Broadcaster Mike Lange took the long way to the Hockey Hall of Fame. His first job, with an amateur league in Sacramento, Calif., paid just $5 a game.
“I was a junior in college,” Lange said. “I was happy to have that $5. It bought me pizza and beer.”
His college radio station broadcast some of the games. Lange shopped the tapes, hoping to land a full-time job, but no one showed interest. He moved to Phoenix, which had a team called the Roadrunners, and got lucky: The play-by-play announcer fell through a glass door.
Lange spent two years with the team. He moved to San Diego, and then to Pittsburgh, where his 60-grit voice and peculiar catch phrases – “Buy Sam a drink, and get his dog one, too!” – endeared him to fans, who rank him alongside Bob Prince and Myron Cope in the pantheon of Pittsburgh sports broadcasters.
In 2001, he won the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for excellence in broadcasting. That put him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Lange will discuss that and other aspects of his career when he visits Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, on Wednesday, Oct. 23. He gave us a preview.
Question: You arrived in Pittsburgh at a rough time. The Penguins were in bankruptcy, and there were padlocks on the office doors. How do you work through a period like that and still sound excited when the puck drops?
Answer: You do what you can to make people want to come to the games. When you’re losing, you learn to talk about the other teams, and the players coming in that a fan might want to see.
Question: Do you have a particular fan in mind when you call a game? A guy alone in his car or working in the garage?
Answer: Bob Prince, who worked for the Pirates, gave me some great advice. He said to me, “You have a lot of shut-ins. People who can’t go out. People who can’t see.” He said, “Langey, you need to think of those people.”
Our game moves so fast, and we get caught up in it. But I always come back to that basic premise: You describe in as much detail as you can exactly what is happening, and what it looks like. You describe it like you’re talking to a blind guy.
Question: You’re known for your catch phrases, which you often shout over the goal buzzer. Some of those – “Michael Michael motorcycle!” or “She wants to sell my monkey!” – don’t make a lot of sense out of context. Where do they come from?
Answer: I built that off a guy named Bill King, who was in Oakland with the Raiders, and then the A’s. He would say “Holy Toledo!” whenever a big play was made, and it just drilled me. When I went to Phoenix, Al McCoy did the same thing. (McCoy, now the voice of the Phoenix Suns, shouts out “Shazam!” whenever a player makes a 3-pointer.)
It breaks up the monotony. It gives it a bit of flavor. And to be honest, when I have to work 82 games or more every year, I sometimes need a jolt to keep it going.
Question: How do you come up with them?
Answer: People send them to me. They hand them to me on the street.
Years ago, I was in this little out-of-the-way shopping mall. I was looking for a store where I was supposed to shoot a commercial. And this guard, this little old Barney Fife guy with a uniform on and one bullet in the holster, called me over. He said, “Mike, do you still take those things?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” I used to keep them in an old shoebox, and I’d look through them at the end of the summer, when the games were starting.
He said, “Can I give you one?” He took out a piece of paper, and he wrote down “Scratch my back with a hacksaw.” I saw it, and I hugged him. It was just one of those moments.
I’ve been using that line for years.
Question: How do you decide exactly what to say and when?
Answer: It’s just the moment. It’s what you feel at that moment.
I used to keep track of it all in my head. But now that I’m older, I keep them on a list. I have it in front of me, and I cross them off as I say them. That way I don’t repeat any in the same game.
Mike Lange will discuss his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, in McGarvey Commons. The program, part of the Penn State Behrend Speaker Series, is free and open to the public.