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Official site of the Grand Rapids Griffins

Hearts on Their Sleeves

The Griffins’ talented radio tandem discovered they shared more than a healthy enthusiasm for hockey.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Bob Kaser and Larry Figurski have been a team on Griffins radio broadcasts for so long that they are practically joined at the hip.

But Kaser, the veteran radio play-by-play announcer, and Figurski, the local sports anchor-turned-color analyst, now have another connection that neither could have imagined when they started working together more than 20 years ago.

Both are heart attack survivors.

They have something else in common. They both want to remind people that what happened to them could happen to anyone. They believe men and women should have regular checkups to catch any potential problem before something serious could threaten their life.

It’s somewhat ironic, since both men wear their hearts on their sleeves. You can hear in their voices that they have the same passion for hockey, an incurable condition that they shared even before they became the Griffins’ primary broadcast team in 2000.

A Kalamazoo native who grew up in Flint, Kaser marked a return to his home state when he joined the Griffins after 10 seasons (1990-2000) as director of communications and broadcasting for the IHL’s Kansas City Blades. He was already highly regarded, having twice been awarded the Bob Chase Award as IHL Broadcaster of the Year (1993-94 and 1997-98).

A metro Detroit native, Figurski is a graduate of Detroit Catholic Central High School, where he was in the same graduating class as Don McSween, the ex-NHL defenseman who served as captain during the Griffins’ inaugural season (1996-97).

“I have been playing hockey since I was five years old,” Figurski said. “Like every other kid playing the sport, I wanted to play in the NHL. In my case, that obviously was never going to happen. So I dreamed about being the next Bruce Martyn [the legendary radio voice of the Red Wings for 31 seasons, from 1964-1995].”

Figurski started in radio after graduating from Central Michigan University. He switched to television when he began reading the news for the station in Alpena, Mich., which at the time was the fourth-smallest market in the U.S. Within months, he was promoted to news director, the position he held before he was hired to work for 9&10 News in northern Michigan (Traverse City/Cadillac).

Seeking to build his resumé, Figurski left Michigan to work for a couple of years in Springfield, Mo., before returning to the state to join WZZM-TV in 1996, the same year that the Griffins franchise began play in the IHL. He came to WOOD-TV8 after four years as a sports anchor and reporter at the ABC affiliate.

Figurski initially served as the host of the station’s long-running franchise segment, “Positively Michigan,” which had been previously hosted by Dick Evans and Warren Reynolds, two of the most respected broadcasters in the station’s history. He had big shoes to fill but did so admirably for three years before moving back to sports.

It was Randy Cleves, the Griffins’ senior director of public and community relations, who played matchmaker. Cleves, who had previously worked with Kaser in Kansas City, introduced Figurski to Kaser, who immediately saw the possibilities in a potential partnership with a fellow fanatic.

“I could tell right away that Larry was the right guy,” Kaser said. “It’s one thing to know the game, but it’s another to be able to articulate it and Larry does that so very well. Over my years in broadcasting, I have worked with some great people, including [part-time color commentator] Lou Rabaut in Grand Rapids, and Larry is exceptional. He is so professional and he is so prepared.”

Figurski, however, was not prepared for what happened on the night of July 7, 2008.

“I had worked a regular day and I was driving home on M-6 after playing hockey,” he recalled. “I was glad that I hadn’t stayed afterward for a beer with the boys because on the way home I felt like I had a cramp right in the middle of my chest. Even so, I drove right past Metro Hospital. When I got home, my wife took one look and said, ‘We’re going to the hospital.’

“We went in and it seemed strange because everything that was being said was in the past tense. I was shocked when they said, ‘You’ve had a heart attack.’ I had this weird sensation from my fingertips to my shoulders, too, but I didn’t realize that’s what was happening to me.”

Figurski was being prepped for a cardiac catheterization when his condition suddenly changed. If he wasn’t sure that he was having a heart attack before, there was no doubt in the next moment.

“Wham – just like that – I had the proverbial ‘elephant on your chest’ feeling. I was gasping for air. I felt this huge weight and then saw the machines go and everyone came rushing to my side.”

He would later learn that he had an almost complete blockage of his left anterior descending (LAD) artery, completely restricting blood flow to a large portion of his heart, including the front part, which is the ‘workhorse’ of the heart.

