“Hurry up, mom!” cries the impatient child. “C’mon, turn on the radio! Turn it on! Grady’s gonna be on and we’re playing Harvard!”
“Is it on yet?” asks the student studying for a test on Monday. “It’s a big one tonight. We’ve got to win on the road, and they’re ahead of us in the standings. I gotta hear Bob call the game!”
“All right!” screams the executive to her kids. “We’re playing great tonight! We’ve got the lead, but Skip says it’s a close one.”
These scenes are repeated every winter weekend around the Northeast. Fans are clamoring for their dose of ECAC hockey.
And who better to bring it to you than three of the permanent voices of the ECAC — Grady Whittenburg at Cornell, Bob Ahlfeld at Clarkson and Skip Barlow at Colgate.
They’re more than just announcers — they are your eyes for an exciting hockey game.
The ECAC is an oddity in terms of radio broadcasting. Most of the league is covered on the radio by student stations where play-by-play announcers and color commentators change every year and you never know who you will hear when you listen to a game. In most of the other markets there are constants, like Dick Osbourne at New Hampshire, Bruce Cech at Alaska-Fairbanks and Jeff Thomas at Colorado College.
In the ECAC, the constants are Grady, Skip and Bob.
And their reach is expanding, as radio broadcasts of games are already an integral component of Internet programming. More than 25 different teams around the nation have their games broadcast on the ‘Net.
College hockey is beginning to get greater exposure around the world, so maybe it’s time to meet some of the people who are your eyes for the big game.
The Eyes of the Big Red
Grady Whittenburg has been the voice of the Cornell Big Red since the 1990-91 season. This season is his ninth, and when people tune to WHCU-870AM on a Friday or Saturday night, his enthusiasm for Big Red hockey shines through.
Grady never played the game, but there was instant attraction for him, growing up in the southern tier of New York.
“Minor-league hockey was big in Binghamton in the ’70s,” he said. “My dad took me to my first game — it was the Binghamton Broom Dusters at the time — and I got hooked.
“I got into radio when my high school games were broadcast. I hooked up with the guy that was doing our high school hockey games and I wound up doing high school football games when I graduated. But I always wanted to do hockey.
“When I was doing football I would go over to Binghamton and the minor-league hockey games and I got a seat in the press box. And I taught myself. I try not to copy or steal. There are guys that want to be Marv Albert or somebody else.
“[But] I like to listen and I like to gain things from other announcers. It’s how they do things and how they carry out their broadcast.”
That attention has led to a style all Grady’s own.
“I want to broadcast how I want to watch a game,” he explained. “I broadcast and I get into it. My team could be losing 9-2 but if they get that third goal, I’m into it. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but I feel like I broadcast from a fan’s perspective.
“The biggest knock on me is if the other team scores against Cornell I get excited. But you can’t broadcast hockey any other way. If you really love hockey and appreciate how goals are scored and if you’re here at Lynah Rink broadcasting for another team and Ryan Moynihan scores a goal and 3,800 people are going crazy, you’re not just going to say, ‘Shot, score.’ You’re going to be in it.
“I watch and I broadcast the game because I love it. I’m associated with Cornell, I bleed Cornell red, and I want Cornell to win, but I don’t want to be a Harry Caray homer type. If the other team makes a great play, you have to recognize that. And if you don’t want to hear me, then don’t listen to me.”
There have been big thrills recently for Cornell hockey, including back-to-back ECAC Championships in 1996 and 1997, but neither of those was Grady’s favorite broadcasting moment.
“It was my first year,” he recalled. “We went out to Ann Arbor in the spring of 1991 for the NCAA tournament and to this day people call it the resurgence of Michigan hockey. It was the first game of the series in the NCAAs, a ton of people were going nuts, and Michigan thought they had the game won, 4-3.
“We pulled Parris Duffus and we got a six-on-five goal to send the game into overtime by Kent Manderville with two seconds left to go. Then we won 21 seconds into overtime. We couldn’t pull the rest of the series out, but that was the most memorable one for me.
“It was a defining moment for me and today it still is my favorite.”
The Eyes of the Golden Knights
Bob Ahlfeld has been the voice of the Golden Knights in the North Country community of Potsdam, N.Y., for the last two seasons, and for those of you who listen to the weekly ECAC radio report, he’s also the voice for most of those as well.
And though Bob sounds like he has done it for a million years, that’s not the case for the North Country native.
“I had never done a hockey game before,” he admitted. “I was working on television and a buddy of mine said he needed a guy that could do hockey on the radio, and I said yes. My father did it growing up for Massena [N.Y.] High School when I was growing up. I was born in television but I got into radio.”
