CHICAGO – John Wiedeman is scrawling numbers across a blank piece of paper. Memories are flowing.
The Blackhawks radio play-by-play announcer wants to give more than a somewhere-in-the-ballpark answer regarding how many games he has called, including the minors and the NHL, in his broadcast career.
Wiedeman wants to get it right. He always wants to get it right.
Well, let’s see. There were two years in Muskegon, followed by two years in Worcester, plus Cincinnati, plus Philadelphia, plus the New York Islanders, and last but not least the past eight seasons with the Blackhawks.
Rows of numbers fill the page. Wiedeman tallies them in his head:
• 613 minor league regular-season games + 42 playoff games = 655.
• 1,001 NHL regular-season games + 111 playoff games = 1,112.
• 655 + 1,112 = 1,767.
About seven hours later would come Game No. 1,768, a hard-fought contest between the Blackhawks and the Colorado Avalanche. And then Game No. 1,769 as the Hawks hosted Anaheim, and Game No. 1,770 as the Hawks hosted Boston.
Which brings us to Game No. 1,771 on Wednesday against Detroit.
Wiedeman, 56, chuckled as he looked at his math project, which sat next to a briefcase filled with notes for that night’s game against the Avalanche. He arrived to the United Center about nine hours early, as usual, so he could watch morning skate, finalize his notes, and conduct pregame interviews with players.
What did he make of his paper trail of history?
“I can’t believe I still have a voice,” said Wiedeman, who calls games on WGN-AM 720 alongside Troy Murray. “I’m a lucky guy. I’ll just keep it at that.”
He almost never made it to Game No. 1.
Nothing to lose
Long before Wiedeman served as the voice for two Stanley Cup championships and was named as the 2013 Illinois Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, he was a hockey fan with a big dream.
The year was 1992, and Wiedeman was living in an apartment in Villa Park and bartending at Zanies Comedy Club in Mount Prospect. His boss at Zanies, T.X. Jones, allowed him to have a flexible work schedule so he could cover Blackhawks games as an unpaid reporter for WCSJ-AM, a small radio station based in Morris.
After the final game of the season – a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final – Wiedeman was not yet ready to leave the stadium. He decided to introduce himself to Don Cherry, a Canadian broadcasting legend.
“I hung out at Gate 3 ½, and I waited for him,” Wiedeman said. “He came up the stairs from the dressing rooms, and I had never met him before, and I thought, ‘This guy may tell me to get lost.’ But he didn’t.”
Instead, Cherry listened as Wiedeman asked for advice on pursuing a career as a play-by-play announcer.
Be persistent, Cherry said. Go meet people. Refuse to be swayed by rejection. Because all it takes is one person to open the door, and you’re in.
Cherry wasn’t finished.
“He says, ‘Once you’re in, then you have to be classy, honorable, hard working, professional,’ ” Wiedeman said. “ ‘You have to show everybody in the business that the decision somebody made to hire you was a good one. And when you’re on the air, you have to serve the game of hockey.’ Because that’s, in a sense, what we do.”
Wiedeman was inspired.
From the rafters
The 1992 NHL Entry Draft was approaching in Montreal. Following Cherry’s advice, Wiedeman headed north in his Ford Festiva.
All of the league’s executives would be in attendance. Maybe Wiedeman wouldn’t land an NHL gig – already, he had stacks of rejection letters – but perhaps, he figured, he could catch on with one of the teams’ minor-league affiliates.
Wiedeman brought a briefcase filled with résumés and samples of his play-by-play work. The samples originated from the 1991 playoffs, when he drove to St. Louis (the Blackhawks had been eliminated by Minnesota), bought a ticket and delivered a play-by-play broadcast to every fan within earshot.
“I stood up at the top of the arena with my recorder, and I had like six or seven people around me,” Wiedeman said. “I said, ‘Would you guys care if I do some play by play?’ And they kind of looked at me, like, what the heck? I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll buy you guys a beer if you let me.’ So I bought beers for them.
“And here I am, I’m doing as much play-by-play as I can, and people are looking back like, ‘Hey, buddy, can you pipe down a little? I just want to watch the game.’ And the guys that I bought the beers for are like, ‘He’s trying to do some play-by-play here!’ Now, they’re defending me.”
Never underestimate the power of free beer.
A little determination helps, too.
Chasing a dream
At the draft, Wiedeman shook 1,000 hands but left with zero jobs.
On his drive back toward Chicago, he stopped in cities with junior hockey teams. One such city was Chatham, Ontario, about 50 miles east of Detroit.
“I didn’t care if I worked in Canada or the U.S.,” Wiedeman said with a shrug. “I just wanted to work.”
The bad news: A man in Chatham’s office told Wiedeman that the team was not hiring any broadcasters. The good news: He said a new Colonial Hockey League team in Muskegon, Mich., might be hiring.
When you get home, he advised, why not give Muskegon a call?
“I thought, heck, I’m not driving back to Chicago. I’m going there right now,” Wiedeman said. “It was late in the evening. Crossed the border, drove across the state. I had, I don’t know, 12 bucks in my pocket. I was dirt poor.
“It was late, so I had to find a place to sleep. I couldn’t afford a hotel. So I pulled into a church parking lot and I reclined the seat of my car and I slept in my car.”
The next morning, Wiedeman called the team and set up an appointment to meet the new owners of the Muskegon Fury at 10:30 a.m. He found a YMCA, took a shower and changed into his suit jacket and tie that he wore to the draft.
The bad news: Muskegon already had a broadcaster. The good news: That broadcaster, Bob Heethuis, was waiting to hear about a job in Phoenix, and Wiedeman had impressed Muskegon’s owners.
More than a month later, a message on the answering machine greeted Wiedeman at that old Villa Park apartment. Phoenix had hired Heethuis. Muskegon had a vacancy.
“ ‘Hi, John, this is Bill Cooper of the Muskegon Fury calling. We’d like to talk to you about the radio job. If you can, give us a call.’
“As he’s saying it,” Wiedeman said, “I’ve got the phone up, and I’m like punch-punch-punch-punch…”
The job paid $12,000 a year.
The door had opened. Wiedeman was in.
And now Wiedeman is looking at the hand-scribbled math of his career.
All of those seasons. All of those games. All of those memories.
He’s a lucky guy. He’ll just keep it at that.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.