WALKING ON AIR
Bob Kaser, the radio voice of the Griffins, has been on Cloud Nine since realizing his dream of calling an NHL game when he handled play-by-play duties for the Detroit Red Wings 10 times in November and December.
Story by Mark Newman
During his 38 years as a broadcaster, including 17 with the Griffins organization, Bob Kaser has watched countless players get the call to play in the National Hockey League.
In early November, it was his turn.
Kaser got a phone call from Todd Beam, the Red Wings’ director of communications, telling him that the organization might need him to fill in for Detroit’s radio play-by-play man Ken Kal, who was ill and might have to miss a game or two.
“When I got the call, it didn’t really sink in until about an hour later. That’s when it really hit me,” Kaser recalled. “After all these years, I was probably going to get to work my first National Hockey League game. The first thing I did was call my sons.”
His sons Charlie and Sam – not to mention his wife Rosalie and a multitude of Griffins fans – had long been convinced that he was good enough to work in the NHL. Kaser, who won his seventh broadcast excellence award from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters last year, wasn’t as sure, but was overjoyed at the prospect.
On the morning of Nov. 10, he was informed that he should head to Detroit. He was going to call his first NHL game, joined by color commentator Paul Woods, for the broadcast of the Red Wings’ game against the Vancouver Canucks in Joe Louis Arena.
“I was nervous for a number of reasons. I was working my first NHL game for the Original Six franchise that I grew up adoring and filling in for someone whom I admire and respect tremendously: Ken Kal, a legend among broadcasters in the sport of hockey. The more of that stuff that crept into my mind, the more nervous I got.”
By the time he arrived in Detroit, his nerves were starting to settle. “I got a text from (Tomas) Tatar telling me, ‘Congratulations. Welcome to the big time, kid.’ That was just one of many,” Kaser said. “The way people welcomed me to the NHL was beyond anything I ever experienced in hockey.”
It helped that he was well-acquainted with the Red Wings’ coaching staff and players, most of whom have passed through Grand Rapids on their way to the NHL. “I’ve been around the game long enough that I wasn’t intimidated. I felt very comfortable walking into the Red Wings’ dressing room, and it was especially helpful that first day.”
That familiarity, however, brought with it some challenges when it came to calling the game. He slipped and called out “Griffins” a couple of times, including on the first goal of the contest. “It was harder than I thought it would be,” he said. “What made it hard was saying Kronwall, Howard, Mantha, Ericsson, etc., names I’ve associated with the Griffins all these years.”
As it was, names and numbers were the least of his worries. More daunting was the stack of cue cards for all of the promotional marketing mentions that needed to be made during the course of the broadcast.
“Thank goodness Ken Kal wrote everything out for me. Otherwise, it would have been even more challenging than it was,” Kaser said. “The most difficult thing was getting comfortable with the format of their broadcast and all of the sponsor elements: the penalty kill, the power play, the out-of-town scoreboard, even the out-cues. It seemed overwhelming because I didn’t want to make a mistake and miss anything.”
Kaser was happy to have a veteran color analyst at his side. Now in his 28th season in the Red Wings’ broadcast booth, Woods did his best to make Kaser feel comfortable as he made the transition to the “big leagues.”
“Like everyone in Detroit, Paul Woods was incredibly hospitable and gracious,” Kaser said. “I’ve listened to enough Red Wings games that I kind of knew how he operates and how he likes to jump into the conversation.”
Two nights after fulfilling his dream of calling a NHL game, he realized a second.
“If somebody had asked me if I could get one game in the NHL, where would it be, I would have immediately said ‘Detroit at Montreal’ and, sure enough, my second game was at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Even better, it was on a Saturday, Hockey Night in Canada.”
Arriving in Montreal the day before the game began what he deemed “the most surreal two days” of his life. “I was walking around downtown Montreal, getting myself all worked up in anticipation: ‘Original Six in the Bell Centre and I’m the voice of the Detroit Red Wings.’”
Prior to the game, Kaser was able to meet Bob Cole, the primary play-by-play announcer for Hockey Night in Canada on CBC since 1973.
“If he’s not my favorite broadcaster of all time in any sport, he’s definitely top three,” Kaser said. “In the sport of hockey, he’s a legend. That’s when it really hit me. This is real. Talking to him in the press box with the Montreal Canadiens’ banners behind us gave me goosebumps.”
All the emotion of achieving his childhood dream came to the fore during the singing of the U.S. and Canadian anthems. “Standing up there high above the ice of the Bell Centre, thinking about the moment, speakers blaring, my heart pounding, I literally started to tear up,” Kaser said.
For Kaser, it was the realization of a dream that he had long ago given up, partly out of self-doubt and partly out of satisfaction with his current job.
“I have been as fortunate as anybody could be in minor pro sports,” he said. “With all due respect to all of the other organizations, I don’t know how it could get any better than living in Grand Rapids and working for the Griffins. It’s the ultimate, so I’ve been very, very spoiled.”
