For every hockey season for the last sixty three years beginning in 1953, one familiar voice has at one time or another come out of literally millions of radios that had tuned in over those many decades to WOWO, a 50,000-watt clear channel AM station located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whenever that city's hockey team, the Fort Wayne Komets, were playing either home or away. It was the comforting familiar baritone of Bob Chase broadcasting the Komets playing one of the dozens of other teams in the six different professional leagues the club has been a member of from his perch at "radio rinkside" at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum or in whatever road venue the K's were skating that night.
Over a period of almost two-thirds of a century, Bob Chase called more than 4,500 regular season and another 526 playoff games for the Komets. (If that club had played a game everyday of the year, it would have taken him more than thirteen years and eight months to do those 5,000+ Komets broadcasts at the rate of seven a week.) During Bob's tenure as their voice of hockey in Fort Wayne the Komets have had five sets of owners, 25 coaches, more than 1,000 players, and played against 70 different opposing teams in those half dozen hockey circuits. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Vin Scully had a longer tenure as professional sports announcer with a single team which ended when he retired last month after this his 67th season.
Bob "Radio Rinkside" Chase (1926-2016)
Bob was a 27-year old four year Navy veteran and recent graduate of Northern Michigan University when he broadcast his first game for the then second year IHL Komets in the fall of 1953 -- the first year of the first term of our 34th President, Dwight Eisenhower. His last Komets' broadcast came last spring, the final year of the second term of out 44th President, Barack Obama. Only failing health prevented Bob, who turned 90 last January, from returning to the booth this season and at 2:40 am on Thanksgiving morning Chase's familiar voice was finally silenced as he passed away quietly of heart failure in Fort Wayne in the company of "Murph", his loving wife of sixty-six years, and other members of his family of four children, eight grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren
Born Robert Donald Wallenstein on January. 22, 1926, in the small blue collar "iron range" town of Negaunee located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Bob had been a talented hockey player at Graveraet High School in Marquette before enlisting in the US Navy at age 17 and serving as a World War II cryptographer stationed in Hawaii and aboard ships in the Pacific Ocean. Bob began his 67 year broadcasting career in 1949 at WDMJ in Marquette, MI, while attending Northern Michigan. After graduating from college he was hired by WOWO in Fort Wayne and soon changed his professional name to "Chase" -- his wife's maiden name -- when he joined the station in June 1953 at the suggestion of its Program Manager, Guy Harris, who thought Wallenstein would be "too long for radio".
After I had listened to Chase's calls "from afar" on WOWO for many years, I first met Bob in person in 1978 when I attended a reception for him held at the Allen County Coliseum to celebrate his 25th anniversary as the Komets' broadcaster and was proud to be able to call him a friend over the almost four decades since. A quarter century calling the games of one team is always a rare milestone in the careers of broadcasters in any sport, but amazingly Bob would go on to call Komets' games for another 38 seasons after hitting that original lofty mark.
In the spring of 1985, I returned to join the Komets for several days for games both at home and on a couple of road trips when Bob invited me to be the speaker at Fort Wayne's annual youth hockey awards banquet that year. Those few days I spent with Bob were a greatly influencing experience for me like few others that I have had in my relatively brief (compared to Bob's) 47 years working in hockey.
Bob Chase calling a Komets game with his long time partner, former Komets and St. Louis Blues goalie Robbie Irons
Twenty five years earlier in 1960 there was another individual who began to be greatly influenced by Bob Chase starting when he was a 14-year old junior high school student from La Fontaine, Indiana, a rural farming community located about an hour south of Fort Wayne. As a Christmas present that year his school teacher parents finally acceded to the requests of the young teen and that December took him and his brother to Fort Wayne to see his first ever hockey game. He was so smitten with what he saw that night that he told himself that he wanted to to grow up to do just what Chase did for a living: be a hockey play-by-play broadcaster.
