03/29/2014 1:56 PM -
In the Griffins’ broadcast booth, Larry Figurski is the epitome of the Most Valuable Professional, a polished and perceptive hockey authority who is plugged into the finer points of the game.
Story by Mark Newman
In the world of hockey, players who skate on the same line often talk about chemistry. They talk about how they feel like they can nearly read each other's minds, how they can anticipate what their teammates will do, even before they do it.
It's a relationship that's almost instinctual to the point where no words are necessary.
Words, however, are the specialty of Griffins play-by-play announcer Bob Kaser and color analyst Larry Figurski, who nonetheless have developed the kind of rapport that allows for smooth skating back and forth during their on-air description of the action.
When Kaser joined the Griffins organization in 2000 he needed a sidekick, someone who could offer quick analysis of the action. That voice would ultimately be Larry Figurski, a local sportscaster who had grown up with dreams of not only playing in the NHL but someday doing hockey play-by-play.
Figurski admitted that he was a little nervous doing color analysis at first, never having done it before. "I didn't want to embarrass myself, the organization or my station," he said.
"You can sit on a couch and wonder how you would call a game, but it's not something that you can practice, just like you can't become a TV anchor by practicing in front of a mirror. The only way to get better is to do it."
It didn't take long for Figurski to demonstrate his worth.
"He's a polished professional who plays hockey, understands the game inside and out, articulates the game very well and who loves the Griffins and Red Wings," Kaser said. "He makes my job so much easier, and I look forward to getting into the broadcast booth every night with Larry at my side."
A native of San Antonio, Texas, where he was born while his father was in the service, Figurski grew up in the Detroit area. At the age of 5, he started playing hockey, eventually playing on a travel team while attending Detroit Catholic Central High School.
Figurski majored in broadcasting and cinematic arts with a minor in journalism at Central Michigan University, where he graduated in 1986. He started in radio sales but quickly moved to television, working in news and sports at stations in Alpena and Cadillac before heading to Springfield, Missouri, for two years.
He joined the sports department at WZZM-TV in 1996, the same year that the Griffins began playing in Van Andel Arena. "I've been covering the Griffins from Day 1," said Figurski, a diehard Detroit hockey fan who remembers going to a lot of games at the old Olympia Stadium during the "Dead Wings" era, when the team was losing with regularity.
Kaser came to Grand Rapids about the same time that Figurski joined WOOD-TV8, not long after his former employer had decided not to renew his contract. When the Griffins came calling, Figurski jumped at the opportunity to join Kaser in the broadcast booth.
"Being a color analyst, there's a lot of give and take," Figurski said. "Even for someone as good as Kaser is, there is only so much that he can say. The game's so fast. I'm just trying to fill in the blanks. Kaser says what happened and I say why it happened. In the process, I try to convey the excitement of the game."
There is little doubt that Figurski loves hockey. "You can hear it in his voice," Kaser said. "The fact that he still plays and remains a student of the game makes him very good at what he does."
Their chemistry on the air comes very naturally. That's important, because the non-stop action of the sport makes it a challenge for a color analyst to add commentary without bumping into the words of the play-by-play announcer. "Working with Kaser, I don't have to think," Figurski said. "I can just feel it."
Kaser said it took a little time for the pair to feel completely comfortable with each other, but now it's hard to imagine one without the other.
"Once we get going, I often know when and even what he's going to say, and vice versa," Kaser said. "We rarely step on each other. It might have taken a couple of years to develop the chemistry, but now it's almost magical and it's been that way a long time."
Their chemistry was tested during last year's Calder Cup Playoffs when Figurski was stationed at ice level between the benches while Kaser kept broadcasting from the press area high atop Van Andel Arena.
The move to ice level afforded Figurski the time to conduct interviews with players during the first intermission. "Kaser and I couldn't see each other, but yet we were able to get in and and out without any problem," Figurski said.
Last year's playoff run was a memorable experience, not only for the players but also for the guys in the broadcast booth. "When you follow a team so long, you get emotionally attached to the team," Figurski said.
"To watch the players succeed and know how hard they worked and what they went through all year long, it was a big thrill," Figurski said. "In my own little way, I got to be a part of a championship. It was by far the best professional experience I've ever had."
Figurski was the lone Grand Rapids media member to cover the Western Conference Finals games in Oklahoma City, providing WOOD-TV8 reports on both the Griffins and the tornado devastation of nearby Moore, Oklahoma, that preceded the team's visit.
He found himself in a precarious predicament during the Calder Cup Finals, when the Griffins had the opportunity to clinch the championship on home ice the same night that his parents had scheduled a dinner to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in Detroit.
"I was in a tough situation, but my parents gave their blessing," said Figurski, who drove to Detroit to take them out to breakfast, then spent time with them before returning to Grand Rapids for the game. "I felt an obligation to the Griffins and the station for accommodating me over the years, so I missed the party. And then we lost."
His family knew how much the opportunity meant. His dedication to his work was no surprise to his wife, Lisa, a teacher at Grandville Middle School, or their two daughters. Raychel is a sophomore at Western Michigan University, where she runs cross-country, while Samantha is a sophomore at Grandville High School, where she plays varsity soccer.
"My wife is incredibly understanding," Figurski said. "She knows how much I love doing it."
Even a heart attack in 2008 failed to slow him down. Figurski still plays hockey on a regular basis. "I love the game," he said. "To follow the Red Wings' top affiliate and cover the team I love the most – and get paid to do it – is a dream come true."
Figurski got the chance to do play-by-play for the first time this season while subbing for his broadcast partner, and Kaser said his sidekick performed admirably. "I heard enough to know that Larry did a really, really good job," Kaser said, "to the point that if he decided to do it full time, I would feel threatened."
As far as Kaser is concerned, he feels very lucky to have a polished professional of Figurski's caliber in the booth.
"I'd put him up against any color analyst in our league and a good number of those in the NHL," Kaser said. "Without a doubt, he's the best I have worked with. We're very fortunate to have him. I absolutely love working games with him."
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