I trace my passion for puck in Washington back to the 1970s, and Ron Weber’s radio calls of Caps’ games on WTOP. Radio men in hockey back then — most particularly in this region of the world — had a novel responsibility to be the eyes and ears for hockey fans unable to be inside the arena, as televised hockey outside of historic markets was virtually non-existent. In non-traditional markets these men were tasked with bringing alive an alien game for novice listenerships. Ron Weber’s enshrinement in hockey’s Hall of Fame is a powerful acknowledgment of his ability to do precisely that.
One of my most cherished recollections from winter nights in my youth was surreptitiously following Weber’s late-night calls from the West Coast while in bed, the audio on my clock radio low enough so as not to be detected by my parents when they poked a head in my bedroom to check on me. The rare Capitals’ victories out there made the fatigue at school the next morning oh so worthwhile.
Like pretty much every other novice puckhead in these parts, I’d transitioned to following hockey fairly exclusively on television by the middle 1980s as Home Team Sports emerged to help bring the game alive visually. My father by then had secured Capitals’ season tickets, and so while my appreciation for Weber’s work waned not a bit, my reliance upon him for game results diminished. Interesting note, though: Dad and I made a practice of being among the first in flight out of Capital Centre in order to get to the car and turn on Weber in time to catch his postgame recap, and most especially, on nights when the bounces went our guys’ way, to hear the iconic play-by-play voice announce, “It’s been a two-point night, Caps’ fans.”
More recently, the Capitals’ perpetual struggles with spring afforded me opportunities to follow on line and up in the Giant Center press box another distinctive and oh-so-impassioned play-by-play voice — that of the Hershey Bears’ John Walton. As the Capitals were transitioning from league doormat to contender, it was compelling for me to chronicle the development of young talent plucked from high in NHL entry drafts and apprenticing in Hershey. But quickly I realized that with Walton there was a future impact NHL talent as well; his was a perfectly pitched passion, idiosyncratically distinctive from Weber for sure but identical in his call’s ability to bring a game alive for a listener. He paints you a picture of the action with his narration. Just as importantly, he wears his hockey heart on his sleeve with his audio storytelling. The image I have of Walton’s work in Hershey was of him most often standing in his booth, his eyes glued on the action, his eyes, and his heart, telling you the night’s story. Hockey, I believe, is meant to be communicated with passion; no one is hockey knows this better than John Walton. In being engrossed with Walton’s calls I recognized a latent charm from my youth. His game calls for me were a variant on ‘That ’70s Show’ — except on radio.
A couple of times I was afforded run-ins with Walton while following the Bears on the road up in New England, and it was then that I first developed an appreciation for the breadth, and new age savviness, of his work. By about 30 minutes at the conclusion of road games Walton needed to have completed his postgame wrap-up on air, packed up an impressive hauling of broadcast gear, and be on the team bus for a swift departure for the next port of call. But seated on the team bus Walton’s work was renewed, not ended,while surrounding Bears players devoured pizzas, napped or engaged with various recreational electronica. Walton went to work filing game stories for the team web site, uploading audio calls for dissemination to his media list, and seizing the reins of social media well before it was in vogue to do so.
Then something far better than mere appreciation developed between us: friendship. It takes a special friend to maneuver me as John did for game 6 of the Calder Cup finals at Giant Center in 2010: credentialed to be down on the ice amid the euphoric champion Bears, my tiny camera capturing video and stills of Bears’ players in never-ending embraces with family. That night remains the highpoint highlight of my blogging experience.
In recent years John has shared with me his dream of calling games in the big league, and always I told my friend: your talent is too large, your passion too irresistible for it not to happen. It would just be a matter of time.
This week, perhaps as early as today, my friend behind the microphone — and every bit as adept seated before a laptop — will be announced as the next radio voice of the Washington Capitals. A miserably long and hot D.C. summer suddenly has delivered a soothing, pond-freezing sort of breeze.
Safe wager here: John Walton will be much, much more than a radio voice to the Capitals’ communications regime.
A good month and a half ago I shared with John a crossed-finger strategy for invigorating my hockey blogging pursuits. I told him that I was weary of the routine of the Verizon Center press box, the ritual of making seem meaningful nice regular seasons that always yielded to infuriating and at times inexplicable postseason sourness. I told my friend that if he got the callup to D.C. that I would spend the entirety of the 2011-12 hockey season at home, following his calls on the radio while silently watching the television broadcast, and thereby renewing my passion for the game in much the same way it was first ignited, three decades ago.
As summer yields to autumn my hockey heart needs still a fresh infusion of passion, and John Walton is precisely the right guy to make it happen.