Part of what we want to do at OFB is remind people that there is a rich legacy to the Capitals’ organization and a sizable spirit for hockey in this region, and if you want to chronicle this you have to reach out to the people who laid the groundwork for it and ask them to share their stories. And today we begin our chronicle by sitting down with the Dean of D.C. Hockey, Ron Weber, a Washington Hall of Fame broadcast talent who for many veteran Caps’ fans was no less than their access point to pro hockey in D.C.
OFB was granted a great privilege this past Monday evening when, an hour before the Caps-Senators’ game at Verizon Center, we were invited to sit down with Mr. Weber and address any and all questions about his remarkable radio career and his general thoughts on pucks in D.C.
Today Mr. Weber and his wife, Mary Jane, reside in Montgomery County, Maryland, and attend every Caps’ home game. In the course of this memorable visit it became clear to us that while Mr. Weber is removed from a career in hockey by nearly 10 years, his love affair with both the Caps and hockey is as vibrant as ever. It’s virtually certain that we won’t again see the likes of his run behind a microphone at any rink or home field for a Washington professional sports team.
[Off-tape chat related to the good old days of Washington’s mainstream media. Ron Weber: “You miss Fachet? [the late Robert Fachet, beat reporter without peer at the Washington Post in the 1980s] I worked with Bob. Bob was a great writer. Of the [local] broadcast outlets, which would you say is the best [at covering the Caps]? pucksandbooks: You’re asking me to identify the least of about a half dozen evils. Ron Weber: What they don’t seem to realize is that, sure the Redskins play on Sunday, but they don’t play again until the following Sunday. Those days in between, that’s called dead space, and it could and should be filled . . . pucksandbooks: “proportionality — it’s an alien concept on 15th St.”]
pucksandbooks: Would you share with OFB readers a bit of your broadcast background, in particular with respect to where your career broadcasting the Caps fits into it?
Ron Weber: I worked in radio and TV for 42 years. Starting at American University broadcasting basketball games over the campus radio station for three years while earning my bachelors degree, from 1951-54. I worked for CBS Sports, I covered the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City for United Press International’s audio division. Roughly the first half of my career I spent, from my point of view, too much time doing daily sports shows, and not enough time doing play-by-play, and I wanted to be a play-by-play man.
The second half of my career, after doing 200-300 basketball games, I finally got a chance to do a hockey game when, while in Baltimore as the backup guy for the Bullets, the play-by-play guy for the Baltimore Clippers of the American Hockey League, a guy named Jim West, took the job with the Chicago Blackhawks, and I jumped in. I started doing the Clippers full time in 1970. I did the Clippers for two years, left for a better job in Philadelphia, but again I was doing sports daily shows. We were the station, WCAU, that carried both the Flyers and the Phillies, my two favorite sports. I did do one game as color [guy] when Gene Hart, the announcer for the Flyers, had a bad throat and he was afraid he couldn’t get through the game, so he hired me to sit there and do color.
Unfortunately, from my point of view, Gene toughed it out, so I never did play-by-play for the Flyers or the Phillies, but I was so close I could taste it.
pucksandbooks — Sounds like Philly’s loss was Washington’s gain.
Ron Weber: But then the station cleaned house, fired me and every one of the newsmen, and I ended up doing Mutual Network radio stuff here in Washington in the summer of 1974. Meanwhile, I had been told that WTOP was going to carry the Capitals’ games in their first year, and I went up there and somehow against 250 others I got the job. So I started doing the Capitals on October 9, 1974, a 6-3 loss to the Rangers in New York.
pucksandbooks: You own an unrivaled record of commitment as it relates to your tenure with the Caps. Please tell our readers what that is.
Ron Weber: One thousand nine hundred and thirty six games [without missing one], from 1974 to 1997. My last game was April 13, 1997, the game in Buffalo.
pucksandbooks — That was the Yogi Svejkovsky game!
Ron Weber: Yep. By the way, Yogi Svejkovsky just signed on as an assistant coach [OFB note: The WHL’s Vancouver Giants added Svejkovsky to their coaching staff on October 10, 2006.] Yogi scored four goals in that game. That was my last game. I have not done any hockey or any play-by-play since.
pucksandbooks — Almost 2,000 games, regular season and playoffs, and you didn’t miss one.
