By Michael Sharp
The green beer was flowing and the ol’ barn was buzzing on St. Patrick’s Day 1978.
Professional hockey was in its fifth season in Binghamton, and the American Hockey League’s Dusters were blowing out the visiting Hershey Bears, 8-3. A young right wing by the name of Jacques “Coco” Cossette would score five goals that night. And as the final horn sounded, he was breaking free at center ice for what could have been a sixth.
In a corner of the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena, above the Zamboni entrance, 13-year-old Grady Whittenburg sat next to his father, Grady Sr., excitedly soaking in his first live hockey game.
“I had been so into baseball up to that point, had never seen a hockey game,” Whittenburg remembered recently. “And it was like, ‘Man, what have I been doing with my life? I’ve got to come back here more.’ So that was kind of the beginning of my love affair with hockey, and I thank my dad for it.”
There were so many stories wrapped up in the Binghamton Senators’ wild run to the 2011 Calder Cup championship – the city’s first title in 38 years of professional hockey.
There was the first-round comeback, Binghamton storming back from a three-games-to-one deficit with three straight overtime wins. There was rookie goaltender Robin Lehner, stopping an overtime penalty shot with the season on the line in Game 6 of that first round – on his way to playoff MVP honors.
There was team captain Ryan Keller, sparking pandemonium in the home rink – in overtime, of course – with his goal to send the Sens past Charlotte and into the finals. There was a very serious, sobering turn, as assistant coach Steve Stirling underwent quadruple bypass surgery two days before the Cup-clinching victory. And, ultimately, there was the sight of some 5,000 fans standing outside Binghamton’s downtown arena on a hot June evening, singing “We Are the Champions.”
But 33 years after that St. Patrick’s Day blowout, there was also the story of Grady Whittenburg. Now the team’s director of broadcasting, he lived out a longtime dream this spring, calling the first title run for his hometown team, less than 100 feet from where he’d sat with his father for his first-ever game.
“In my situation, I get paid to watch a sport, basically in my hometown, where I grew up watching hockey,” said Whittenburg, a native of nearby Newark Valley. “And then to see a championship won – it’s like, I don’t know how many other guys could lay claim to something like that.”
He added soon after: “I consider myself pretty privileged just to be the eyes and the ears for the hockey fans, and certainly they’ve showered me with love throughout the years. … It really has been, from my perspective, a pretty good love affair.”
And now Whittenburg’s words will forever narrate the biggest moment in Binghamton hockey history, coming off a faceoff in the Senators’ end, in the waning seconds of their final game:
“Houston winning it. It rolls free out through center, they’ll turn it back in, and that’ll do it! The horn sounds! The Binghamton Senators are the 2011 Calder Cup champions, as Robin Lehner is mobbed along the end boards down to our left. Thirty-eight years of suffering for Binghamton hockey fans comes to an end tonight, as the Senators win the game 3-2. They take this Calder Cup championship final, four games to two over the Houston Aeros.”
As Whittenburg spoke, from the broadcast area in Houston, he had his radio equipment to his left, his computer to his right. And in between, in a frame alongside his scorebook, was a picture of his late father, who had passed away in 2008.
“Just having him with me made every moment special,” he said. “There wasn’t a time where I could look down at the tools of my broadcast ... and not see him looking back (with) that easy-going smile.”
Grady, or “Gradio” as some affectionately call him, has no problem rattling off the particulars: Section 1, Row K, Seats 15 and 16.
In the years after father and son attended their first Dusters game together, the pair could be found manning those seats for Binghamton Whalers and Rangers games. The family had season tickets at that point, and Whittenburg accompanied his father whenever his schedule allowed, sitting across the ice from where he now calls Sens games.
In the early 1980s, as the Whalers began their 10-year run in Binghamton, Whittenburg was graduating from high school and working odd jobs – homebuilding and renovations with his uncle, shifts at the family liquor store. But ever since those childhood nights, under the covers with a transistor radio and long-distance calls of Major League Baseball games, he had dreamed of doing play-by-play.
His first break came in the fall of 1983, when a local sports broadcaster named Jim Raftis offered Whittenburg the opportunity to join him in the press box for the occasional high school football game. That eventually led to a gig calling Newark Valley High games for a local radio station.
In 1989, he began an unpaid internship with Cornell University, serving as a sideline reporter for football games, an intermission host for home hockey games, and a play-by-play man for lacrosse. He impressed enough that Cornell hired him the following year as its full-time hockey broadcaster – a position he’d hold for 12 seasons, until 2002, when he joined the brand-new Binghamton Senators.
“There’s no question that Grady’s talent on-air holds a lot of respect (from) the other (broadcasters) that know him,” said former Albany River Rats and Adirondack Phantoms announcer Owen Newkirk, who did color commentary alongside Whittenburg at home games this last season.
The two are part of a tight group of AHL announcers – largely from the East Division – and Newkirk notes that his colleague has taken particular pride in the production side of his broadcasts. “He actually does amazing stuff with the editing software, and putting together packages, and using highlights from himself and other teams. And really sort of leads the way in that regard. (He) has really been instrumental in getting a bunch of broadcasters around the AHL to share highlights and also to do sort of like a weekly AHL highlight package that gets spread around.”
On the air, Whittenburg says his passion comes from his mother, Virginia. Away from the rink, he jokes that he can drive his family crazy with his need to always arrive early – a trait he picked up in part from his father, who was always looking to leave with about 6 minutes left in games, always looking to beat the traffic, occasionally at the expense of missing a wild comeback or a dramatic goal.
