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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Part 1: Kolbe Gets Canned

I will try to be sensitive throughout this post.  When someone loses a job, it is no laughing matter.  Heck, right now I know firsthand what it is like to be unemployed.  It is certainly not fun.  So the goal of this column is not to kick Steve Kolbe while he is down.  I imagine the man is a bit shell-shocked by what happened to him.

That being said, I've been waiting for his departure since well, 1997.  I never was a fan of his.  While he has steadily improved during his time in Washington - I'm of the opinion that his play-by-play skills merely went from God-awful to barely tolerable.

First, let's be clear:  his voice is horrible.  Even when he is just making his baseline call it is annoying.  But then, when he gets excited or screams?  It is ear splitting!  And he seems to enjoy "burying the needle" as they say.  That is never a good idea in the announcing world - and that gets raised to the 10th power when you have Kolbe's voice.  So most memorable moments for the Caps over the past 13 or so seasons have been paired with grating radio calls.  If you want an example - find his call from when the Caps beat the Rangers in 2009 playoffs (end of Game 7) - and that's an IMPROVED Kolbe......if you really want to punish your ears - go find his call of Joe Juneau's goal in 1998 vs. Buffalo.....

Second, he sounds rehearsed and canned.  This has various implications.  a) He uses an overabundance of statistics.  Some of these are insightful, most of them just fill air time.  Probably not his intention, but it came across like he was coasting through parts of the broadcast.  He could cut back on the stats and be more conversational (home games) or provide more insight into game strategy (road games) to signal that he knows what is going on.  Kolbe turned a strength (i.e., preparation) into a weakness (i.e., sounding rehearsed) and that hurt his credibility in my opinion.  b) His signature phrases are delivered awkwardly - and frankly they suck (I'm sorry, but the "cat in the hat" is just moronic).  Whether it is a one-off saying or a signature phrase, it has to be delivered with "oomph".  When Kolbe wasn't "burying the needle" he was sounding robotic.  There was never a solid in-between.  c) he just wasn't funny or engaging.  now this is a tough one because most sportscasters flood the broadcast with cheesy, douchy humor.  You don't want to turn your broadcast into Sportscenter.  And Kolbe should be applauded for not doing so.  But, his broadcasts were too dry.  Again, no sweetspot.

So, if his voice his horrible and he wasn't engaging - was he at least a good at keeping up with the play?  Well, that brings me to my third critique of Steve Kolbe:

He was not good at "painting a picture" or describing the action.  He often had trouble keeping up with the play (or, he was too busy unloading statistics).  I remember one time in 2009 I was listening to a broadcast.  I wish I could find the clip but you'll just have to take my word.  He literally went from a Jose Theodore save (Caps goalie at the time) to a Washington Capitals goal.  There was zero explanation as to how the puck went from one end of the ice to the other.  And certainly, if you are watching the play develop you know not to spend too much time fawning over the save because you have to describe a potential goal-in-process.  That's just bad all around.  And you can't blame the speed of the game on that call.  In general though, it seemed like Steve Kolbe was a "minimalist" when describing the action.  He either couldn't keep up or didn't feel the need to describe what was going on.  Maybe if what he said was interesting he could have gotten away with it.  But really, he should have been better at, and done more of, in-game calling.  He wasn't the TV guy, he was the radio guy.  We needed more from him.

In Summary:

Bad voice, not engaging, not able to describe the play = time to go........

While I am totally in favor of Steve Kolbe being shown the door, that doesn't mean I'm not scratching my head at this decision - or that I don't wish him the best.

I mean, I've thought he's been bad from Day 1.  But, the Caps seem to have loved him.  The timing of his departure is arbitrary at best.  They let him hit the 1,000 game milestone and then they can him?  What possibly did he do to get fired?  I mean for God's sake, there are enough social media wannabees clogging up Twitter's site (me included!).  I know Ted Leonsis is all about social media, but if this is because Steve Kolbe didn't tweet then that's fucking stupid.  That's one of the things I respected about Steve Kolbe.  Steve recently joined Twitter - perhaps as an effort to save his job, but really he shouldn't have needed to do so.  I don't need my play-by-play person to blog or tweet.  I need him to call the fucking hockey game!!!! Is that asking too much?  Business owners want hockey announcers to be versatile.  Screw that!  Play-by-play is a unique craft.  If you're good at that, you're good enough for me.  Augmenting your brand through social media only hides your deficiencies as an announcer.

Then there is the issue of how the Caps handled the job posting and notifying Steve Kolbe.  I'll say this much, if you're going to fire someone - be an adult about it and fire them.  That seemed like the plan all along.  But what did the Caps do?  They made Steve Kolbe apply to HIS OWN JOB that wouldn't be his job anymore rather than telling him from the beginning that he wasn't coming back.  I'm sorry, that's fucking dick - whether they told him this week that John Walton got the job or sent him a text or didn't tell him anything.  Don't tell me Steve Kolbe had a legitimate chance of keeping the job.  The fix was in all along.  You can't give the guy a proper sendoff?  Tell him why he is being let go?  Thank him for his years of service?  I mean, for all we know Steve Kolbe would have done what you asked him to do.  And if it's because he sucked then be an adult and tell him that!  As an aside, if this has anything to do with HR policies - then you have the wrong HR policies in place!!!  Really, someone in the Caps organization seemingly fucked this up big time......

