I promise that this will be my last item about Smokin’ Al Koken — in this month, anyhow — but I couldn’t resist.
See, I wound up doing this story about Al for print last weekend, and that put me in possession of some pretty sweet photos from his personal collection. Two of these show Koken, the Washington Star’s Russ White, and the Caps’ first coach, Jimmy Anderson, with some pre-game gab in the fall of 1974. The third shows Koken at RFK Stadium.
And what was Koken doing talking to Jimmy Anderson before the Caps’ first preseason game of all time? After he got the journalism bug at American, he began freelancing high school sports stories for the Montgomery County Sentinel, which led to a job stringing Caps and Wizards stories for UPI, where he met Phil Wood, who eventually helped Koken get a job at WTOP, which led to a successful career in sports broadcasting.
But yes, before that, he was an ink-stained wretch, also contributing to hockey coverage for SportsScene magazine. Here is the beginning of one column from February, 1975.
“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all —- Willie Dixon.
Willie Dixon wrote those lines decades before the concept of professional ice hockey in the nation’s capital would even be joked about let alone actually come to pass. Yet, one has to think that the crusty old southern bluesman foresaw the day when something like the Washington Capitals would exist.
Later, Koken dealt with some cross-sport comparisons.
The Bullets are the Bullets. They have one of the best benches in basketball and got off to the best start this year of any team in the NBA. [Mike] Riordan will be back soon and all will be forgotten by the time the Bullets open the playoffs.
The Caps, on the other hand, are still the Caps and everyone knows that’s ominous enough….The Bullets bench may be deep with talent, but the Capitals bench is only brown and wooden.
Should have stuck with print, Al!
Also, Koken spent a bit of time staying on Wood’s couch in Falls Church during the beginning of his career, and later practiced creating shooters at one of his bartending job by feeding them to Wood. So I talked to Wood, and he told me neither man could believe how lucky they were to be paid to talk about sports.
“At the time I think his attitude was the same as mine: they’re going to find us out at some point and send us on our way,” Wood said. “I’ve really enjoyed our friendship, and I’m thrilled he’s done as well as he’s done. I always thought this was a very clever boy; if he doesn’t end up doing this, he’ll wind up doing stand-up comedy somewhere.”
“Al Koken: A Very Clever Boy.” Coming to bookstores in 2018.