“It’s called a widowmaker, for all the obvious reasons,” Figurski said. “I had a 5-6 minute window to survive.”

The medical staff quickly sprung into action. “I remember the doctor saying, ‘I don’t have time to find a good spot’ and ‘this might hurt a bit’ and then feeling a sensation that was like having a pen shoved into my groin. They eventually broke the blockage and put in a stent.”

His condition was described as similar to having a stone in a garden hose that had broken free and then suddenly shuts off the flow. “They told me if I had walked into the hospital even a few minutes later, I would have been dead.”

Figurski was incredibly lucky to have survived.

Kaser still remembers hearing about his radio partner’s heart episode for the first time.

“I’ll never forget the day,” Kaser said. “I was on M-21 driving back from Flint and I was so riveted by the conversation that I had to stop and pull over. This was my close friend and radio partner who almost died, so I pulled off the road into this park to continue the conversation.”

Kaser says he had no premonition or ominous feeling that this was some kind of foreshadowing of his future. “It was only a concern for a dear friend,” he said.

Nevertheless, a little more than 11 years later, Kaser would have his own story to tell.

Kaser looks like the picture of good health, but he admits that he had not felt right for a long, long time before he suffered a mild heart attack in December 2019.

Of course, medical conditions are not always evident and some circumstances can lead to outcomes that a person might not foresee.

Kaser had been on medication to control his cholesterol for quite some time. “You feel like that medication is the magic potion that allows you to live your life like anyone else, so you can eat and drink whatever you want. Flint probably has the best food on the planet, but none of it is good for you,” said Kaser, who enjoyed eating coney dogs and Halo burgers as much as anyone.

“Big John Steak & Onions… Dawn Donuts… Supreme Donuts – I was a train wreck when it came to my diet,” he continued, listing all the stops he would make whenever he went back home to Flint. “Little Caesars Pizza was probably the healthiest thing I liked to eat.”

Kaser said he felt like something has been off since his days in Kansas City when he was caring for his father, who had moved in before he passed away from lung disease. “Stress was getting the best of me and I had a bout with depression. I was eventually diagnosed with a gluten allergy. I just never felt normal.”

Kaser had spent a Saturday morning at Griff’s IceHouse that December, announcing the introduction of the teams at the start of the Griffins Youth Foundation hockey season. “When I was leaving the rink, I felt something in my chest, but I didn’t think much of it,” he said.

He drove to the downtown Kilwins store, which he co-owns with partners along with the Kilwins and Jersey Junction stores in East Grand Rapids. All three stores are managed by his wife Rosalie, and he was making one of his usual deliveries.

“I was talking to one of our partners, Andy Young, and according to him we had a 10-minute conversation, but I couldn’t recall a single second because my mind was so off due to what was happening in my chest,” he said. “I went home and told my wife and we went to Metro Hospital where they put in a stent the next day.”

Kaser finished the 2019-20 season, which was ultimately cut short by the coronavirus. He admits that he began feeling “cruddy” again. He was in the protective bubble with the team at the time, preparing for the start of the new season. He decided to make a call to his cardiologist’s office.

Soon after he was in an ambulance on his way to the Meijer Heart Center. Surgery was planned for five days later because doctors wanted to ween blood thinners from his system, but his surgery was moved up a day when his heart showed signs of faltering.

Kaser had quintuple bypass surgery, meaning all five of the major vessels to his heart were showing varying signs of concern. The doctor harvested blood vessels from his leg to be grafted onto his heart vessels, with the bloodstream being routed around (bypass) the blocked portions.

He spent eight hours in the operating room. “The surgery was very successful, but I remember waking up at one point in the ICU and thinking I was literally dying,” Kaser said. “I had a 10-inch scar on my chest but the most pain I felt was in my left leg where they had taken the veins.”

Recovery took place over the next several months and while Kaser still experiences some occasional fatigue, he says he feels like he has a new lease on life. “I do feel like a million dollars,” he said. “I forgot what it was like to feel good because it had been so long.”

Certainly, a heart attack is something that nobody ever wishes for, but health scares have a way of resetting people’s priorities. “I want to be around to see my boys getting married and having kids,” Kaser said. “I’m looking forward to becoming a grandfather, being a good husband to my wife, and hanging with friends. That stuff means so much more to me now than it ever did.”

