Random Cities: Pete Weber
November 7, 2011 2 Comments
Puck the Media’s bi-weekly feature, Random Cities, takes you inside the world of broadcasting from an angle you might not have seen before. We take each personality through various cities that have impacted their life and/or career, and let them elaborate with stories and memories about each. Enjoy.
This Week’s Subject: Pete Weber, the play-by-play voice of the Nashville Predators since, as he says, the first day of training camp in September of 1998. He’s also been a broadcaster for the Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres, and outside of hockey, the Buffalo Bills and Seattle SuperSonics. Weber generously took some time from his day his day off to speak to me from his hotel in San Jose.
City #1: Nashville, TN
Puck the Media: What did you know about Nashville before you got there?
Pete Weber: In a way I cheated, Steve, because I was doing Triple-A baseball for 16-17 years. Nashville and Buffalo were in the same the league. From 1985-95, I was going there three or four times a year, and my in-laws were in Knoxville. We had great familiarity with it, so we had a little bit.
My last year doing Buffalo Bison games coming in there, they had a referendum in June of ’95, when it was still looking like maybe the Devils would move there. This was critical – you understand the cultural differences – that they were going to decide whether or not, since the new building was within 300 feet of a church’s front door, whether they would be allowed to sell certain spirituous beverages within it’s confines, and when that passed, it was pretty well taken care of. It was two more years before the league announced the four new franchises provisionally.
PTM: Here’s what I remember about Nashville when they started out: the crowds were energetic, and they really tried to connect themselves with the community, inviting country acts – which they still do – to play during the intermissions. How do you remember them sort of getting into the community from the start?
PW: I officially joined the club the first day of the first training camp, so that would be September 12, 1998. Some of those initiatives had already begun. There were the huge billboards around town with blacked-out teeth for Laurie Morgan and Vince Gill, and just had the slug-line: “Got Tickets?”
I think there’d been maybe two or three days of practices, and we were given this blanket invitation – everybody in the front office, all the team members – to go out to a certain hockey mom’s house … Barbara Mandrell. Her two boys – at that point in time there was only one sheet of ice in the town other than the arena – so she had been trundling them up at four or five o’clock in the morning to get their precious practice time, if not later. She has been a booster of the team from the very outset, so yeah, it has been ingrained.
Vince Gill sits by my wife’s tickets. In the wintertime, The Grand Ole Opry is back downtown at Ryman Auditorium, which is catacorner from the building. Vince, being a member of The Grand Ole Opry has some obligations to appear so many times. Since the show is in half-hour increments, he will go over and host and come back for the game, during those November through February months. It’s very funny to watch, which I’m able to do more when we have a radio game as opposed to a TV game.
PTM: Country music in Nashville is much like going down Broadway and seeing all the musicals. When you get to the playoffs, what sort of atmosphere do you see there? How has it grown since the Predators first made the playoffs in 2004 to last year, when it got as probably as big as it’s ever gotten?
PW: It’s always a question of “when a tree falls in a forest, do you hear it?” I don’t think anybody really heard it until the descent of Vancouver and Canadian media for the second round of the playoffs last year. They actually were able to report on it and were overwhelmed by it. Prior to that, I’d have to say that Nashville was a hockey secret, maintained within the confines of the Sutter family. They would always bring whatever team – be it San Jose in the early years, Calgary now – into town as early as they possibly could, would hold team meetings in Tootsies, and leave some indentations on the walls there as a result of some of their team meetings and get after it.
The music industry has been a tremendous partner for the Predators, it really has, and it’s fun to see how that interaction has worked. Now, for me, I’m a Crosby, Stills, Nash guy, okay? So, we come to town, and my wife and I are in a store and my phone rings. It’s one of my radio broadcast buddies who’s in town for CRS, the Country Radio Seminar, which takes up about a week every fall. He said, “Hey, you wanna come? We got a private concert tonight at the Hard Rock.” I did not recognize the name, I said, “I don’t think so, thank you Nick” and I hung up. My wife said, “Who’d he want us to see?” and I said, “I don’t know, some … Dunn and Brad Street?” It was Brooks & Dunn. It just didn’t register with me. So we called him back quickly and went downtown to that little get together, which was interesting. Somebody I met at the bar, it turned out, I worked on my first job in radio with in my hometown, Galesburg, Illinois in 1973, now had become Nashville’s Radio & Records correspondent.
PTM: You and Terry Crisp have been there since day one. Do you necessarily feel your role is as ambassadors to the rest of the city? How important is it for broadcasters to make that connection between the fans and the players?
PW: I don’t want to overstate self-importance or the role, but I think that, yeah, Terry and I have had to do that. Particularly, when you consider the turnover in players especially in the early years. I’m thinking about this a lot now, because [this Saturday] the franchise celebrates it’s 1,000th regular season game when Montreal comes to town. This has been an absolute blur going after it.
