Todd Walsh

Voice of Winter Classic II

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

The Phoenix Coyotes were well represented at the recent Winter Classic with both Darren Pang and Dave Strader joining the NBC Sports broadcast crew.  Take a listen to this feature I did with Dave on his experience calling the game at Wrigley Field.

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Audio courtesy of NBC Sports.

- Todd

FSN Arizona & Phoenix Coyotes Television/Radio Host
Visit:  FSN Arizona

A Special Place

Monday, December 29th, 2008

I am on the plane, heading to the Windy City for the Outdoor Classic, and am getting more and more excited about the game!  I felt the same way last year, nervous, excited, not sure what to expect, broadcasting outdoors.

But this one IS different. Yes, I now know what to expect from the elements of an outdoor game, but this is closer to my heart. The Windy City. I lived in Chicago for 20 years. My son and daughter were born there. Loyola Medical Center in Maywood Illinois, saved our son,Tyler’s life. Twice. How can this not be a special place? We have some of our best friends still in this city. It will always be a special place.

I have been in broadcasting since I retired from the NHL in 1990. I played my last NHL game in the 1989 playoffs as a member of the Hawks, as we went all the way to the Western Conference Finals against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Calgary Flames.

My career ended a year later. I was 26 years old.  I tore an ACL before game 5 in practice vs Calgary in 1989 and re-habbed it with current Hawks trainer Mike Gapski.  He was awesome. We went hard at it and I came back to the ice in roughly 4 1/2 months. My surgeon was Dr. William Clancy, a man and surgeon that was way ahead of his time. We were aggressive and proactive and they did a great job of getting me back on ice in time to re-join the organization in time for the 1990 IHL regular season ending and the Play-offs with the Indianapolis Ice.

I had the pleasure of playing for Darryl Sutter, one of the very best Hawks leaders, as we won the Turner Cup Championship.  I was back in Chicago for the summer and training hard as I really thought I could get back in the NHL for the next season.

I hit a major road bump. I re-injured my knee a month before training camp. Should never have been playing tennis on clay courts!  Back to the Alabama Medical Center for repairs, and my career was in serious jeopardy. I hurried back from Alabama, where Dr.Clancy performed his 2nd surgery on my left knee, and 3rd overall on that same knee. I had to get back as the Hawks were having a going away party at Butterfield Country Club, for the recently traded Denis Savard.

Savvy is truly one of the very best. Love the guy. He deserves a lot of credit for this great young team in Chicago. He put his heart and soul into the franchise.  He was a great teammate and friend. He was my neighbor and we drove to the Stadium for many practices. Full of life. Smoked a lot of cigarettes. Still had great energy. He loved getting on the ice. He loved to dangle, laugh, deke you out of your jock strap and then do it again.  He was just traded to Montreal for Chris Chelios, a Chicago native that grew up loving Stan Mikita, Dick Butkis and the Chicago Bears.

As I get ready for the Outdoor Classic, I remember these things.  I remember how great a man Bill Wirtz was. He was loyal. He loved his players. He was a tough businessman. He taught you about loyalty and doing the little things the right way.  My 1st position with the Hawks when I retired was with WBBM News Radio 78, as they were the flagship station of the Hawks, the Mighty Blackhawks…you know the song.

Our studio before and after the game was in a small room, with a small bathroom in it. One night the Hawks weren’t very good and my partner, Brian Davis, started the show by having his mic nearly in the toilet, and he flushed it as we started the show….. ” Well….that about sums up the Hawks play tonight….”  We answered phone calls after games and tried as best we could to explain why Mr Wirtz wouldn’t put the Hawks on home TV. Tough to explain, but we did the best we could. Mr Wirtz would personally call me and say I was doing a ‘fine job’ with the callers. He always said, “I know it can’t be easy…”

Now its the Outdoor game in Chicago.  Wrigley Field.  Mark Grace and the boys. The Cubs. The summer sun beating down on the most loyal fans in all of sports. The ivory and bricks.

This morning I get up and look out the window of the Drake Hotel and for miles I see the shore and the Gold Coast. Oak Street beach is right below my window. A classic winter day as I get ready for the game.  I step outside and the brisk wind grabs my attention. It is the wind. Its not that cold, only 3 days before the game, but the wind will be the challenge for sure.

NBC did a great job last year in Buffalo letting the elements tell the story. The game was the story. The snow coming down. The players were cold and constantly wiping their eyes, face and visors if they had one on. Darryl Sydor started the game with one on, but ended the game without it. Too much maintenance, and dangerous as well as it was tough to see, even a few feet in front of you.

Our producer, Sam Flood, is an experienced hockey player himself, and makes sure the game is the main topic of conversation on the air. He allowed us, as broadcasters, simply tell the story. What is the wind like? What adjustments do the coaches have to make? Are the goalies able to see the puck? These are every analyst dream position to be in. Just relay the story to the audience. What a pleasure it was to be in that environment and hopefully the weather let’s us just tell the story.

