Last Monday was an unusually frenetic day for Bob Crawford, filled with a number of diverse tasks as another Wolf Pack practice glided along in front of him.
For the last 29 years as a broadcaster and media relations director in the American Hockey League, Crawford, 51, is accustomed to the syncopation. But he seemed to be particularly preoccupied, so when his cellphone rang, Crawford was tempted not to answer it.
“I almost didn’t answer the call,” Crawford said. “Obviously, I am so happy that I did.”
As it turned out, the New York Rangers, the NHL parent club of the Wolf Pack, were on the other end. The club was having a schedule conflict with its normal team of radio broadcasters and was wondering if Crawford might be available to call its game last Saturday night against New Jersey at Madison Square Garden.
“They asked if I could help them out,” Crawford said. “And I said, ‘Yes, I think I can do that.’”
At that moment, something Crawford had been hoping might happen for nearly three decades finally came to pass. He was being called up to the NHL for the first time.
“This was 100 percent out of the blue,” Crawford said. “I’ve pestered the MSG radio network over the years, just saying, ‘Here’s my tape, I’m here, I’d love to help you out if you get into a crunch.’
“They have so many good broadcasters there. They always have people at hand who can do the job. They’ve always said nice things to me whenever I’ve asked the question. But I had no inkling this was coming.”
Crawford made the move to Hartford with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate from Binghamton, N.Y., in 1997. Prior to serving as the voice of the Binghamton Rangers for two years, he worked with the Providence Bruins and the Adirondack Red Wings.
Included in his more than 2,000 games in the AHL are three Calder Cup championships (the Wolf Pack in 2000 and the 1989 and 1992 Red Wings). He was also named the 2000-01 winner — in the radio category — of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Award for outstanding media coverage of the league.
But unlike many of the players and coaches whose exploits he’d described over the years, Crawford never received a chance to work on the big stage.
“I wouldn’t say that I was resigned to it [never getting his chance],” Crawford said. “I am more than OK with the way my career has gone. I feel totally blessed to have been able to work in the AHL for 30 years, especially under the Rangers banner for 23 years and in Hartford for over two decades. It’s become a home to me.
“Was I sitting around waiting for the phone to ring for an NHL job to come? No. You are always trying to do a better job this day than you did the last and hope someone might notice you and give you an opportunity that you weren’t suspecting. That’s what played out for me.”
The Wolf Pack had a game in Providence Friday and when Crawford woke up Saturday morning it was to the snowstorm quickly eroding travel conditions on the highways.
“Just my luck,” he thought to himself.
So after getting his prep work done for Hartford’s game on Saturday, he drove to New Haven and got on a Metro-North train to New York. By 3:30 p.m., he was at The Garden and getting ready by doing some last-minute studying in the pressroom.
His broadcast partner was Pete Stemkowski, a Rangers icon from the days when Emile Francis was the team’s coach and general manager. And Crawford’s first NHL goal call was the Rangers’ Jimmy Vesey giving New York a 1-0 lead at 6:33 of the first period in a game it won 5-2.
“It was over quick,” Crawford said. “There was so much anticipation all week. I was preparing like crazy, thinking about what it might be like. But once the puck dropped, it seemed like it was over in an instant.
“I was definitely nervous. I’ve heard the players talk about the same thing, about how you are definitely more nervous until you get the chance to do the thing you get paid to do. Once I got into the play-by-play, it felt pretty comfortable. That was the part I could control. That felt pretty smooth.”
Then within 90 minutes after the game, Crawford was back on the train to New Haven, preparing for the Wolf Pack’s game against Springfield the next day.
“I sure hope this leads to something, but I honestly don’t know. What I told myself going into it was that I’ve always thought if I had a chance to do an NHL game that I could impress people by making a good accounting of myself. That was all I could control,” Crawford said.
“I am very thankful for the opportunity. I knew it was up to me to make the most of it. I think it went well. I got a lot of good feedback, so I am hopeful that it leads to something, ideally more work with the Rangers. I have no idea at this point, but it feels really good to have gotten the tap on the shoulder and know they felt I could handle it. I hope I didn’t let them down. … It’s holiday time. It was like a really awesome Christmas present.”