For the most part, speaking engagements, pure speaking engagements, or the variety of Hockey 101 classes that we have taught over the years. I knew, and perfectly accepted it going in, that not only was there going to be a teaching component, but coaches and players can’t spend all that time out in the community. We did and did so gladly. I have regular radio hits that I do throughout the course of the week but I am ready, willing and able to do the local TV news shows and all of that. It’s been a fun time. I’ve gotten a chance to meet a lot of people that I normally would not have.
PTM: Now that the Predators have been in the playoffs multiple times since ’04, they’ve made it to the second round, you see the attendance figures are pretty great just on regular nights. Are we getting to the point where the questions are starting to die about whether or not Nashville is a hockey market or not?
PW: Well, I don’t know if they have from the outside, but they have from the inside. What’s now, after the signing [Thursday] of Pekka Rinne, I think that’s changed a lot of outlook from the outside. Some people said “Woah, you’ve got that money and you’ve still got money for more?” Yeah, that’s the story. That’s the commitment ownership is more than willing to make to bring back Ryan Suter and Shea Weber as well. I think that will change that perception.
PTM: I think especially compared to the struggles the league has had in other markets, people have sort of forgotten to worry about Nashville, and while they’ve forgotten to worry, Nashville has gotten better and better to the point where you don’t need to worry about it at all at this point.
PW: Yeah, Crispy and I were just talking this morning, as we were still in Glendale, and thinking what a gorgeous set-up that is, and how lonely we felt last night. [The Coyotes] have Edmonton coming in [last Saturday night] and they have their ‘Buck Bash’ – $1 concession items including beers – so it’s gonna’ be interesting to see. I hope they can make it there, but I can understand the reluctance of the fans to sign on and pour out their hearts and money for the team, not knowing if it’s going to be there after this season. Three years of that. I thought we had it bad in the summer of 2007 but that’s just been very tough, to be a fan there.
PTM: They also have to get people in there because Hockey Night in Canada will be there.
PW: That’s right, and I think most of those cut off people Monty Hall used in Let’s Make a Deal in the later years, I think most of them have been bought up from other places.
City #2: Saitama City, Japan
PW: That was 2000, opening up the year over there. I wonder if that would’ve happened, because of the way the schedule worked out, if it had been a year later and 9/11 had struck and if we would’ve been allowed to go through with that. It was opening the year with the Pittsburgh Penguins, two games at Saitama Super Arena. I sleep well on planes, but it was a 14-hour flight, and I had had three incredibly long naps and when I got up from the last one I could sleep no more. We still had about three hours to go before we got into Tokyo to get that one going [laughs].
That arena was truly unique. As it was set up for us, it was roughly 18,000 capacity. Just for historical purposes, Cliff Ronning scored the first NHL goal in that building. We were doing radio then. The games were starting at Midnight central time. ESPN was doing them at that point, and it looked like they were broadcasting – this is the old Rodney Dangerfield approach to life – a Harlem Globetrotters game against the Washington Generals, because it was “Hey, it’s Jaromir Jagr and the Pittsburgh Penguins against … unnamed opponent.” [laughs] The Predators split that opening series and that was fun.
Saitama Super Arena has to be the most incredibly engineered facility I can think of. That could also be open air, and it was. It was a World Cup soccer venue later on. It could be arranged as small as 5,000 people, and then up to outdoors it could be about 35,000 for soccer.
PTM: Do you have any other particular memories from that trip?
PW: Yes, going to – I’m a baseball nut, obviously – Japanese baseball games and seeing something I will never see here, I don’t think: vendors going through the stands selling whiskey and water. That’s one thing, but the fact was that the Whiskey was from my backdoor, it was Jack Daniels from Lynchburg, Tennessee [laughs]. They were hawking it in the stands. It shows you how the world’s economy has truly shrunk boundaries in all manner of distinctions. And to see how the fans of baseball there are into almost organized cheering sections. They pass out cards, they wave flags, they do things on cue. Much like what has become our infamous Section 303 at Bridgestone Arena.
PTM: And you have one of the more truly unique and utterly annoying tradition to opposing fans in hockey, which is the whistles for Jordan Tootoo.
PW: Yes, but I’ll tell ya’, I don’t know if that works to the Predators advantage, the other team now always knows when Jordan’s on the ice [laughs]. There are no sneak attacks. On the other hand, those Tootoo whistles as they are called, are sold with the benefits going to the Predators’ charitable foundation. There’s the trade-off for you.
PTM: You mentioned that, during the trip to Japan, ESPN sort of treated the Predators as the Washington Generals. Was that sort of the way the team was perceived in the first couple of years?