Ron Weber: Nineteen hundred and thirty six. Now, 118 of the games weren’t broadcast fully, on election nights and such. But I was on site working the games, filing reports. Now one night, nothing came through — the night of the Persian Gulf War story breaking. I sent in reports every 20 minutes, but that night, they didn’t put anything on until the game was over.
pucksandbooks: There was so much futility associated with the Caps in their early years — they failed to qualify for the postseason in each of their first eight seasons — and there was the additional challenge of being a new entertainment option in a historically non-hockey region. Did you view your role as broadcaster to any degree as one of being a salesman of sorts for the team and the sport, particularly in the first 10 years of your tenure, which included the ‘Save the Caps’ campaign?
Ron Weber: Yes, that’s fair to say. Let’s put it this way. If somebody said, “We’re not interested in that, don’t do that, don’t call the game that way, I wouldn’t know how not to do it. When you’re showing enthusiasm for the game, which in my case was genuine, and describing the game . . . I hope I tweaked people’s interest. I think any broadcaster ought to do that.
pucksandbooks: From a fan’s perspective, hockey seems like perhaps the most difficult sport for a broadcaster to call — its speed, its rapid change of direction, its odd bounces and tightly packed scrums in corners and the crease. Is it in your view the toughest sport to call, and what was the most challenging aspect of it for you?
Ron Weber: Of the major team sports, it’s the hardest, period. You’re sitting in many arenas in what amounts to the 9th floor of a hotel, asked to describe a 3-inch black disc all the way down below you, traveling 100 miles an hour. And you have players running around who are padded and helmeted so it’s hard to distinguish one from another, and they won’t even put numbers on the front of the uniforms. So it’s a challenge.
The introduction of the helmets — a very sensible thing — made it tougher for the broadcasters. Two things made it tougher as the years went along — the helmets, and every time they built a new arena or renovated an old one they moved the broadcast booth further up. I mean sometimes we’re farther away than any fan in many arenas, we’re up in the girders.
pucksandbooks: I remember viewing Dale Hunter’s overtime winner in Game 7 against the Flyers in April of ’88 from my college apartment. The game was broadcast on ESPN, and watching the sea of Capital Centre white that night, I wanted nothing so much as to be able to hear your call for that moment, but especially your post-game, signature sign-off, “It’s been a 2-point night, Caps’ fans.” I’d love to know if there is one moment that stands out as a favorite for you from your career with the Caps.
Ron Weber: That was it, and I paused and let the fans yell . . . and then I said — and it just came to me, it wasn’t anything I’d planned— I said, “Washington lives to play again.” That to me was my most dramatic statement in 23 years with the Capitals.
pucksandbooks — Folks often forget, the Caps were down 3-0 in that game, in a Game 7, and they battled back.
Ron Weber: They were down three games to one in the series and 3-0 in the final game, and still won. Gary Galley came through, sparked the team, and I can still see Larry Murphy’s pass up to Hunter, skating in, and then Hextall just falling right back when he saw the puck was in the net.
One other thing, in addition to my statement, the other statement I remember was when the late Marv Brooks, the PA announcer at the Cap Centre, he was saying the things about the final score and the game’s three stars and such, and then he said, “We will see you Monday,” because we’d qualified for the next round of the playoffs, and we were to host the first game two days later.
“We will see you Monday.”
pucksandbooks: My father was a Caps’ season-ticket holder for some years, and when he and I would attend games we’d rush out of the Cap Centre the moment the game ended and into the parking lot not just to get a jump on the brutal congestion but also to hear your post-game sign-off. I suspect we weren’t alone in our regard for your affection for the team. Another story for you: when I initially went away to college I was terrifically homesick, and I used to afix a soda can to my dorm radio’s antenna to try and improve my reception for WTOP and pick up your calls. It actually worked on clear nights. I bet you heard similar stories over the years from other young Caps’ fans.
Ron Weber: I got letters from up and down the East Coast. The signal from WTOP is oriented north-south, because it must protect KSTP in St. Paul, also at 1500 on the dial. They carried the North Stars’ games.
pucksandbooks — I heard the claim that at times TOP could be picked up as far north as Montreal.
