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Tracking the Storm

More Than a Catchphrase

Forslund’s passion continues to burn after 20 years of NHL broadcasting

Wednesday, 09.03.2014 / 10:20 AM / Tracking the Storm
By Mike Sundheim
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More Than a Catchphrase
John Forslund\'s passion continues to burn after 20 years of NHL broadcasting.
Mike Sundheim
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It’s just after 8 a.m., and 18,505 seats sit empty at Washington’s Verizon Arena. One seat is filled. Not a single member of the home-standing Capitals has arrived on F Street, with their morning skate more than two hours away and 11 hours to come before the puck drops for their game against the Carolina Hurricanes. And yet, one member of the visiting team’s traveling party is already there, 20 rows up in section 101, Bruce Springsteen’s voice streaming through his headphones.

Technically, there is no reason for John Forslund to be there at that hour, staring at the clean sheet of ice below. But for the broadcaster entering his 20th year as the voice of this franchise, it’s the only place he can imagine being.

“I’m a creature of habit,” Forslund said. “Very simply, I just feel more comfortable being in the building. I don’t like being in the hotel. I like being in the rink.”

It’s also all part of the process for Forslund, whose work ethic and preparation have been calling cards since his start in the business. After rising at 5:30 a.m., he works out, eats breakfast and scours the Internet to update books filled with scores and meticulous notes on every NHL team.

Forslund’s habits and routines can be sources of awe for some, and comedy for others. His ability to stick to his routines despite the strange hours of an 82-game schedule has led some staffers and fellow broadcasters to wonder if he even sleeps. Hurricanes analyst Tripp Tracy is among those who have called Forslund as “The Count” for his vampire-like gift to operate on little rest.

The early morning arrivals aren’t just for show. There can be professional advantages to getting there before the ignition of the ice resurfacer echoes through an empty arena. Sometimes a lone skater will hit the ice early, and Forslund will know a rehabbing opponent isn’t quite ready to return to the lineup. Other times he’ll just see something noteworthy “by accident.”

And, importantly, beating the coaches – of either team – to the arena is about relationships, and respect.

“You get a more relaxed setting with the coaches, long before everybody else gets there,” said Forslund. “It’s sure better than sitting in the hotel lobby, or my room.”

***

We all have dates that are branded in our minds in ways that allow us to picture them vividly, as if the years between were mere hours. We can envision the weather, the setting, maybe even what we were wearing. For a generation of New England hockey fans, one of those days is May 10, 1970. For John Forslund, it was more than just one of his earliest memories, it was a life-altering moment.

“I was eight years old. That’s as far as I can go back memory-wise with hockey. Bobby Orr scored the goal, and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.”

Forslund was at his aunt’s house that Mother’s Day, watching by himself as Orr soared through the air following his famous Cup-winner. He was hooked.

Sensing his son’s new-found passion, Ralph Forslund headed to Sears at the start of the 1970-71 season and picked up a booster for the parabolic antenna attached to his Springfield, Massachusetts home.

“Where our house was positioned, about an hour and a half west of Boston, we could get channel 38, pretty clear. Clear enough to see every game,” John Forslund recalled. “I started calling the games off the television.”

It wasn’t long before Ralph was inviting his buddies over to watch the Bruins games, turning the volume down as John provided the play-by-play entertainment. By the age of 11 or 12, John was preparing for games like a true sportscaster, coming up with a format and tape recording everything. Ralph was his partner, providing the color analysis.

John’s mother Yolanda supported his hobby in a different way. The daughter of Italian immigrants and a teacher’s aide by trade, Yolanda Forslund wanted John to read more. She saw his passion for hockey as a way to convince him to do so.

“So I started reading, and I mean really reading, everything about hockey that I could,” Forslund said. “It wasn’t easy to get your hands on that stuff back then. But I formulated a history of the game in my head, and I was able to retain most of it somehow.”