PW: Oh, yeah, because I would have to say that the Predators, you have 26 players that the other teams don’t want. In the first year, just two choices from the first entry draft made an appearance – the late Karlis Skrastins and David Legwand. For example, the Canadiens wanted to lose Tomas Vokoun, because that would protect them from further goaltender losses in the subsequent expansion drafts for Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota. So they gave David Poile another player to select Tomas Vokoun from the expansion pool – Sebastien Bordeleau. He turned out to be very serviceable for Nashville until he had the neck injury, but he was still able to play in Europe after that.
The idea of being Red Klotz’s Washington Generals was there, but yet, the first two years the team won 28 games both times. I was preparing for more of sort of a Winnipeg-type first season that the old Jets had when they came into the NHL in 1979 and was very happily surprised. There were very few blowout games. One that comes to mind was an 8-0 loss in Philadelphia, and aside from those there were some very interesting nights, including the night Wayne Gretzky almost didn’t get into the building for the Rangers because the security guard, looking at him, did not believe he was a player. He subsequently set the building scoring record that was broken a few years later by Peter Forsberg, but he had five points that night for the New York Rangers.
City #3: Los Angeles, CA/Buffalo, NY
PTM: Around the league, what are some of your other favorite cities to travel to?
PW: There are two where I lived for significant periods of time, and that would be Buffalo and Los Angeles. And you’re going to say [sarcastically], “Boy, those are two very similar cities, Pete!” Buffalo, I still have so many friends. I still am with a group in Nashville that goes to McNamara’s Irish Pub on Sundays when I’m free to watch Buffalo Bills games with 100 diehards.
Los Angeles, that was where, we could vilify Jack Kent Cooke all we want, but that was my first NHL job. I joined Bob Miller there in 1978 doing the color with him, and those were fun, fun times. It was a different building, but I still have a lot of friends there as well, as I’m looking forward to when we head down to LA on this trip on Sunday. There was no better teacher for a young broadcaster, first time working in the major leagues, than was Bob Miller. His work habits, his approach, tremendous inspirations and anybody can learn from working with him.
PTM: Are there two broadcasters who are more different than Bob Miller and Rick Jeanneret?
PW: Boy, yeah, you’re talking about different ends of the spectrum there. I guess the furthest you could get away if he were still active would have been Fred Cusick and Rick Jeanneret. It was interesting in Boston, with one radio/television tandem, because you had Fred Cusick on television and a guy I think has been overlooked, but I think one of the greatest announcers in the NHL in the last 40 years, and that’d be Bob Wilson who did the Bruins on radio. He was a absolutely fantastic announcer. Thankfully, he is still with us, he has not passed on. I haven’t had the chance to talk with Bob in a couple of years now, but we still correspond on occasion. But, right now, the current set-up, let’s see, Bob Miller … Rick Jeanneret, I can’t think of more divergent than those two.
City #4: Detroit, MI
PTM: Is Detroit still the biggest draw to Nashville?
PW: Oh yeah. If we had to play, say, four Wednesday afternoon games outside the holiday season at home, our sales staff would hope it’d be the Detroit Red Wings each time. In a way, it was Michiganders who had been transplanted to Middle Tennessee by the auto industry, whether it was the Nissan plant in Sparta or the Smyrna plant down in Spring Hill, that I think helped pollinate the hockey crowd. Sort of like seeding the clouds for rain, when you need to do that. Here, you had these people that had missed hockey for so long. Some of them had been moved out there in the early 1980’s. While they had had minor league hockey in town, with the Nashville Dixie Flyers, the Knights, the South Stars at various times, they wanted to see the NHL brand of hockey again.
So we had a hybrid type of fan called the PredWing, which we still have. It was almost like taking advantage of the south’s religious approach. We had a conversion night in our second season. We offered Red Wings fans who came in with their gear, they could turn in their Red Wings cap or pennant or shirt, for Predators merchandise. We boxed up what they brought in, and on our next trip to Detroit, I took four huge boxes of stuff to the Boys & Girls Club in Inner City Detroit, and the kids went crazy to get that stuff. So it helped out both sides, and helped out I think with the conversion process, although there are still those who say, “They root for the Predators now, 76 games a year.” There’s still six with the Red Wings where it’s kind of hard to take that originality out of their hearts.
PTM: As the Predators, Red Wings and Blue Jackets have all sort of been proposed for realignment, just from your perspective, how do you think that would best turn out for the Predators?
PW: I think our sales people would tell you right now, “Is there a way the Predators and Red Wings could remain together?” The various realignment proposals we have seen gaining traction, and the two divisions unevenly split, there’s still sort of an East and West situation. I wonder if, some people have proposed, could we not do something a little more North and South. Not that the South is trying to rise again, but I wonder if there are enough teams that are southern enough to break them up where you could still be in divisions where you are no more than one time zone away from divisional opponents. The big thing the league has to address is the horrible situation the Dallas Stars franchise is in, playing those 9 and 9:30 road games on television against their divisional opponents. They’ve got to somehow get in with the central time zone, or at worst with the mountain time zone.
