Monday, January 24, 2011

Catching Up With Larry Hirsch

Larry Hirsch, whose voice is familiar to anyone who followed the Lightning in the 1990s, handled radio broadcast duties for the team from 1993-1999. His signature "Yes, sir!" calls for goals captured the imagination of Lightning fans during the team's playoff run during the 1995-96 season. Hirsch recently took some time to reflect on his years with the club and set the record straight on the circumstances of his dismissal from the Lightning.

Q. One of the reasons Lighting fans connected with you was because of your enthusiasm, particularly in your description of fights. Can you talk about why those calls became so memorable?

A. The fighting element has always been part of the game of hockey. Where some people frown upon that, I've never looked at fighting in the game as something that was bad. I thought it was something that was part of the game because of the way it is played.

I'll give you a great example with the Lightning. The Lightning had a player by the name of Rudy Poeschek. Rudy was their first folk hero. He was a tough guy, but he was a great guy, too. Rudy took it upon himself to stand up for his teammates. He would take on all comers, and he won most, if not all of his fights.

Well, his fights became -- and I guess my calls of his fights became so popular -- that his agent called me up one day and asked if I could send him a montage of his fights. No problem. The great ending to that story is the three of us met after an exhibition game after I had sent him the tapes. I looked at Rudy and said, "Well Rudy, I guess I made you popular, huh?" He looked at me and said, "No, Larry, I think it worked the other way!"

I think what really turned it here was a fight one night in 1993 against the Florida Panthers. Rudy was involved in that against a guy named Paul Laus. I did my best Howard Cosell, "And down goes Laus!" People loved it.

The calls of the fights were always part of a promise that I made to the fans before every game that I'm going to put you in Row A, Seat 1, just like you were there. The wonderful thing about radio is that you can't see what's going on, but you can visualize it if it is laid out that way for you. I tried to let you know everything that was going on, so that when two guys squared off, I'd say, "The gloves are off, Poeschek is on your left, Laus is on your right," and everything that happened, I would just tell you like you were there.

Q. The 1996 playoffs were really when your calls started to take on a life of their own. Talk about what made that series so memorable.

A. What made that series so intense was that the Philadelphia Flyers were one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, or to at least come out of the East. The Lightning turned things around after getting clobbered in Game 1, 7-3. In Game 2, the Lightning beat the Flyers 2-1 in sudden death. They scored a goal late in the game, and actually, that was the game Darren Puppa hurt his back. The Flyers had a power play early in overtime, and Puppa just stood on his ear. There were scrambles, you know the way the Flyers would go to the net to upset the goaltender, pound him and so forth. I think that's where Darren suffered his eventual debilitating back injury. Well, the Lightning were able to survive the power play, and then Brian Bellows went up the ice and scored the winner. That shocked everybody. The Flyers were more or less expected to sweep the Lightning.

Q. Talk about the role your wife played in making predictions during that series. That started in Game 2, right?

A. Well, my wife would call me to ask if I was doing alright. She'd say, "Larry, you're just going crazy tonight, are you okay?" This was before overtime started, and she said "Don't worry about it, I have a really strong feeling the Lightning are going to win this game." So, sure enough they win the game. We go back to the ThunderDome for the next one. If you remember that game, the Lightning were down a couple of goals in the 3rd period. Rob Zamuner got one, and then with a few minutes left the Lightning were pressing, and Brian Bellows got one in off a rebound to tie things up with under two minutes left. The crowd's going bananas, I'm going bananas, the "Chief" Bobby Taylor is going bananas. I mean, I'm really huffing and puffing. There's like 200 pounds of adrenaline going through my body.

During the overtime break, "Chief" is doing an interview and I go to sit down. I'm sweating, I'm breathing hard, drinking some water, and my wife sees me and asks if I'm alright. I say, "Yeah, I'm just trying to calm down here." She says, "Larry, just between you and me I've got that strange feeling again." I looked at her and said, "No, Susan, let's just quit while we're ahead here."