Springfield itself also fed John’s hockey obsession. Though primarily known to many as the birthplace of basketball, the town has a proud hockey heritage. The seeds of the NHL’s Players Association were sewn in Springfield, when Springfield Indians owner Eddie Shore clashed with striking players in the late 1960’s.

The Forslund family started regularly attending Springfield’s American Hockey League games in the early 1970’s, watching as Butch Goring and Billy Smith guided the Springfield Kings to the 1971 Calder Cup.

“They had some really good teams there in the early’s 70’s, before the WHA,” Forslund said. “Springfield has its place in hockey history. It’s where the player’s union started. Eddie Shore. It’s a historic minor-league setting, always was.”

***

By the time Forslund got to high school, his broadcasting hobby had blossomed into a full-fledged career aspiration. Though he was an outstanding baseball player and ultimately played that sport collegiately, sportscasting was never a “fallback” after his athletic career. Announcing the games was his primary life goal.

Like a young athlete studies his sports heroes, Forslund watched and learned from the broadcasters of his youth. He watched Fred Cusick, Danny Gallivan, Bob Cole and Dan Kelly. But the announcer he enjoyed the most wasn’t primarily known for hockey.

“I think my favorite play-by-play guy was Pat Summerall,” Forslund said. “In his delivery, the way he was able to kind of be understated, but be powerful.”

During the spring of his junior year of high school, Forslund sat down with his guidance counsellor and laid out his broadcasting goals.

“She said that was a nice dream, a pie-in-the-sky type thing,” Forslund remembered. “I think her advice was pretty good, but it’s also the safe choice, which a lot of people make.”

In contrast, Ralph Forslund continued to feed the flames of his son’s hockey broadcasting passion. Ralph Forslund’s parents had arrived from Sweden in the 1920’s, following the career of his mother, Ruth Lindberg, a singer for the Boston Opera Company. Ralph lied about his age to volunteer for the Marines in World War II at 17, before embarking on a sales career.

John recalls Ralph as a “spitting image” of former baseball manager Jim Leyland, mustache, smoking habit and all. Wry, athletic and affable, the elder Forslund also loved hockey, and gave his son every opportunity to continue learning about that game. In 1978, Ralph scored seats just behind the visitor’s broadcast pit at the Boston Garden. The Bruins were playing Los Angeles that day, and now Hall-of-Famer broadcaster Bob Miller was calling the game.

“My dad talked his way into the whole thing. He struck up a conversation with Bob. I was embarrassed, but Bob was very nice to me. I got to watch him do the whole game. During the playoffs a few years ago, I finally told Bob about it.”

John ultimately followed his guidance counsellor’s advice, attending Springfield College with the intention of becoming a high school physical education teacher and coach. But his dream found him there. Though the school did not have a journalism major, there was a single course in broadcast journalism, taught by Keith Silver, a news director at Springfield’s NBC affiliate, WWLP.

The final exam for the course was to voiceover a quarter of Super Bowl XVI, between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Most kids took it just as a fun thing, just an elective,” Forslund said. “I prepared. I came in with my charts and called the game.”

Shortly afterward, Silver called Forslund into his office, and offered him a job, at one of WWLP’s sister stations in Provo, Utah. Silver said Forslund could transfer and continue his studies there, but that he would be put on the air immediately.

“He told me, ‘You’ve got something you can’t really learn anywhere, I think you’ve got talent.’” Forslund recalled. “But I didn’t really want to do that, I wanted to stay the course.”

Nonetheless, a pro had affirmed that Forslund’s passion could, in fact, be his career. Becoming a high school gym teacher was no longer an option.

***

In January 1984, Forslund was 22 years old, driving home to his parents’ house in Springfield, clutching his first paycheck.

He had originally returned to Springfield for an internship with the AHL’s Indians, the final requirement for his masters in sports management from Adelphi University. During the interview process for the internship, the team’s owner, Peter Cooney, asked Forslund if he had ever done any broadcasting.

It was out of the blue, since nothing in the job description involved broadcasting. That Forslund’s “experience” was primarily in his parents’ living room didn’t end up mattering.