Last year there were 72,000 passionate fans that wouldn’t leave their seats, all bundled up and trying to be as warm as they could be. It was truly a sight to behold. At one point, singing Neil Diamonds “Sweet Caroline”…and it sounded good!  Between the benches with skates on made it unique, as I hopped over the boards many times to interview a player, show the viewers the built up snow on the ice and how they have to battle the elements. I even tossed a snowball at the main men behind the mic’s, Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk, a former teammate of mine with the Hawks, before he was traded to Toronto.

The fans love this stuff.

Casual fans love to see an outdoor stadium with grown men playing the sport they love. The same way most of these guys competed as kids. We all started out on outdoor rinks or ponds when I was growing up. In the elements. In the snow. Facing adversity. Laughing. Competing.  I can’t wait to get to Wrigley.

Several years back, I was up in the scoreboard and my duty was to change the score as the Cubs were struggling. I had to place the old tin #’s in the right spot. It was hot and muggy. It was so cool to be up there. What an experience that was.

In a few days I am able to see the 1st NHL game played at Wrigley and I can’t wait. No need for anyone up in that old scoreboard.

The Wings and the Hawks. The defending Champs vs the Contender, a real legitimate contender. Datsyuk and Zetterberg against Kane and Toews.  Outdoors.  Let the temperature drop and let the game begin!

- Panger

Winter Classic II

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

Take a listen to our Winter Classic preview with hockey expert, Darren Pang.  Darren will be heading to Chicago for another outdoor classic hockey game with NBC.  I sat down with Panger to get his thoughts on being a part of another special hockey moment … this time at the famed Wrigley Field.

Click to listen:

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Be sure to watch this classic on New Year’s Day.

- Todd

FSN Arizona & Phoenix Coyotes Television/Radio Host
Visit:  FSN Arizona

A Special Place

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

What makes an arena or a stadium special?  Why do we attach any emotion to them?

They are, after all, just buildings.  A collection of bricks-and-mortar, or more likely these days, reinforced steel and other space-age materials.

They are the places where we congregate for a variety of social activities, be it your workplace, your place-of-worship or the place you go to escape the daily grind.  When it comes to sports arenas, stadiums and ballparks, we ask that they cover all the bases.

First-and-foremost, they must be functional.  The game must be able to be played within its confines.

Second, sports is entertainment, regardless of the best efforts of many of us to turn it into a secular religion, though the worship of a Supreme Being and the worship of a Supreme Team often share many of the same rituals, prejudices and passions.  As sport is yet one choice on the vast palette of entertainment choices, a sports arena/stadium must be able to offer the latest creature comforts, in an effort to lure the family to the ballpark, and then to separate them from their cash.

Third, and in the end most importantly, we ask that this temple of sport transcend the everyday, that it become the vessel into which we pour our hopes and dreams.  We ask that this collection of bricks-and-mortar become the physical embodiment of that we cannot easily define, that we cannot so readily grasp, that fleeting feeling of magic, the shared ethereal experience.

Of these three qualities, the third is the most difficult to capture, and impossible to manufacture, despite the dogged efforts of the in-house entertainment crew to burst your eardrums by piping in loud, unimaginative music choices during every break in play.

There have been a long line of sports stadiums since professional sports took ahold of North American sports fans during the late 1800′s.  Yet only a handful have transcended their sports.

Any die-hard college football fan can rhyme off the names of the temples of football, there are zealots who speak in reverential tones of certain minor league baseball ballparks, many long since gone, and the same thing applies to minor league hockey over the last century.

With all due respect, it is the stadia of the major league teams that have etched their way into the consciousness of a sporting-mad continent.  It’s an economy-of-scale thing; the bigger the canvas, the bigger the bang.

Even the most casual sports fan knows about Wrigley Field or Lambeau Field.  Even the non-sports fan is familiar with Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden.

These structures stand head-and-shoulders over their more mundane cousins, the aptly-named “cookie cutter” stadiums.  These buildings of lore may not all be aesthetically wonderful, but they’ve all hosted an impressive resume of big time games and once-in-a-lifetime events.

But that in itself does not mean the humbler arenas/stadiums are shut out of the sepia-tinged memory department.  First-and-foremost is the first category of why we continue to flock to these places.  The action on-the-ice, or on-the-field.  This is truly where magical memories are created.  And that can happen anywhere.  But it helps when the building itself is special.

An arena such as Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto was a wonder when it was very quickly built during the early days of the Great Depression, and the Stanley Cup winning teams that called that barn home added to its legend.  The advent of Canada-wide radio broadcasts, with Foster Hewitt calling the play-by-play, cemented the Gardens special place in hockey lore.

Even when the Toronto Maple Leafs stumbled through some dry years during the 1980′s, there was still an electricity in the air when one took their grey-and-white ticket stub, and pushed their way past the turnstiles.  The aging lady was always kept in great shape, and while the action on the ice didn’t always live up to one’s expectations, the ghosts of the past hung heavy in the air.

