Kaiton Hits 2,900
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“He says, ‘How many games have you done?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t count them,'" Kaiton recalled. "He says, ‘Well, you should.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to. What for?’ He says, ‘In fact, not only should you count them, but you should mention it at the end of every broadcast.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘No, I’m telling you to do it.’
“I said, ‘Ok, fine, but it sounds self-serving,’ and I just didn’t like that. He said, ‘You should do it, and you should be proud of it.’ And when he said ‘You should be proud of it,’ that’s what convinced me to do it.”
That pride shines through the radio dial during each and every broadcast, all 2,899 of them. When the Canes host Anaheim on Thursday, it will be Kaiton’s 2,900th game behind the microphone, a historic marker for the Hall of Fame broadcaster.
Kaiton, 60, is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He got his start in broadcasting in 1969 when he announced Wolverine sports. Six years later, Kaiton covered sports for the University of Wisconsin and earned Wisconsin Sportscaster of the Year honors in 1979.
It was in that same year that Kaiton became the radio voice of the Hartford Whalers, after the team joined the National Hockey League. It marked a new era for the old World Hockey Association team and a new era for Kaiton, which still lives on today.
“When I first started, I was 26 years old. I’m now in the locker room with Gordie Howe, Dave Keon and Bobby Hull later in the year,” he recalled. “The players were either all older than me or my age. That’s been the biggest transition for me. Now, I’m kind of older than some of their fathers, and I never thought that was going to happen.
Being around the game and with just one organization for 33 years, Kaiton has essentially matured alongside some of the franchise greats.
“I’ve seen Ron Francis grow up. I’ve seen him from black, curly hair to now becoming an executive with our team,” Kaiton said. “That’s been just unbelievable to watch him grow as a rookie player then into his Hall of Fame Career then into winning a couple of Cups.”
Kaiton even got to announce and be a part of a Stanely Cup victory of his own in 2006, something he said he thought would never happen. His Game 7 call is forever ingrained in the hearts and minds of fans. Kaiton called that team his "first or second favorite group of players" he's ever been around, saying their chemistry was second to none.
Viewing on ice performance is one facet; being around players is, of course, part of the job. But connecting off-ice and sustaining lifelong bonds is another, and Kaiton said that he has become close friends with many former players.
“I don’t know where the time’s gone,” he said.
Kaiton and his wife, Mary, reside in Raleigh and have three sons – Nelson, Chuck and Russell. Calling games 20 years ago was hard, he said, as he’d worry about missing one of his son’s hockey games. He made up for these absences by coaching his sons’ baseball teams during the summer and spending as much time with them as possible.
Since his sons now live in California, visiting with them in midseason is complicated. Summer remains family time.
“We don’t get to see them enough. The summer is good where we can get to see them,” he said. “I also like to see my sister and my mom, who is still up in Michigan. It’s just good to see family.”
His other love away from the rink? Playing golf.
“I’m not any good,” he admitted. “I don’t care. I don’t take the game seriously. I don’t get upset. If I hit bad shots, too bad. If I hit good shots, I’m happy. The one thing I’m smart enough not to do is bet anybody on the golf course because I’d lose my shirt.”
For every franchise game that has been broadcast over the radio – which is all save a few, according to Kaiton, when neutral site locations didn’t have the necessary equipment – Kaiton has been behind the microphone for all but one.
That one was in late January of 1992, a game against the Minnesota North Stars on the day of his dad’s funeral.
Even knowing that he had only missed one game didn’t stop Kaiton from going back to diligently count all the games he called – preseason, regular season and playoffs included.
“This is my philosophy on it: you could say regular season, but to me, the way I approach this job, I don’t care if it’s a preseason game or a playoff game or a regular season game – anytime you’re on the air, a broadcast is just as important as any other.”
That professional approach is what led to the Foster Hewitt Award in 2004. Decided by the Hockey Hall of the Fame, the award is given annually to NHL broadcasters who make outstanding contributions to their profession during their careers. Kaiton became the 26th NHL broadcaster to receive the distinction since the Hall of Fame began recognizing broadcasters in 1984.
Kaiton doesn’t like to talk about the award much, but it’s yet another accomplishment in what has been a distinguished career.
“I’m proud of it,” he said. “When your name is in there, and you’re considered one of the broadcasters with a passion – which I do have passion for the game. I don’t know if that’s enough to put you into the Hall of Fame because I think every broadcaster who does this has it. Hockey is a special sport that way.
