Basketball’s pace is close, says Walton, the Washington Capitals’ rookie radio announcer. But no team sport matches hockey for speed and accumulated chaos.
“You’re always trying to find the most concise way to describe the most action, but in a way that’s pleasing to people who aren’t there,” he says.
This makes hockey announcers such as Walton into something like the air-traffic controllers of the sports airwaves. On Saturday, for the 93rd time this season, Walton will do his speed-rap act as the Capitals play the New York Rangers in the fourth game of the conference semifinals. (WFED, 1500 AM, carries the games in the Washington area.)
Walton, 39, has been waiting for moments like this since he was 7 and his father, also John, took him to his first college hockey game in Minnesota.
He played a little, but mostly he’s been announcing games — more than 1,200 of them over the past 20 years or so. His broadcasting career parallels some of the players he describes: years of college games (Miami University in Ohio), and then a long, slow rise that included many bus trips through hockey’s gritty minor-league circuit, from Syracuse to Manchester, N.H., to Saint John, New Brunswick. What kept him going was “the dream” of calling an NHL game.
Walton was 38 and the announcer for the Hershey (Pa.) Bears, the Caps’ top farm team, last summer when he got the phone call from George McPhee, the team’s general manager. “Is this the voice of the Washington Capitals?” asked McPhee, without introduction.
Since then, Walton (and, yes, he’s been hearing “John Boy” references since kindergarten), has been the energetic, if disembodied, voice of the Caps’ up-down-and-up season. Joe Beninati, who handles the Caps’ TV announcing on Comcast SportsNet, may be the better-known broadcaster, but Walton has endeared himself to his own little fan base with passionate descriptions that put listeners on the rink’s glass.
Walton’s call of the Caps’ dramatic Game 7 overtime victoryover the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs late last month has become a mini-classic. An audio clip on his blog attracted more than 11,000 hits in three days; a video with his radio broadcast synced to TV footage of Joel Ward’s winning goal has drawn more than 60,000 views on YouTube.
“The Boston Bruins now turn it over,” Walton began, his voice beginning to rise with excitement. “A 2-on-1. [Mike] Knuble coming with Ward. Knuble with a chance . . . back-hander . . . loose . . . they score! They score! They score! It’s over! Ward on the rebound. Good morning, good afternoon and good night, Boston! The king is dead. There will be a new Stanley Cup champion. The Capitals are still dancing!”