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August 7, 2013

Calling ’em for his hometown team

A conversation with Detroit Red Wings broadcaster Ken Kal

By Mark Vest
C & G Sports Writer

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Calling ’em for his hometown team
Detroit Red Wings broadcaster Ken Kal is pictured with the Stanley Cup.

In a four-week series, C & G Newspapers will publish interviews with broadcasters from all four of Detroit’s professional sports teams.

In this second installment, Ken Kal, the Detroit Red Wings play-by-play voice for WXYT-FM 97.1 The Ticket, discusses topics such as what he likes to do for fun, his favorite broadcasting moment and his assessment of the Red Wings’ offseason.

When did you know you wanted to get into play-by-play work?
I was 10 years old and my dad bought me a tape recorder. I used to tape (former Red Wings broadcasters) Bruce Martyn (and) Budd Lynch off the radio, and I would go in the driveway with a tennis ball and roller-skates and do play-by-play. I remember telling my dad right around when I was 10, ‘One day, I (want to) be the Red Wings announcer.’ You never know how your life’s (going to) take you, and lo and behold, years later, here I am.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the west side of Detroit, in the Warrendale district near Rouge Park.

What high school did you go to?
I went to St. Alphonsus in Dearborn.

You went to Wayne State for college?
I went to Wayne State, got a degree in communications and worked at their radio station. Actually, I was (going to) be an undertaker, or I was (going to) be a mortician. My freshmen year, I kind of got into the WAYN radio, which was the campus radio station. It was more of a hobby while I was going to school. I had a Top 40 show on Friday night between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and loved it. I just kept working hard at trying to get better. When it came time to declare a major, I went into the communications field.

What’s your favorite city to visit? What’s your favorite arena to visit?
I really like Chicago. I love calling games at the United Center. When you get 22,000 fans in there, it’s great. It’s a beautiful arena. I like the city of Chicago because there’s always great things to do. It’s just a great city.

What are some things you like to do for fun when you’re on the road?
The thing is, we don’t have a lot of time. It’s not like baseball, because you’re in a city for three, four days at a time. It’s hard to really get out and do things. I do recall my first year, we were at Calgary and the Canadian Olympic team gave me and (broadcast partner) Paul Woods a ride on the bobsled course. It just so happens that once a year they take all the workers down. It just so happened to be the day I called, so they said ‘yeah, come on down tonight.’ It was quite a thrill. I’ve skied in the Canadian Rockies. There’s different things when you really have a couple days. When you do get something like that, you try to do something, but it’s very rare.

In the offseason, what do you like to do for fun?
I live about quarter mile from Lake St. Clair. I have a boat, so I like (getting) out on the lake. My wife and I enjoy boating on Lake St. Clair. I kind of like being out on the lake, and that’s the reason why I moved to St. Clair Shores, because of the lakes. And it’s a great community, great people. I love the city — it’s a great place to be.

What type of books do you like to read?
I like biographies. I like reading things like on Abraham Lincoln, the presidents and history. A lot of history stuff — old-time baseball, too. Really kind of drawn to the Babe Ruth era, in the 1920s, ’30s, around that era. I enjoy reading about the players of that era.

If you had one CD to take with you on the road, what would it be?
I like all kinds of music. It’s like all over the road radio. I like everything from classic rock to disco. I like a lot of things. It just depends what type of mood I’m in. Jazz is good. I like Top 40-type music.

Do you have a favorite broadcasting moment from your career?
There’s a lot. The favorite would be the first Stanley Cup in 1997. That’s a favorite moment because we brought back Bruce Martyn, who worked here for 32 years — Hall-of-Fame announcer. He never got a chance to call a Stanley Cup. He came back for the second period and actually called (Darren) McCarty’s cup-winning goal. It was a great thrill to work with him; it’s like working with Ernie Harwell. To be able to work with (Martyn) that night, and for the Wings to win the Stanley Cup, was just an unbelievable moment for me. He’s a legend, and I got a chance to work with a guy that I grew up listing to and admired — and still admire. Everything worked out great.

