Introduction: For Mike Lange, the 2008-09 National Hockey League (NHL) season was his 33rd on Pittsburgh Penguins’ broadcasts and his third in a row handling play-by-play on radio.
Lange first joined the Penguins for the 1974-75 season. After a one-season absence due to the fact that the Penguins had gone into bankruptcy and he had no guarantee of a job, Lange returned in 1976-77 and has been a member of the broadcast team ever since.
For many seasons, Lange was the play-by-play announcer for the Penguins on television and radio as the games were simulcast.
Lange ranks third in seniority among NHL play-by-play announcers. He trails only Rick Jeanneret, who has been with the Buffalo Sabres since the 1971-72 season, and Bob Miller, who has been with the Los Angeles Kings since 1973-74.
Lange is beloved by Penguins’ fans in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania metropolitan area and around the world. In addition, he has earned the respect of his peers.
In 2001, Lange earned the highest honor possible for a NHL broadcaster – the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award and with it induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Named after the great Canadian hockey announcer Foster Hewitt, the award is presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame to members of the radio and television industry who make outstanding contributions to their profession and the game of hockey during their broadcasting career.
This writer offers sincere thanks to Lange for granting the interview that led to a four-part series on Associated Content and to Erik Heasley, Communications Coordinator, Pittsburgh Penguins, for helping to arrange the interview.
Part II is below. The headline of Part I is “Mike Lange’s Boyhood Dream Becomes a Sports Broadcasting Career.” The headline of Part III is “Mike Lange: A National Hockey League Broadcasting Icon.” And the headline of Part IV is “Mike Lange Looks Back on His Experience Behind the Microphone in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.”
This writer also has published another article on Lange on Associated Content. The headline of the article is “Mike Lange Still Going Strong in 33rd Season on Pittsburgh Penguins’ Broadcasts.”
JC: You made your debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1974-75 season. Can you share details of how you landed that job?
ML: In the prior season (1973-74), I had been the voice of the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. But that was my only season with the Gulls and the last season for the Western Hockey League.
The World Hockey Association was expanding to San Diego and Phoenix for the 1974-75 season. And the Western Hockey League dissolved. At that point, I really had to scramble to find another broadcasting job.
I applied to a lot of places. I was in contention for a job with the Washington Capitals, an expansion team that was set to make its debut in the NHL in the 1974-75 season. As it turned out, I landed a job in Pittsburgh with the Penguins.
Max McNabb used his influence to help to arrange an interview for me with Jack Button, the general manager of the Penguins. I got the job.
McNabb had been the general manager of the Gulls. He was the man who hired me to call the Gulls’ game in 1973-74.
In my first season in Pittsburgh, 1974-75, I was an employee of both the Penguins and the radio station that carried the games (KDKA-AM, 1020). The Penguins knew the radio station wasn’t paying me much. So they made it work for me. It was a nice situation.
In addition to announcing the games, I did other work for the team. I made some personal appearances. And I and another employee collected and managed the information coming in from the scouts on junior players. I enjoyed that work.
Button was at the forefront of computerization of scouting, which led to the NHL’s Central Scouting of today. But back then, the information I and the other employee worked was on cards.
JC: On the night of October 9, 1974, I was in my bedroom in my parents’ home in Trenton, NJ . I was a junior in high school. My homework was done. I was set to listen on my small clock/radio to the Penguins open the 1974-75 season against the Minnesota North Stars.
The Penguins’ flagship station, KDKA-AM, was coming in clearly. But when the station went to Penguins’ hockey, I didn’t hear the voice I expected to hear — that of Joe Starkey, who had been the play-by-play announcer in 1973-74. I heard a new voice that began by saying, “It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh …” It belonged to a guy who identified himself as Mike Lange. You had taken over for Starkey.
Since I didn’t live in the Pittsburgh area and the Internet did not exist back then, there was no way for me to know that you were the Penguins’ new announcer.
I know it was a long time ago. But what do you remember about that broadcast? I assume it was your debut for the Penguins.
ML: Yes, it was my debut. KDKA also was the flagship station for Pirates’ baseball. So no Penguins’ pre-season games were broadcast.
I won’t hesitate to tell you that I was nervous when I began by saying, “It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh …” I was nervous and anticipating that there would be a world of difference in a big-league market. But I quickly realized in that first season with the Penguins that my job was the same as it had been when I was announcing in the Western Hockey League (for the Phoenix Roadrunners and then the San Diego Gulls).
