesota I sat right next to him. Watched and listened to how he did things. Learned the nuances and subtleties involved. And when it was my turn in the chair – I struggled. I had his voice in my head for so long I had trouble finding my own. It took some time – and honestly – it still does. This is something I work at every game really. I can always do it better. But I always remember to do it my own way.
TORONTO, ONTARIO, NOVEMBER 30, 2014
Every time I’m here I think about Al. So I picked up the phone and called the old fella. He’s 87 now, but his voice is still the same.
“Ralphie – what the hell’s going on with your club?”
“It’s a tough league Al…”
“It sure is – I’m watching Vancouver and they seem to have trouble with speed…”
He’s enjoying his retirement in Western Canada with his wife Shirley. He catches as many games as he can, but they don’t travel anymore. He wanted to come to Dallas for Mike’s ceremony last year, but that’s not possible now.
The press box in Minnesota bears his name and it’s another place that holds special meaning and memories for me.
I’ve been lucky. You gotta be lucky. But I also knew exactly what I wanted to do, and was surrounded by people who helped make it possible.
Tuesday night, I’ll work the game from Toronto, and I’ll be thinking about everything I learned about my job and my business, from the only guy I think of when I hear the title “Voice of the Stars”.