So when Kaser was given the chance – not once, not twice, but nine times – to handle the Red Wings’ play-by-play during Kal’s absence, he tried to relish every moment. And although there was nothing routine about the experience, Kaser became more and more comfortable with each passing game.
“When I was prepping for each game, it was fun because I was able to focus just on broadcasting,” he said. “That’s all I did all day long - just prep, prep, prep to make sure I was ready with more information than I could use for each broadcast. I didn’t have all the other distractions that I do with my responsibilities here.”
Kaser would sit with Fox Sports Detroit’s John Keating, researching everything he could find on the players. “I would have pages and pages of notes,” he said. Even so, he felt his research paled in comparison to the work of his partner Woods.
“He’d get on the plane after a road game and start making notes for the next game,” Kaser said. “Now I know why he talks so fast. It’s because he’s trying to get all the information that he’s gathered into a three-hour broadcast.”
Being the broadcast partner of Woods for nine games was an unforgettable experience.
“It was an absolute blast working with him,” Kaser said. “I loved every second of it. By the fourth or fifth game, the chemistry was really developing and we were clicking. It’s just like linemates in hockey. You get more and more comfortable with each other as time goes by.
“I have even more respect for Paul now because he is such an amazing person and a very talented color analyst. He was so incredible to me.”
During his three weeks working Red Wings games, Kaser drove back and forth between Grand Rapids and Detroit when he could, making upwards of 12 round trips because he didn’t want to lose sight of his responsibilities with his longtime employer. “I have such a respect for the Griffins organization that I didn’t want to let it down in any way, shape or form,” he said.
In between were trips to Washington, D.C., Buffalo and New Jersey. In the nation’s capital, Kaser took the time to walk around the downtown area, soaking up the atmosphere of being in the NHL. “Just the anticipation and excitement of each NHL game was pretty impressive,” he said. “It was the same experience everywhere we went, thousands of fans wearing jerseys, shirts and hats of the competing teams.”
He had plenty of support along the way. “I had more people who offered their congratulations and well wishes than I can count,” said Kaser, noting that he did his best to personally respond to all the emails and texts he received.
His last radio game in Detroit was Nov. 30 against the Dallas Stars before Kal finally returned to the microphone on Dec. 1. Kaser was on standby in case the veteran didn’t feel up for the three-game, four-day road trip that followed, but Kal’s health had improved to the point that his services weren’t needed.
The Red Wings’ confidence in Kaser’s abilities played out again less than two weeks later, when the organization asked him to sub for Ken Daniels on the Fox Sports Detroit telecast after Daniels’ 23-year-old son died in his sleep.
“It was really nerve-racking because TV is a completely different animal and I hadn’t done it in a while,” he said. “What made it hard for me was the fact that Ken Daniels, of all the people, had been the most gracious and complimentary during those three weeks of my radio broadcasts. I got to spend a lot of time with him and he made me feel so comfortable and was so encouraging.”
A morning conference call on the day of the Dec. 13 contest with the telecast’s producer and director, along with Mickey Redmond and Chris Osgood, helped ease Kaser’s nerves. A text from Daniels underscored the whole experience.
“In the face of this terrible tragedy, it was unbelievable how excited he was for me to get this opportunity,” said Kaser, who was happy to see Daniels return to the booth two days later. “There is something so special about this game. There’s a close-knit nature among the people in the sport that is beyond description, and it extends to us broadcasters.”
Working in Detroit again gave Kaser the chance to personally thank Kal for giving him the opportunity in the first place. “I pulled him aside and gave him a big hug,” he said. “I never looked at it as an audition for the NHL. It was an opportunity to fill in for a broadcast legend and good friend.”
Nevertheless, working nine Red Wings games on radio and another on TV has rekindled Kaser’s interest in someday landing a full-time NHL gig.
“Thanks to the comments of a number of respected people, I’m now convinced that I could work in the NHL,” he said. “The feedback I got from executives, fellow media and fans during my three weeks was off the charts. It was overwhelming.”
Kaser may toss his hat into the ring for consideration for NHL openings that might arise, such as with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, but he knows his odds might be better at a blackjack table.
“It’s a tough job to get,” Kaser said. “There are only 30 radio jobs and 30 TV jobs in the NHL and there are a boatload of talented people who would love to be doing it. There’s a lot of competition for jobs in the AHL, too, because it’s the second-best league in the world. I realize that I am extremely fortunate to have reached this level.”
Still, he wonders “What if?”
“Having gotten a taste, there’s a spark now,” he said. “My three weeks was an amazingly delightful experience, so it’s left me with a desire to look into NHL jobs. But if the other option is to spend the rest of my career here, then that’s a pretty awesome thing. If you’re not going to work in the NHL, I don’t know how it could get any better than Grand Rapids.”