‘Smokin’ ’ Al Koken has ties to Capitals and Washington, D.C., sports going back to 1970s

VIDEO: Mike Ribeiro plays the hero with the game-winning goal in overtime that gives the Capitals a dramatic 2-1 victory in Friday night’s Game 5. (Video by Travis Swain for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

Al Koken believes his broadcast career might never have existed had he not jumped out of an airplane 40 years ago.

Koken, a staple in Washington’s media landscape for decades, has anchored sports broadcasts for two local networks. He has hosted talk radio shows for WTOP and WTEM. He has been a stringer for a wire service and a college basketball play-by-play voice. He has worked with Glenn Brenner, Warner Wolf and John Thompson Jr. and shared broadcasts with Maury Povich and Larry King.

But above all, Koken has been associated with the local broadcasts for the Washington Capitals, first on Home Team Sports and later on Comcast SportsNet. This is his 28th season serving in some capacity during those broadcasts, a remarkable run that has included stints as the team’s color analyst, play-by-play man, studio host and, for nearly two decades, sideline reporter. The current playoff series marks the eighth time he has covered a Caps-New York Rangers postseason meeting, and he has interviewed virtually every coach the team has employed.

None of this would have happened, Koken said, had the American University student paper not asked him to leap out of a plane from 3,000 feet in the fall of 1973.

Koken had come to the District from St. Louis to study politics and prepare for law school. He also played for American’s golf team and was teammates with the sports editor of the Eagle, who was the team’s best player and had tired of writing about himself.

So as a junior, Koken began contributing to the paper as a favor to this teammate. The next school year, he was asked to write a first-person story about the school’s new parachuting club. That turned into a two-part series. A journalism professor who was critiquing the paper gave a blistering review of the issue but had kind words for Koken’s tale.

“I was stunned,” said Koken, 61. “I don’t think he was praising my journalistic acumen as much as saying you can tell a good story. That was something that resonated with me. That, to me, was the flipping point — that maybe I should explore this.”

Sticking with it

So he put law school on hold and began tending bar in the District to make ends meet while writing freelance sports stories. That was the start of a sports media career that has taken Koken on a Zelig-like run through decades of Washington sports history.

He started by writing about high school sports for the Montgomery County Sentinel, then covered Caps and Bullets games for the United Press International wire service. He covered the Caps’ first preseason game in the fall of 1974 and continued to write about the franchise for the long-defunct SportsScene magazine.

While covering those games, he met Phil Wood, then a young sports radio host for WTOP. Koken briefly relocated to St. Louis after his father died, but during a visit to the Washington area in 1980, he appeared as a guest on Wood’s show. The next night Wood fell ill; his news director asked about a fill-in.

“I said the guy who was on last night could probably do it,” Wood recalled. “It wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t bad. His background as a bartender seemed to be the perfect training ground to talk to people.”

Wood was working six nights a week; he wanted to dial back, and Koken was ready to move back to Washington. So he did, hosting for WTOP on Saturday nights and sleeping on Wood’s couch in Falls Church.

“And now all of the sudden I’m a sports talk host,” he said with a laugh.

When WTOP’s news director moved on to WTTG, Koken was offered a job as a part-time sports anchor, and he occasionally worked with Povich. When he found out the Capitals were looking for a color commentator on the recently created Home Team Sports, “I figured what the hell,” he said.

“We were looking for somebody who knew the sport and was an enthusiastic supporter of the team,” said Jody Shapiro, HTS’s head of programming at the time and now a senior vice president for the NHL. “Back in the mid-80s, there weren’t that many people who fit that description.”

So began Koken’s long association with the franchise. He learned broadcast etiquette from play-by-play voice Mike Fornes, was tutored on hockey strategy by then-Caps Coach Bryan Murray and became the HTS studio host. He then replaced Kenny Albert as the team’s play-by-play man — working with Craig Laughlin, whom he had covered in the franchise’s early days.

“Al Koken is a hockey guy, and having a hockey guy — whether he played or not — gives you credibility,” Laughlin said. “He grew up in a hockey town, he’s always been very passionate about the game and I think that shows in everything he does.”

It’s all in the nickname

Joe Beninati and Laughlin were paired in 1996, and Koken became the broadcast’s sideline reporter. But by then, he was known locally as far more than a hockey guy thanks in part to Brenner, the sports anchor at WUSA (Channel 9).

Koken’s Caps responsibilities allowed enough free time to serve as the third sports anchor at WUSA along with Ken Mease and Brenner. Among Koken’s duties was doing live interviews from RFK Stadium during Redskins postgame shows, and out of nowhere one weekend, Brenner threw it back to “Smokin’ Al Koken” at the stadium.

The WUSA sports desk kept the nickname going over the objections of the station’s news director, who worried that it sounded unprofessional.

“Whenever Glenn threw to him, he’d say Smokin’ Al Koken,” said Larry Duvall, then a sports producer at WUSA and now with Comcast SportsNet. “I would type in ‘Smokin’ Al Koken,’ like it was his official name. The news director would say, ‘No, no, no, we shouldn’t do that.’ But Glenn said, ‘Aw, c’mon, keep doing it,’ so we just kept going.”

The nickname carried over to ESPN 980 radio, where Koken began hosting a weekday show, first with former Redskins tight end Doc Walker and later with Thompson, the former Georgetown coach. Koken became the voice of Capitals talk on that network, long before the Alex Ovechkin era, when the hockey team often struggled for media attention.

“I’ve never seen anybody describe anything with the passion that he does when he starts talking hockey,” Walker said. “Guys like Koken — who were there before it was popular because of his passion — he’s an ambassador of the game.”

Co-workers say that still describes his role, even as the Capitals’ franchise and fan base have transformed over the decades. Koken does play-by-play for 20 or 30 college basketball games a year and is an occasional guest on local radio and television shows, but his biggest exposure comes during the hockey playoffs — to an audience that includes thousands who weren’t born when he started.

“He goes right back to the absolute grassroots for the organization,” Beninati said. “He has a wonderful story to tell, and we love to dip into that knowledge.”

Koken said the thrill of a live broadcast hasn’t changed — he still walks the Verizon Center concourse a dozen times before playoff games. And few local media members can sympathize with the Capitals’ fan base as well as a man who has been watching the team for almost 40 years.

“I can’t say I’m the historical oracle, but I’ve seen it all and can kind of appreciate and commiserate with a fan base that’s seen it all. There’s a common ground that we share,” he said. “If you’re a longtime fan that’s ridden this roller coaster of great highs and great lows, maybe you can appreciate someone who’s gone through this with you.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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