The Detroit Red Wings are wrapping up their final season at Joe Louis Arena and after Saturday's game against Toronto, there are only three games left at the Joe.
Ken Kal has been broadcasting hockey games for decades. He began calling Red Wings' games in 1995-96 after 11 years calling games for University of Michigan hockey.
I spoke with Kal ahead of the team's game in Carolina on March 28 to get some of his best stories from Joe Louis Arena.
From an interview in the sauna with coach Dave Lewis to one thing the public might not know about the arena, you can read our entire interview below.
Max White: What are some your favorite memories of your time at Joe Louis Arena?
Ken Kal: I mean there are a lot of memories both hockey wise and concert, other venue wise. I guess hockey wise, winning the two Stanley Cups on home ice in 97 and 2002 were really special. For me personally, growing up as a kid, I went through the dead wings era, and I always wanted to see them win a Stanley Cup and when I think back, I say ‘Jeez, I’m the one who called it actually,’ that’s pretty amazing. The first Stanley Cup in 97 was unreal because it was 42 years the last time they won in 1955 so they had been through a lot of tough things, tough times, but when they finally won it, it was like the air coming out of the balloon. You waited so long and all of the sudden, you’re there to see it, you’re there to witness it so that was really special.
The March 26 game obviously was a game I think most Red Wings fans remember. It was a fun game to call, a lot of things happened that night, and to me, that was the game that really turned the Red Wings around. They always were a team that could almost get to the top of the mountain but they never could get there until that game, and when they finally won that game it was like that changed everything for them. They knew how to win from that point on and they went out and were just an unbelievable team for the four Stanley Cups that they won.
MW: Why do you think there’s such a level of nostalgia for The Joe?
KK: I think in hockey the fans are really passionate, and that’s probably the main reason. It just seems like hockey fans really gravitate and love their team. They’re with their team through thick and thin, and those years they weren’t very good, they were still going to watch the teams play. There were a lot of great events at the Joe, a lot of great times, the passion is there, and the arena is something else, it’s just different. It’s not like many other arenas around in the fact that it’s kind of old school still, it never really was a modern type of arena in my opinion. When they first built it, it was just a hockey arena. The new arenas that you have now, they have all these nice amenities, and the Joe is just the Joe. You have 20,000 seat-arena with every seat was a good seat, there were no poles involved, it was really built to be fan friendly so that everyone had a good view of the ice no matter where you were sitting at and it was just a fun place to be and a fun place to watch.
MW: What is one thing you know about the Joe that the general public does not know?
KK: You know what, there’s not a clock in that building. There’s not a clock to tell you the time of day in that building. If you’re on the concourse, there’s no clock to tell you what time of the day it is. If you look around the arena, most arenas will have a clock to tell you what time of day it is. At the Joe, I don’t think there’s a clock on the concourse to be honest with you. So to me, it’s kind of like Las Vegas, whenever you go to a casino there, there’s no clock, there’s also no clock at Joe Louis Arena that tells you the time of day. If you can think of it, let me know but I can’t recall a clock on the concourse.
I guess that’s the whole myth of, when you’re in Vegas, you’re there for the event, you’re there to have fun and you don’t want to know what time of day it is. It’s the same thing when you go to a hockey game or event at the Joe, there’s no need to take a look at the time because you’re there to witness some special event, whether it’s hockey, bowling, wrestling, or concert, you’re there to be entertained and there’s no need for a clock.
MW: If there’s one thing you won’t miss about the Joe, what is it?
KK: I just think it’s time to go to a new arena. The Joe served its purpose, but its time to move on. The new arena is what everybody is talking about and something to look forward to. There really isn’t anything bad about the Joe, I mean in my opinion, it was just a great place to watch hockey. Whether the press box was never built in the first place and they had to just tear up a few rows of seats to put one up, I don’t know, there’s not really one thing I can say I don’t like about the Joe.
MW: Tell me about the first time you called a Red Wings game
KK: The first game I called was an exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Penguins and that was the first game I did that was on the radio. Back then it was on WJR, and, all I could remember, because I was a Bruce Martyn fan and he was my idol growing up, I just had to pinch myself because I couldn’t believe I was THE guy calling Detroit Red Wings games after Bruce Martyn. To be in the booth that he used to call the games in was pretty special and I was honored.
MW: Is there any advice you took from Bruce Martyn before taking over?
KK: Well, he taught me indirectly how to call a game just by listening to him. To me, everyone talks about the great broadcasters like Dan Kelly (Former St. Louis Blues broadcaster) and Foster and Bill Hewitt (former Toronto Maple Leafs broadcaster), Danny Gallivan, but to me, the way Bruce Martyn called a game, was the best. Out of all the great announcers everyone looks at, nobody really gave him the accolades that he deserved in my opinion. He called a game like nobody else. He was very descriptive in his call, he had a great voice, and I guess, just by listening to him in all the years I listened to him, taught me how to call a hockey game.