I don’t think there’s going to be an easy way to this. It’s going to be very intriguing to see what happens going into those December 5th Governor’s Meetings at Pebble Beach, to see how they do divide all this out. Mike Santos is the Assistant General Manager for the Florida Panthers and while he was in hockey ops. with the Predators, he was the one who first drew up the first version I had seen of this four-division approach, keeping things like they had been in the days of the Adams, the Patrick and so on, of the first two rounds of the playoffs in there, because that’s how rivalries truly are built.
I was just remembering when I was with the Kings, you know who our rivals were in our division? We were in a division with Detroit, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Boston and Washington. But at least at that time we didn’t have the divisional concentration in scheduling, because we played everybody four times, two at home and two away. So that was a little bit of a different approach to it all. I will probably sit down, draw something up, that I can see how North and South could work out, but there’s no question that Predators fans could identify almost more with a Southeastern Conference approach, but we won’t go into college conference approach.
Having gone through the difficulties in traveling from Los Angeles, when there were only really three teams out West – Los Angeles, Vancouver and the Colorado Rockies – there are some inequities that need to be cleaned up. I really don’t think it’s fair that there is a bus league in the East, and essentially a wagon train in the West.
PTM: Do you think, at this point, the Predators would still be fine if they only saw Detroit once a year?
PW: That’s the interesting way you put it, it’s not like they play them all the time. It’s three games as it is right now. I don’t think it would be as critical as some might view this.
City #5: East Rutherford, NJ
PW: I don’t know if you know this Terry Crisp story, from when he was coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they’re playing at the Meadowlands. He’d gotten a telephone call the morning of the game from Phil Esposito, that he was sending him a goaltender, David Littman (EDITOR’s NOTE: Funny enough, Littman is now a producer for EA Sports’ NHL video game series) to come in and he was to start him that night. Terry said, “Okay, if that’s what you want, we’ll start him.” Well, as Terry will tell you better than I, after four shots on net it was 4-0 New Jersey. That’s bad enough. But when you look on the jumbotron on the replays, he was nowhere to be seen in front of the net. He’d wanted out to the corner, and skated to the blueline, and was over on the left side wall.
As the period went on, it just so happened the cameras were on the Lightning bench, Terry Crisp went down to his assistant, Wayne Cashman, and said, “Hey Cash, did you tell Littman he was playing tonight?,” wondering if he wasn’t prepared. Cash goes, “Yeah, I told him, but I can’t remember if I told him he was playing goal or not.” [laughs]. Those two start breaking up laughing on the bench, not knowing it’s being caught on television, they’re seeing that back in Tampa.
So, they’re walking off the ice, by the visiting room is that pay telephone that was always there. It’s ringing. The Lightning trainer picks it up and goes, “Hey Crispy, it’s for you.” Crispy goes, “Oh, sure it is! Who knows the number to that payphone?” Sure enough, it was Phil Esposito [laughs]. Phil is roaring at Terry, “I should fire you and Cashman right now!” Cash’s is a great friend of Espo’s, too. Terry goes, “For what?”, “Laughing on TV, we’re down 4-0 in the first period.” Then Terry explained the story to him, and Phil said, “I guess I would have laughed at that too.” “Okay, but just do me one favor. Get Littman out of New Jersey tonight. I don’t care what you do.” So he was sent down to the Atlanta Knights of the IHL at that time. How did Phil Esposito get that payphone number?
PTM: Do you think Terry Crisp is sort of the perfect color guy to sell hockey in Nashville?
PW: He certainly proved to be. I don’t know if you could have put out a job description and filled it any better than what he did. I was doing Buffalo Sabres cable casts with Mike Robitaille, as intermission and pregame host. At that point in time, Gerry Helper, [Nashville’s] VP of Communications, was the assistant PR man for the Buffalo Sabres under the legendary Paul Wieland. So we knew each other very well. Later on, Jerry went to the NHL office and worked for them. Then, when they launched the Lightning franchise, he was the public relations person for the Lightning, so he got to know Terry very well.
His idea was that he thought instantaneously that we would have good chemistry with each other. He turned out to be right. Terry and I had really not interacted much and he didn’t remember me at all from various pre-game interviews when he was coaching either Calgary or Tampa, but we hit it off from the very outset, our families are extraordinarily close, and that is Gerry Helper’s contribution.
(Hat-tip to Dirk Hoag from On the Forecheck for a city suggestion, and to Mr. Weber for the golden photos.)