She said, "No, Larry I'm telling you right now the Lightning are winning this game. Not only that, but Selivanov is scoring the goal."

I get back on the air, and I related the story to "Chief." I said that she told me the other night when I spoke to her before overtime that the Lightning were going to win the game. So I said to him, "Chief, she's part Gypsy, so I have to listen to her. Not only did she say the Lightning are going to win, she even gave me the goal scorer: Alex Selivanov."

Well the "Chief" says, "Larry, if that comes true you ought to take her to Vegas."

Sure enough, overtime begins, and Bill Houlder -- I'll never forget it -- he held the puck above the right circle, he let a shot go, there was a save, and there's Alexander Selivanov. He just ripped the rebound in and I went nuts. "Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir! Selivanov, Selivanov!" Then I ended the call by saying, "I'm taking my wife to Vegas!" We replayed the scenario after the game, after everything had calmed down, and the press here picked up on it. News stations literally came down to our house, but they didn't want to interview me, they wanted to interview my wife! The wanted lottery numbers, whatever. I'll tell you, here is the great ending to that story.

Everyone wanted to know what was going to happen in the next game. So I said, "Susan, we've played this out. Let's not do this anymore, let's quit while we're ahead. No predictions, no nothing, we'll just keep it amongst ourselves."

She said that she had a feeling, and what she would do is write a player's name on a piece of paper, put it in a bag, and place it inside my jacket pocket for that game. Anyway, the next game was a bummer, the Lightning lost, it was terrible. The Lightning scored only one goal in that game, a 4-1 loss. The next morning at home, I'm cleaning out the jacket I had worn the night before and I took out the bag. I opened up the piece of paper, and I like I said the Lightning only scored one goal that night. The goal scorer was Petr Klima. The name on the paper? Peter Klima. I've sort of been marching two steps behind my wife ever since.

Q. So did you eventually take your wife to Las Vegas?

A. Yes, and we won!

Q. How far do you think that Lightning team could have gone if Puppa hadn't gotten hurt?

A. I agree with Phil Esposito, who said that it would have gone to seven games. In a seventh game, you never know. The way Puppa was playing, when you have a hot goaltender, you can go a long way. Even though he got whacked in that first game, the way he played in Game 2 was just incredible. Absolutely incredible. I think if he would have remained in net, the series would have gone to seven games. I think the Lightning had a great chance of advancing with a healthy Darren Puppa.

Q. To what do you attribute the drop-off that followed in the next few seasons?

A. What you can say in general is that the team entered a period of instability and unrest. Number one, the Japanese owners wanted to sell the team and were actively pursuing a buyer. Number two, Terry Crisp was fired. Instability. When Crisp left, here comes Jacques Demers and a whole new scenario. It took time for Demers to do what he wanted to do, and that's when they got Vinny Lecavalier, and then Art Williams came along and called him the "Michael Jordan of hockey."

Art didn't know anything about hockey, the guy who was the team president (Billy McGehee) didn't know anything about hockey, it became a very, very tough situation. There was such instability. There were new players coming in and out, and when Art came in, that first year was horrendous. Absolutely, positively horrendous. It was a combination of those perfect storms unfortunately that led to the downfall of those years.

Q. The stories about Art Williams are legendary, but could you have ever imagined that his season as owner would be so disruptive?

A. The problem with Art was that he wanted to be part of the process, sort of hands-on, but he had a guy at president whose experience running clubs basically came down to his experience in Arena Football and didn't know anything about hockey. We sort of had to sit on the side here, and that was the time when they fired me. McGee said he wanted to renew my contract, and the next thing I know, he calls me up after speaking to my lawyer and says they're not re-hiring me. This was before the 1998-99 season started, and literally, the town of Tampa saved my job. It was four days of hell. I never went to sleep, I was left out in the cold. I had a family to support, everything like that. Fortunately,after talking to a number of people in the community during that time, Art listened and we had a meeting. Not only did he bring me back, he gave me a big raise, and knew that I would be an integral part of the organization in terms of what I had to do. But really, when Art came in and bought the club from the Japanese, that's when the real trouble there started for me.

