How Chuck Kaiton educated new Canes fans and remains a last link to the Whalers’ past :: WRALSportsFan.com
As a longtime radio play-by-play man, Chuck Kaiton always felt it was better to stay in a big moment than to prepare something scripted for it.
But when he knew it was possible that the Carolina Hurricanes could win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, Kaiton — who had been with that franchise since it came into existence as the Hartford Whalers — had to have something ready.
“Normally, it’s an extemporaneous thing that you have to let the feeling move you, so to speak, let the music move you at the time,” Kaiton told Joe Ovies. “However, I also thought that I wanted to pay a little tribute to the fans in Hartford who were long suffering for 18 years of this franchise’s history.
“So I went back like a nerd and counted the number of days that the Whalers and Hurricanes were in existence in the National Hockey League. And I wanted to use that number.”
He found it: 9,393. And it was the most famous part of his call after Justin Williams’ empty net goal in Game 7 to win the cup in 2006.
“9,393 days of frustration, and on the 9,394th day of NHL existence, the Carolina Hurricanes — the Whaler organization ’til ’97 — have won the Stanley Cup!” Kaiton exclaimed in a tone that conveyed every bit of that frustration turned into exultation.
“I’m happy I did, because that was the only preparation I did in the call is having that correct number. And I even doubled and triple checked it,” Kaiton said.
Distinctive voice and delivery aside, Kaiton’s eccentricities are what made him one of the most respected and beloved NHL broadcasters during his time.
The original Whaler had a unique knack for making hockey palatable for North Carolinians who’d had relatively little exposure to it, and he played a big role in growing a fanbase in the state.
“I think that the way I approached it was the way my baseball broadcasting idol, Ernie Harwell of the Detroit Tigers, would,” Kaiton said. “He said, ‘Be able to broadcast right in the middle. Don’t talk down to people who don’t know the game but don’t really have to talk up to people who do know the game. Be right in that middle ground of education.’ And the way I took it was very simple. There’s a lot of things about hockey that new fans may not realize.”
Every five or six times icing was called, for example, Kaiton would explain what icing was.
Eventually, those explanations became a regular segment during the broadcast known as “Kaiton’s Corner” where he encouraged listeners to email in questions about the game.
“It was anything about the game that you wanted to know about, whether it’s about history, rules interpretations, that type of thing. I got some fascinating questions, wonderful questions from people because, again, my philosophy was always bring people up to your level of knowledge of the game, bring them up with it,” Kaiton said.
“Be like a professor, a teacher of higher education, and bring those people up because they want that. I think if they care enough to listen to a National Hockey League game, you owe that to them. You owe them the history as well. That’s another thing I think that’s missing with young broadcasters today. They don’t know how to relate things that happened on the ice today to historical references, and I used to always love to do that as well.”
Most of the games were on the radio only in the early days, and Kaiton was the only avenue to get to know the team, especially since North Carolinians weren’t exactly clamoring to see their new professional franchise in 1997 when the team debuted in Greensboro.
“Attendance was abysmal, except for that opening night when they played Ronnie Francis, Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They had 23,000 in there. I think we only had one sellout after that and it was on the day after Thanksgiving when (Wayne) Gretzky came in with the Rangers that season. So yeah, it was a bit of a surrealistic nightmare,” Kaiton said.
It was especially surreal for Kaiton, who began his broadcasting career 10 years earlier. His first job was with the Hartford Whalers. He’d been with them, and in Hartford, since 1979.
Kaiton had been the play-by-play man for the University of Wisconsin for hockey, basketball and football when the Whalers first expressed interest. A scout had been sitting next to him as he called the Frozen Four in the summer of 1978.
Back then, the Whalers were still in the WHA, which was on the brink of folding. They, along with others, wanted to join the NHL, but that didn’t seem likely to Kaiton.
“He said ‘We’re pretty confident that we’ll be in the NHL someday.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m glad you are. I’m not, because my NHL sources tell me that (they) think that the league is going to fold and that the NHL is not going to accept anybody. I don’t care if Wayne Gretzky plays for Edmonton or not,'” Kaiton said.
Turns out, he was half right. The New England Whalers became the Hartford Whalers and, long story short, a boycott of Molson beer in Canada helped lead to a merger between four fledgling WHA teams and the NHL.
Boston did not want to add the teams, and Montreal usually voted the way Boston did, Kaiton said. But the boycott was enough to sway Montreal to change its vote and allow the teams in.
“I picked up the paper and on June 3, 1979, I see the merger take place. I turned to my wife and I said, ‘Well, I guess they were right. They are merging,'” Kaiton said. “And then two months later, I’m doing sports and getting ready for the Badger football season, the hockey season, the phone rings.”
It’s Hartford (formerly New England). But wait, Kaiton wonders. Why are they already hiring a new broadcaster? Didn’t they just hire an old one?
Their old one was the late Bob Neumeier, former Boston sportscaster who also worked for NBC on horseracing. He left to take a job in television, as it turns out. So, red flag resolved, Kaiton knew he had to take the job.
“It was always a dream of a kid from Detroit to be an NHL broadcaster. So that’s the long-winded way that that happened,” Kaiton said. “I got lucky, and then 39 years later stayed with it.”
Kaiton might not have felt so lucky nearly 20 years later when he found out in March 1997 that the franchise would be moving to Carolina, even if the writing had been on the wall that something was going to happen.