I am torn as to whether or not to feel sorry for Steve Kolbe, though.  On one hand - he did nothing to deserve a classless exit.  Like I said at the very top of this post, he is probably shell-shocked.  Valued employee one day.  Piece of shit the next.  Seemingly no real warning as to the change.  Yeah, it sucks.  And I truly do feel sorry for him.  It makes me wonder if the Caps front-office is douchier than they are given credit for.  Because this is a shitty way to treat people.

But it's still business.  As I know from personal experience - whether you are told you didn't get the job from a classy HR professional (and why) or if you just get cut off from a company that woos you and eagerly interviews you but then ignores you - the fact remains that you didn't get the job - and that's really what sucks.  Steve Kolbe got to experience his dream job - something many of us won't get to say.  He got 1,000+ more games in the NHL than he deserved.  And he got to the NHL without really hacking it out in the AHL (only some time in Portland).  His time in Washington was a gift.  No matter how shitty the exit, Steve Kolbe has no right to be anything other than thankful.

In closing, I'll throw this out:  I recognize I've been hard on Steve Kolbe's abilities.  By all accounts, people say he was a class act - a good guy.  That should mean something.  A lot of play-by-play guys are arrogant pieces of shit - pure assholes (yes, even the ones that sound humble on the air).  If you knew them in real life, you'd be astonished and nauseous all at once.  The fact that Steve Kolbe has other interests (archery, fishing, drums), lost so much weight, and was respected by his peers is beyond commendable.  Character might not let you keep the job, but it still stands for something.  Wherever he winds up, I wish him the best.  He seems like an interesting guy - someone whose off-air demeanor should be emulated by a lot of people.  Hopefully he lands on his feet and finds happiness in the next chapter in his life.  



  1. I for one never understood the hateful criticism of Kolbe...and I grew up a fan early on, being weaned on the talented Ron Weber. So I was never exactly thrilled with Kolbe. But I thought he was at the very least adequate. And as for the catch phrases, name me one announcer that doesn't have one. Don't you want to stab yourself in the eye every time Mike Lange groans out one of his goal calls? I know I do. You're right though, while he wasn't the best, Steve Kolbe certainly deserved better than what he got in the end, but at least got to live out a dream.

    1. " Don't you want to stab yourself in the eye every time Mike Lange groans out one of his goal calls?"

      No and nobody else thinks that way either since he's a HOFer and one of the most respective broadcaster in the NHL.

  2. We'll have to agree to disagree on Steve Kolbe. Like I said, he got better over time. But, I still think there is much better out there.

    All announcers have catch phrases, I just don't like those of Steve Kolbe. I haven't listened to Mike Lange in a while, but I certainly think it is a valid opinion to be over his catch phrases. If you want a quick example of a phrase I did like - I thought Mike Fornes' "A Shot! And A Goal!" was succinct and to the point - yet engaging.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. All the best.....

  3. "But what did the Caps do? They made Steve Kolbe apply to HIS OWN JOB that wouldn't be his job anymore rather than telling him from the beginning that he wasn't coming back."

    Except for the fact that it wasn't his own job. Kolbe was a part-time play-by-play radio broadcaster. Walton is now the director of broadcasting, which is a full-time position that includes radio broadcasting but also other responsibilities. I guess it would have been classy just to kick Kolbe to the curb rather than allowing him to apply for the position?

  4. Eh. This reeks of HR politicking. Kolbe was for all intents and purposes the full-time announcer. He announced all of the games, no? The title change masks the fact that there is hardly a difference between Kolbe's job and Walton's job.

    And yes, if they knew all along they were going to fire Kolbe, then they should have manned-up and done it like adults.

    I seriously doubt that this was an open competition that Walton won fair and square (though I do believe he is a better announcer).....

  5. I fell in love with the Caps 27 years ago when I moved to the area because of Ron Weber's play-by-play. To me, the Capitals were the good guys--without excessive homerism. Imagine how I felt when the organization told him he was done. Imagine how I felt when I heard Steve Kolbe's first game call! I started an email campaign in my office in 1998 to get Ron back for the finals, citing it's something he never had the chance to do. My 10-paragraph email actually garnered a response from Ted Leonsis, who replied, "i'll discuss it with dick."

    Yep, I never warmed up to Steve Kolbe, but it was primarily because I saw him as the villain in the ousting of Ron Weber. Now though, well, I no longer know how to feel.

  6. I think there is a way to balance feeling sorry for Steve Kolbe while never having really loved his call......

  7. Susan O'Malley shoved Ron Weber out the door in a display of pure ageism. Jon Walton is the most cliche-driven broadcaster in the NHL.