Q. What was the turning point during Art Williams' tenure as owner of the Lightning where you began to wonder about your place in the organization?

A. During that year, there was a thing that happened with me. The Lightning were on a losing-streak, had lost 11 of 14 games. It was depressing. There were rumors about Art becoming disenchanted and so forth. We went to play a game up in Washington. Billy McGehee was with us for that trip and he ended up in my broadcast booth that night. The Lightning scored the first goal in that game. The Capitals scored eight goals in the second period and won 10-1. If it wasn't the low, it was one of the lowest times of that year. I went back to my hotel room and I said to myself, "We've got to do something here." I went to bed, and then I woke up very early in the morning with a great idea.

We would be playing Philadelphia in a couple of weeks. I went to Billy McGehee and told him I had an idea. The season was really bad, I said, we're not getting any better, we have a lot of injuries, it was just horrible, and morale around the office was terrible. Why don't we take the next two weeks, I told him, and use the next several games as a lead up to the game against Philadelphia at the Ice Palace. Let's recreate that playoff feeling, and have one game where we can sell out the place. Really build up the Flyer game, and for once, show Art what this thing can be.

Billy said, "Terrific, Larry. That's a great idea. We're having a staff meeting when we get back. Why don't you present this?"

I told him, "Wait a minute. Hold on, Billy. I'm giving you the idea. You're the public relations guy. You come up with all these great ideas. You do it. You're the team president, you delegate it. I'll help you in any way I possibly can radio-wise, promotion-wise and everything like that."

He said, "No, Larry. You do it. I can't do it with the enthusiasm you do."

I said, "Billy, I'd rather not do it because I'm just the radio guy."

The last thing he said was "don't worry about it." Reluctantly, I agreed. I walked into that meeting. Billy sees me in the back of the room and introduces me. I go up and I made a terrible mistake. I said, "Look. Times are tough here, the team is struggling, and we're having a hard time selling tickets. It's kind of like having four flat tires stuck in the mud. We're not going anywhere."

Then I started to talk about the Flyer game. Jacques Demers became very distressed, very upset. The entire coaching staff was there and then they walked out. From there, the whole meeting blew up. It was then that I realized maybe Billy was making me the scapegoat here. I went up to Billy later that day and handed him my resignation. I told him, "This is the last time you're going to **** with me. You're not going to do this to me. I'm insulted, I feel bad, and I really tried to do something here to bring light to a very bad season here. I hear Art may be selling the club, and what did you do? You made a fool out of me."

The players, the coaches would not talk to me because the coaches were so-called "insulted." I could not do any interviews with players. All of a sudden I went from being a really nice guy that you'd go up to and laugh with to being the Devil. I felt really bad. I went on the air to apologize. Not that anybody told me to, but I did it because it came out in the papers. It was horrible.

To make a long story short, they sold out that Flyer game because they did what I told them. They sold it out and the Lightning won that night. It was an unbelievable night, as if the 1996 playoffs were being recreated. The Lightning had a horrible team. The Flyers should have killed them. I went nuts that night on the radio, and after the game, the players heard some of it. I went down to the locker room, the goalkeeper for the Lightning, Corey Schwab, calls me over. He says to me, "Larry, I heard what happened. There was nothing between the players and you. We were told by management, blah, blah blah. I know you went through a tough time." What do you think he did?

Q. He gave you the puck?

A. He gave me the game puck. That's exactly right. He couldn't have done anything better. It's one of the greatest stories of my times here and I'll never forget it. I still have the puck, which he signed. Schwaby played a great game that night. It became worth it all. It was their way of saying thank you for trying to create a night where they could shine during a terrible season.