That aspiring broadcaster eventually met Bob some years later and asked him for some advice and guidance which he gave him gladly, and eventually his young mentoree would go on to became the single most honored American hockey broadcaster in history. His name: Mike "Doc" Emrick!! (Ironically this afternoon I will be sitting next to Doc, a friend and colleague of my own since 1977, and Edzo in the NHL on NBC TV booth at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia working on the NBC Sports "Black Friday" telecast of the Rangers vs Flyers. Doc and I will doubtless be exchanging many stories about Bob before and after the game.)
"Bob is a wonderful human being, who was always very good to people,” Emrick reflects. “He was to me as a college kid just trying to break in, sitting down in the corner section there on Wednesday nights at the Coliseum when I didn't bother anybody broadcasting a game into a tape recorder by myself. He was very patient with me because I was very anxious and excited about what I thought would be a career ahead. He kept me calm and that was not easy to do. So I'm forever beholden to him."
Doc Emrick as a surprise guest at Bob Chase's 90th birthday celebration at a Fort Wayne Komets game in January, 2016
Until his Komets left the International Hockey League in 1999, the league in which they had played for 47 years, Chase had broadcast every IHL all-star game the league had ever played. While a heart ailment and quadruple bypass surgery in 1998 slowed him down, Chase still managed to broadcast all 351 IHL playoff games in which the Komets participated including nine Turner Cup-winning championships.
Had he wanted to, however, Bob could have easily spent many of his years as a broadcaster in the NHL. In 1963 Detroit's WJR offered him the Detroit Red Wings' radio job but he didn't want to take the post away from friend Bruce Martyn. He also had an opportunity to join the expansion St. Louis Blues in 1967 but passed on the interview for it because he didn't want to renege on a WOWO work commitment. (The Blues' job went instead to Dan Kelly.) Chase was also considered for NHL jobs with the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, Minnesota North Stars and California Golden Seals but always elected to stay in Fort Wayne.
"Some people think it was bad that I never left, but in the end, it always ends up for the best," Chase observed years later. "You don't always understand it, but it works out."
Bob's autobiography, "Live from Radio Rinkside: The Bob Chase Story", was published in 2009
Bob received many awards during his long career highlighted by the Lester Patrick Award from USA Hockey and the National Hockey League in 2012 honoring his "contributions to hockey in the United States." He is also elected to the Northern Michigan University Hall of Fame, the Indiana Sportswriters and Sports Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and received the Indiana Broadcasters Association’s Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame Award in 2000.
In addition to the Komets, Chase broadcast Indiana high school basketball for 17 years including the famed Milan high-school basketball championship in 1954, the game on which the movie "Hoosiers" was based. He also called Big Ten football from 1959 to 1971, covered the Indy 500 for 27 years, and interviewed countless celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra during his more than half a century as a full time staffer at WOWO as a sports director, disc jockey, marketing and promotions director, and all around radio broadcasting legend. But is was hockey, of course for which he will be remembered best by both his listeners and countless players and other hockey people.
"Bob Chase used to say hello to my parents back in Boston whenever we played Fort Wayne," noted Mike Eruzione who played for the IHL Toledo Goaldiggers from 1977 to 1979 before going on to Captain the Gold Medal winning US hockey team in the 1980 Olympics. "WOWO was the only station that my family could listen to a few games on. Bob has not only dedicated his life to the sport as an announcer, but also has become a great ambassador of U.S. hockey, always being there for the players and their families."
Doc Emrick living his dream of calling a Komets game with his mentor Bob Chase
"This is a very sad day in Komet history and Fort Wayne history," Komets' GM David Franke said of Chase's passing. "We have lost the John Wayne of Fort Wayne and the hockey broadcasting world and will never again hear his play-by-play call of Komet hockey or the wise and respected voice of WOWO radio. Bob gave me the opportunity to work with the Komets during the 1988-89 season and his words of wisdom, support and guidance will always be with me. He is a legend in every sense of the word."
Hockey has produced many "legends" over its long history but to the people who know the game the best few have been any greater or brighter than is Bob Chase who brought our game to millions over his sixty-three years calling the Fort Wayne Komets from his patented perch at "radio rinkside".
Bob Chase will indeed be missed greatly -- and will also never be replaced.
RIP Chaser -- it was a fabulous run!