Bob is in his third season calling the Golden Knights on WSNN. For the first year he had Geoff Brown, the current Clarkson Athletic director, as his color partner, and this year he has former Golden Knight Josh Bartell on his team.
His style lends itself to a fan’s perspective. He wants the Golden Knights to win.
“It’s hard not to root after a while,” he said. “You try to not have a homer bias but you’re happy when Clarkson scores. But when a goal is amazing and you see that you want to get excited. You want to keep the edge on your audience and you want to make it exciting.
“I disagree when people tell me I should only root for Clarkson, though. If somebody makes a good play or if Clarkson takes a dumb penalty you have to call it. You’re the eyes, you’re the fan. If Clarkson scores you have to be excited, but if Brown or RPI makes a great play you have to give them credit. A nice play is a nice play no matter who does it.”
In his two-and-a-half seasons as the eyes of the Golden Knight fan, Ahlfeld found it very hard to pick a favorite moment.
“Todd White scoring against Princeton in overtime,” he said. “Then there was Chris Clark’s from the top of the faceoff circle against Brown, but one of Nick Windsor’s was my favorite.
“It was an afternoon game against Cornell last year and that goal capped off his career very nicely. Clarkson had to win that one in order to have a shot at winning the ECAC title, and at that time it got Clarkson that much closer depending on what happened with Yale and RPI that night. That is one of the moments that really stuck in my mind.”
The Eyes of the Red Raiders
Skip Barlow is the dean of the ECAC radio announcers, now in his tenth season as the voice of the Red Raiders — something that wasn’t exactly what he had planned.
“I was ready to go back to work at Burger King,” said Barlow. “But one day I saw an ad for a radio sports guy, so I applied. I got the job and off I went to Oneida, N.Y.”
That’s where the career of Skip Barlow, voice of the Red Raiders, began.
“I started out doing just hockey,” said Skip. “Then gradually we added football and basketball to the schedule. I was real lucky that I got to experience going to the NCAA championship game in my very first year.”
Fans have associated Barlow with the Red Raiders for the last ten seasons, but he also supplied the other voice for the ECAC weekly radio report, and he has a few words about his style.
“If you want to call me a homer, call me a homer,” he said. “Sure I want Colgate to win, I bleed the colors. But again a great game is a great game no matter who is winning.
“The one thing that I won’t do is criticize the players. They’re just kids, and everyone makes mistakes. I’m not a coach and I don’t feel it’s my place to criticize the players.”
As the veteran among current ECAC radio personalities, Barlow should have his share of favorite moments. One moment, though, does stand out in his mind.
“The time that we beat Vermont to go to Lake Placid for the first time,” he said about the 1995 Red Raider team. “That was the best moment that I remember. Of course we didn’t do much in Placid, but that still sticks out in my mind as the moment that I will remember broadcasting.
“Sure, going to the championship game of the NCAA tournament in my first season was a great moment, but for some reason that didn’t compare to the feeling of going to Placid for the first time.”
After three seasons in Oneida, the rights to Red Raider broadcasts turned over to WKXZ, out of Norwich, N.Y. Skip continues to broadcast all three sports.
“I’ve been all over the place lately,” he said. “I was in Nebraska a few weeks ago with the basketball team, then in Duluth with the hockey team, and I’ll continue to go wherever people want to hear how the Red Raiders are doing.”
What A View!
As veterans of the ECAC circuit, Grady, Bob and Skip have their favorite broadcast locations.
“I love RPI’s,” said Ahlfeld on his favorite location besides his home of Cheel Arena. “People don’t look for us, but we’re right at the top of the rafters. St. Lawrence has a nice feel as well, and Lynah is great, but you have to squat to see the scoreboard. I’m not big on the end-zone locations, but Con Elliott used to do it for 35 years from Walker Arena’s end zone, so I complain to him and he says, ‘I did it for 35 years, sonny.’ But RPI is my favorite because I like the height of it.”
“Being from the Burlington area, it has to be Vermont,” said Barlow. “It’s always fun to go back to where I grew up and go into the Gutterson Fieldhouse and see the fans and the community where I was from.”
“I’d have to say that Vermont and RPI are my favorites aside from Lynah,” said Whittenburg. “They get into it at those places. The band and the fans waiting to get in and the lines to get tickets. It was like that at RPI at one time, and I guess that’s what it was like here at Cornell at one time. But my favorite enemy rink is the Gutterson Fieldhouse.”
Sometimes you’re loved and sometimes you’re hated. That’s the way it goes for a hockey player — and also for another member of the hockey team: your eyes, your radio play-by-play announcer. And for the fans of Cornell, Clarkson and Colgate, your eyes are Grady Whittenburg, Bob Ahlfeld and Skip Barlow.