Q. What was Jacques' objection to it?

A. I never really knew, but Jacques was a very emotional guy. This hurt me because I knew Jacques when he was coaching the Indianapolis Racers of the old World Hockey Association. When he came to Tampa, I was telling everybody what kind of a person he was: very enthusiastic, a great guy to talk to, a motivator.

When that happened, I kind of believe -- I want to believe -- that when Art Williams brought me back after Billy McGehee tried to fire me, that it embarrassed him. I told Art during our meeting that I'm not trying to embarrass Billy. But Billy said some unkind things about me, and I always believed that the meeting was a set up for me. I think it was Billy's chance to get back at me for that particular embarrassment. Now, I can't prove that. But if you look at Jacques, he felt that the four flat tires comment was an insult to his hockey team. It wasn't. It was my analysis of the situation. We're stuck in the mud here and we gotta get out. Jacques took that as an insult. Rick Paterson was one of the coaches, and I'd know him for a long time, and he wouldn't talk to me. I couldn't understand it. It went from being one of the worst times to one of the best things that ever happened to me here because of that puck and what Schwaby and the players did that night. The players liked me. How could they not like me? I had their back all the time. But, if you think that episode was bad, what happened with Palace Sports and Entertainment made that look like a day in the country.

Q. What happened when they took over?

A. This is exactly what happened. You're hearing it from the horse's mouth. Palace Sports and Entertainment buys the team from Art Williams in 1999. I only had a one-year contract at the time. I signed my first multi-year contract when the Lightning brought me down here because I wanted it for my family. I talked to Art about doing another multi-year contract. He said to me, "Larry, let's wait until this thing settles down. I'm going to have this team for at least three years. Let me settle things down and we'll do a multi-year next year." I always take a man for his word, and after coming off of those terrible four days at the beginning, I was just happy to have my job. Well, p.s., he sells the team! At the time of the Flyer game, the rumors had come out that he was selling the Lightning. I wanted him to see for one night how great this thing can be, because he really did like having the team.

So he sells the team to Palace Sports & Entertainment. They come in here and have a press conference announcing their intention to buy the club. Bill Davidson and Tom Wilson. The one thing I noticed in Tom Wilson's bio when I read it was that he had a career as a B-actor. There's nothing more lethal than having the president of a sports organization who is a B-actor, because on one-hand he could talk very gracefully, and on the other hand he could B.S. you to death.

So they have the press conference, but it took quite a few months to finalize that deal. Now I had a new owner to deal with. All that Art told me went down the drain. There were three clubs in the NHL that were interested in my services. I told them I was under contract with the Lightning until August. Legally I couldn't do anything, but we had new management so I was going to find out very quickly their intentions.

I called up Ron Campbell and we set up a meeting. He said we're putting the finishing touches on everything and when we're done we'll get back in touch. Two weeks go by and I hadn't heard anything. I'm getting nervous. This is in June, and I've got three teams after me.
On Sunday June 20, I get a call from the Vice President of Sales & Marketing, a man who is now the president of the Florida Panthers: Michael Yormark. This was on Father's Day. Yormark says to me, "Congratulations Larry, I'm sorry it took this long. We're going to bring you in for orientation. Everything is fine. Ron told me to give you a call." So great. With that, on Monday I called the other teams to tell them I'd be staying with the Lightning.

Two weeks later, I hear about a season-ticket holders meeting at the Ice Palace with the new management. I did not know about this. That's when I said, "Uh-oh." Rick Peckham knew about it, Bobby Taylor knew about, but I didn't know about it. Are you kidding me? So I went that night with my wife. There's about 7,000 people there. After Tom Wilson gives his b.s. speech, there's a question-and-answer session. The second question was, "Is Larry Hirsch coming back?" In front of thousands of people, Tom Wilson said, "You want him back, of course we're bringing him back." Then everybody cheered.

A few days later they introduced Steve Ludzik as head coach, and after that they told that I was not being retained, that they'd be bringing in their own broadcaster from Detroit. That turned into a very contentious 10-days between me and PS&E. I wanted to hold my own press conference to explain why I wasn't coming back. They used Steve Duemig as a poison dart on me. It was terrible.