“He never asked me for whom or where, or can I have a tape,” Forslund said. “All he said was ‘I got a guy who does play-by-play, he’s brand new, and he struggles. He needs a color guy, so I might have you go on the air and help him a little bit.’”

Six months later, Forslund had his first broadcasting job – an announcer for his hometown Springfield Indians. As one of four full-time employees of the team, he also handled public relations, community relations, marketing and sales. It paid $7,000 a year.

Forslund had called the Indians’ home game that January Friday night when he got his first paycheck. He then grabbed dinner with his fiancé, Natalie, before heading home. After all of those mock broadcasts in the living room with his dad, he was actually getting paid to do what he loved. The check even bore the Indians’ logo, and he couldn’t wait to show his father.

Ralph had been at the game that night, and he and Yolanda were sound asleep by the time John got home. At 5 a.m., Yolanda burst into John’s room, hysterical. John rushed to his father and administered CPR. But there was nothing he could do. Ralph’s aorta had burst. He was dead.

John spent a lot of time on long American League bus rides in the months and years that followed.

“I had a real hard time dealing with that. He was my best friend. I wanted him to be the best man at my wedding. I almost didn’t get married, I almost didn’t do a lot of things because I couldn’t deal with what had happened.

“I had to come to grips with that, and I had lots of time on the bus – 12, 16 hour bus rides where all you do is think. No phones. All you got is to think.”

***

In 1991, Forslund was at a crossroads. After seven years in Springfield, he was either going to take the next step, or he was going to find a new career.

And then there was Bobby Orr, flying in to change everything, again.

His playing days behind him, Orr was serving on the board of directors for the NHL’s Hartford Whalers in 1991. He frequently traveled to Springfield to scout and watch the Indians play, and took note of the game notes being produced by the broadcaster and PR man for the AHL affiliate.

“He got to know me, and after all those years, the guy who scored the goal that inspired me helped me get in to the NHL.”

Orr wasn’t the only one. Jimmy Roberts had guided Springfield to back-to-back Calder Cups under two different parent clubs in 1990 (NY Islanders) and 1991 (Hartford). He became the Whalers’ head coach for the 1991-92 season, and had a significant role in taking Forslund to the NHL with him.

Forslund served as the PR Director for the Whalers for four years, for the first time earning benefits and a salary that would allow him and his wife, Natalie, to think about starting a family. He was also able to keep broadcasting, doing color alongside Chuck Kaiton for Whalers radio broadcasts on WTIC in Hartford and calling minor-league games on the side. He even got the chance to make his NHL television debut, as an emergency substitute on SportsChannel for the Whalers’ 4-0 win against the Kings on March 11, 1992.

But Forslund burned to be in the television booth full-time. When Peter Karmanos, Jr. bought the team in 1994, Forslund shared those aspirations with new General Manager Jim Rutherford. Rutherford gave him that chance, hiring Forslund to provide the play-by-play for Hartford’s 10-game, over-the-air broadcast schedule on WTNH.

The 1994 lockout whittled that schedule to a single-game. It was April 20, 1995, against the Rangers: a one-game audition of sorts, with Hall of Famer Emile Francis as his color analyst.

“My most vivid memory is walking into Madison Square Garden with Emile Francis, who’s like a god there,” said Forslund. “I knew and respected him, but I never understood how Rangers fans worshipped him until I walked into the Garden with the Cat. It was like Elvis had walked in.”

The audition was a success. Forslund began his run as the full-time television voice of the franchise in 1995-96, and Rutherford gave him a chance to provide input into the hiring of his color analyst. Forslund suggested former Springfield Indians and Whalers goaltender Daryl Reaugh, who at that time was calling games for the IHL’s Detroit Vipers.

“He played with us in Springfield, and we’d become friends. He did color when he was injured,” Forslund said. “We were young and brand new. We never wore suits, we had open collars. SportsChannel marketed us like that, and we were pretty good together.”

