An NHL Radio Legend: A Q&A with the Inimitable Voice of the Carolina Hurricanes, Chuck Kaiton
In the early 1940s in New York, Marty Glickman, a young and rapid-fire announcer, was asked to initiate radio broadcasts of the then popular college basketball doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden. Tasked with nurturing an unmapped frontier, translating for radio listeners a fast-moving basketball game, Marty listened to Foster Hewitt who had pioneered hockey broadcasts in Canada.
Decades later Marty talked about the parallels in both conceptual framework and radio geography that he picked up from Hewitt. If hockey had the red line and the circle, basketball had the baseline and the top of the key.
To those today who didn’t grow up with it, hockey on radio might sound gibberish. Yet older aficionados of the game strongly identified with their favorite local radio announcers. From Fred Cusick to Bob Wilson in Boston and Win Elliot to Marv Albert in New York, every hockey market had its popular radio play-by-play voice. Sal Messina was a backup goalie with the Rangers and for decades the team’s radio commentator. Sal will tell you that he got hooked on hockey through the radio broadcasts in New York of Burt Lee (1939-55).
Chuck Kaiton, the Hall of Fame radio announcer for the Carolina Hurricanes, has an unmistakably throaty voice, one of rasped energy that bellows fondled words, colorful descriptions and catchy phrases. Call them Kaitonisms. These are just a few that the Michigan native used recently in one period alone. “Wriggled through the pads,” “Sifts it free,” “Joined the rush cerebrally,” “Rambled Back,” “Scrubs for the loose puck,” “There’s indignant pushing and shoving,” “The two came at one another at 90-degree angles” or “He 9-irons it ahead.”
Kaiton is the NHL’s version of NBA broadcast Hall of Famer, Joe Tait, a radio institution with the Cleveland Cavaliers for four decades. Not many connect the dots like Kaiton does or Tait did.
Future radio play-by-play announcers of all sports can learn from Kaiton’s masterful work. Chuck and I had a chance to interact recently.
Last time I looked, you missed only one Hartford Whalers or Carolina Hurricanes game since you joined the franchise in Hartford in 1979. Had it not been for your father’s death in 1992, you would likely have set a record for consecutive broadcasts. Are you troubled by announcers (NHL, NBA or MLB) who prioritize network or other play-by-play assignments over their own team broadcasts? By missing games, do these play-by-play announcers dull any of the luster of being interchangeably connected with the franchises they cover?
Yes, there should be consistency on the part of broadcasters. Yet, often financial and visibility opportunities dictate the need to undertake additional projects. The consistency of a team’s radio broadcast is the backbone of all team coverage. I am not troubled by it – yet I’m proud to have made every game I possibly could.
You’re unique. You prefer to work radio alone. Why? Hockey, unlike basketball, has natural stoppages. Color commentators can serve a purpose without being intrusive.
Working alone is not my preference. I’ve worked with commentators at times in the past. Since we moved to North Carolina, the franchise has been unable to justify the addition of a color commentator for financial reasons so I’ve adjusted my style accordingly. A good color man on radio though should limit his commentary to times between the whistles. They shouldn’t interfere with the play-by-play man during the play. If a color man is assigned, I would prefer a former player, first and foremost.
Command of the language, grammar, voice and word annunciation were always prime requirements for would-be broadcasters. You rarely, if ever, grope for the right word. Many younger broadcasters today don’t extemporize as well. What are your thoughts?
A good education is critical. Be well versed and well-rounded with your vocabulary and have the necessary depth of knowledge of the game. I try to listen to almost every one of the games I broadcast. Whether at home or on the road, I find time to do it. I listen to myself as a fan would. I want to be sure not to overuse certain phrases and make sure that I am as descriptive as I can be. It’s good to vary descriptions by using a wide range of adjectives. So, enrich your descriptive powers.
Historically, the Carolinas were a hotbed for basketball. When the franchise moved from Hartford in 1997, you used basketball equivalents on your broadcasts in Carolina to teach hockey fundamentals. How did it work out?
I think I did a good job of explaining the fundamentals of the game to neophyte fans. My idol in broadcasting as you could imagine, growing up in Detroit, was Ernie Harwell. He once said that he envisioned his job – to describe the game for people who’ve never seen it and to do so without insulting those who are well educated in baseball. I try to do the same thing, come up with a happy medium.
Video versions of every NHL game are available somewhere. Smartphones today have weakened radio’s once pervasive thunder of immediacy. Teams also say that sponsors’ demand for radio has declined. So, where’s the future of the NHL on radio? Will the day come when teams determine not to invest in radio broadcasts?