I couldn't sue them, because my contract was up. But the one thing that this very ruthless organization didn't want was bad publicity. What they ended up doing was giving me compensation, but I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The compensation wasn't what I wanted, but I had to have it for my family. Then that was it.

It hurts, but I still live here in Tampa. I still have my home here. A lot of that is due to the testimonial of the people here and the way they've treated me. People still come up to me and say "we miss you." I just want to say that I genuinely and humbly thank all the fans here for how they have treated me and my family, and continue to do so. That's why we are proud members of this community, and why we'll never forget them.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Catching Up With Mark Champion

Mark Champion, the current radio play-by-play announcer for the Detroit Pistons, is fondly-remembered locally as the radio voice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1979-1988. Since leaving Tampa in 1989, Champion has served in the same capacity for the Detroit Lions from 1989-2004, the Detroit Pistons from 1992-1996, then rejoined the Pistons in 2001. He recently took some time prior to a Pistons-Magic game in Orlando to reflect on his time in Tampa and the special relationship he formed with Buccaneer head coach John McKay.

Q. How did you end up getting the job with the Bucs?

A. For the first two years, they had the former announcer for the Green Bay Packers, a guy named Ray Scott, who was legendary. In 1978, Dick Crippen did it for half the season, and I don't know exactly what happened. The guy who owned the broadcast rights -- Jim Gallogly -- did the other half of the season. The next year, CBS got the rights and they hired me.

I had actually auditioned for the job in 1978, but did not get it. For my audition tape, I went up to a spare booth in Tampa Stadium during a pre-season game. A buddy of mine helped me out because I didn't have any football tapes at that point. So that's what I used to get the job. By 1979, they knew who I was and had a good relationship Bob Best and Rick Odioso in the media relations department. That's kind of how I got it.

Q. So you got the job just in time for the most exciting season in team history to that point.

A. Yeah, unbelievable. First season out I thought, "Wow. This is pretty good." Of course, Doug Williams was our quarterback. We knocked off Philadelphia to get to the NFC championship game. It was exciting and a lot of fun.

Q. Did you know early on that the Bucs were going to have a season like that?

A. No, I don't think going into the season anyone really knew. Doug came to us in 1978, and we knew he was a good athlete, but we didn't know if he could lead the team. If you look at his stats, he only completed about 47% of his passes, but he made big plays, huge plays to win games. And the defense, we had the number one defense in the league that year. I don't think anybody realized how good our defense was, and that's really how we got to the championship. That particular team was pretty awesome.

Q. What is your fondest memory from that season?

A. Well that Kansas City game was the one that was just a monsoon. I remember the rain cascading down the steps of the old Sombrero. We could have played eight quarters and nobody would have scored a touchdown in that game. I just remember big plays that Doug made that season.

There was one he made a few years later, though, that really stands out. We were playing the Chicago Bears at home during the last week of the '82 season. We had the ball around the Chicago 10-yard line. Doug got sacked and fumbled the ball. Steve McMichael, a defensive lineman for the Bears, picked it up and he had such a head start -- I swear it must have been a 50-yard head start -- and Doug Williams caught up with him and tackled him before he could score. They did not get a touchdown, had to settle for a field goal, and we ended up winning that game by three points. That kind of play stands out when I think about Doug's athleticism.

Q. What kind of relationship did you have with John McKay?

A. We got to be really close. In fact, my best buddy all the years I lived there was his son-in-law, a guy named Bob Florio. I did a TV show in 1979 with McKay, got to know the family, and it got to a point where my family would go over to his house there on Bayshore around Christmas time or for the Gasparilla parade. I loved John. I know he had a rough edge to him with the media, but if you really knew him he was one of the funniest guys. If you were loyal to him, he was loyal to you. We got along great. Now he's gone, his wife Corky is gone, and she was such a great person, and I remember when Richie was just a snotty-nosed high school quarterback at Jesuit. It's amazing how time flies.

