Feb. 7, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
ince he has never been honored before by dropping the ceremonial first puck, Paul Braun joked that maybe he would treat it like a coin toss and "I'm going to flip it like Joe Namath" before Friday night's Big Ten hockey game between Minnesota and Wisconsin at the Kohl Center.
The 70-year-old Namath, who boldly predicted a New York Jets victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, flipped the coin before last Sunday's kickoff between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. In fact, he flipped it not once but twice.
The first flip caught everybody off guard -- the Seahawks had yet to call heads or tails -- but referee Terry McAulay deftly picked the coin out of the air and returned to Broadway Joe for a reset. Nobody seemed to mind, least of all Namath, who was decked out in a $3,000 coyote fur coat.
Braun promised that he would not be wearing any fur on Friday.
It wasn't a concession to political correctness as much as it was an acknowledgement of the understated, folksy style which has been a trademark of his broadcasting delivery -- along with his signature "Shot and a goal!" -- in a Hall of Fame career spanning 40 years of calling Wisconsin hockey.
"Forty years? Can you believe it?" posed an incredulous Braun, who took over as the "Voice of the Badgers" in 1973 from Bob Miller, who went on to achieve Hall of Fame status -- not to mention his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- with the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League.
"Broadcasting is still my passion and I would absolutely love to find some way to be more involved in the business and hockey," said the 66-year-old Braun, who worked eight UW games this season for FOX Sports Wisconsin. "It has been a great run for me."
f Braun didn't put Bird Island, Minn., on the map, at the very least he made people aware of the tiny community (pop. 1,001) on Highway 212, 90 minutes west of the Twin Cities. There is no island in or near Bird Island. There hasn't been for decades. And you could fit the entire population in LaBahn Arena. Twice.
"It's a small town with one stoplight," he said. "If you blink, you're going to miss it."
Braun's folks owned a variety store in Bird Island. When his dad turned 62, he got restless to do something else, so he liquidated the business and sought work elsewhere. "They sold everything they owned," he said, "except what they could fit in a U-Haul trailer and we moved to Seattle, Washington."
After a couple of years at a community college, Braun found his calling: broadcasting school. The voice that sent him in that direction just happened to belong to the late Merle Harmon, who handled play-by-play for both the Milwaukee Braves and the Brewers. He teamed with Bob Uecker in the '70s.
Braun heard Harmon on a radio ad for the Career Academy School of Broadcasting and he decided to give it a shot. Relocating to San Francisco, he had access to pro hockey with the Oakland Seals which morphed into the California Golden Seals which morphed into the Cleveland Barons.
Upon returning to Seattle, he was still looking to develop a style, so he took his tape recorder to a Western Hockey League game between the hometown Totems and the Portland Buckaroos. Braun still has that tape -- somewhere in storage -- and there's a note attached: "Stupid things you said."
Among the gems were, "They skate faster going forward" to be summarily topped by "The faceup (not faceoff) is in the ring to the right of the guy with a lot of equipment on (goalie)."
Unlike many in the business, Braun has no ego, so he can laugh at himself.
"When you think about those days," he said with a sigh, "you go, `Oh, my God."'
Armed with the conviction that it had to get better, Braun returned to the Twin Cities and looked for a job in radio. He came up empty-handed. Dejected, he packed his belongings into a car and was prepared to head back to Seattle when he stopped to say goodbye to a friend.
"He was a bartender at the Thunderbird Hotel, right across from the old Met Center (the longtime Bloomington home of the Minnesota North Stars)," Braun said.
A stranger sat down next to Braun at the bar, and they began to talk.
"We talked for about an hour," he recounted. "He said to me, `What do you think you want to do in life? I told him that I thought I wanted to work in radio but I couldn't find a job.
"He didn't say anything right away but he asked what I knew about radio and what I could do. Finally, he said, `Why don't you come work for me? I'm building a radio station in the Wisconsin Dells."'
|“It really hit me during the game,” Braun said of being reunited with Howard on WIBA in January. “I sat there at the end of the first period and thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is so much fun.’”
Braun accepted the offer without any hesitation. "I did a little bit of everything at the station, including driving a tractor to lay down the ground system for the tower," he remembered. "I read the news, I was a disc jockey -- which I hated -- I sold ads, and I did some high school sports."
That led to a job in Portage which, in turn, led to a job in Madison and WMAD, a country station. "They were looking for someone to do high school games," he said, "and I convinced them that I could do hockey. I was doing games from Hartmeyer when Andy Devine heard me."
Devine, a local youth hockey enthusiast with clout, put in a good word for Braun with WIBA's Fred Gage after Miller left for Los Angeles. One thing led to another, and UW hockey coach Bob Johnson had heard enough good things about Braun that he welcomed him aboard as the Voice of the Badgers.
"That's how it all started and here we are 40 years later," Braun reflected. "Championships are nice -- it's our Super Bowl, so to speak -- but for me it's always been about the relationships and the people I've met -- the players, coaches, fans -- that stands out. I have many lifelong friendships."
One of them is with former UW assistant coach and broadcast partner Bill Howard. The Braun-Howard team was reunited in the radio booth for the series opener between Michigan and Wisconsin in January.
"It really hit me during the game," said Braun. "I sat there at the end of the first period and thought, `Oh, my God, this is so much fun.' I realized what it felt like to be involved to that extent again when you were doing it on a day-to-day and game-to-game basis."
In October of 1994, Braun was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame. His class included one of the top scorers in UW history, Ron Vincent; one of the top goaltenders in U.S. history, Mike Richter; and one of the top coaches in college hockey history, George Gwozdecky.
"It was special to go in with those guys," Braun said. "That was a highlight for me."
In January of 2006, Braun was recognized for having broadcast his 1,200th game. One still tops all the others, to his thinking; the one in which current UW hockey coach Mike Eaves scored off a faceoff in overtime to beat New Hampshire in the semifinals of the 1977 NCAA Tournament in Detroit.
"That instantly comes to me all the time; the vision of Mike scoring that goal," Braun said. "I can still see him in that faceoff circle. All of a sudden, the puck drops and the puck is in the net."
A shot and a goal. Generations of Badgers fans have grown up with that call.
"It just happened the first time I did a game," Braun said. "I didn't even think about it."
Those aforementioned generations have included the Suters (Bobby and his son, Ryan) and the Johnsons (Mark and his son, Patrick).
"I'm thinking that the day when the grandchildren come through here," Braun said, "then maybe it will be time to think about retiring."