It's so fitting. Walk into Ron Weber's living room and the first thing that hits your eye is the color photo on the coffee table. It's a Washington Capital kneeling in agony on the ice, his head bent, his stick broken -- alone in defeat. It's Ace Bailey, although you can't see the face. Ron Weber says it's Ace Bailey and if Ron Weber says it is, it is. When it comes to the Capitals, Weber knows all because he's seen all -- all regular-season and playoff games in the team's 11-year history, all 897.
Ace Bailey is Capitals history but Ron Weber, the Lou Gehrig of hockey play-by-play men, still is talking -- talking his way toward 1,000 straight games. Can you imagine seeing 1,000 Capitals hockey games? A team that in its first season went 8-67-5? A team that lost its first 37 road games? A team that even today is a mere 156 games under .500? Ron Weber has never once missed!
You get this mental picture of Ron Weber: in the dead of February, against a fiercely slanting snow, ice stuck to his glasses, whipping and driving a team of dogs toward Edmonton, under one arm his brown satchel of priceless, 11-year statistics -- On, King! -- and of course making it in time for "O Canada!" and another opening faceoff.
Weber will begin his 12th season, as will the Capitals, Thursday night at Madison Square Garden -- "Where the whole thing started, Oct. 9, 1974," he said. "We lost, 6-3, to the Rangers." Yet in all those years Weber never really has been on a dog sled. Of course, there was that trip from Detroit to Montreal . . .
That one, negotiated in a blinding-white landscape familiar to Jack London readers, started innocently enough on the last weekend of the Capitals' first season. Weber got up that morning, pulled open the hotel curtains with a gusto that characterizes his play-by-play and -- whammo -- expecting a sunny day looked out aghast as the most wicked snow he'd ever seen hit the windows. April in Detroit.
Right away, he called Milt Schmidt's room, Schmidt being the coach then -- Weber has gone through eight coaches, five WTOP station managers (he is paid by WTOP, not the team) and 167 Capitals players. They say we're flying, Schmidt told him, so the team bused to the airport and, when, predictably, nothing was moving there, bused back to Detroit, and over to Windsor. Already that qualified as a full-fledged road trip, but then everyone boarded a train for an interminable ride to Montreal.
At stops along the way, passengers were warned not to get off unless someone was waiting with a four-wheel drive vehicle. "Looking out the train, it was like Siberia," Weber said. He and the Capitals made it the last few blocks on foot through white drifts, ghostly figures hunched against arctic winds. "Hey, Weber, looks like you have no feet," one Capital kept shouting. Weber had put on his white shoes, to usher in spring.
The trip was worth it, however, because during the train ride Weber got to sit next to Doug Mohns, the first Capitals captain who was about to retire after 22 National Hockey League seasons. Subsequently, Weber was able to fill air time with Mohns' reminiscences. Weber collects such information like a vacuum, as well he might because he has to talk so much every night. First, there's the coach's show, during which he asks the questions and keeps the conversation going; then the pregame show; then the game, which runs 2 1/2 hours or so, then the postgame show. No three-men-in-a-booth problem here.
Weber does it all, with enthusiasm ("I'm a night person. I'm really geared up at 8 p.m., when you need to be.") and a genuine love for the game (he even hated to see that 8-67-5 season end, but had the good sense not to mention it to a player). The statistics he's known for he keeps at his fingertips, in spiral notebooks. He can get a whole season into a book -- he prints small.
And in the back of his books, he keeps such esoteric lists as "iron men" (he should be on the list himself), "officials" (Gord Broseker, in case you wondered, has been a linesman at 160 Capitals games) and "pure hat tricks," which are not simply three goals by one player but three consecutive goals.
"I like to be precise," he said. "I won't say, it's been a long time since the Capitals had a penalty shot." He'll say, "It's been 372 games ago, Dec. 10, 1980." That would be in a regular-season game, he added; the penalty shot Bobby Carpenter took against the Islanders' Billy Smith last season was in the playoffs.
Weber is blessed with good health. Last year, he had a hacking cough for almost six weeks but the previous two seasons "were two of my best years -- not even the sniffles." He hasn't gotten the flu since April 7, 1979 -- he remembers the date because that's when Bugsy Watson also got the flu. He broadcast, anyway. "We lost, 10-3."
He's 52 and hasn't missed a play-by-play assignment of any kind in his 34 years behind the mike.
Mention a place in Canada and he's been there:
*Halifax -- That's where on May 15, 1972, Weber broadcast the minor league playoff game between the Baltimore Clippers and Nova Scotia, "the last hockey game in North America (that year, anyway). Even the NHL had finished."
*Fredericton, Moncton and Yarmouth -- Where the same plane stopped on its way with Weber to a game in Halifax.
In all this time on the road, a snow-belt Charles Kuralt, Weber has come up with a few theories. One: many hockey players have small feet because their mothers put tight boots on them when they were kids.
Conceivably, Weber could reach 1,000 straight games this season because a team could play as many as 26 playoff games after the 80-game regular season. More likely, he'll reach the mark next season. As for the Capitals reaching .500, they would have to maintain their pace of the last two successful seasons to make .500 around 1993.
It wouldn't be surprising if Ron Weber still were broadcasting the games then; he certainly would like to be. It's not hard imagining his radio voice on a winter night welcoming the 21st century: This is Ron Weber speaking to you from the Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta . . .