When the puck drops on the Red Wings' 2019-20 season, Ken Kal will be starting his 25th year behind the mic.
But before he became the voice of the Red Wings, Kal nearly stopped calling hockey games altogether. Truth is, he never really wanted to do it in the first place.
The year was 1984. Kal was working as a part-time deejay for WAAM in Ann Arbor. Michigan needed someone to call its men's hockey games, so the university gave him a call.
"But that’s how I started, and I just kept working it. It's something that didn’t come naturally to me. Some announcers it comes natural. For me, I had to really work at it. So what I did was, I took a tape recorder, taped the games and would just listen to them all week and try to break them down in segments. Just put a lot of hard work into it, and before you know it things started getting better."
Fast forward several years, and Kal got a nudge from Berenson that would propel his career to new heights.
"Here's what happened. We did a radio show weekly with Red on a Tuesday night. We were at Banfield's in Ann Arbor and Red came in and said, 'Kenny, you're done at Michigan.' Just like that. I go, 'What do you mean?' He goes, 'You’re done. You’re at the point right now where you can move on.' I said, 'But Red, I like it here. I don’t want to leave. The team’s now getting better, they’re on the verge of a national championship. I was at the bottom level. I want to call a national championship game.' He says, 'Well, you’re here as long as you want, but I’m just telling you right now, you’re at the point where you can take the next step.' The next step was either the minor leagues or the National Hockey League. He says, 'The only problem that you have is, you have no connections. You don’t know anybody in the NHL.' I was just focused on college, and I was working as a sales rep in the medical field at the time. That was my full-time job and I did the hockey on the side on the weekends.
"It just so happens, I believe it was either the next year or the year after that I heard (former Red Wings radio announcer) Bruce (Martyn) was retiring. That was the 1994-95 season where they had the lockout. I didn't want to apply for the job because I felt like I never had a chance. It was a great job. Jim Hunt, who I worked with, he was the analyst, said, 'Ken, why don’t you submit your tape?' I’m like, 'Jim, I don’t have a chance. C'mon.' He goes, 'No, just submit it.' So I said okay, submitted the tape, and then I didn’t hear anything. This would have been in May of '95. Didn't hear anything, and then in August the Red Wings called me. I was in a sales meeting in Indianapolis. Back then we didn’t have cell phones, we had beepers, so my beeper starts going off and I’m like, 'What's this 303 number here?' I’m in the middle of a presentation. I finally get to a phone and call back, and it's the Red Wings. They’re saying, 'Hey, can you come on down? We really want to interview you for the position.'"
A few days later, Kal went in for the interview. He still figured he had the slimmest of chances to land the gig.
"There were, like, 340 applicants for the job. Obviously they whittled a few out right away, but they came down to five or six and I was one of them. I only had one interview and that was with Mike Ilitch. I walk in and interviewed with his son, Atanas. He had a position high up in the organization, so I interviewed with him and then we went into Mr. Ilitch's office, sat down and had the interview. But here’s the thing. He never listened to my tape. I was just put in front of him, we started talking, he’s asking me questions about everything, Atanas is chiming in a little bit, and then he says, 'Let me play your tape.' I had a 15-minute demo tape. He takes out this yellow legal pad and a pencil and he’s got a recorder and he plays it. Let me tell you something -- you want people to listen to your tape without you being there. The room goes quiet and all you hear is Ken Kal doing Michigan play-by-play against Illinois-Chicago. He’s taking notes and I'm just sitting there sweating. I don’t know what he’s writing, I don’t know what he’s thinking. At the end, you're just hoping he doesn't say, 'Hey, see ya later.'
"But he listened to the entire tape. He listened to everything. It was agonizing. I’m thinking, what if he doesn't like it? What if it's so bad that he just -- you don’t want to be embarrassed. He gets done, stops the recorder and starts going over the list of everything he wrote down and goes, 'I really like this, and I like that, and you really sounded good here. This is really an outstanding tape. Then he starts asking me questions, and I had this portfolio of all my accomplishments to that point in my career. He goes, 'Ken, does your coach (meaning Berenson) know that you’re applying for this job? I go, 'Yeah, here’s his letter of recommendation.' He looks at it, reads it real quick, asks me a couple of other questions and then out of the blue he just steps up and walks out of the room. Doesn’t say anything, he just leaves.
"So I’m sitting there with Atanas, and after a couple minutes go by I look at Atanas, and he looks at me, and I go, 'Did I say anything wrong for your Dad to leave?’ He's like, 'I don’t know. Why don’t you start filling out an application. So we go into the board room there, this big board room, and we shut the doors and I’m filling out the application. No sooner than I’m signing my name and dating it on the bottom line, these two big doors swing open and it's Mike Ilitch. He comes in and goes, 'I just want to tell you that I talked to your coach.' I’m smiling because I think he's going to give me a glowing recommendation. So I said, 'Mr. Ilitch, what did Coach Berenson say?' And he looked me right in the eye and goes, 'He says you’re a bum!' My jaw dropped. I’m thinking, he couldn’t say that. And then all of a sudden Mr. Ilitch just starts laughing, he just can’t stop laughing, and then he slaps me on the shoulder and says, 'Ken, we really like you. Hang tight. Within a week we're going to make our decision. But you’re one of the top candidates, so just hang by your phone.' The following Friday, 5:00 in the afternoon, the phone rang and they offered me the position."
And here he is today.