It has been a decade since John Walton departed Hershey to become the radio voice of the Washington Capitals and in more recent years, also doing NHL games for NBC TV.
He got his hockey start at Miami University from 1993 to 1996 and also did the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in the AHL from 1997 to 2000 before coming to Hershey. In case you didn’t know it, he also did baseball for the Cincinnati Reds from 1996 to 2002.
“There is a definite difference between doing play-by-play for the two sports because in baseball you have a lot of down time while hockey is just the opposite,” said Walton. “For me, I like to tell stories and modern technology has given me that opportunity with the podcast so I started doing that this year a little bit. That meant Monday through Friday for 15 to 20 minutes I was able to do things like that for hockey.”
The strongly regulated NHL rules due to the Covid-19 situation brought this response. “I never would have imagined broadcasting a season where, not only did we not have access to players to talk to them about what happened in the game, but what was even harder I never would have thought there would be an entire season at home.”
The revised schedule meant the radio crew had only one away game where they drove to Philly. That was like a Christmas present for everyone.
The only other time he was at the arena was the playoffs with Boston. Other than that they broadcast the whole season from Capital One Arena making it, without a doubt, the hardest season he ever encountered.
Doing the games remotely, Walton pointed out he saw about 80 to 90 percent of what was happening on the ice, but the problem was that things happen outside the scope of the camera and that was never more evident than in one of the first games he did.
“The Caps were playing in Pittsburgh and we had a 3-on-none breakaway, something that hardly ever happens in the NHL, but all I see is the three guys coming up the ice, but don’t see that there weren’t any defensemen back until they were almost to the goalie,” said Walton.
Prior to this season, when he was able to travel with the team, there was time between games to talk to the guys, but this season he worked in a small room in the arena back home but he also indicated it was also hard on the players because there was no social aspect due to being quarantined to their hotel rooms.
“The chats with the players often revealed things that I didn’t use, like maybe the kids are sick or there is some other personal situation taking place that could affect the way he has been playing recently”, Walton said. “When I know about things like that I’ll kind of hold back a little because I’m aware of his situation.”
Returning to his pre-Hershey days, Walton said, “It’s funny that I spent three years in Cincinnati with no playoff game wins because of a sweep in one season and missing the post-season the other two, before coming to Hershey. The Bears went out of the first round in the playoffs and didn’t make the playoffs the next two years. Things did get better of course with three Calder Cups and then a Stanley Cup with the Capitals so that’s much more than I could have ever imagined.”
That time would include the 2009-10 season with Mark French when the Bears won 60 regular season games and then 16 more in the playoffs. That team just would not lose and he indicated he had never been around a bunch of guys that were so committed, with the veterans giving everything they had every game and the younger guys doing the same, with eventually some of them able to be around for the Stanley Cup season with the Capitals.
The subject then turned to Hershey’s last two successful seasons where they were positioned to probably have a lengthy playoff run.
“It was a disappointment that Spencer Carbery wasn’t able to get any playoff games the last two years because both seasons Hershey, I think, would have been in for a long run,” said Walton.
John started doing games for NBC TV in 2014, and this year, strangely enough with the shortened season, and his last one, he did the most (12) that included three playoff games, one of those in the second round.
“The one in Tampa Bay was an in-person game where there were so many fans it felt as normal as anything has in 18 months,” Walton said. “I have to thank the Capitals for allowing me to do whatever games came my way. I also want to mention the fantastic job Zack Fisch did coming up for nine games because he is NHL-ready. He could step in any time if I have a schedule conflict and do a great job and I know the Capitals feel the same way.”
“To be honest, I think he is more prepared to do games than I was in Hershey,” continued Walton. “It’s tough when you’re doing the PR, plus the games and the travel at the AHL level. The thing that has impressed me the most is his preparation and being able in a short time to do games for teams he hasn’t seen on a regular basis. You can learn to do play-by-play but there are things you can’t really teach, and that’s what he has.”
Asked about the chances he might be contacted by ESPN if the future, Walton replied, “I’d like to think they might come to me down the road, but it won’t be now because they have already announced their roster that are mostly in-house people. There is still some talk about Turner but I don’t know how far their depth chart will go.
“I was basically number five with NBC, that was enough to get me into a few playoff games and I have to admit I had more fun this year than I ever had but I’m sad that it was the end for NBC.,” added Walton.
Pressed a bit more on the subject he admitted, “I’d like to do more TV at some point because national games are so much fun. What I mean is if Tampa Bay is playing Carolina in the second round, all I’m rooting for is a good game. It’s just fun to be in that neutral atmosphere so that whatever comes your way is what you talk about.”
A highlight of the season came when Walton was in Stanford, Conn. to call the longest game of the season in the triple overtime game of the playoffs between Montreal and Winnipeg. It started at 9:45 p.m. and went until 2:17 in the morning.
“The last game I did for NBC was a nine goal second period in the second round of the playoffs so that’s not a bad way to leave the Peacock,” Walton said. ”Tampa Bay, of course won that one and went on to win the Stanley Cup again.”
Closing out the chat, Walton talked about the future, not only for the Capitals, but also for several other teams saying, “It’s the changing of the guard time for not just the Capitals but also Pittsburgh. The Rangers are coming, as are the Flyers, and Carolina is here now, so that just means you have to start retooling for the future and that will be the real challenge moving forward.”
“The Capitals haven’t had much as far as top line draft picks over the last decade or maybe longer,” added Walton. “They haven’t had a top-10 pick since I came here from Hershey. That does make it a bit more difficult, but if you have the ability to sign some key veteran guys hopefully you can find a way to make it work.”
His closing statement was, “John Carlson is the only guy who was here 10 years ago. Obviously, there are many former Bears with the Caps. but John is the only one remaining from my first year.”