As summer comes to a close we learn of another important and impassioned media voice for hockey leaving Washington for an exciting career opportunity. Comcast Sportsnet’s Russ Thaler begins the on-air portion of a new chapter in his broadcast career with NBC Sports next week, having worked as an original talent at Sportsnet Mid-Atlantic since its inception more than 10 years ago. His departure is bittersweet for the region’s hockey fans; from my vantage there was no local television sports anchor who brought as much heart-felt passion for pucks to his broadcasts as Thaler.
I never asked Thaler about the genesis of his love for hockey, and I’m not sure I needed to. With his Caps’ coverage he saw the same caliber of human being that characterizes the athletes in our sport that we all quickly come to cherish, and I’m sure he was drawn to the sport to some degree by that. But at home Thaler has a full forward line of young Red Rockers — the perpetually red-clad, oh-so photogenic Thaler boys, very much a Facebook testament I think to a lot of families in these parts who’ve fallen hard for our guys in red in recent years. And Thaler, for me, represented something especially important: a mainstream media personality who personally led a charge to incorporate a fan’s passion into contemporary sports media coverage. Bloggers initially were criticized for their fan-passion; as time has passed we’ve pushed that passion, crusade-like, into coloring traditional media coverage. And it’s all for the better.
This blog, and especially this blogger, got beyond lucky in befriending Thaler. When Russ hosted ‘Washington Post Live’ for Sportsnet — and it has to be said, the highpoint of that program came with Thaler as host — he took it as his mission to expand hockey’s coverage by incorporating blogging voices in the live program. No one else in town was doing anything like that. Looking back, it was fairly adventurous on his part. Perhaps that’s a part of the reason he’s now taking off for cutting edge national television. I like to think we bloggers delivered what Thaler sought with those segments. I just know we all had a blast doing them.
There are two other qualities I would have you know about Thaler as I got to know him. One, there is no more modest, less ‘TV-pretentious’ personality among broadcasters in this town than Thaler. He loved and valued the panorama of blogs covering hockey here, and he regarded many of us as full-fledged contributors not only to quality coverage but to nurturing this region’s love affair with the game he, too, had fallen hard for.
This is so Thaler: he invited me to his going away party in Bethesda earlier this week, a spacious and stylish party spot clogged with leading sports media luminaries. I felt more than a little out of place as a lone blogger among all these TV stars and big dot com columnists. (But the beer was free, so I quickly got over that.) He made a point of introducing me to a number of his big-name broadcast peers, and heaping warm words for my work in our conversations with them. On his night, he was helping me out.
So he’s a terrific talent in his profession and a first-rate human being, but I also adore him because he knows how to rock. The Hershey Bears helped me score some prime seats to a Rush concert at Giant Center back in April, and Thaler was part of our Caravan to the Friday night show. On the ride up we sipped beers and swapped stories that can never see publication and then lost ourselves in rockers’ delirium for three hours. I think we royally pissed off JoeB — another Rushie whose schedule precluded his own middle-aged, in-arena air drumming — with our reckoning of that first-rate show at the next Capitals’ home game.
Not looking back but taking time to look around . . .
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OFB: Your one-hour, nightly gig on NBC Sports — what’s the scope, and how prominently would you like hockey to be featured in it?
Thaler: I would think that hockey and specifically the NHL will be featured often and enthusiastically on NBC SportsTalk. The host, I hear, is quite a fan of the game! Also, on nights when Versus/NBC Sports Network is carrying a game, most of the second half of the show will be devoted to the NHL. I can tell you that I’ve already lined up two prominent young NHL stars for significant interviews. Neither of them Caps, mind you, but that’s all I can say at the moment.
OFB: For years Caps’ fans benefited from your coverage both in studio and from remotes at the rink. Will your new gig afford you a similar variety of vantages, or is this a high-profile studio slot exclusively?
Thaler: My responsibilities will begin with the nightly show. NBC SportsTalk will be, and needs to be, my focus. I absolutely loved the pre- and postgame shows I did with Alan May, Al Koken, Joe. B. and Locker, and my experiences doing the rinkside work were some of my favorites (the multiple OT comeback win at MSG last season is a career highlight), but for the time being I am the host of a nightly show and that is fine with me! Whatever comes out of that I will embrace with all my might.
OFB: Take a look back over the last 5 years in D.C., and specifically where the Caps and hockey were around 2006 and where they are today as an event and galvanizing civic force. Anything comparable within the Washington sports scene, as long as you covered sports here?
Thaler: I am a proud member of the family of Caps’ supporters and reporters who covered the team before they became the CAPS as we know them today. I remember one night early in the final days of of the Glen Hanlon era, before the season got underway, producing a “Post Script” imploring the sports fans of the DC area to embrace what I thought was a budding franchise. Of course it wouldn’t be until after Bruce Boudreau took over on Thanksgiving 2007 that things started to look up, but there was just too much good in that group to ignore.
I haven’t seen anything like it in my 10 years in DC. Perhaps at the height of Gilbert Arenas’ powers you could say the same things about the Wizards. From a personal perspective, I’ve become a hockey dad because of the Caps. I know that I am not alone in that. My family has taken to this team in the same way Redskins fans were brought up through generations of winning football. So much credit has to go to the organization itself for the way it has embraced its new fans while respecting the ones who came before. I have spent many days at Caps Kid Skates at Kettler with Slapshot and my family. My wife and sons have waited patiently for the players to emerge from the building in to the parking lot. These are memories we will take with us on our new adventure, and when the Caps win the Cup there is a promised trip back to DC for the victory parade. Can’t wait!
OFB: True story, right — Mrs. Thaler agreed to attend a Rush concert with you — and kept dating you afterward? Do you ever air guitar in front of her?
Thaler: How do you know when she’s a “keeper”? When your first real “date” is in Cleveland, Ohio, for a night with the greatest band in the world on the “Counterparts” tour. Brooke, ever the trooper, was more than game on that night. Does she share in my devotion to the holy triumverate? No. But that’s okay. She knows what brings me true joy, and once (or twice) a summer I get my Rush fix. Plus, she never makes me turn the channel when “Spirit of Radio” comes on in the car. And if “Time Stand Still” happens to pop up she’ll even sing along. What’s not to love?
P.S. I have learned a great deal from you about hockey. I’m not talking about x’s and o’s stuff. I’m talking about the culture, the soul, the traditions and idiosyncrasies that weren’t part of my makeup to begin with. Your writing has allowed me to break the surface of the frozen pond. Thank you for that.