***

March 25, 1997. Forslund calls the game as Hartford outshoots the Colorado Avalanche 46-28, but Patrick Roy stops all 46 shots and the Whalers fall 4-0 in front of 14,191 at the Hartford Civic Center.

“I lived in Springfield at the time,” Forslund said. “After the game I drove from Hartford to Springfield, got into bed with my wife. We put on the channel 30 news and they had breaking news that the Whalers were moving. That’s how I found out. We were blindsided.”

John and Natalie had a decision to make. Their first child, Erika, was a year old, and Natalie was pregnant with baby number two. On top of that, legendary Boston Bruins broadcaster Fred Cusick, one of the biggest influences on John’s career, was retiring. When asked who he would pick to be his successor, Cusick told the Boston Herald he would choose John Forslund. Channel 38 in Boston called, asking John to audition for what would have essentially been his dream job.

But Rutherford wasn’t letting him go so easily. In early August 1997, John flew to North Carolina. He sat across a table from Rutherford at Vinny’s Steakhouse on Six Forks Road in Raleigh, and Rutherford made his pitch.

“He said, ‘I’d really like you to be a part of what we’re doing down here,’” Forslund recalled. “I went home and told my wife I thought it was the right thing to do.”

There were certainly times Forslund questioned that decision. Just 29 of 82 Hurricanes games were televised that first season. The team was traveling 70 miles to Greensboro for its home games, trying to introduce a sport that was completely foreign in its new market.

And in a pre-NHL Center Ice world, Forslund no longer had the professional exposure he enjoyed calling games in Hartford, where he could be watched by executives at ESPN and seen in New York or Boston.

“All due respect to what’s happened here since, but at the time, it was a professional black hole.”

But then things started to turn. In 1999, the Hurricanes’ new arena in Raleigh was completed, and the team was able to truly start building a fan base. Forslund saw more opportunities, calling basketball games for Fox in addition to Hurricanes games.

“The more we worked at it and the more we grew, it just became more and more rewarding. I will always be proud of the fact that I was part of a burgeoning team.

“If you go work for the Boston Bruins, you’re not doing anything to educate and enhance. You’re just helping it along. With this, this was reward. No matter what your job was in the early stages of the Hurricanes, you felt that.”

***

Forslund stood on stage, the sun starting to set on a perfect Raleigh June evening. Hurricanes fans stretched out in all directions before him, as he announced the names of the 2006 Stanley Cup Champions.

It was the crowning moment for the Hurricanes franchise, but also a pinnacle for Forslund, to be able to represent the team in a celebration with its fans.

“The pride shared by the fans and the team that season and that night was special,” Forslund said. “The connection with the fans here has been as important to me as anything, and I hope will always continue.”

Months before the parade route was drawn for that day, Forslund could sense that such a celebration was possible, seeing the dynamic in the Hurricanes’ locker room. He’d seen it in Springfield in 1990 and 1991, when the Indians won back-to-back Calder Cups. He’d felt it again in 2002, before the Hurricanes shocked the hockey world by beating New Jersey, Montreal and Toronto to reach the 2002 Stanley Cup Final.

“I knew we were onto something. The chemistry of those teams leads you to believe that they can do it. You’ve got to have that love for each other to win. It was magical. I’ve been very fortunate to be part of those things.”

The 2006 championship had an impact on Forslund professionally, beyond the Stanley Cup ring. In 2006-07, for the first time, the Hurricanes finally televised all 82 games.

It was a long way from the frustrations of that first year’s 29-game schedule. Making a home in the Raleigh suburb of Apex, John and Natalie had front-row seats to the population explosion in the Triangle market and the footprint the Hurricanes were create on the North Carolina sports landscape.

And their family grew as well. Matthew Forslund was born in Oct. 1997, just a month after the Forslunds arrived in North Carolina. A third child, Kara, was born in 2003.

“What drew us to (Apex) was that it was country, there was nothing out there. Now it’s totally changed,” Forslund said. “We’d always heard, it’s a great place to raise a family. I think the kids have had a fabulous upbringing here. It’s home.”