Have you ever thought about what you might be doing if you didn’t get into play-by-play work?
Before I got this job, I was in sales — like medical sales or home IV and fusion sales. That was really my full-time job while I was calling the games at Michigan. I kind of liked the sales end of it and was pretty successful at it. I probably would have been doing something in the sales end.

In your opinion, who’s the best player of all time?
I saw Gordie Howe play late in his career. To me, I still think he’s the greatest player of all time.

Do you have a favorite sport besides the one you cover?
I like all sports, but I would say baseball and football. I’m a big Lions fan — I love the Lions. For the longest time, I was a season-ticket holder. I’m a big Lions fan and a National Football League fan. Love the Tigers — love baseball. I played baseball growing up. I played my freshman year at Wayne State. I like (them) all — I really do.

How would you assess the Red Wings’ offseason?
I think the team’s a lot deeper up front with (Daniel) Alfredsson and (Stephen) Weiss. I think the power play will be more productive just because of the two players I mentioned. I think Alfredsson, what I like about him is he’s really kind of a point-per-game player in the playoffs. That will help the Red Wings, as far as scoring. I like the young guys that really stepped it up last year. I like Joakim Andersson, (Gustav) Nyquist. I like the development of the young players. I thought the coaches did a really good job in working with this team with so many injuries. We were hurt the whole year, and we never had our full team the whole year.  To grab these guys from Grand Rapids, it was quite the learning experience. And to be able to make the playoffs in the last week of the season and go as far as they’ve gone, I think the coaches did a really good job. I think the offseason’s been very good. The Red Wings will compete and be a top team, even in the East.

How excited are you about the Wings’ move to the Eastern Conference?
I’m excited about the fact that it will be better on travel, and the fans will get the opportunity to see teams on a more regular basis that they haven’t been able to see, like New York, Montreal, Toronto, Pittsburgh. I think what’s more important is people will get a chance to see the Wings on the road at a decent hour. It’s hard to watch mid-week games at 10:30 at night. I think what will be beneficial is that come playoff time, the travel will be a lot easier on the team. They’ll be able to practice more on their off-days instead of flying coast-to-coast. They’ll be probably in better condition to play because of the less travel. I think it’s a win-win for the fans, win-win for the players. I’m really excited about it, although I will miss Chicago, I will miss St. Louis — some of the teams in the west the Red Wings built rivalries with.

Do you think the Red Wings are going to come to a point where they have to go into rebuilding phase or do you think they’re going to continue to be Stanley Cup contenders for the foreseeable future?
I really admire the job Ken Holland has done and his staff, because it’s hard in today’s cap world to be able to make the playoffs, for what is it — 22 straight years. Most teams, if you look, they can’t keep that pace going. They’ll be out of the playoffs for two or three years, and then they’ll come back. It’s hard each and every year when there’s so much parity to stay on top and make the playoffs. What other sport around has a team made it to the playoffs for 22 straight years? It really is tough because there’s turnover, there’s free agency; players come and go. You’ve got to be able to draft, you’ve got to be able to develop talent, you’ve got to be able to compete night-in and night-out. There’s always a bull’s-eye on the back of the Red Wings because everyone wants to beat (them), yet somehow they find a way to reload and still be competitive. Kenny Holland and his staff have really done a good job to do that.

With you being so close to the team, when the Wings do win Stanley Cups do you feel a part of things?
Yes, but in a different way. To me, the Stanley Cup is for the players. We’re just a part of the whole process. There’s the players, the marketing staff, everybody that works behind the scenes — we call the games. So everybody in the organization is really a part of that Stanley Cup championship. I stay away from the players. In other words, I don’t go out with (them). I know them. I treat them as professionals, they treat me as a professional — and that’s about it. I’m happy that they won, but on the other hand, I didn’t score a goal, I didn’t kill a penalty. All I did is report on what they did. It’s nice to say you’re part of it, and you are in your own special way. But on the other hand, you’re not a player. I’m not saying I’m not a part of it, we all are — the marketing staff, the broadcasters, the writers. The whole organization is a part — the fans, the community. But we’re just one little part of describing what happens to the people out there that are listening.

