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The Capitals held one last pre-finals workout at Piney Orchard on Sunday, a day before leaving for Detroit. Ron Weber mingled among the many well-wishers outside the practice facility, celebrating the chance that the team might bring home the Stanley Cup.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to get into any of the [Red Wings] games. I’d like to go,” Weber said after the practice, as if he were just another fan.
He’s not just another fan.
Weber is a key figure in the Caps’ history. He’s also the only melancholy figure in the Cinderella squad’s glorious bid for its first title. Win or lose, that Weber could actually be left out of the proceedings seems unconscionable.
Not that long ago, Weber was the radio voice of the Capitals. Before this season, in fact, he was the only play-by-play man Caps fans had ever known. In 23 years, Weber called 1,936 consecutive Caps games. From the beginning of the franchise’s inaugural campaign of 1974-75 until the end of last season, he saw every game the team ever played. Every single one.
If Weber had his way, his incredible streak would still be intact. But, against his wishes, and with a sad whimper, it ended. Last season, Abe Pollin told Weber the team was looking for a new voice, but he never explained whyto Weber or anybody else. To repay the about-to-be-deposed announcer for his lengthy service, management threw a “Ron Weber Night” at the USAir Arena near the end of the year. The day before his big night, Weber’s mother died. The guest of honor gamely went through with the ceremony anyway, then put on his microphone and called the game.
Caps players did their part to hasten Weber’s exit by winning just two of the last six games of his final season. That skein kept the team out of the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. So Weber’s last call came in Buffalo, in a meaningless 8-3 win over the Sabres after the Caps had already been eliminated from playoff contention. The ever-humble Weber spent the final moments of his career pleading with listeners not to blame anybody for his departure or pity him.
It was hard not to pity Weber that night, though, and it’s even harder now. He had hoped that after the Caps iced him he’d be able to find work calling games for some other pro teamany sport would do, he said. But he was 63, and nobody signed him up. He retired.
Once relieved of his duties, Weber didn’t go to Toronto to see the Caps’ 1997-98 season opener in October. But he watched that game, what would have been his 1,937th straight, on cable television in the living room of his Wheaton home. For the first time, he felt like any other Caps fan.
And he still does. Despite the manner in which his career ended, Weber really does root for the Caps, who, other than recent arrivals Esa Tikkanen and Brian Bellows, are the same guys he worked with. He’s not a season ticket-holder, but he took the subway to MCI Center to see the team a lot this year and often found himself jotting down line pairings and official scoring notes, much the way he did when he worked the games. Weber also watched some Caps games on the tube. He says he didn’t listen to many radio broadcasts, though.
Steve Kolbe calls the Caps games now. Kolbe is the Anti-Weber. Whereas Weber was super-folksy and at times laid back to the point of seeming catatonic, the 31-year-old Kolbe gives off more energy than Three Mile Island. Even during regular season games, Kolbe calls all the action as if the Stanley Cupif not the very fate of the free worldhangs in the balance: Every “Oates wins the faceoff!!!” gets the urgency of “The Giants win the pennant!!!” The Caps knew exactly what they were getting: Before moving to hockey, Kolbe had showcased the very same hyperexcited delivery on the pro wrestling show he hosted for WTEM, the Caps’ flagship station.
Kolbe had nothing to do with Weber’s exodus. But Weber, nice guy that he is, can’t mask all traces of the envy he holds for his replacement.
“I think Steve realizes he’s a lucky guy,” Weber says.
In other words, Weber sure realizes it.
He realizes, for example, that Kolbe calls home games in MCI Center, the bright, shiny state-of-the-art arena built downtown by Pollin; for his entire career, Weber worked out of Pollin’s shabby, dark, outside-the-Beltway USAir Arena (née Capital Centre). He realizes that Kolbe’s calls have been going out on WTEM’s 50,000-watt transmitter since the sports station took over WRC’s old digs in April; in Weber’s day, WTEM’s signal was as feeble as O.J.’s alibis. Weber realizes that the Caps enjoyed the most successful season in franchise history in Kolbe’s first year behind the microphone; during Weber’s first year, the Caps went 8-67-5a mark that still stands as the worst season not only in the Caps’ history, but in NHL history. And, of course, Weber realizes it is Kolbe’s privilege to work a championship series; in his 23 years on the job, the Caps never brought Weber anywhere near a Stanley Cup finals game.
At Piney Orchard on Sunday, several Caps fans recognized Weber and told him they miss his work, and that for his sake they wish the team hadn’t taken so long to get so close to a Stanley Cup. He thanked all comers, telling them he had always hoped to call a game in the finals.
Now that he’s just a fan, though, his goals are less lofty. Microphone or no microphone, Weber would just like to see the Caps play in the finals. In person, that is. But as of last weekend, like so many of those who flocked to the practice rink, Weber hadn’t been able to get a ticket for himself.
“I’m hoping I can get in,” he said.
If anybody has a spare, call Weber. He deserves it.