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Arts and Entertainment

The L.A. Kings' Bob Miller Talks Gretzky, Vin Scully, And The Stanley Cup

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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To explain the significance of Bob Miller—the Kings' play-by-play announcer—let me touch on my own relationship with the team, which began in late spring of 1993, when the team secured their first ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.

That series, played against the Montreal Canadiens—the most successful team in NHL history—was rife with narrative. It was Tinstletown versus the most hallowed team in hockey lore. Our goalie was a cool customer by the name of Kelly Hrudey, who wore a bandana and looked like Val Kilmer's stunt double. Their goalkeeper was the temperamental Patrick Roy, who was prone to weird obsessions like talking to the goalposts as if they were real people. It was a rich story all around, and for the first time in L.A. history, the Kings were the top billing in town.

Well, they lost. This part wasn't so surprising, all things considered. What was shocking—and what a seven-year-old me hadn't anticipated—was how fast they'd plummet back into obscurity. They lost and lost. And it was the worst kind of losing—defeat had moved into a realm where it was a matter of fact, as if infused with the team's DNA. And at some point the Kings fell into bankruptcy, and then Wayne Gretzky—credited with popularizing hockey in California—left and hightailed to the St. Louis Blues. From the time immediately after the 1993 finals, up until the early aughts, everything sucked.

This is a roundabout way of saying that, throughout the team's fraught existence, Miller's voice had remained a constant. He is part and parcel with the city's relationship with the Kings. And during the morass of the 90s—during any period for the team, really—the equanimity of Miller's voice was there to ferry us through. Miller's appeal was more than a matter of calmness, though; there was also an avuncular quality that was specific to him. It always seemed that he was pleasantly surprised that a hockey game was happening at all, as if it were a minor miracle that an ice rink had sprouted in front of him. His voice would spike with excitement when someone scored. He'd marvel at an acrobatic save. And he'd extend this enthusiasm to both teams on the ice, not just the Kings.

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Miller is retiring at the end of this regular season, ending a career that started back in 1973. He's currently on break but will return to call his final games on April 8 and April 9. It'll mark the end of a 44-year-career that saw him call more than 3,000 games, as well as an induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. For Angelenos, it'll also close out an era that included the Lakers' Chick Hearn and the Dodgers' Vin Scully. They were the guys who talked us through that winding analogy of life that we call sports. They taught us how to handle defeat, and how to call it like you see it.

With his retirement just around the corner, Miller spoke with LAist over the phone about the Kings, finally winning the Stanley Cup, and the vaunted party that included him, Hearn, and Scully.

I'd like to start off by asking you about the play-by-play announcer's role. Certainly, your job is to stay objective to the game. But I'm also sure that you're a fan of the team. How do you handle those two sides? Do you ever struggle with trying to suppress your joy or disappointment?

No I've never really had an issue with that. It's kind of strange you bring that up, because I just read an article that said something like, "Throughout his career, Bob has always remained objective, giving credit to the other team for a well-played game, or a certain play that's well-executed." I felt that was always the way I wanted to do that.

I don't like to hear it when another announcer gets upset when the other team scored or hit a home run or something like that, because it's an exciting moment in the game, and it should be treated as such. Sometimes you'll hear a baseball announcer—and you can tell it in their voice—they're just really down in the dumps because the other team hit a home run, and they don't give the call that they should.

The best compliment I could get—and many times they come from the fans—is when they say "Bob, you are always fair in your description of the game. We know you're rooting for the Kings, but you're always fair." That's very high praise to me.

There certainly were bad periods in the team's history. And I felt that your neutrality kept us interested in the game when things weren't going well.

I learned that early on from Chick Hearn, who hired me for the Kings job. He said to me—and I'll always remember this—he said, "I know you want the Kings to win," and he said that, as far as he was concerned, he always wanted the Lakers to win. But he added that there are so many people in Southern California who come from other parts in the country, and they have an allegiance towards the teams they grew up watching and listening to. So you got fans on the other side as well, and I'll always remember that.

But even before [Hearn] told me that, I've always tried to do an honest broadcast. Things aren't always going to turn out the way you want for your team, but the only thing you can do is to do an honest broadcast.