I hope not. Radio is the backbone to sports coverage. Fans are in their cars and even those who are not give me feedback that they prefer a word picture or a graphic description. If the NHL or teams around the league begin to drop radio, it will be a loss for a generation of fans. You cannot be watching your Smartphone in your car. You can’t be watching your Smartphone if you’re working on a PC. Fans also tell me they love listening while at work, wherever that might be. Radio is still the announcers’ medium as opposed to television which is the producers’ medium.
In recent years, NBA teams have situated radio broadcasters in the nosebleeds, often causing an insurmountable hardship for play-by-play announcers to identify players. How about the NHL? How difficult are the locations you’re given?
The NHL is transforming broadcast positions in a similar fashion to the NBA. They are becoming increasingly difficult as new buildings are being built. For example, at the new Rogers Place in Edmonton, we might as will be in a zeppelin, especially when the Oilers are wearing their orange uniforms with blue numbers. I can appreciate the need for teams to maximize premier seating. It’s a critical element of their business. But television and radio stuff money into their coffers as well. But bottom line, we have to adjust. We must accept the fact that there are no longer Boston Gardens, or Forums (in Montreal) where we broadcast right on top of the ice. Those days are gone. Yet, there’s some reason to be encouraged. Madison Square Garden has the new Chase Bridge which affords us better sightlines. The new building in Detroit, Little Caesars, as I understand it, also has an improved position for broadcasters. These two have bucked the trend of putting us somewhere six blocks away from the building. These two developments give me hope for the future. It’s a matter of the leadership within each organization to prioritize broadcasters.
Hockey is a rapid-fire sport. It’s a challenge to follow the game on radio. What do you do differently from others to paint a graphic picture?
I picture someone sitting right next to me who has never been to a game before or who doesn’t notice the little things. For example, if a player is carrying the puck on their backhand out of the zone, I’ll say it’s on his backhand, not just that the puck is being moved out of the zone.
But it is getting increasingly difficult because no one is handling the puck anymore. They like to one-touch it and move it. Connecting the dots today is becoming that much harder because I don’t even think the players know where the puck is going next, never mind anticipating where the puck is going. Some announcers might simply say save. I might try to say a save off the cuff of his glove as opposed to simply saying he made a pad save. You want to be as descriptive as you possibly can to give the listener a better picture of what occurred.
What tips do you have for budding play-by-play broadcasters?
Listen to as many broadcasters as you can at the NHL level. And even some great minor-league or college announcers. As Gordie Howe once told me, “Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. You have two of those for a reason and one of those for a reason. And you have two ears for a reason too.” So listen more than you speak when someone is trying to give you advice.
You told an interviewer that when you started as a student at the University of Michigan, you hoped to become a physician. Obviously, you were sidetracked. Any suggestions on what future announcers should study in college?
Students should take courses in speech and oral interpretation. They should study acting too. Any course in front of an audience is great training. Get as much experience as you can, especially if your school has a student radio station.
If your career didn’t lead to hockey, which sport would you have preferred calling?
I would likely have pursued football. I went to the University of Michigan and I got very spoiled. Bo Schembechler was the coach of Michigan and we did a lot of winning; 10 or 11 games each season. I am not a big fan of four and a half or five hour baseball games. I don’t think I would want to do 162 baseball games for that reason alone – as much as I loved the game at one time.
Growing up in Michigan, you had an opportunity to listen to Hall of Famers like Ernie Harwell, George Kell and Michigan’s Bob Ufer. Who of these or other broadcasters influenced your early style?
I loved Ernie and knew Ufer personally. He was unique. Additionally, Dan Kelly (St. Louis Blues), Danny Gallivan (Montreal Canadiens), Foster (father and pioneer) Hewitt and Bill Hewitt (son) (Toronto Maple Leafs). Jack Buck was also an influence. I loved his style. I loved his matter-of-fact demeanor on the air. These guys were all exceptional in their own way
In your 38th NHL season, you’ve certainly earned legendary status. So how about today? Do you pick things up listening to other announcers?
I don’t know about legendary status. I’m not a copycat, yet I love the descriptions of Mike Emrick. He is the preeminent hockey broadcaster. Doc does a spectacular job of capturing the moment. When it’s an historic moment, he has the apt anecdote and fact. He brilliantly weaves in a story instantly. Mike is the Vin Scully of our hockey profession. He is one guy I look up to very much. He is very esoteric in his approach and very worldly in his knowledge. Many of the young broadcasters today do sound alike. There are exceptions. Mike Lange in Pittsburgh and Rick Jeanneret in Buffalo, two of the senior broadcasters, are different and fun listens!
The Whalers joined the NHL in 1979. They moved to Carolina in 1997.