Q. Is there a personal or professional story you'd like to relate about John McKay?

A. Off the top of my head, there was a period of time where he really got into it with Tom McEwen. I don't remember what the issue was, but I was over at his house one night after a game. He was talking about the whole thing with McEwen, and he came to me and said, "Marky, I need your help. Are you with me?"

I said, "Coach, I'm always with you, but you can't win that battle. He's always got the last word on you." That was the kind of open and honest relationship we had.

Q. Going back to Doug Williams for a minute, when you look back on how the team's fortunes changed after he left, do you think it all goes back to that move or where there other factors that contributed to the slide?

A. Well, I think it had a lot to do with it. He was our guy, and when he left, it was like cutting the heart out of the team. You know, back then the league was a little bit different. Today, teams spend their money and are all fairly competitive. Back then it was kind of different, plus you had the USFL coming along. Whatever the issue, I know Coach McKay definitely didn't want Doug to go, but it was a thing between Doug and Mr. Culverhouse that didn't work out. That just ruined the team.

Then after McKay left, Leeman Bennett came in and we had back-to-back 2-14 seasons that were just horrific. No question when Doug left it cut the heart out of the team, and Dougie was such a great guy, too.

Q. How was your relationship with McKay's successors, Bennett and Ray Perkins?

A. Good, good. Leeman was a terrific, really nice guy. He had been out of football running an RV dealership in Atlanta or something, and Mr. C. just kind of talked him back into coaching. You could just see it -- and I hate to say it -- but he had a terrible coaching staff. The team had no identity. It was just a bad situation, but it's kind of interesting because at quarterback we had Steve Young.

I felt bad for Steve. We went up and played Green Bay in 1985 and it was just awful. The worst weather I'd ever seen. In fact, it was that game where they ended up using footage for that Alka-Seltzer commercial. We had like 60 yards of offense that day, Steve got drilled play after play, and Lynn Dickey threw for over 300 yards in a blizzard for Green Bay.

I was only with Ray for two years. He could be ... his personality was a little different than Leeman's, let's put it that way. I got along with him fine for what I had to do though.

Q. What led to you leave Tampa in 1989 for a job with the Detroit Lions?

A. The Lions had been on WJR, which at the time was the top station in Detroit. They lost the rights to CBS, and the guy who had been doing the games did not want to leave WJR. He had a very good financial situation that they could not match at WWJ. So they were looking for somebody. I had moved over to Q105 for the 1987 and 1988 seasons, and prior to that I had been at WSUN, a CBS station. The general manager put in a good word for me up there.

They had just hired Wayne Fontes as the head coach, and we were close friends from the time he spent on John's staff. I'd gotten to know their media relations staff over the years as well, so it was a combination of all those things that led to a better job opportunity. Not just financially, but within a year or two I was also doing Pistons basketball.

Q. It so happened that 1989 was the rookie year for Barry Sanders.

A. Yeah, we came to Detroit at the same time. I was fortunate enough to call every run he ever made, which was just amazing. It's neat to know that you've done that with someone like Barry, a Hall-of-Famer, and I really feel the same way about Lee Roy Selmon. I didn't call all of his games, but I called a majority of them. It's kind of special to know you broadcast games for Hall of Fame players, and Lee Roy was such a great guy. Just a prince of a guy.

Q. You're also well-known for being the voice-over in the post-Super Bowl Disney World commercials. How did that role come about for you?

A. Phil Lengyel, who was the head of marketing for Disney in the mid-1980s, went to school with me at Ball State University. He called me up, said we have this marketing idea, and would I be interested in voicing it. I said, "Absolutely." That's how it started. The first one we did was with Phil Simms after Super Bowl XXI. In fact, I just talked to my guy at Disney because we have the 25th anniversary coming up, so they're going to be doing something special for it.