Monday, July 14, 2014

Tribute to The Voice, gone 15 years ago

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

The following demonstrates how influential Gene Hart had been on my worldview, after hearing him call Flyers games for more than a decade -- from grade school to the end of high school -- on radio and television.

The first time I ever attended a rugby match, during the latter half of my junior year at Boston College in the Spring of 1999, in the opening seconds every participant on the field joined together, hunched over and rocking back and forth, before flinging themselves downward in a mad rush for the ball.

After several seconds of silence, and answering nobody's particular question, I blurted out: "Gene Hart was wrong. Battles on the boards never came close to looking like this!"

Of course, it could have gone the other way. I could have called out the players for not doing it like he described so many times over the years. Close but no cigar, but at least I was able to embrace the poetry of the moment.

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Name one other broadcaster -- not just in hockey but in any other league -- who would get you thinking about their particular game in terms of another athletic endeavor, or allow you to think about hockey using imagery from another sport or altogether different pursuit. Since "The Voice" has been gone 15 years, you'd have to think long and hard about it.

Over the last generation, sports media has expanded to the point where broadcasting is sold as a "dream job," and play-by-play men and women are cultivated and grown through camps and classes and finely-tuned majors, rather than arising organically through opportunity.

Even though, as told through his book "Score! My 25 Years with the Broad Street Bullies," he wanted to be a hockey announcer since a very young age, Gene entered the broadcast world by accident, taking over a spot on a South Jersey high school broadcast in the 1960s, and never left the region, climbing slowly through the ranks. Initially, he was hired to be color man to Stu "Announcer Guy who appeared in several Rocky sequels" Nahan, before being promoted to the post where we all got to experience him best.

In later years, he did lament that he wished he could tell people the Flyers plucked him from dozens of applicants because he had the best tape. 

What many don't know or don't remember, is that he was a high school teacher of English and History at Cherokee High School in Marlton, NJ for almost a decade into his Flyers play-by-play tenure -- subjects which informed and infused his commentary while providing an erudite background for his rapid-fire delivery.

Listen to a game now, it's obvious who's a talking head, because there are so many of them, and those few who are not content to rest in catchphrases and pithy goal calls stand out. Even though Doc Emrick's gimmick of flipping through a thesaurus to find verbs to describe the action of moving the puck is growing stale, everyone can appreciate that he's making the effort to educate the audience in a way that goes beyond Peter Puck's rules of hockey.

His nicknames for Flyers are legend and have no equal. In a day where the most imagination required is to shorten a player's last name or add the same suffix, monikers like Hound, Big Bird, Thundermouth, Slash and Spear, Beast, Crafty, Boxcar and Rat endure as mental pictures of the men in question.

And Gene wasn't averse to slipping in some adults-only verbiage when the Flyers had a game locked up thanks to a timely goal or penalty kill. It sounded to young ears like he ways saying the Orange and Black "put the co-hee-dus" on a victory, and he probably was, because to come right out and say "coitus" would have earned him some time in a station manager's office.

It's not hard to believe some of Gene might have rubbed off on the former Port Huron Flags announcer, who first made it to the NHL as a PRISM voice in 1980. The following is a meeting of the future Hall-of-Fame minds, as Emrick dishes out some nuggets of wisdom about then-head coach Pat Quinn, having tracked him from Maine to Philly:

"He would bring up games that you played in that you wouldn't even remember," then-captain Eric Lindros said of Hart in the Inquirer the day after his passing. "He remembered every little detail. And the guy was a genius with crossword puzzles. He could do the New York Times crossword puzzle in 15 minutes."

Even though he knew who was signing the checks, Gene was never bereft of information about a town or an opponent because the game wasn't just about the need to relate the Flyers' point of view.

"In truth, Gene was a bit abrasive, but he was good," former Islanders broadcaster Jiggs McDonald said. "He knew the game. He could go into a city and tell you things about your club that even you didn't know. People eventually warmed up to him, but Gene was a perfectionist. [Former Flyers announcer] Don Earle didn't have some of his best moments with Gene, but that was because Gene was so well-prepared for games. If you didn't do your homework, Gene would leave you in the dust."