Ron Weber: Oh farther than that, way farther than that. Way up in Quebec. Gordon Barnes — remember him, he did weather — his father lived in Bermuda and used to listen to the games, regularly. I’ve heard TOP myself on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach and in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I got a postcard once from Japan, saying, “I heard the game,” even mentioned certain things I said during the broadcast, so I knew it wasn’t a hoax. Guy was a transplanted American. Where in college were you?
pucksandbooks — Ohio, University of Dayton
Ron Weber: Well, you were a Flyer I liked! (laughing)
pucksandbooks: What’s the biggest change as you see it in the NHL today versus the league you nightly observed over the course of 20-plus years?
Ron Weber: I’d say the biggest change — and what I dislike — is they’ve fiddled around and ruined the historical comparison with points by awarding points for an overtime loss, and the shootout win. It just galls me. Last year the Capitals got to the 70-point mark, but seven [were] of the shootout win, and seven overtime losses. Back in Bryan Murray’s day, that would have only been 56 points. That to me . . . they’ve complicated and messed up the standings. Now it’s possible for a team that never wins to beat out a team that wins 40 games. That to me is the biggest change and it’s an awful one. It fouls up the comparisons in the standings.
pucksandbooks: You have the unique vantage of observing Washington’s reception to professional hockey over nearly 35 years. Outside of Washington, there’s a fairly common perception I think that residents here just aren’t all that “into hockey.” Do you share that perception, and if not, do you think there exists a savviness and sophistication about hockey among some of the region’s faithful that is generally unrecognized?
Ron Weber: Washington is a good hockey town. It’ll never be a great one because it isn’t in the northern tier where you play it. I still think, you get everybody — if you get all those people out there to four games and sit a person that knows hockey right next to them, the vast amount of them would be hooked, way to the point over going to basketball games or other sports. It would become one of their favorite sports, if not the favorite sport.
But watching on television . . . it’s too bad you can’t require everybody to see their first handful of games in person before they’re allowed to watch it on TV. Looking at it on television, it can become confusing and so forth and they don’t really get it.
pucksandbooks: This next question isn’t so much a question but rather a reflection, and you’re welcome to comment on it. The first 10 years of your career occurred prior to blanket television coverage of the Caps, and so there are no small number of area Caps’ fans over the age of 30 who today acknowledge getting hooked on the team and hockey by virtue of your radio broadcast work. In my judgment that’s a lasting gift from broadcaster to community, every bit as formative as a father taking his son to the rink for the first time. My father gave me the lasting gift of an introduction to hockey, and my suspicion is that you, in the pre-television days of the Caps, did this for perhaps thousands of Washingtonians.
Ron Weber: You know, sometimes you get the feeling that “Gee, what I do is I’m paid to talk a game played by grownup kids.” Hey, it’s not only not a cure for cancer but it probably isn’t as worthwhile as your average conscientious government worker or certainly not as important as a good elementary school teacher.
On the other hand, when you get notes from shut-ins and people that say “Man, listening to you gets me away from my troubles, I have all these problems with my mortgage, my wife, my job and I just sit back and relax and for three hours, I forget it all,” well, that makes you feel good. You feel like you are doing something worthwhile.
pucksandbooks — I mean, there was literally no TV, this was pre- Home Team Sports, so you were the gatekeeper between what was going on at the Cap Centre on the the ice and —
Ron Weber: And I had the continuity, too. They went through more than a half-dozen TV guys in my 23 years. Luckily — thankfully, too — the general managers of radio stations and TV — cause I did do TV from ’75-’77 for WTOP TV — and later when the Caps became my boss, gave me that continuity, I had that continuity.
pucksandbooks: This last question is my most important one. I’m a believer that Alexander Ovechkin is an organization-altering performer and presence, and that his career in Washington will include at least one Stanley Cup. When that night arrives, will you meet me at a D.C. tavern so that we can share a Stanley Cup victory beer together?
Ron Weber: (Laughing) Well I don’t like beer, but I’ll have a Coke or a Tom Collins.
pucksandbooks: Mr. Weber, on behalf of the OFB team, I want to thank you for taking the time to sit down and speak with us, and I speak for all four of us at OFB when I say yours was a 2-point career.