Speaking of Hearn. Your retirement will also be the end of an era that involves Hearn and Scully. What was your relationship like with those two? Did they often give you pointers when you saw them?

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I looked up to both of them. I was closer to Chick, because he'd hired me and, of course, we'd worked in the same building. I knew that if anything was bothering me I could give Chick a call and he'd be very happy to give advice. As for Vin, I wouldn't see him as much, because their season didn't really coincide with ours. When the Dodgers were on, we were off, and vice versa. But I would see him at Dodger Stadium once in a while. When I'd go out to a ballgame I'll stop in and see him sometimes. He was always cordial and welcoming. We talked about retirement. We talked about the problems of—not so much the flying—but getting in at 2:30 in the morning with a game the next night. With Chick, I'd see him at various sports functions and we'd have dinner sometimes, he and [wife Marge Jeffers]. So we were closer with Chick than we were with Vin. But, certainly, I'm always honored to be mentioned with those two.

Did you feel that they each brought a certain feel to the announcer's booth? Did Hearn bring a certain vibe? What about Scully?

I think Chick brought a lot of personality. He introduced a lot of things into the basketball play-by-play, phrases like "yo-yo-ing up and down" and "take them to the popcorn machine" and "the mustard's off the hot dog," so he had all those kinds of sayings. I didn't have many of those and still don't. And Vin didn't really have a lot of those either, I believe. Vin was a great storyteller and he could keep you interested in baseball just by telling you stories. And you can do it in baseball, because you've got some time to weave in stories and maybe spend 10 or 12 minutes on it. The game isn't moving as fast as hockey or basketball.

Right, I'd be riveted just hearing him talk about people in the stands, or sometimes the weather.

They each brought something to the game.

Coming back to the Kings, which players would you say you enjoyed watching over the years?

When I started out [goaltender] Rogie Vachon was the big star with the Kings. He was a tremendous goaltender to watch, and he put up such great numbers with a mediocre team. Butch Goring was in those early teams, and he was fun to watch, especially on breakaways. And then there was the Triple Crown Line. They were really fun to watch—you could watch them come up the ice and say "they're going to score a goal right now." They had such great chemistry. Each person was designed to do a specific role. Marcel [Dionne] was the pure goal scorer. Dave [Taylor] was a tough guy who would work in the corners to get the puck. Charlie Simmer was perfect in front of the net, deflecting shots. And they were the highest scoring line in the league for a couple years. And as the years went on, you had the coming of Wayne Gretzky, who really changed the atmosphere of hockey in Southern California. That was a great time to go to a game and see something you'd never seen before. Those were thrilling days.

I was going to ask about that period. I became a fan during that era. Can you describe what the Great Western Forum was like around that time? How did that first Stanley Cup run change things? I remember it being big. Gretzky was even on Saturday Night Live once.

When Gretzky got here, a lot of fans were already going to games. And some of them would later have buttons that said "I Was A Kings Fan B.G." as in "Before Gretzky." So they wanted to let people know they weren't jumping on the bandwagon.

As for changes: one change was that celebrities started to really show up. They would be at the game, at the locker room. The locker room would be crowded with stars. Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy showed up. That notoriety was different—to have celebrities show up.

Did Jack Nicholson take time off from the Lakers to watch the Kings?

I don't believe so. I don't remember seeing him.

But Tom Hanks had a suite. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell were at a lot of games. Mary Hart, who was doing Entertainment Tonight, was there. And John Candy, who knew [former team president] Bruce McNall, was there quite a bit too. It was a lot of fun to see the celebrities showing up.

As a fan, I had this fear that they'd never win the cup in my lifetime. I was thinking this when I was, like, ten years old. Did you ever have that concern at the back of your mind?

I thought about it a lot, actually. I knew that as the years went on, I was getting closer to retirement. I thought "I may never see them win a Stanley Cup." I think that's what made 2012 so special, when they just had a mediocre season, and then all of a sudden ran through the whole playoffs. And, you know, so many people in the stands were in the same boat. They were thinking that they'd never see [the Kings] win it in their lifetimes.