One of the enduring images of Hart's latter years as an ambassador of the franchise, was his appearance at a City Hall Plaza rally one day before the Flyers were to take on the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals. Before the WIP midday crew and roughly 1,000 rowdy noon-time spectators, he dished out a language lesson to the heathens, something to which they could focus their distaste in an erudite manner.

"Here's something you can yell at the Red Wings bench, 'Russians go home,' which is 'Russkie idizie domoi.'"

The crowd, 99 percent of whom likely forgot their high-school Romance language by the summer after they graduated, gleefully and immediately obliged by chanting "Russ-skie do-moi" over and over before letting out a piercing rebel yell. Only Gene as ringmaster could pull of a stunt like that and have it sound more like a political protest and less like a seething mob.

Flash back to two years earlier, when one of his own protests managed to get him in hot water with the organization. Hart was reportedly irked that the Flyers didn't find a spot on the radio broadcasts during the third round of the 1995 postseason, after local rights were lost to ESPN and FOX for the conference finals. It turned out that radio voice Jim Jackson, who'd logged all of two years in Philly, ended up being promoted to the coveted TV spot the following season.  Any lingering feelings of resentment gave way to a classy response.

"You can't be unhappy with 28 years," Hart told the Daily News upon his reassignment from the booth in July of 1995. "I can only say that all the good things I have have come from my association with the Flyers. I've had a dream career. I always wondered how long I could go, because it's such a difficult sport because of the speed."

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How much of an influence did Gene Hart have on my life? He's the only person that ever motivated me to set a land speed record from one city to another.

The day after his death, I had already planned to head up to Boston for a long weekend to stay in an apartment where I lived during the school year before and was still on the lease through the end of August. At the end of the stay, I was going to clear out some furniture, clothes and extras I left behind after coming home to intern and work in Philly two weeks prior.

Boston was uncharacteristically hot, sticky and mostly dead still in the mid-July heat, very much like Philadelphia this time of year. Sunday morning comes, the day of Hart's memorial service at the big building below Broad and Pattison, and I'm out the door at the crack of 7:30 -- which is no small accomplishment for a rising college senior who was under no compulsion to pick any class earlier than 11 AM.

Even in the best of conditions, and thanks to the start of what seemed like endless construction on I-95 in Connecticut west of New Haven, nobody's ever made it from Philly to Boston in a time significantly under six hours without risking a three-digit ticket. Ever. It cannot be done. (Now's the time for someone to butt in with their magic short-cut or to say that I should take the George Washington Bridge and slice through New York City). Adding to the degree of difficulty, was that my chariot was a gas-guzzling Royal Blue 1997 Ford Explorer, packed to the gills with cargo, which lost some traction and control north of 65 MPH.

A miracle was in the cards, though.

It's usually a dead giveaway with out-of-state plates, but a state cop passed me when I was going 70 in a 50 MPH construction zone somewhere in between Bridgeport and Stamford. The Tappan Zee was clogged at the approach. I was at a dead stop at the old Garden State Parkway two-way tolls around Union for what I could only figure was a mass return from vacationing in upstate New York. The gas gauge fluctuated wildly between empty and one-quarter full for the final 50 miles of the journey and I glanced nervously at each rest stop from New Brunswick on.

Nonetheless, at 12:49 sharp, I hit the gas and streaked to the top of the driveway off Eagle Road in Havertown, PA. Rear end hit the sofa cushions 90 seconds later, just in time to settle in for the two-hour service to honor the 68-year-old's life and contributions to Flyers hockey. Philly to Boston in five hours and 19 minutes. Never came anywhere close to it, either heading up or heading home, in the 22 car trips since.