Except that when the Binghamton Senators made the playoffs in their first season, in the spring of 2003, something changed. Suddenly, Grady Sr. was staying for the white-knuckle finishes, the overtime winners. He was soaking in the scene and his son’s first season behind the mic for a pro hockey team. After games, as Whittenburg so colorfully describes, his dad would “wade his way through the crowd that was celebrating outside the arena, and the cars honking their horns like they’d just won the Cup.”
That run came to an end in the conference finals, the closest a Binghamton team had come to that elusive AHL title in a dozen years, since the Rangers reached the same round in ’91. And Whittenburg thought often of those moments this spring, as the Sens played seven overtime games during their march to the Cup.
“For whatever reason, I think he understood at that point – living in the moment,” said Whittenburg, who tried to bring a similar savor-every-victory approach to Binghamton’s 23-game rollercoaster of a postseason this year.
“The playoff overtime game-winners maybe had a little bit more of a special place in my heart. … Knowing that my dad still would have been in the stands watching at that point, because he knew just how important those games were at that time of year.”
In the fall of 2004, Whittenburg was watching the Senators face Syracuse in a preseason game, when the team’s executive vice president of operations, Tom Mitchell, approached with an urgent message.
“(He) just told me that I needed to get to Wilson Hospital, and I needed to get there really quick.”
His father, a laid-back southern gentleman from Tennessee who had made his living refurbishing electronics, who was constantly reaching out to help others, who had taken up golf later in his life, even purchasing part of Belden Hill Golf Club, had suffered a massive stroke.
“I used the word ‘surreal’ earlier about a Binghamton championship, and that’s another kind of surreal,” said Whittenburg, who spent the night at the hospital, expecting the worst in the morning. “The nurse came in and woke me up in the waiting room and said, ‘Somebody wants to see you.’ And I thought it was the doctor to tell me that while I was sleeping or trying to get some sleep that my dad had died.”
Instead, the nurse led him straight to his dad, who was lying in a room with one eye open.
“He was hanging in there,” Whittenburg remembered. “I went over, and just couldn’t believe it, had tears in my eyes. And I just said, ‘If you can hear me dad, can you just squeeze my hand once.’ And he squeezed it once.”
The night before, Grady Sr. hadn’t been expected to live another 12 hours. Instead, he lived another four years.
“That was pretty emotional to still have him with me.”
Taken at a golf event, the photo had long sat at home on Whittenburg’s desk. Decked out in a white sweat shirt and a black Ryder Cup hat, his father sits smiling back at the camera, one arm resting on a table, the other on the back of his chair.
As Whittenburg was getting ready to leave for Houston, and the start of the Calder Cup finals, he slipped the picture into his computer bag.
“I thought that would be a good thing to bring with me,” he said. “I knew my dad would be with me in spirit anyways, but to kind of have that visual reminder and bring him with me – because he had gone with me as far as I had gone before, but he had never gone to the finals, nor had I. So I thought he’d enjoy the ride.”
And what a ride it was – culminating in those furious final moments in Houston.
“You want to think about what you’re going to say, yet you want it to be really natural and off-the-cuff,” Whittenburg said, adding with a laugh: “You get to a point with big calls, you just hope you don’t screw it up. I think that’s the biggest thing. You don’t want to get in the way of the moment, yet you want to summarize it. You want to be excited.”
He accomplished that and more with his call of Keller’s overtime winner in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals: “Shot here at the faceoff, they win! Ryan Keller wristed it home! The captain with the overtime winner, and Binghamton on to the Calder Cup finals! Twelve wins down, four more to go as the captain is mobbed here at the Veterans Memorial Arena in downtown Binghamton!”
And in Houston, he again stuck appropriately close to the action, rather than reciting some pre-planned line, as the two teams played to one last frantic finish.
“I kind of just put the exclamation point on the call and just kind of got out of the way,” Whittenburg said. “It was something I kind of gave thought to the night before, but once you’re in the moment, you lose the thought of, ‘Gee, what was I planning on saying if we win this faceoff and we kill the last 5.4 seconds?’ You just kind of go with it.”
Immediately afterward, he hustled down to the ice, interviewing head coach Kurt Kleinendorst, and Keller, and Lehner – in between hugs from celebrating players. Thoughts of coach Stirling, recovering in a Binghamton hospital, hung on everyone’s mind, Whittenburg remembered, and when Keller received the Calder Cup, he immediately placed the assistant coach’s name plate at the bottom.
The next day, players would bring the trophy from the airport to the hospital. There would be a parade, and a huge celebration back in Binghamton. (“I always knew the fans were passionate,” Whittenburg said, “but boy, I didn’t know just how much.”)
And that last night in Texas, as his final broadcast came to a close, Whittenburg worked his way down to the visitors dressing room, where eventually, amidst a party 38 years in the making, he got his first sweet sip from the Cup.
“I tell everybody: I’m just a fan that gets the pleasure of putting on the microphone every night and giving them the action as I see it,” he said. “And I still bring that enthusiasm that I had sitting there in Section 1, Row K, Seat 15 and 16 with my dad. I like to think I bring that to the air most every night. …
“It’s tough to really summarize what it means to have the fortune that I do, of having grown up in the Binghamton area and now having seen the spring of 2011 culminate the way it has. But it’s been wonderful. It has been a dream. It, at times, seems like it was just scripted and meant to be, (like) it was destiny.”