When he was a boy in the 1960s, Ken Kal dreamed of calling Detroit Red Wings’ games. After 11 seasons broadcasting University of Michigan hockey games, he got his shot at the NHL. In 1995, Kal, whose full last name is Kalczynski, was hired to replace longtime Red Wings’ announcer Bruce Martyn and has been with the team ever since.
Kal has served as president of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association, and in 2007, he received that group’s “Ty Tyson Award for Excellence in Sports Broadcasting.” However, he does not take credit for his success. He does work diligently, but praises God for anything good that might result.
Kal’s connection to Catholicism covers not only his broadcasting career, but also his activities outside the game of hockey. He has been on the board of directors of the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame — an organization whose many inductees include Danny Abramowicz — since 1996. Kal spoke of this and other things as the NHL All-Star Game approached Jan. 28 in Tampa, Florida.
What do you think of the Red Wings’ first half of the season (19-21-8, fourth place in the Atlantic Division), and what are you expecting from the second half?
The league in general is so tight. There’s not a lot of separation among the teams. The Red Wings have certainly been competitive in the first half. They’ve worked hard and have been in almost every game; however, the team hasn’t gotten the results for all of their hard work.
The Red Wings have a good core of youngsters, guys like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, just to name a few. The organization will build around them in the future by selecting players through the draft and free agency. The team is still in the playoff hunt, but what’s also important now is for the youngsters to continue to compete at a high level and develop.
What do you enjoy most and least about hockey?
The game of hockey is terrific. It is filled with opportunities that don’t always occur in other sports. Players can come in and out of the game even while play continues, and it just seems like there’s always something going on — never a dull moment. Then you add my great broadcast partner, Paul Woods, to the mix, and things get even better. On top of all that, we have a new home at Little Caesar’s Arena, which is among the best arenas anywhere and part of the revitalization of Detroit, so I couldn’t be more thankful for the job I have.
As for the negatives, I can’t think of any. I really count my blessings every day. It’s such a pleasure to work with great professionals, to travel with them and call games on the radio, which is what I love best.
Did you want to be an announcer when you were young?
I grew up in Detroit, and we had a pond in the backyard that would freeze over. I loved to skate out there and think about being the Red Wings’ announcer one day. Well, around age 10, my father bought me a tape recorder that I used to tape games from TV or radio. Then I would take the recorder outside and play the games as I skated along, joining in on the announcing.
In 1984 I was hired by WAAM radio in Ann Arbor to be the announcer for the University of Michigan hockey team. The action on the ice seemed so fast to me that I couldn’t keep up with it. I even told the program director that I didn’t think I was up to it. He said not to worry, since the team itself wasn’t all that good at the time and that I would improve with the team.
He was right. Over the next 11 seasons, the team progressed from losing records to winning ones, and then, in the 1990-91 season, they started making perennial trips to the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, I felt more comfortable announcing their games, so we did indeed progress together.
Three things that helped me were diligent preparation (listening to other announcers do their jobs and researching teams for interesting points and stories to mention on-air), simple repetition or practice (everyone tends to get better the more they do something), and taking small steps. This last one helped maintain hope of improvement. Instead of thinking in big, general terms, “I want to get better,” I just took the first 10 minutes of a game and concentrated on making those the best 10 minutes possible. I paid close attention to what was happening and how I could verbalize it. Then as I got the first 10 minutes down, I went on to 15, and then 20. I was slowly building up to where I could do an entire game well. It was taking a challenging situation and making it better.
Was there a particularly challenging situation your faith got you through?
Well, the one I just told was a situation where I relied, not on my own efforts, although, of course, I had to make the efforts. I relied on God. The story goes further like this: For a while, I was a salesman for a home infusion company in the medical field during the day and [worked for] the University of Michigan hockey team mostly on the weekends. I was working seven days a week, and I remember one day — a Tuesday — that the hockey team had a night game in Columbus, Ohio. The next morning I had a sales meeting in Detroit at 7, so my schedule was getting hectic.
