Starting out, "I was basically trying to be Bob Chase," NBC's Mike Emrick says about the Fort Wayne Komets broadcaster who's still at the microphone at age 89.
Bob Chase is a huge fan of the kid. In fact, he would talk about the kid’s broadcasting abilities all day if you let him. Chase first met him when the kid was 14 or 15 or so and sitting at the end of a hockey press box in Fort Wayne, Ind., lugging a tape recorder to Memorial Coliseum at the start of a long journey to the top of the NHL broadcasting mountain. You’ve heard of the kid if you are a hockey fan. He is NBC’s NHL verbal maestro Mike Emrick, who turns 69 on August 1. Bob Chase calls him kid because Chase will turn 90 next January 22.
While Emrick’s oratory skills are on a national stage at the Stanley Cup Final this month, one of the more remarkable hockey broadcasting stories you’ve probably never heard of returns every October in Fort Wayne. Chase recently completed his 62nd season of calling play-by-play for the Fort Wayne Komets, a minor league hockey team in the ECHL that had previous homes in the Central Hockey League and the International Hockey League. If his health is good, which it currently is, Chase will be back calling the Komets again next fall.
The ECHL’s regular season consists of 70 games. Chase calls all home games at the Allen County Memorial Coliseum with his longtime partner Robbie Irons, a former Komets goalie who at 68 is 21 years Chase’s junior. During the shorter road trips to such places as Kalamazoo and Toledo, Chase does the games by himself. (The broadcaster who handles the calls for long road swings is Shane Albahrani.) The Komets say Chase has missed only six Fort Wayne postseason games during the club’s 63-year history. Last April 18 he called his 500th Komet playoff game when Fort Wayne took on Kalamazoo.
Emrick grew up in La Fontaine, Ind., about 60 miles south of Fort Wayne, and said the first hockey game he ever attended came on Dec. 10, 1960 when the Komets hosted the Muskegon Zephyrs. Emrick was 14 and Chase was doing the call.
“When you start broadcasting you are a hybrid of the people you listen to so before I developed a style of my own I was basically trying to be Bob Chase,” Emrick said.
In an interview with SI.com on Thursday, Chase recalled the teenage Emrick coming around the rink as a teenager. “The thing of it was he was a very patient kid,” he said. “He did not neglect his education which was very important. He was so intelligent and had such an extensive vocabulary and good control of it, I just knew because of how he presented himself, I thought he was a can’t-misser. Once you met the guy, you had to love him. He was so good.”
When asked to describe his own style—he’s an entertaining gamecaller who I'd say borders on being a homer—Chase replied, “I try not to be an overbearing homer but I do appreciate the fact that this is my team. I try the best I can to represent them as fairly as I can. I don’t go overboard and do all the homer-homer stuff but they are still in the minor leagues and you never know who is listening at one moment. Maybe somebody heard a word of some kind and said, ‘Hey maybe I’ll give that kid a call.’ There are people who have heard our broadcasts in Canada and called to ask about players.”
Last year Emrick returned to Ft. Wayne to call a Komets game with Chase and Irons. Chase and Emrick called the first period together while Chase, Emrick and Irons handled the final period as a trio. “It was one of the most delightful times I had a broadcaster,” Chase said.
“When I was growing up in the mid-50s we had the CBS Game of the Week with Bud Palmer calling games in the six-team NHL and then we had our own team in Fort Wayne called the Komets,” Emrick told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2012. “Chase was the announcer. My main interest was baseball until my family took me to a game in 1960, but I listened to Bob because they were our team 45 miles away through the corn fields.”
Chase, whose last name was changed from Wallenstein, began his own journey to Fort Wayne from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he played amateur hockey and baseball before attending Northern Michigan. Prior to graduating from college, Chase began working as a broadcaster at WDMJ-AM in Marquette, Michigan. In 1950 he married his sweetheart, Muriel Chase, who everyone calls Murph. The couple (who celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary on April 6) had planned to make a life in the Upper Peninsula—Murph worked as a surgical nurse—until Bob got a call one day in the summer of 1953 from WOWO-AM in Ft. Wayne asking if he’d be interested in a job there in the sports department.
“I did an audition at the station and son of a gun, two days later they told me to come on down,” Chase said. “I got here the first of July in 1953 and have not left since.”
Station management told Chase when he arrived at WOWO that his name was too long, so Bob Wallenstein became Bob Chase—Chase being Murph’s maiden name. He began broadcasting the Komets in October of ’53—their second year of existence—and does not specifically remember much about his first game on the air but he does remember the opponent (Toledo) and how the hockey was “blood and guts.” Chase said the rosters at the time consisted of only 13 players (nine forwards, three defenseman and one goalie).
Over the years Chase rose up the management ranks at WOWO (which was owned by Westinghouse) while developing a strong reputation as a hockey voice. He had a number of chances to take an NHL broadcasting job, including the Red Wings offering him a gig in the early 1960s. He said the closest he ever came to leaving Fort Wayne was when the Blues wanted to hire him as a broadcaster and front office worker in the late ’60s. One of the people he met during his interviews in St. Louis was the famed sportscaster Jack Buck, who told him, “Look, Chase, I am damn happy you are coming down here and St. Louis is a great town but I’ll give you one word of advice: Keep your damn hands off the St. Louis Cardinals.”
So Chase stayed in Ft. Wayne and at WOWO where he did Big Ten football, college basketball, high school basketball, and preview shows for The Indy 500. He retired from the station in 2009 after 53 years there. “For a guy from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan this career was the most gratifying thing I could ever imagine,” he said.
He said he owed his long professional run to enthusiasm, good genetics and Murph’s support.
“I have always said if every hockey player that came through Fort Wayne had the enthusiasm and the passion for the game that he does, they would all be in the NHL,” said Irons, a former NHL and IHL goaltender who retired from hockey in 1981 and has worked as an analyst beside Chase for 33 years. “He loves the game and he loves to be around the players. His enthusiasm never quits. He still gets excited. It is amazing. Eighty-nine years old.”
During the summer Chase and Murph take their 38-foot RV to Alabama to visit their two sons, and head to Colorado to spend time with their daughter. They also have a home in the Upper Peninsula where the couple, along with a black lab named Duke, like to hike and fish.
Many older broadcasters say that the toughest part of the business for them becomes the travel, but Chase says he enjoys that part immensely.
“I always sit in the left front seat of the bus and at the beginning of the season, the new players will look at me and think, ‘Who is this old codger?’ Chase said. “A couple of weeks later when they find out who I am, one of the supreme compliments for me is when they don’t call me Mr. Chase anymore. They call me ‘Chaser.’ In the hockey vernacular, that’s when I know I’ve made it.”
Given his age, Chase is the rare broadcaster who has known the owners (David and Michael Franke) of the team he broadcasts for since they were toddlers.
“I’ve always said to them and I think we have a good understanding on this, at some point in time when I am not doing justice to what I am doing, you have to be fair to me and tell me,” Chase said. “When you think I am slowing down or missing it, please dear Lord, let me know. Because I don't want to embarrass myself. But I’m planning to be back. At my age, I might not be around next fall but if I’m here, I’d love to do it again.”