Interview with Curt Chaplin

He’s currently known as the In-Court Reporter on The People’s Court. But before Curt Chaplin got his role on the popular show, he was a reporter with ABC Radio and was in Lake Placid for the 1980 Winter Olympics. Curt covered the USA-USSR hockey game which became known as the “Miracle on Ice”. He was assigned to the game by ABC Radio to get post-game reaction and when Team USA pulled off the 4-3 upset of the Soviets, Curt was there to talk to the players. However, what wasn’t known was that Curt called the game into his tape recorder.

While Al Michaels’ call of the game is well-known and has been recreated in the movie “Miracle“, Curt’s call was packed away in his house until 2006 when he decided to put it on CD and then match the call with the video from ABC Sports. What resulted is the 9:54 video that is currently on YouTube and has been seen by almost 150,000 viewers.

Because the call is “new”, it has become an alternative to the Al Michaels “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” call and in some ways, it’s better.

I recently contacted Curt and he agreed to do an e-mail interview with me. What follows is a very enthusiastic Q & A session conducted over the last day and a half.

Fang’s Bites: First, what was your assignment for ABC Radio at the Lake Placid Olympics? Was it specifically to cover the USA hockey team?
Curt Chaplin: From 1977-81, I was a sports reporter in NYC for the ABC Radio Network. Normally, I covered the Knicks, Rangers, Islanders, Nets, Yankees, Mets, fights, tennis, press conferences…anything and everything that happened in sports on a daily/nightly basis in NYC…the Garden, Yankee Stadium, Shea, Nassau Coliseum….I was out at a game and in some locker room, or other, every night. ABC TV AND RADIO had the rights to the 1980 Olympics and I was chosen by ABC Radio Network Sports Director John Chanin to be part of the radio coverage team. I covered everything in Lake Placid…Luge, Ski Jumping, Downwhill Racing, Speed Skating (Eric Heiden), press conferences, you name it. But I had my eye on hockey from the day we arrived. I kept begging Chanin for the USA/Russia assignment. Finally, the night before the game, he relented and gave it to me. My actual job was to cover the game and collect post-game sound bites for our anchormen to use in their network sportscasts. A reporter. Al Michaels did the play-by-play on TV. And the late great Don Chevrier did it live on the ABC Radio Network (I’m 90% sure I’m right about that). But once I got into the arena that afternoon I knew the game was too big to just watch. So, I found a spot to stand on a camera platform, about 20-30 feet away from where Michaels was sitting, turned on my cassette recorder and did my own play-by-play into the recorder, start to finish. It was the ONLY hockey game I ever called in my professional broadcasting career. I picked a pretty good one, eh?

FB: Was this your first Olympics? Have you covered subsequent Games?
CC: Lake Placid, 1980, was my first Olympics. Subsequently, I covered the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles (John Madden was part of our radio team there, his first assignment in broadcasting), and the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. After that, I joined WNEW-FM in NYC and did the morning show there from 1986-91, as part of The Dave Herman Rock ‘n Roll Morning Show. I was the sports guy, “Uncle Curtie”, and Dave’s sidekick. We travelled to Russia in 1989 for the Moscow Music Peace Festival (Bon Jovi, Ozzie Osbourne, and others). And to Berlin in 1990, for Roger Waters’ The Wall concert.

FB: Your call of USA-USSR from the YouTube clip was excellent. It adds perspective and gives us another call to remember along with the famous Al Michaels call. What gave you the idea to call the game?
CC: Thank you for your kind comments. Coming out of Ohio University in 1974 as a Radio-TV major, one of the thoughts I had was to try and become a hockey play-by-play guy somewhere. I love sports. I love hockey. I’m a hockey guy. I even wrote letters to every NHL and minor league team. I got a little bit of interest, but I landed a job as a radio news reporter in NYC, instead, so I started doing news. By 1980 I had covered news (and as much sports as I could get myself assigned to) for 6 years in the streets of NYC on a daily basis. City Hall, breaking news, fires, politics, parades, press conferences, anchoring newscasts, reporting from the streets…everything. In 1977, I was anchoring hourly newscasts at legendary oldies station WCBS-FM when I got the call from ABC Radio Network Sports Director, John Chanin. He offered me a full-time job as a sports reporter for the radio network. I worked with Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, Keith Jackson, Lou Boda and all the other network anchormen. I covered events, got post-game sound bites, got stories, and brought them back for the anchormen to use in their daily network sportscasts. That led to the Olympic team assignment in 1980. Remember, I’m a hockey guy, so, as I explained earlier, I got myself assigned to the USA-Russia game by hook or by crook. I begged and begged until Chanin gave in. There was absolutely no way I was going to miss that game. I was totally aware of the significance of the game. I’d watched the Soviet Red Army Team for years. I knew every player. I’d covered the USA-Russia exhibition game at Madison Square Garden a couple of weeks earlier (where the Russians crushed the Americans). And I had been studying the Russian Olympic Team names and numbers for days leading up to the climactic game. I was ready. Once I got inside the arena, the atmosphere, the excitement, the electricity, the anticipation was so great, that I just started reporting! Right away! I turned on my tape recorder and started doing play-by-play from the opening face-off. In case something remarkable happened, I wanted to make sure I had it. It was a bit strange, doing the play-by-play into my cassette recorder. So, I found a perch next to an ABC TV camera, on the camera platform, where no one would pay any attention to me. As soon as Buzz Schneider scored to tie it 1-1 midway through the 1st period, I knew we had a game, and a potential huge story, on our hands and I didn’t care, anymore, who could hear me, or not. I wrapped myself in the game and called it as best I could.

I think my thought was that we might want to use some highlights of my play-by-play in the network sportscasts after the game. You know, the USA goals, or something. I figured I’d better have the highlights for the anchormen, just in case they wanted them. I used to do that during the key moments of Knicks, Rangers, Yankees, Giants…whatever game I was covering. It was part of covering a game thoroughly, according to my standards.

FB: Your call of the last 1:12 of the game contrasts so much with Al Michaels’. You did not have the signature one liner that Al made at the end of the game. Did you think of something to say ahead of time or did you just decide to report the game, i.e., let the game come to you?
CC: Planned ad libs are part of every sportscaster’s preparation. You don’t want to be caught speechless at the critical moment of a big game. In Al Michael’s case, he is a great sportscaster. He does football, baseball, anything he’s assigned to. And he’s great at everything. He had his brilliant signature one liner ready for the climactic moment. And, as the clock hit :00, he used it…the perfect call at the perfect time. That’s why he’s a pro. But he is not a hockey guy. He would be the first to tell you that. You can tell by listening to the entirety of his play-by-play of the 3 periods. In my case, I had nothing prepared. Not one thing. I didn’t even know I was going to do the game until I pressed the record button on my cassette machine as the teams skated to center ice. My call was completely spontaneous. I had no color man to work with, no statistician, no lineups, no numbers, names, no help of any kind, nothing. It was just me…and the game. What you hear in my call is my hockey knowledge, my knowledge of the Russian team, my passion for the sport, my emotion, and my awareness of the significance of the moment. As I think about it, years and years later, my call is PURE…compared to Michaels.