“I found out from (former Canes GM and President) Jim Rutherford himself, and he asked me, ‘Are you coming with us?’ And I said, ‘Of course I am. I have two years left on a contract that you gave me. I’m not going to walk away and renege on it. I want to be part of building something there.’ Well, little did I know — and this is like in March. It’s May of ’97 that we move to Greensboro.”
Kaiton had to not only move his entire life and family, but he also had to help build a radio network.
“It was very surrealistic. I’ll never forget being quasi-in charge of putting our radio network together, along with Rick Francis, who was our salesperson at the time and our marketing guy. And I’m thinking, how are we going to do this?” Kaiton said. “We got some references of some people that could build a radio room, because we did our own radio in house with the Whalers and we wanted to do the same thing in Carolina and we did. It’s crazy. We had two or three months to do it and we got it done.”
Peter Karmanos owned the team then, and there was no love lost between him and Hartford when he took the team elsewhere.
“It wasn’t Jim Rutherford — it was Peter Karmanos who basically was the the devil to the fans in Hartford. Jimmy escaped that because I don’t think Jimmy was totally on board with moving if they could have worked something out, but it was out of his control, out of a lot of people’s control. And it just became one of those things where the governor of Connecticut and Peter Karmanos just got into a head-butting contest, and that was it. And it ended acrimoniously.”
Attendance fell, the team wasn’t successful and the only question left to resolve wasn’t if the team was moving, but where.
The team had had its runs, including nearly winning a Stanley Cup in 1986. And obviously, the smaller New England town lived and breathed hockey. They were furious at Karmanos in Hartford, and Karmanos changed the identity of his former franchise and the Whalers were barely mentioned until nearly 20 years later.
Kaiton understands the reality of the NHL being a business, though. Interestingly, his path crossed yet again with Neumeier’s — this time, he was leaving the Boston Bruins’ play-by-play job. It was after the 1999-2000 season. Kaiton had hardly laid down roots in North Carolina at that point. Naturally, Boston reached out to Kaiton.
“I was not looking to leave. But that opportunity did come, as did one other opportunity with the Minnesota Wild, who were going to be an expansion team that year in the 2000-2001 season. So I had two options to leave, and the more serious one was moving back to New England with the Bruins.”
With the Hurricanes, though, he worked for the team. So he got a good salary and good benefits. In Boston, he’d have to work for the radio station. Add in the higher cost of living in Boston, and it was a no-brainer to stay. But he knew it might not be easy for his longtime boss Rutherford to hear.
But Rutherford welcomed him back, and Kaiton never forgot it.
“Jim Rutherford said, ‘Hey, you’re welcome back. We didn’t want you to leave.’ And it was a breath of fresh air,” Kaiton said. “That’s why I had that sense of loyalty.”
Kaiton’s loyalty is the reason he still feels an intense fondness for the Hartford fans. Every year in the summer there is a Whalers Weekend with the Hartford Yardgoats, the Double-A Colorado Rockies’ affiliate. Every year, Kaiton goes. That fondness, and his own connection to the team and community, maybe led to some of his discomfort when new owner Tom Dundon started bringing back the old Whalers gear. That, and a bunch of former Whalers’ fans telling him how much they hate it.
“I think it would have been nicer had they done this earlier because I think the thing that bothers me a little bit, and this has really nothing to do with Tom Dundon, although he is the guy that started this Whalers thing of bringing it back — I questioned his motives at the beginning,” Kaiton said. “I thought it was going to be a big money-making (thing).
“I now have come to resolve that it’s good. I’m glad. But it’s too late. And it’s not his fault. I think it could have been done earlier. But I think that since Peter Karmanos was so adamant that people hated him, and he didn’t like the situation there — I think he would have been amenable to it if somebody would have talked him into doing it earlier. I would have liked to see it earlier …. but I think the wounds were so open, I don’t think Whaler fans would have, and they still don’t accept it.
“They give me an earful as much as they tell me they I guess allegedly like me coming back, they say ‘I don’t know what the heck this (Dundon) guy is doing with this Whalers night.’ But you know what, they’ve got very deep-seated problems with it.”
Kaiton, 66, decided not to accept a significantly lower contract offer in 2018, and the team elected to simulcast the TV version on the air instead. But Kaiton is the man who arguably caused a generation of southerners to fall in love with hockey when he was the voice of the Stanley Cup run back in 2006 and beyond.
He’s not used to moving slowly. Part of his unique style was fitting a lot of descriptors in rapid fire, but he said he never wanted to be hard to follow.
“Maybe 3-4% of people would say ‘slow down’ and ‘you’re giving a lot of information’. But the predominant number of people, the feedback I always got over the years was they loved that about listening on the radio, but because I’m trying to do it in a discernible way. You have to not be mumbo jumbo about it, but you try to give as much information as you can,” Kaiton said.
That extra level of detail, whether it pronouncing a player’s name the way it was intended or triple-checking the number of days a franchise has been in existence, is what has always set Kaiton apart.
He wishes he heard more of it today, he says.
“It’s something as simple as just naming names versus saying ‘Rod Brind’Amour is coming in off the left side and takes his backhand.’ Somebody would say ‘Rod Brind’Amour fires wide.’ There’s a big difference between providing those little details and being more general about it,” Kaiton said. “I always took pride. And it got recognized, and I was happy about this, by numerous national people who said, ‘We think you’re the best radio broadcaster in the National Hockey League, and here’s why. Because we can really see the game.’
“I tried to bring people up to my level of broadcasting the game and hopefully it was not a bunch of gobbledygook.”