He is thankful that Figurski was willing and able to do the play-by-play for the Griffins’ home broadcasts (both radio and TV) last season.

Figurski admits that he felt more than a little trepidation.

“I was nervous because I didn’t want to embarrass anybody,” he said. “Let’s be honest. I was following the best guy in the American Hockey League. I was taking over for a guy who belongs in the NHL and who has proven he can do it at the NHL level.”

Kaser made his NHL broadcast debut during the 2016-17 season when he handled the radio play-by-play for 13 Detroit Red Wings games, filling in for the ailing Ken Kal, who temporarily lost his voice. Kaser also called one telecast on Fox Sports Detroit.

“I was never 100 percent convinced that I was good enough to work in the NHL,” Kaser said. “In the back of my mind, I thought I could probably do it, but I never aggressively went after the NHL because I didn’t know how it could get any better than living in Grand Rapids and working for the Griffins.

“I feel so fortunate to have had the career that I’ve enjoyed,” Kaser continued. “I don’t know how anyone could have had it better than I have had during my time in the minor pro ranks of any sport, from the places where I have worked to the people I’ve worked for to the people I’ve worked with.”

“But working the Wings games was an absolute blast… I loved every second of it.”

Having proven he could handle the job, Kaser put himself in the running to be the radio voice of the NHL’s Boston Bruins the following season. Although he didn’t get the job, he is proud to have been among the final three in the running.

Kaser understood Figurski’s apprehension, but he also knew his partner would excel in his chair during his absence.

Figurski was not a complete stranger to play-by-play, having filled in a few times for Kaser previously. But this was for an entire season, albeit an abbreviated one due to the pandemic. “The plan was for me to do 16 games when I had maybe done only eight games stretched over several years previously,” Figurski said.

“Doing color and play-by-play are apples and oranges,” he continued. “They are not the same, not even close. As the play-by-play voice, Bob tells you what happened. As the color analyst, my job is to tell you why or how it happened because you can’t see it on the radio.

“I’ve certainly learned a lot listening to Bob, but I just tried to be me. I was just going to let it fly and whatever came out, came out. Bob is Bob. You can’t replace Bob. So I tried to be myself.”

Figurski admits he quickly adjusted to his expanded role. “I started to become more comfortable and it got a little easier with each game,” he said. “I know I’m no Bob Kaser, but by the end, I really enjoyed it. It was a blast and fun to do, but I am very happy being Bob’s sidekick.”

Kaser didn’t listen and watch every game – he was trying to focus on his recovery – but he saw and heard enough to shower praise on his partner’s efforts.

“Over time, you could see that he became more and more confident in that chair,” Kaser said. “By the end, he was just having himself a ball – to the point where maybe he wishes I would go away,” he added with a laugh.

Figurski is content to resume his normal place in the broadcast booth. During the playoffs, he is usually between the benches, which is his favorite place to work because he is right in the middle of the action. Over the years, he’s dodged his share of sticks and flying pucks.

“It’s the buzz, the atmosphere, the excitement that you feel when you’re at ice level,” Figurski said. “It’s also how you can tell that Bob and I have really good chemistry, whether you like us or not.

“Bob is at center ice at the top of the building on one side and I’m on the other side of the building at ground level and yet we rarely step on each other, even with no real sightline between us. I can tell when he’s giving me the space to go and I can pop in and pop out, give him five seconds or 30 seconds, then give him the space that he needs to do the play-by-play.”

And yet both men will approach the coming season somewhat gingerly, not having worked together for the better part of 18 months.

“The last time I did color for a hockey game was the last time Bob did play-by-play, and that was pre-pandemic,” Figurski said. “We did the game on a Wednesday night [March 11, 2020] and the next day the AHL stopped the season. But we’ve worked together so long, I’m sure the chemistry will come back. I’m banking on the fact that 20 years together will make it easier.”

“I am so happy just to be alive and on the mend,” Kaser said. “Heading into the new season, I’m as excited as can be.”

They know they might be a little rusty, but that’s OK because it happens at the beginning of every season. And no matter how long it takes them to find their chemistry again, you can be sure of one thing. They will put their hearts into everything.

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