FB: You mentioned in the description on YouTube that you recently found the tape of your call. Where did you find it and how did you decide to match the tape to the video of the game?
CC: It’s interesting. I came home from Lake Placid with my play-by-play call of this amazing game on cassette tape. It was more than an amazing game. It was incredible, a national event. A once-in-a-lifetime event. Sports Illustrated later named it the #1 sports event of the 20th Century! I had three 60-minute cassette tapes….1 for each period. During the game, as time was winding down, I was praying that the batteries in my Sony 110B tape recorder would last until the end. They almost didn’t. For years and years, I knew I wanted to do something significant with my call. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with my (bootleg?) play-by-play call of the most exciting and significant sports event of the century. Heck, it was even hard to explain the very EXISTANCE of the thing! First, I went to work on the tapes and edited them down into a 60-minute version which I called “Olympic Gold”. In that edited version I could fit the entire game on one 60-minute cassette. I remember I put an ad in Hockey News and offered it for sale, at $12.99 or $14.99, as I recall. I think I sold about 20 of them. But I always had a bigger idea tugging at the back of my mind. I wanted to, one day, match my play-by-play to the video of the game, and see how it would stand up. In 2006, I was talking to a friend of mine who works in a recording studio and he offered to transfer my original cassette tapes, if I could find them, onto a CD for safe keeping. I went digging through boxes and boxes of tapes and other memorabilia I’d saved up over the course of 30+ years in broadcasting and, finally, I found the 3 original cassettes jammed down at the bottom of a box of stored tapes, still held together by a brittle old rubber band. I brought them to my friend, Steve Dworkin, at Sound Hound in Manhattan, and he was able to coax these old tapes into spinning across the heads one last time in order to successfully transfer the sound onto a CD. Once that happened, and I had the entire game on CD, I began to think, again, about matching my call to the video. This was a project that had lied dormant in my heart for more than 25 years. But, all that time, I KNEW I would do it, someday. A friend of mine from ABC Sports had once given me a copy of the game as a gift (on VHS! That’s how long ago it was!). So, I had all the ingredients….the call on CD, the video on VHS. In the interim, video editing technology had evolved to the point where off-line video editing software was now available for home computers. And, more importantly, the advent of YouTube made it possible to make video available to a mass audience. When, I put those ideas together I realized this, finally, was my chance to satisfy my lifetime dream. So, I bought the software and went to work on my dream project.

FB: You mentioned that you had sold copies of your call. Would you think of selling the call with the video of the game?
CC: No. It is purely a labor of love. I would never want to sell it. However, I have given away some copies of the full 60-minute version. Yes, there is a full game version of what you’ve seen on YouYube. I had to shorten it to 10 mins. to conform to YouTube restrictions, but there is a completed full game DVD version. I received several requests, which I fulfilled, in the past few months. One came from a U.S. fighter pilot seeing action in the Middle East. Another came from an olympic hopeful figure skater competing (in Lake Placid, I believe, last month) for the 2008 Beijing team. And one came from…Jim Craig. I sent Craig a copy and received a wonderful thank you phone call from Jim, and a beautiful thank you note. He said he was in tears when he listened to my call. I wish I could give one to every player on that team.

FB: Reaction to your call has been positive. Did you expect such positive feedback?
CC:For the last 11 years I’ve been the hallway guy on The People’s Court TV Show. I interview the litigants as they exit the courtroom immediately after the judge makes the decision in their case. Over 30 years in broadcasting I’ve covered every news story there is, every sports event, done hundreds of commercials, morning rock ‘n roll radio, hosted game shows…you name it. But deep down I’ve always been a hockey guy. So, when I finally put this up on YouTube I held my breath. I was hoping hockey fans would like my call. You can’t fool hockey fans. They are the most passionate and knowledgeable fans in sports. They can tell when the guy on the microphone knows his stuff and is passionate about the game. So, the overwhelmingly positive reaction has been incredibly exciting, and soooooo gratifying. I thank everyone for all their kind comments on YouTube.

FB: What are your distinct memories of the Miracle on Ice game?
CC: My memories?

The first USA goal, by Buzz Schneider. Sudden, shocking, energizing the team and the entire building. It was like…hey, we can score on these guys!

The mistake made by Tretiak on the final play of the 1st period. An enormous blunder at an enormous time. So UnTretiak-like. That mistake by Tretiak, inexplicably allowing that rebound and the subsequent goal by Johnson on the final play of the 1st period, was the key play of the hockey game.

