One day later this week, Ron Weber will ride the Red Line from Montgomery County to Gallery Place. Once inside Verizon Center, he’ll make a stop in the press box to say hi to friends and grab a packet of game notes; “the plain program given to regular fans, that’s not good enough for me,” he joked. Then he’ll go to his seat, with his scorebook and his stats and his tiny three-inch flashlight (it gets dark in the 400 level), and he’ll do something he’s done thousands of times before: watch the Washington Capitals.
The team’s former radio voice witnessed each of the franchise’s first 1,936 games during his 23-year tenure — a span filled with more on-ice heartache than not. He stopped calling games in April of 1997, and six years ago received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame, perhaps the highest honor for a hockey broadcaster.
And yet Weber, 82, still takes the train into the District for every Caps home game, provided he’s in town. (A long-scheduled Disney vacation with his grandkids took him to Florida for part of the Flyers series; he and his wife landed at BWI on Friday afternoon, stopped at home to grab their jackets and were at Verizon Center before the first period ended.) Since he retired, he’s gone to about 35 home games a year. That’s more than 600 additional post-retirement games.
As the franchise marches into its ninth playoff series against the Penguins, in its 26th postseason, in its 42nd year of Cup-free existence, the list of people who have seen more Caps games in person than Ron Weber can’t have many entries.
“Why do I go? Because I like it,” he said. “I occasionally get the pang of wanting to [broadcast] a game, but it’s very brief, and generally comes when I walk into a booth. I see there’s a guy that’s getting ready to do a game, and I think ‘He’s going to have fun for the next three hours.’ But then I think of the preparation time and the politics, and I’m glad I’m retired.”
Weber embraced his retirement, which came when the franchise decided to move in a new direction in the booth as it moved downtown. He sent out some tapes and made some inquiries, but “it came to the point where I was hoping nobody would call,” he said. “I didn’t want to move, and I didn’t want to do anything but play-by-play.”
Staying local, with time on his hands, also meant Weber never had to give up his attachment to the Capitals. This isn’t unique in Washington sports; I still get semi-regular notes from former Redskins voice Frank Herzog, who follows the team closely in his retirement. But Weber does his rooting from up-close, allowing for more visceral reminders of his past.
Fans regularly approach Weber on the Verizon Center concourse or at his seats to say hello, recognizing him even though he was rarely on television. One fan stopped him on Metro earlier this season and said he knew it was Weber just by the sound of his voice. Fans have come up to him at the arena and thanked him for helping them learn the game, or asked if he remembered the time he read their letters on the air.
“That’s about as heartwarming as you can get,” he said. “My mind is boggled. Let’s face it, nobody 25 or under has ever heard me, or remembered that they did. That was 19 years ago; they would have been 6. We’re lopping off a third of the populace.”
Their words matter, because Weber — like other members of the sports media, I would guess — sometimes wondered about the seriousness of his profession. The best man in his wedding was part of a group working on glaucoma treatments. Compared to that, what was a life spent in the booth, above the ice?
“I broadcast a bunch of men playing a boys’ game,” Weber said. “But people say, ‘You’re the reason I’m a hockey fan, listening to you on cold winter nights.’ I brought pleasure to a lot of people, and that’s very heartwarming. Now, it’s not a cure for cancer, or even glaucoma, but this life can be tough, and if you can make people enjoy themselves, well, that’s something.”
I’ve heard enough anecdotes from enough Caps fans to feel confident that Weber indeed helped people enjoy themselves. Here’s just one: Gavin MacFadyen recently e-mailed me the story of his youthful encounter in Edmonton with his hero, former Caps winger Bengt Gustafsson. There was an addendum; MacFadyen later took a solo trip to New York for a theater audition. The Caps happened to be in town, and the game was sold out. The teen-aged MacFadyen went to the players entrance at Madison Square Garden, hoping to catch a glimpse of the team. Instead, he saw Weber, who remembered him from Edmonton.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Weber asked. He then grabbed the Canadian kid’s arm, informed him that he was now an associate producer, and walked MacFadyen through security and into the broadcast booth, putting him on the air during the first intermission for an interview.
“He is as Capital as it gets,” current radio voice John Walton once said of Weber. That seems a good way of putting it.
So Weber still goes to games, “fervently wishing for the good guys to light the lamp and the bad guys not to.” He sits silent during “Unleash the Fury,” because he’s not a fan of choreographed cheers, but joins in on the organic fan-led chants. He won’t jump up from his seat for fights — his antipathy toward fighting is well-established — but instead just writes the names of the fighters in his scorebook.
He keeps score by hand, because that forces him to stay involved in the game, and allows him to assess better what he’s watching. He records “good scoring chances,” even though that’s a subjective measurement, because “that’s very indicative of how a game’s been going.” He keeps the line combinations in his book, too, and he totals up all the figures during his Metro ride home.
These Caps remain the betting favorites to win this year’s Stanley Cup, which wouldn’t surprise Weber. This is “the best team the Capitals have ever iced,” he said, and he has seen all of them. This one has depth, a top-tier goalie, and the best goal-scorer in hockey.
“I almost don’t want to think it, but I do: If they don’t win it this time, will they ever, in my lifetime and beyond?” he wondered. “Is this their best shot?”
But he also has some perspective. One of his best friends recently passed away. That’s a bit weightier than trying to whack a frozen piece of rubber. That’s what he tells his son, a computer programmer and rabid Caps fan. Ron Weber has seen well more than 2,000 Caps games in person. He’s not going to lose his head over the next one.
“With age, I’m more steeled,” he said. “It’s only a game. It’s only a series. It’s only a Stanley Cup.”