DETROIT — Nearly 30 years ago, Paul Steigerwald was a Red Wing.
That might be difficult to believe considering the Pittsburgh native’s lengthy career with the NHL’s Penguins, who lost to the Detroit Red Wings 3-0 in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday at Joe Louis Arena.
Steigerwald, the Penguins’ television play-by-play announcer on Fox Sports Pittsburgh, actually got his start in radio calling games for the Johnstown Red Wings.
Those Johnstown Red Wings struggled through the 1979-80 season. But the Flood City and its hockey tradition had a lasting impact on Steigerwald. He used that sometimes chaotic and colorful season as a stepping stone to join the Penguins organization in the fall of 1980.
“I was looking for a job in the minor leagues and I had taken a job in Hampton (Va.) with a religious station that was only going to carry 22 games,” Steigerwald said prior to the Penguins’ Monday afternoon skate at Joe Louis Arena. “I got an apartment and was ready to move down there.”
Hockey fate intervened. Steigerwald learned of a radio play-by-play opening in Johnstown, where the newly formed Red Wings were part of the second incarnation of the former Eastern Hockey League. The NHL’s Detroit Red Wings ran the hockey operations, though the Johnstown team was under a local ownership group.
The former WJNL radio station in Cover Hill carried the 70 local Red Wings games.
“I played my audition tape, which happened to be a game between the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings,” Steigerwald recalled. “I taped myself in the balcony of the Civic Arena and actually had myself calling a Penguins and Red Wings game.
“I played my tape over the phone to a guy named Bill Confer who was working at the radio station WJNL in Johnstown. He knew of my brother (John) because my brother was on TV in Pittsburgh. The name rung a bell. He listened to the tape over the phone and said ‘It sounds good.’ ”
Bill Confer was an administrator at WJNL. His son Greg later was a sports reporter on WJAC-TV.
Once Confer recommended Steigerwald to the Red Wings, Johnstown’s new general manager, Al Blade, added him to the staff.
“They paid me $110 a week. I packed up my stuff and went back to Pittsburgh. I moved to Johnstown in late September,” said Steigerwald, who at WJNL worked with a young Tim Rigby, the current sports director at WJAC-TV.
Coach Marty Read’s Red Wings struggled to a 24-45-1 record in the EHL. The Detroit Red Wings ran the hockey operations and NHL General Manager Ted Lindsay frequently visited Johnstown on scouting trips.
Those Johnstown Red Wings, led by 53-goal scorer Dave MacQueen, never played up to their potential, a fact that disappointed Steigerwald.
“What I remember about the Red Wings is that it was the Red Wings’ organization,” Steigerwald said. “Ted Lindsay came down and I interviewed him one day in between periods. I asked him, ‘What’s the difference between the players today and the players when you played, Ted?’ He said, ‘The players today are afraid to cut each other open and see what color blood they have.’ You have an idea of what his philosophy was.
“The Detroit Red Wings at that time had over 70 players under contract, way too many,” he added. “They were not very good at the NHL level. They had some players at Johnstown that should have been in the American Hockey League, but they weren’t. They were miserable that they were playing (in Johnstown) and they didn’t play as hard as they should. We had enough talent that we should have been one of the best teams in that league.”
The Johnstown Red Wings had their share of characters. MacQueen had 110 points, and while he never made it to the NHL as a player, he was an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning from 1996-98. MacQueen was head coach of the Erie Otters for seven OHL seasons and spent the past two years with Sarnia in the elite junior league.
Veteran Harry Shaw, age 36 at the time, provided grit and sometimes unusual entertainment.
“He had that old grizzled face,” Steigerwald said of the former defenseman who still resides in Johnstown. “One day he grabbed a mop from the bowels of the War Memorial. He went on the ice with this mop on his head and skated around with a real funny body language and he said, ‘I’m an old sea hag.’ It was knee-buckling funny.”
The Penguins hired Steigerwald as part of their marketing staff in 1980 and he became marketing director at age 25.
Eventually, he moved to the broadcast booth, serving as a color commentator to the immensely popular Mike Lange for 14 seasons. Steigerwald spent six seasons as the radio voice of the Pens and is wrapping up his second season as the Penguins play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports Pittsburgh.
He was part of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 1991 and 1992 as well as the talented group competing in this year’s Cup run.
Not a bad gig for someone who developed his interest in hockey as a youngster in the South Hills section of Pittsburgh. His neighbor, former Penguins and Johnstown Jets GM Jack Riley, gave local kids tickets to Penguins games.
Johnstown and the city’s underachieving Red Wings also played a big role in Steigerwald’s hockey career.
“That Johnstown experience was really good for me,” he said. “If I had gone to Hampton and done 22 games, I may have never made it. I might have made it, but I might have gone on a different path.”
DETROIT — Nearly 30 years ago, Paul Steigerwald was a Red Wing.
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