Courtesy of Pam Shebest
KALAMAZOO, MI — For someone who has had the gift of gab since he was a little guy, Joe Roberts certainly found the perfect job.
As the Voice of the Kalamazoo Wings, Roberts gets to gab a lot — on the radio, on the stadium’s big video board, in classrooms, before large or small groups.
“When I was young, a mite playing hockey in Southfield, Michigan, I wore a ‘P’ on my jersey and the ‘P’ stood for ‘President,’ because all the coaches were in such awe in my ability to communicate with kids and adults,” Roberts said.
“I’d be out shooting the breeze with parents who were drinking coffee after practice. They couldn’t understand how or why. Maybe it was always meant to be.”
Roberts got his first taste of broadcasting as a student at Western Michigan University.
“My first commercial radio experience was after I got linked up with (Voice of the Broncos) Robin Hook,” Roberts said. “It was the women’s basketball radio broadcast so it got me used to it on a much, much smaller scale, life on the road and broadcasting on commercial radio.
“I got to cut the heck out of my teeth doing that. There were some growing pains, but I was so grateful for that opportunity. He was such a great mentor to help me get my career off the ground because he’s been in the business for so long. He’s a legend in Kalamazoo.”
Roberts got as much experience as he could before being hired as Voice of the K-Wings.
As a K-Wings intern for Mike Modugno, then Voice of the K-Wings, “I would do in-game hosting, public address, whatever work I could get with them,” he said. “With Western I would do my radio and broadcast duties.
“I was an unpaid intern working the K-Wings and the Junior K-Wings and then got paid a couple bucks over at Western. I was grinding.
“That was a couple of the craziest years of my life,” he said.
Roberts credits Modugno with his hockey opportunity.
“I’m so grateful he provided me with that opportunity to broadcast for the Junior K-Wings because all of a sudden I had this opportunity to call 30, 40, 50 hockey games a year.
“Without getting that opportunity from him, I wouldn’t have been able to call hockey games. Without him taking a chance on me being an intern as a 19-year-old at Western Michigan and then giving me the chance to call games for the Junior K-Wings as a 20-year-old, that was so important for me.”
After graduating from WMU, Roberts’ day started at 6 a.m. waiting tables at Burdick’s For Breakfast at the Radisson.
From there, he would go to work at Midwest Communications, then work at either Western or as an intern for the K-Wings.
“I spent about a year still working for Western doing commercial radio for the women’s basketball team and filling in on their pay-per-view internet stream for volleyball, baseball, softball, whenever they’d call me in to do something for them.”
Three years as the Voice
In his third year with the K-Wings, he is more than “Roberts on the Mic,” his Twitter handle.
“I handle all of the play-by-play duties for all of the 72 home and away games, playoffs,” he said. “I also handle a lot of our day-to-day social media: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, stuff like that. All written distribution comes from me.”
Toni Daniels, K-Wings governor and business operations director, said Roberts brings unbridled passion and incredible energy to the job.
“What’s unique about Joe is the fact that he works really hard,” she said “And in this business, it’s just not easy. He travels with the team, so you’re talking 72 games in a season.
“You have to be a workhorse and you can’t really do that if you don’t care and you’re not passionate about it. To see someone at this point in his career to be able to work with such vigor and passion is pretty inspiring.”
Roberts is also the organization’s historian.
“He’s in charge of our history and with 44 years of our history with the Kalamazoo Wings, he’s in charge of archiving that history,” Daniels said. “As we look toward the 45th anniversary, he has more projects in store that I can’t unveil yet.
“But he will be working on them to make sure our history is respected and that we can really utilize that as we move into years 45 through 50.”
One of the perks of being historian is discovering tidbits he did not know.
“You get these cool little Easter eggs about guys who played here and you’re like, whoa, whoa, whoa, Jamie Langenbrunner, the captain of Team USA in the Olympics when I was growing up played for the Kalamazoo Wings?
“You find out all these things that just leave you floored and then to pass on that knowledge to other people is so cool.”
Beer league d-man
As a defenseman in his Tuesday night men’s beer league, Roberts might be the perfect backup for Coach Nick Bootland when the roster thins.
“I’ve begged (Bootland) before, I’ve told him before but unfortunately my sales pitch did not convince him.
“If anyone out there is looking for a guy who takes bad penalties and has costly turnovers, I know a guy,” he laughed.
“We do kind of joke about it all the time, both myself and equipment manager Brent Overkamp.”
If he actually did get the chance, Roberts admits it could be intimidating, even during a practice.
“These (players) are so unbelievable,” he said. “When you go to the ice and you stand on the bench and you watch them make plays, how congested the offensive zone is with 10 bodies in there, I get anxiety watching it and I played my whole life.
“I don’t even know how I could make a play.”
Roberts does not make the plays, but he has no problem calling the plays — most of the time.
“We were in Cincinnati two weeks ago,” he said. “It was a Sunday and they won that game in overtime. They were wearing Chase jerseys from PAW Patrol which is a Nickelodeon show and the numbers I could not see.
“They scored in overtime and I did not know who scored the goal in overtime. So some nights are tougher than others.”
Most of the time, once the season is underway, calling games is much easier.
“In this league, you see the same teams so many times that you get them right away,” he said.
“For example, we played Toledo last year in a seven-game series in the playoffs and I don’t think I looked down at the roster once,” he said.
“By the time we got to the end of the series, I could identify Toledo by the same traits I use to identify our team: their size, what hand do they shoot with, what color tape do they have, the way they skate.”
Road trip foodie
One of the hardest parts of the job is those long road trips, like the 13-day western swing earlier this season.
“That is one of the most unique elements of the job because not only is it one of my favorite parts, it’s one of my least favorite parts because it takes me away from home, from my fiancée Jessica Cook and Otis, my English Mastiff mix,” he said.
“Being away from family is really, really hard a lot of the time, but I love to go to new places and eat things and drink things and meet new people. It’s fun. But I had to do laundry on that trip. I couldn’t believe it. It was so inconvenient. I guess we’re spoiled with the little day trips.”
Roberts said team camaraderie makes those road trips much easier.
“What it boils down to is that we like each other,” he said. “We go out, we sit down to dinner and we laugh and we talk about hockey and we talk about nothing and we talk about wives and girlfriends and prospective girlfriends for the single ones.
“It’s just fun.”
Bootland said Roberts makes road trips, especially dinners, more interesting.
“He’s a bit of a foodie,” Bootland said. “He likes to try new restaurants and he has a knack for knowing what’s actually in food which makes dinner more interesting.
“He’s also like the organizational guru of the English language. I try to stump him but I can’t do it. He can have a conversation about anything and everything and he has an opinion about anything and everything and sounds like he actually know what he’s talking about.”
One thing he knows for sure is his daily game-day routine.
Before he takes his place in the booth next to the press box, Roberts has watched the morning skate looking for tidbits for social media, worked on compiling game notes and bio information, worked on spot charts, filled out his stat book and compiled the game-day content for media and scouts.
Bootland said Roberts “has improved from his first weeks with the K-Wings (three years ago) and is extremely innovative with social media. He has a genuine care for the team and to see it succeed on and off the ice.”
“Joe is very well-respected in the league,” she said. “In fact, last season he was nominated amongst his peers as one of the best broadcasters.
“While he didn’t win the overall league award last year, I anticipate that he will be in the running again this year, which is pretty amazing considering he was two seasons in and each year he’s honing his craft to become better and better.”
She could not resist adding with a smile: “He has a great sense of humor. It’s fun to watch him grow and learn. He is young. He’s got a lot to learn and I always remind him of that.”