Erika and Kara are both dancers, heavily involved in the Cary Ballet Conservatory. And through Matthew, Forslund has been a part the Triangle’s growing youth-hockey community, experiencing the rewards and growing pains of developing players in a non-traditional hockey market.

Matthew’s 1997 birth year represents the first group of players born and raised with the Hurricanes in Raleigh, and he and his teammates were first squirts to play AAA for the Junior Hurricanes.

“It’s not perfect. It’s a tough place to be a hockey player. But it’s getting better, and we are starting to see, with Josh (Wesley), the type of training players are getting here. There are more coming, and we’re proud of that.”

Matthew, a goalie, will be stopping shots against players up to four years his senior this year, competing for the East Coast Eagles in the United States Premier Hockey League.

***

Thirteen hours after Forslund sat alone in section 101, the Verizon Center is full and loud in overtime as Hurricanes defenseman Ryan Murphy breaks up the right side of the ice, on a two-on-one with Jeff Skinner. Murphy shifts his shoulders and Capitals defenseman Mike Green takes a knee in front of the net as Murphy slides the puck across the crease to Skinner…

Despite his busy work schedule, Ralph Forslund always made time for his son. Whether it was doing color for his play-by-play of Bruins games on television, or coaching his little league baseball team.

Ralph had a saying he used frequently as a baseball coach, an old-timey phrase that by that time wasn’t very common. A kid would make a nice play in the field, and Ralph would meet him as he ran to the dugout and tussle his hair saying, “Hey, hey whaddya say.”

… Skinner receives Murphy’s pass on the tape, tapping it into the wide-open net behind Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer. From his booth high above the ice, and into television sets across the Carolinas, John Forslund bellows:

“They score! Hey, hey, whaddya say, Mr. Skinner! Carolina wins in overtime.”

In a cynical, social media world, he’s heard the naysayers. People who think it’s hokey or over-the-top. But Forslund won’t stop saying it.

“I know what it’s about, and that’s why I use it. I started using it in a couple of broadcasts right after my dad died. People kinda liked it. So I figured out a way to keep using it. That’s why I say it, to dedicate my career to him.”

Though Forslund may use some of his other well-known calls, like “Ward says no,” on a national broadcast for NBC or NBC Sports Network, “Hey, hey, whaddya say” is reserved for the local shows. It’s an expression of his passion for the team, for this market, for the sport and for his father.

A passion forged and stoked in front of a television set in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“I think the game is exhilarating. You’ve got to really have passion. The players have that passion, so when you communicate the game to people, you should have that passion, too.”



SCHEDULE

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STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 MTL 23 16 6 1 61 57 33
2 PIT 20 14 4 2 72 46 30
3 NYI 21 15 6 0 69 57 30
4 TBL 22 14 6 2 77 60 30
5 DET 21 11 5 5 59 52 27
6 BOS 23 13 9 1 59 57 27
7 TOR 21 11 8 2 67 63 24
8 OTT 20 9 7 4 55 54 22
9 NYR 20 9 7 4 57 58 22
10 WSH 20 9 8 3 56 54 21
11 NJD 21 9 9 3 53 61 21
12 FLA 19 7 6 6 41 51 20
13 PHI 20 8 9 3 57 61 19
14 CAR 20 6 11 3 48 62 15
15 CBJ 20 6 12 2 49 72 14
16 BUF 21 6 13 2 36 70 14

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
R. Nash 20 4 11 1 15
E. Staal 15 6 7 -6 13
J. Faulk 20 2 10 -8 12
J. Skinner 16 5 6 -4 11
J. Tlusty 20 8 2 -11 10
E. Lindholm 20 6 4 -3 10
N. Gerbe 16 2 6 3 8
A. Sekera 19 0 8 -3 8
C. Terry 17 4 3 1 7
V. Rask 20 3 2 -7 5
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
C. Ward 6 7 1 .903 2.71
A. Khudobin 0 4 2 .898 2.97