The incredible poise the USA team showed throughout the game. The way they handled the pressure of playing with a 1-goal lead for the final 11 minutes.

The crowd, roaring louder and louder as the final 6 minutes ticked down. Everyone in the stands screaming, jumping up and down in the final :10 seconds.

Bedlam.

Describing the ending through tears.

FB: Did you call the USA-Finland game two days later?
CC: No. I did not do any call at the USA-Finland game for the gold medal. The USA-Russia game was the only hockey game I ever called in my professional broadcasting career.

FB: Did ABC Radio use your call of the game on its Olympic updates and newscasts?
CC: As I recall, I don’t think so. The story wound up becoming so much bigger than anyone expected, I don’t think I ever even mentioned my play-by-play to anyone. I went to work getting sound bites of the players, coaches and fans. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the official ABC Radio Network play-by-play was done by the late, great Don Chevrier. They could’ve pulled his highlights if they needed to.

FB: You’re going to be displaying your press pass from Lake Placid and your call of the game at a new exhibit at the American Sports Museum in New York City. What can you tell me about that and how did they approach you for your memorabilia?
CC: One of my very good friends, Lynn Marschke, is in charge of compiling many of the collections that will be housed in the new museum. He called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would be willing to donate my call, press pass and the USA Lake Placid Hockey pin to the museum. But it’s too early to say much more about it because we haven’t talked about details. Only Lynn telling me, once again, that he definitely wants my stuff and would be in touch soon.

FB: What is your reaction to your call being added to the folklore of the Miracle on Ice?
CC: If my call becomes part of Miracle On Ice folklore I can die a contented man.

FB: You’re now known for being the reporter for the People’s Court for the last 11 years. How did you land the job?
CC: I won an audition to land the job. I was working as a sports anchorman on ABC Radio Sports (my 2nd tour of duty with ABC) in 1994. I had made several trips to Los Angeles to audition as a game show host. I was going through the process of meeting the big game show producers and trying to convince them to hire me as host of Price Is Right, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, etc. I really wanted to host game shows (I still do). Out of the blue, one day, my agent called and told me to get over to the old Pennsylvania Hotel, immediately. I hustled over there and saw Ed Koch on the bench of The People’s Court set, adjudicating a small claims case. The producers told me Koch was doing practice cases and that he would be the new judge (replacing Wapner) when the show returned to the air (there had been a 2-year hiatus following Judge Wapner’s last case). I was there to audition for the old Doug Llewelyn role. They put me in the hallway and I interviewed the litigants after Koch issued his verdict. I think I did 2 cases that day. That weekend I was at a family reunion in upstate N.Y. when I got a message from the executive producers on my machine at home saying I was “on the 1-yard line” but that I didn’t have the job, yet. They needed to see me working the hallway one more time before they made up their minds. At the 2nd audition, a couple of days later, they told me on the spot that I got the job.
That was an incredibly happy moment for me. Kind of like the Eruzione goal.

FB: Have you enjoyed your role on the People’s Court?
CC: The People’s Court is the best job I’ve ever had, covering 30 years in broadcasting.

FB: How does being the hallway reporter for the People’s Court compare to some of the Olympic assignments you’ve had?
CC: There’s really no comparison between PC and any of my Olympic experiences except to say that all the journalism experience I’ve has prepared of for the role of interviewer on the TV show. I interview the litigants outside the courtroom just moments after they’ve heard the decision in their case. It is completely unscripted and spontaneous. Now that I think about it, the total spontaneity of my People’s Court role is similar to the impulse of total spontaneity with which I pressed the record button and launched into that play-by-play call that miracle afternoon in Lake Placid.

FB: Curt, thanks so much for doing the interview with me.
CC: I want to thank you very much for your interest and time. I’m so thrilled this story is finally being told.

I want to thank Curt once again for agreeing to do the interview. It’s been quite enjoyable to read his comments and I hope it was for you as well.

Ken Fang

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013. He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television. Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.

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