MW: In 1997 you brought Bruce Martyn in to call a period in game four of the Stanley Cup Finals, has there been any talk about having him call one last game at Joe Louis Arena?
KK: I haven’t heard anything about that, I know he’s like 90 years old, but I haven’t heard anything like that. I asked him to come back (in 1997) because for 33 years, he called Stanley Cup Finals, but he never called a Stanley Cup Finals victory. With us up 3-0, it looked pretty sure we were going to sweep and I wanted him to be there to call a period so he could always say ‘I called a Stanley Cup Championship.’ Wouldn’t you know, with how everything works out, he actually called the second period of game four and he called the cup-winning from Darren McCarty which was a fabulous call. Every time I hear it I get goosebumps and it’s amazing how things work out in life. I was so happy for him, to at least call a period and call a cup-winning goal, and that’s history right there. It all worked out for me later on because I called three more Stanley Cups and he finally had a chance to call a championship, too.
MW: You’ve been to dozens of arenas across the country, what makes the Joe unique?
KK: I think it was, when the fans really got going and cheering, it was one of the loudest buildings in the league, especially in the playoffs. There were times in the playoffs where that building would be rocking, you could almost feel it shaking when the Red Wings scored a goal and the fans would be cheering. It was just really electrifying in there. I’ve been in other buildings for playoff games and every building is different I guess, but the fans were kind of on top of the ice and it’s just a hockey arena. You look at all these other venues now and they’re all multi-purpose venues, they’re built for not only hockey but everything else. Joe Louis Arena for the most part is a hockey arena, it’s not built for basketball or boxing or anything else, it’s built for hockey and that’s what makes it special. I think players, either if you’re the Red Wings or visiting team, they enjoyed playing there. So, it’s just a fun building to be in, especially during the playoffs, because that’s when it’s really electric.
MW: Over the years of calling games and seeing these great players come in and out of the arena, who has been your favorite person to talk to?
KK: There have been so many great players over the years that I enjoyed talking to, there’s really not one I can single out and say, ‘this guy has been special.’ I interviewed Dave Lewis one time in the sauna, if you’re looking for a weird interview. Dave always joked around and he’d always have fun with you. I remember one time I was doing the coaches show interview before every game and one day he was in the sauna, and I said ‘Hey I’ll wait until you get out,’ and he goes ‘No, no, no, you do it right in here,’ and I’m like, ‘are you kidding me?’ and he said ‘no, no, no, I’m not going to do it unless you do it right here.’ So I go in there and I have my suit on, right, and he’s got his shorts on and a shirt on and he’s sweating like crazy, and by the end of a 3-5 minute interview I come walking out and my suit is wet. So it was like, those are the types of things I remember, some of the weird type interviews that happened. As far as players, they’ve all been great, I can’t think of one particular player I enjoyed talking to more than others, but they were all good. I can’t think of one guy I didn’t like to interview.
MW: What’s another unique story you have?
KK: Back in 1995, this was before I got the job, it would’ve been in April before I got the job, they had a bowling event, the 1995, BPAA U.S. Open and it was national television. That particular year, all their major events were in arenas and they actually put in I think six lanes at Joe Louis Arena. I went there because I’m a big bowling fan, I like to bowl, and they had 8,000 fans there and it was an unbelievable event. I’ve been to wrestling matches, concerts and stuff, but this was really, really fun, and the fans were getting into it. Before the game I had a chance to meet Chris Schenkel, a national broadcaster, but Nelson Burton Jr. is a pro bowler and was a color commentator and I had a chance to meet those two. It was really just a fun event to be at. Out of all the events other than hockey, that was the one that really stood out to me as being a really special event.
MW: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
KK: I’ve seen so many things, I’m very fortunate, I mean my first year they won 62 games which is unbelievable. I remember Dave Lewis telling me, don’t get used to this because this doesn’t happen, teams don’t win 60 games every year, I’m looking at him like, ‘they don’t?’ The Russian Five, they were outstanding to watch, the way they could move the puck and pass the puck. We’ve seen a lot of great hockey games. That’s what makes the Joe special, too, is we’ve seen a lot of great players come through there, not only with the Red Wings but with opponents, and the hockey that was played in those 25 years the Red Wings made the playoffs, especially that stretch where they were winning Stanley Cups was just amazing. I mean they were the best team in the league for years, always in first place, always a legitimate chance each and every year to win the cup. And that 2002 team with all the future hall of famers in that club, maybe in my opinion, one of the best teams the Red Wings ever had. A team that was probably better than that team was the 95-96 team that won 62 games. If they would’ve won the Stanley Cup that year, I would’ve said they were the best team. I remember getting on the bus, they were so good, we’d get on the bus for a road game and you just had this feeling they were going to win, it was only a matter of by how much. That’s how confident they were. Now you get on the bus and wonder if we’re good enough to win this game, how are we going to do tonight. There, you would get on the bus and it was like, ‘yeah, we’re going to win, just a matter of by how many goals.’