Growing up a Red Wings fan, is it hard to put that aside when you’re calling games?
You have to be professional, and to me being professional is calling the game as you see it, and reporting what is happening on the ice — I think that’s the job of the play-by-play guy. Sure, you get more excited when the home team scores, but on the other hand, if a visiting player goes through the whole team and scores a nice goal, it’s a nice goal.  It’s a great play, so you can’t just downplay it. Deep down inside, when you call a game, you want them to win, but sometimes you’ve got to keep your emotions in check. You just have to be professional about what you do.

What are the keys for aspiring broadcasters to break into the business?
You (have to) practice. You have to try to do as many games as possible. Whether that’s watching a game on television and trying to do the broadcast, going to a high school or college game and taking a tape recorder with you and practicing, trying to do the play-by-play, (and) getting the lineups together. Practice is one key. I think you have to have a passion for it, and to me that’s really important. Chances are, if you don’t have a passion for what you do, you’re not (going to) succeed — that’s my opinion. You’ve (got to) really be dedicated and sacrifice a lot. I think the third thing is, you just can’t give up. I sent tapes off to a bunch of teams in the American League while I was at Michigan just because I wanted to advance, and never heard a response from a lot of teams. You can’t give up. You just (have to) keep going, and sooner or later, your break will come. A lot of people give up just when the break is right around the corner. You just have to keep at it — be persistent.

Is the job as cool as it seems like it would be?
Yeah it is. I’ve gotten to see a lot of great players and great teams over the years that I’ve been the Red Wing announcer. You get to travel; you get to see different cities, where if I wasn’t doing this, I probably wouldn’t be able to see those cities. I went to Sweden, called a Winter Classic game — looking forward to calling another Winter Classic game. Those are the perks, but on the other hand, it’s hard enough to get where you’re at, but you really have to work hard to stay where you’re at. You always have to hone your skills — try to get better. When I first started, my interviewing skills were pretty weak, but I really worked hard at trying to be better at interviewing, whether it be a coach or a player. You want to try to get better all the time in all areas. A lot of people say ‘once you make it, that’s good, you don’t have to practice anymore. ‘ That’s far from the truth, I think. Once you make it to the major leagues, do they stop taking batting practice? Do pitchers stop throwing? No, they actually work harder at their game. In order to be good at what you do, you just have to keep working at it.

What kind of jobs in broadcasting and non-broadcasting before did you have before you got started with the Red Wings?
My senior year of college at Wayne State, I did an internship at WNIC radio. I got to be good friends with Doug Hamilton, who was their afternoon deejay. When my internship ended, I think it was in June of ’79, he left the station and became the program director at WAAM in Ann Arbor. He knew that I was a big sports guy, and he hired me to board op the University of Michigan football games. He said if you do a good job, I’ll give you a weekend air shift, and at the time, I wanted to get into radio and that would be a great opportunity to get on air. At the end of the football season, he gave me a weekend air shift, and I did that until I got the Michigan job in ‘84.

Is there any common misconceptions you think fans might have about the game itself, players, anything you can think of?
I think by being close to the team we get a more well-rounded picture of what’s actually happening than the fans do. In other words, we see a lot more things by being with the team every day than the average fan does. So sometimes when fans go on sports talk radio and they start talking, well they don’t understand the full picture or what’s involved, (because) they’re not with the team. I’ll give you an example: If a player’s hurting — let’s say he’s got an injury that I know but the fans don’t know. I’m not going to go out and say that the guy’s injured, because that’s not my job. I describe the play. I know he’s injured, so maybe that’s why the player is struggling, but the fan doesn’t know that. So they’ll look at a particular player and say ‘that guy’s in a slump, he’s not scoring.’ Well, maybe the guy’s got an injury nobody knows about it. That’s not a misconception. It’s just that a lot of times we see things by being around the team that the public doesn’t, and sometimes things get out of whack because of that.

Being as close to the game as you are, in terms of being around players and seeing as many games as you do, would you say you’re still as big a fan of the game as you were when you first got into the business?
Yeah, I’m a big fan. But as an announcer, you can’t really be a fan. You can be a fan, and you’re pulling for the home team, but you’ve got to be objective. I love the game. I love the changes of the game that have taken place over the last several years. I like the speed of the game.

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mark Vest at mvest@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1112. Twitter Follow Mark on Twitter.