“The biggest thing is I think of my kids,” he said. “It was nice for my kids. I’ll never forget – my mom and my kids all came for it. The most flattering thing for me is at the lunch, here I see Pete Karmanos, Jim Rutherford and Gordie Howe all sitting at the same table. And I didn’t know that any of them were coming to this at all. That made me feel proud to represent the Hurricanes. I was proud that the Hurricanes got some recognition. I think who you represent is very important. It’s not just yourself, it’s the people and the fans.”
The Radio Medium
In the 33 years that Kaiton has been in the business, technology has changed drastically. That has slightly altered his gameday routine.
He still listens to every broadcast he does, be it portions, most of or even all of a game. He wants to know how it sounds to a listener. Is he giving the score enough? How is he describing a certain play?
That hasn’t changed.
The most prominent change has come in the way Kaiton aggregates information in preparation for a game. In the modern internet age, access to countless sources of data is nearly instantaneous.
“It’s easier today to be on top of things, even though I’m not a big fan of having internet on my phone. I’m probably still a dinosaur when it comes to some of that stuff, but I’m catching up.”
That, and he’s on Twitter now.
“You won’t hear too much from me,” he said with a smile. “Not anything earth-shattering.”
While other technology has changed significantly, radio has remained rather constant, with one exception.
“We are now network announcers,” he said. “Think about it – we’re on the internet now, we’re on XM, anybody from around the world can listen to a Hurricanes game or any team.
“I used to be proud to be on a 50,000-watt radio station in Hartford because not a lot of teams were. But now, every game is accessed on the computer. I listen to a lot of my colleagues during my down time, and I think it’s neat to be able to do that.”
Kaiton calls radio, “the announcer’s medium,” and said that’s why he has such a passion for it.
“When people tune in, you’re the guy that has to paint the picture,” he said. “[Radio announcers] don’t have a producer yelling in their ear – talk about this, talk about that. You have the editorial license.
“I have to be the producer, director and editor of everything I say. This is it. I like the creativity that it allows me to perform. I like that there is a one-on-one relationship with the listener because they have to tune in to hear you. It’s their choice. It’s not like going into a sports bar and seeing a Hurricanes game on television with the sound off and watching it.”
Being that radio is such a unique medium, Kaiton has a philosophy on how to approach it. It’s not something he picked up right away. His approach evolved over time, as he absorbed knowledge from his collegues and applied it in his own manner.
“I visualize every listener sitting right next to me, and we’re watching the game together and have that conversational attitude,” he said. “You don’t broadcast at people, you converse with them.
“You weave in a story or something. I can do hours of preparation, but it doesn’t mean I have to use everything. Stories – like the other night against San Jose, I told the story of how they came into existence. Maybe a lot of people don’t know that. Whatever comes to your mind, it’s kind of ad-lib speech. There’s somebody out there that doesn’t know it.”
Having that conversationalist attitude is, in part, what spawned the Kaiton’s Corner segments, which began during the Hurricanes’ inaugural season in Greensboro in 1997. It was a way to introduce people to and educate existing fans about the sport. The email segment was something Kaiton had never done before, and, as he pointed out, email didn’t really exist before then, either.
Nearly 15 years later, that second period segment remains in tact, right down to the theme music used in its inception. But, again, there’s been an observable change.
“The questions I get now are 10 times as educated,” Kaiton said. “People are now giving opinions, and I love it. I’ll use their opinion, whatever it is – how the team’s playing, something about the league, about officiating, about rules. I’m finding that the people that do correspond with me are very, very educated. There’s been a major increase in hockey interest and education in the last 10 years.”
"This has been our 2,900th broadcast …" and Beyond
Eighty-plus games for over 30 years. Yet, Kaiton shows no signs of slowing down.
“My mom is 89. I hope I have her genetics," he said. "I don’t know if I’ll work until 89, but I’d like to work to at least 70 or 75. 60 is the new 40 they say, so I’m 40.”
Helping Kaiton stay young are the players he's around, he said.
“I find that they’re not any different than the players 30 years ago,” he said. “Their pocket books might be lined a little better, but that’s life. Gordie Howe would be making $15 million a year right now, but that doesn’t matter – he’d still be the same guy, just like these guys are. That’s what I like about it.”
Kaiton isn’t the eldest among his counterparts. Bob Miller, the voice of the Los Angeles Kings for 39 years, is 73. He received the Foster Hewitt Award four years prior to Kaiton. Someone Kaiton said has “no designs of quitting,” Miller is a personal idol of the Canes’ broadcaster.
If it were up to Kaiton, he’d also be calling games for another 13 years, at least. So, that’s what he plans on doing.
“I want to keep going until someone basically gives me the cane and pulls me out because it won’t be me making the decision to quit,” he said. “I can’t see myself ever doing anything different."