We all know the great calls by heart. But there were countless other moments in the ordinary drag of a season which demonstrated Hart's love of the game and willingness to never let one second pass without showing emotion, revealing some kind of fact or indulging in a wry comment:

His mention of Calgary fighter Tim Hunter's prominent proboscis, like Toucan Sam, leading him into several fights against Flyer toughs where he came out on the losing end; letting fans know that "calling cards" were issued because the Flyers played an out-of-conference opponent for the final time in a season; trying in vain to come up with the proper past tense of "to lay" when Brad Marsh did another of his smother jobs on a shot from the point; gleefully losing control after every Philly score during a seven-goal third-period rally in an 11-6 win at Detroit, and on both of Ron Hextall's goals; roaring with delight at almost every one of Lindros' devastating hits over his second and third NHL seasons; talk of ten-bellers, taking a hit in the labanza, and saying more than one player went down in a heap like a Civil War re-enactor while embellishing contact.

One that stands out in a memorable fashion was his quip, after Murray Craven scored during a 5-on-3 advantage at 1:41 of the first period in Game 7 of the 1987 Finals in Edmonton, that the Oilers wouldn't have to worry about blowing a two-goal lead -- something which they'd done in Games 3, 5 and 6 to force them into a winner-take-all game at Northlands Coliseum.

Let's not forget, Gene was far from perfect. There was the mythical, unpreserved night in the 1970s when he was thought to exclaim "He hit the f****** post!" when a Flyer shot fell short of its goal during a wild comeback. He lost a step, began to confuse teams and divisions and had to rely on Bobby Taylor to a greater degree, after undergoing open-heart surgery in the Fall of 1985, and it was obvious that, when placed back in the television booth in 1993 for his final stint as the voice of the team, the enthusiasm and spirit were there, but the pacing and the words often failed him.

For viewers of a certain age, the following screed against Tomas Sandstrom in October of 1987 highlights the ugly side of Gene's homerism:

Sandstrom had drawn a five-game suspension from Brown the previous March for a blow Brown delivered to the Swedish forward's head. That initial incident was not without precedent, as Sandstrom, in his early days as an NHL player, had a reputation for providing himself space not through physical contact, but through barely legal stick work and flopping when retribution was nigh.

When Sandstrom was revealed to have suffered a badly-fractured jaw, Hart and Taylor had to issue an apology the following night on-air, as the Flyers played the Devils at the Meadowlands. Brown, booed mercilessly during a 4-0 New Jersey victory, was hit with a 15-game ban for that second attack.

That stood in stark contrast to his even-handedness as Master of Ceremonies on November 14, 1985. Beginning a pre-game memorial service to remember reigning Vezina Trophy winner Pelle Lindbergh, Hart set the tone for the entire evening with his opening statement: "Since Pelle's existence exuded nothing but the positive aspects...I'd like to make the theme of this ceremony not the mourning of a death, but the celebration of a life, a life which we in Philadelphia were privileged to share."

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Life, death, goals, saves, intrigue. Heroes and villains. It was all part of the emotional memorial. That was also hockey seen and heard under maestro Hart, but it was also opera -- something which thousands who tuned into the service were stunned to learn that he also embraced with similar fervor as hockey.

"In Gene's mind," said Craig Hamilton, serving in 1999 as director of marketing and production for the Opera Company of Philadelphia, "hockey and opera were very similar. He would always say both have violence, both have bloodshed, and where would either be without a score?"

Where would we be without our patron? Philadelphia and its hockey fans would be in a different head space entirely without Gene Hart's service to multiple generations calling the action on 610, 1210, Channels 3, 6, 17, 29, 48 and 57.

This column wouldn't exist as it appears. In another time and space, I could be lounging at the beach thanks to a week's rental at the Shore from the spoils of a well-earned promotion, reading someone else's thoughts and wishing they were my own. In the here and now, there's a debt to be paid in remembrance, and I'm offering up simple words to be able to pay my portion.

When the sun sets this evening, and others after it, remember the immortal valediction: "Good night, good hockey." Make both of them what you will in Gene Hart's honor.

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