I remember, after we'd won the first one, I asked my wife, "Are we going to all these Stanley Cup parties?" And she said, "Yes, of course. You might never see this again." And two years later, we did see it again. Two cups in three years—it's more than what most people would think they'd see.

How did you feel during those final minutes against the New Jersey Devils, right before we won the first cup? Was it nerve-wracking? I know we had a big lead late in the game, but I wasn't going to believe it until it happened.

The only nerve-wracking part for me was that we had a three-games-to-none lead in the series. And everyone thought we'd wrap it up in four straight. But then the Devils won that game, and then we went back to New Jersey and they won that game too. So we're back in Los Angeles for game six, but if we lost we'd be going back to New Jersey for game seven—and anything could happen at that point. That was the nerve-wracking part.

But game six itself wasn't all that nerve-wracking, because we had that big lead. I thought the third goal was the back breaker.

Can you describe the moment when the time finally ran out? What was it like up in the booth?

It was a great moment in my career [laughs]. What I liked about it was that there was no tension, no wondering if we were going to win this game or not. We had a four goal lead, with [Jonathan] Quick in goal, with about four minutes to go. And all the fans had to do was cheer and scream and holler and cry. We knew we got it.

And the great thing about both Stanley Cup wins: both were on home ice. That's so much more special than winning it on the road.

Right when they won that first one, was that the loudest you'd ever heard it at the Staples Center?

Well, I've heard it loud a lot of times. But it was pretty loud. The fans were hollering "We got the cup. We got the cup." And my partner [analyst] Jim Fox, he's so superstitious; he's waving his arms in the air and saying "No, no, don't say that! Don't say that yet!"

And then the celebration and everything was so great. After 45 years of not winning it, and the 39 years I'd been with them, seeing that was wonderful. And then two years later, the finals against the [New York] Rangers was nerve-wracking because there were overtimes, double-overtimes.

So those two series were so different. The first, the team is saying, "It's not supposed to be that easy." The second one, they realized this is the way it should be.

Speaking on your retirement, what do you think you'll miss most while you're away from the game?

What I think I'll miss is—well, I think it's still exciting to broadcast a game, because I've found that I'm more involved as a broadcaster than as a spectator. As a spectator sometimes you get distracted by something; you'll be looking away, or you're talking with someone.

Or you're eating a big plate of nachos of something.

Right, so you're not concentrating like you are when you're on the air.

But I think what I'll really miss most—and most players who retire say this—you'll miss the camaraderie with your fellow announcers and the players. There are the get-togethers for dinner. There are the times away from the game, when you get to have fun with the other people traveling with you. I'll probably miss that.

I'm sure you'll miss being around Fox.

Oh certainly. He's always been such a great help to me, with his analysis of the game. He's worked longer with me than any other person. We had 27 years, the longest in the league at this point. So I'll miss him. We live far away enough from each other that we don't do much together while away from the game. So I see him a lot during the season, but not so much during the off-season.

I'll miss everyone on our crew. That'll definitely be a change for me.

Are you preparing for those final two games like they're business as usual? Or will you be doing something different?

To be honest with you, I've thought about that. And I thought, to do something different—I don't know if that's what fans would want to hear. For 44 years they're used to hearing me do a game a certain way. And I think sometimes announcers get in trouble when they think "I've got to change and be different," and the fans may think "Well, that's not what I tuned in to hear."

There may be a difference in doing those games, but a lot will depend on if those games will mean anything [with regards to the playoffs]. Even if the Kings are out of the playoffs by then [author's note: they are], the games could still mean something for their opponents, as it may affect their standings and who they end up playing in the playoffs. So, I think it'll end up with me going back and forth a little. I may reminisce a little, when the time presents itself. But I'll also stay with the game.

I'm a little torn over how I should do this. But if the games don't have a lot of consequence, I may throw in some stories, about things that'd happened down through the years.

I'm sure the fans will be more than OK with however you call the games. They'll enjoy it as always.

Thank you. We'll see how they go.

Miller will be calling his final games starting on April 8, when the Kings play the Chicago Blackhawks at the Staples Center at 3 p.m. This will be televised on Fox Sports West. The next game is on April 9, when the Kings play the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center at 5:30 p.m. This will also be shown on Fox Sports West.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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