Which only underscores the sad condition the Gardens is in today.  The likes of Eugene Melnick wanted to purchase the arena and install his OHL St. Michael’s Majors as the main hockey tenant, which would have worked nicely with the junior hockey tradition that runs through the veins of the place.  The Maple Leafs ownership balked at that idea, no doubt worried that a refurbished MLG would compete with their fancy new Air Canada Centre for lucrative concert dates.

Canadian supermarket giant Loblaws came along next, and planned to turn the building into a combination Superstore and hockey museum, but as of this moment, none of that has come-to-pass.

Many were upset at that prospect, arguing such a fate was worse than death for the hockey shrine.  Many pointed out what became of the Montreal Forum, now a glitzy entertainment/movie complex.   At least they thought to keep a bit of the old Forum around; a statue of the Rocket and supposedly the spot where centre ice was.

Still, many would rather these places just be bulldozed, instead of reduced to mere shadows of their once glory.  But would having a parking lot or some faceless office building built on the grave of our memories be a better shrine?  Should we just pack up the ghosts and get out of Dodge?

At least there’s a nod to the past, a place where fathers can take their sons (or mothers and daughters), and point out where Johnny Superstar scored that big goal or hit that big homerun, and made the world safe for democracy.

With few exceptions, almost every place we inhabit is built upon the past.  This past summer, after a particularily nasty last June rainstorm, there was a mini Lake Ontario between my house and the neighbours.  There’s not much worse than a flooded basement, so with bucket-in-hand, we bailed out what we could before the neighborhood cavalry arrived, all clutching shovels and pitchforks, like some Gothic lynch mob.

As we dug a makeshift drainage ditch, I struck an area next to a basement window that held the remnants of a coal dump.  The house was built circa 1946, one of the new suburbs of Toronto, as servicemen returned from Europe, looking for their piece of post-war prosperity.

Before there was central heating, the house was heated with coal.  I have no idea when that conversion would have taken place, but the modest house I inhabit holds its own ghosts, the majority of which I am unaware of.  This long-abandoned coal dump was a reminder of that past.

As we dug further, someone mentioned that the entire area was once a flood plane for the nearby (now pretty much buried) river, which explains the heavy clay around the house, and the manner in which the entire area is sloped.

As I struggled to dislodge the stubborn clay, it made me think of places such as Nashville.  During the 1971 excavation of the area where their arena now stands, the workers came across a long-lost cave.  There they found a foreleg bone and nine-inch fang of a sabre-toothed tiger, which had been extinct for thousands of years.

It was only natural that when Nashville joined the National Hockey League in the late 1990′s, they took the inspiration for their name from that find, a great example of acknowledging your past.

I once read that each of us walk with seven ghosts at our heels; for every person alive on Earth today, there are seven souls from the past.  I’ve never had those numbers verified, but the point is haunting nonetheless.  The past matters.

In sports, the past throws a huge shadow over everything.  It’s unimaginable for any sports fans not to become immersed in the history of whatever game they follow.  The past informs the present, which directs the future.

The constant dance of different corporate names for arenas strikes me as short-sighted.  Yes, a number of teams need that sizeable cash infusion, but they’ve mortgaged off some of their days of future passed for mere cash.  Filthy lucre that won’t last.

Do the Buffalo Bisons play at Pilot Field, or at NorthAmerica Park, or at Dunn Tire Park?  The Montreal Canadiens skate at the Molson Centre.  That I’m sure of.   Though I think they changed the name.  Yeah, that rings a Bell.

So what exactly makes an arena/stadium special?  In the end, it’s your personal memories.

Maybe your father took you there for your first game.  Maybe it’s when the Curse of (insert Curse here) whatever was lifted, when your team finally vanquished the enemy.  Maybe it’s all the championship banners hanging from the rafters, or all the near misses that made you love your team even more.  Maybe it’s the way the building feels before a game, as you feed off the electricity of the crowd, or maybe it’s the way the building sounds after a game, as the echoes of the just-completed game continue to bounce around the place.

I’ve always thought the New Year should begin the day after Labour Day.  It’s when we put aside the illusion that life is leisurely, and we return to school or work..and the weather begins its slow, inevitable march towards winter, at least in this part of the continent.

Each autumn I can feel the clock tick a little louder; another step towards the grave.  The closing of Yankee Stadium is yet another small step in that direction.  Just another part of my past that now is gone.

Add it to the roll call of other great buildings.  Maple Leaf Gardens, the Detroit Olympia, Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, the Montreal Forum.  And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  No doubt you have your own arenas/stadiums to add to that list.

For me, it’s Clarke Stadium in Edmonton, the Montreal Expos, the Calgary Cannons, the St. Catharines Stompers, and Ottawa Rough Riders.  The Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, and Quebec Nordiques.  The Atlanta Flames at the Omni.  The Winnipeg Arena, though I never saw a game there, but once peered in through the windows and caught a glimpse of the seats.  10 cent chocolate bars at the corner store, milk in glass bottles, Saturday morning cartoons, and playing outside without sunscreen.

The past is a great place to visit, but a lousy place to live.  For someone, the Air Canada Centre, or the new Yankee Stadium will be their shrine, their holy place.  And that’s how it should be.

- Mick Kern

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s