I had worked previously in two pretty good markets — Phoenix and San Diego. At the time I got to Pittsburgh , it was the No. 9 media market in the country.
But before I got to Pittsburgh, I had done nearly 200 games in the Western Hockey League. The time in Phoenix and San Diego prepared me well. My dream was to be in the big league by the time I was 26 (years old). I was right at 26.
As far as that first game is concerned, I remember bits and pieces. I remember Cesare Maniago was the goaltender for Minnesota. And the first NHL goal for Penguins’ rookie (center) Pierre Larouche also comes to mind.
(The Penguins won the game, which was played at the old Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, MN, 4-2.)
JC: For the Penguins, the 1974-75 season ended in heart-breaking fashion. They became only the second team in NHL history to lose a best-of-seven playoff series after winning the first three games. The New York Islanders completed the historic rebound from a 3-0 deficit by winning Game 7 of the second-round series, 1-0, in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, there was more bad news for the Penguins that impacted you and many others in the organization. Can you explain?
ML: The Penguins went into bankruptcy late in the 1974-75 season. We were told that on or before the first of June 1975, everyone would be out of a job.
I again had to scramble to find work. It was back to San Diego. But this time, the sport wasn’t hockey. It was soccer.
In the summer of 1976, I was the voice of the San Diego Jaws of the (now-defunct) North American Soccer League.
(The Jaws’ only season in San Diego was 1976. The team moved to San Diego after playing in Baltimore as the Comets in 1974 and 1975. For the 1977 season, the team played in Las Vegas and had a new nickname — the Quicksilvers.)
JC: How did you return to the Penguins?
ML: This is another example of the good Lord taking care of me.
The Penguins came out of bankruptcy and played the 1975-76 season. The man who had been hired to announce the games decided to resign for personal reasons after one season and return to his home area on the West Coast. That opened the door and gave me a chance to return. Wren Blair was the Penguins’ general manager who hired me back.
Although I was third on the list (at the start of the interview process), I was re-hired. I was back in the saddle (for the 1976-77 season. And Lange has been in the saddle ever since, much to the ongoing delight of Pengu
JC: What caused you to create your “Lange-isms?”
(“Lange-isms” are unique, colorful phrases created by Lange that he uses during broadcasts. Examples include: “He beat (fill in the name of the goaltender) like a rented mule!”; “Scratch my back with a hacksaw!”; “Smilin’ like a butcher’s dog!”; and “Get in the fast lane gramma, the bingo game’s ready to roll!”)
ML: The “Lange-isms” were the culmination of a couple of things. First, I mentioned earlier (Detailed information is in Part I of the series.) that I enjoyed listening as a youngster to Bill King and that he was a big influence on me deciding to seek a career as a sports broadcaster. His trademark phrase was “Holy Toledo!”
(Lange grew up in Sacramento, CA in the 1950s and 1960s. King had a long career as an announcer for major-league teams in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League and then of the National Football League and the Oakland A’s of Major League Baseball.)
Also, when I began my professional broadcasting career as color commentator for the Phoenix Roadrunners (of the Western Hockey League in the 1971-72 season), (play-by-play announcer) Al McCoy was a master of phrases. He used the phrase, “Great balls of fire!” after the Roadrunners scored a goal.
When McCoy decided to join the Phoenix Suns (of the National Basketball Association for the 1972-73 season), I asked him if he planned to continue using “Great balls of fire!” He said that he was not going to continue to use the phrase and that it was OK for me to use it.
So as an ongoing acknowledgement to McCoy for the help he gave me when I was starting out, I continued to use “Great balls of fire!” after the Roadrunners scored a goal in the season (1972-73) that I was the team’s play-by-play announcer. I took “Great balls of fire!” with me when I left Phoenix and still use it today..
The “Lange-isms” are phrases that I use to put an exclamation point on situations during games. I began to create and use them when I arrived in Pittsburgh. They’ve worked well for me. I have so many now that I’ve lost count.
NOTE: This is the end of Part II. The sub-headline of Part I is “Lange’s Boyhood Dream Becomes a Career.” The sub-headline of Part III is “Lange: A National Hockey League Broadcasting Icon.” And the sub-headline of Part IV is “Lange Looks Back on His Experience Behind the Microphone as the Penguins Prevailed in Game 7 in Detroit to Win the Stanley Cup.”