I think it was February 1995 while driving home that I was wondering which job I should go with or if I should be doing something else entirely. I prayed a distinct, short prayer, basically asking God’s help as far as what I should do, since the current setup wasn’t running too smoothly. Well, in April of that year, longtime Red Wings’ announcer Bruce Martyn broke the news that he would be retiring. I, along with 200 or 300 others, sent a tape to the team, and they whittled it down to five finalists. I was one of the finalists and got to interview with Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch. We had several things in common, such as our fathers being tool-and-die makers. In the end, I was the one hired as the new Red Wings’ announcer. That was a clear answer to my prayer.
Have you found that prayer is essential to living well?
I’m always praying informally. God is the one who gives us gifts and opportunities, and it’s up to us to ask him how we should be using those gifts and opportunities — not to mention, thanking and praising him, asking forgiveness, and interceding on behalf of others. Anything I’ve been able to accomplish is not my doing, but God’s. The same can be said of what others have done. God is the one who deserves the credit; he makes everything possible by working with us, if we’re willing.
Have you pretty much always been a faithful Catholic?
I was raised in a strong Catholic home, with two brothers and two sisters — one of which is my twin, Kathryn. Being Catholic was just a part of what you did then, almost automatically. The Mass was central to everything we did, and I was always fascinated by it. The Mass is not just a little prayer service hastily put together; it’s basically got everything in it — a nonspecific confession of our status as sinners, absolution for venial sins, an Old and a New Testament reading, a sermon, the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus, a final blessing and more.
I was an altar boy starting in grade school. That was when the Mass was all in Latin. I think we had just memorized the responses in Latin and the very next year they changed the Mass into English. Obviously, I understand English better, so that was more comfortable, but I did like how the priest and people used to face the same direction. That just made more sense to me, since we’re all addressing God together “on the same team.”
Unfortunately, no to both. I know Cardinal Szoka had something to do with getting Pope John Paul II to Detroit in the 1980s, but I didn’t meet either one. However, I know someone from the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame who used to meet with the cardinal for lunch frequently. I’ve also been to a restaurant — I think it’s the Polish Village Café — that has an autographed photo of John Paul II. He may have signed that when he visited the city.
Danny Abramowicz is a member of the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. Have you found, as a member of the hall’s board, that lots of inductees are Catholic?
I would say most are Catholic, and most have similar stories about growing up in a Polish-American household. There’s usually a strong emphasis on respecting your parents and being grateful for how they work and sacrifice for you, and then an expectation that you should work and sacrifice, too. That work ethic is clearly a large part of becoming a great athlete, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s common to hear things like that from our inductees.
Do you have a patron saint?
I wouldn’t say I have one patron saint, but there is a St. Kenneth from Ireland. They spell his name differently, though. It’s St. “Cainnech” or “Canice,” and there’s even a cathedral named after him. I recently heard that another saint — St. Gabriel the Archangel — is a patron of broadcasters, since he announced the Incarnation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. My wife, Darlene, might be the better person to ask about saints and angels, though.
Aside from the Mass, the devotional thing I remember most about my youth was not in relation to saints, but to the Stations of the Cross. As an altar boy, I was really impressed with the sobriety and severity of our salvation as expressed through the Stations. They take us out of our casual ways of thinking and really put before us all the sufferings that Jesus endured for us. Then most of the sufferings we meet with are seen more clearly as not that significant. It’s tougher to complain when you know someone else has gone through much worse — and that what he has suffered is for our sake.
My uncle Robert recently went through his final sufferings and died at the age of 92. He got pretty bad some months back, so he moved in with us, and we took care of him until just before Christmas, when he passed away. That got me to thinking more about death and what happens afterward, so I researched it. I look into things like that a lot, and the more I learn, the more I appreciate being Catholic.
I’ve always been able to say that whatever good I might have been able to do is because of God, not because of me. I don’t have golden pipes or a deep voice like some announcers, so I worked and worked to get better at it. Not being a natural is itself a blessing, though, since it helps me see more clearly that it is God’s doing, not mine. He’s in charge of everything, and it’s just our part to say “Yes” to him and let him work with us.