Griffins’ radio voices wear hearts on their sleeves

Photo: Mark Newman

📝 by Mark Newman | AHL On The Beat

Bob Kaser and Larry Figurski have been a team on Grand Rapids Griffins radio broadcasts for so long that they are practically joined at the hip.

But Kaser, the veteran radio play-by-play announcer, and Figurski, the local sports-anchor-turned-color-analyst, now have another connection that neither could have imagined when they started working together more than 20 years ago.

Both are heart attack survivors.

They have something else in common. They both want to remind people that what happened to them could happen to anyone. They believe men and women should have regular checkups to catch any potential problem before something serious could threaten their life.

It’s somewhat ironic, since both men wear their hearts on their sleeves. You can hear in their voices that they have the same passion for hockey, an incurable condition that they shared even before they became the Griffins’ primary broadcast team in 2000.

A Kalamazoo, Mich., native who grew up in Flint, Kaser marked a return to his home state when he joined the Griffins after 10 seasons as director of communications and broadcasting for the International Hockey League’s Kansas City Blades. He was already highly regarded, having twice been awarded the Bob Chase Award as IHL Broadcaster of the Year (1993-94 and 1997-98).

A metro Detroit native, Figurski is a graduate of Detroit Catholic Central High School, where he was in the same graduating class as Don McSween, the ex-NHL defenseman who served as captain during the Griffins’ inaugural IHL season (1996-97).

“I have been playing hockey since I was five years old,” Figurski said. “Like every other kid playing the sport, I wanted to play in the NHL. In my case, that obviously was never going to happen. So I dreamed about being the next Bruce Martyn [the legendary radio voice of the Red Wings for 31 seasons, from 1964-1995].”

Figurski came to WOOD-TV8 in 2000, and it was Randy Cleves, the Griffins’ senior director of public and community relations, who played matchmaker. Cleves, who had previously worked with Kaser in Kansas City, introduced Figurski to Kaser, who immediately saw the possibilities in a potential partnership with a fellow fanatic.

“I could tell right away that Larry was the right guy,” Kaser said. “It’s one thing to know the game, but it’s another to be able to articulate it and Larry does that so very well. Over my years in broadcasting, I have worked with some great people, including [part-time color commentator] Lou Rabaut in Grand Rapids, and Larry is exceptional. He is so professional and he is so prepared.”

Figurski, however, was not prepared for what happened on the night of July 7, 2008.

“I had worked a regular day and I was driving home after playing hockey,” he recalled. “On the way home I felt like I had a cramp right in the middle of my chest. Even so, I drove right past Metro Hospital. When I got home, my wife took one look and said, ‘We’re going to the hospital.’

“I was shocked when they said, ‘You’ve had a heart attack.’ I had this weird sensation from my fingertips to my shoulders, too, but I didn’t realize that’s what was happening to me.”

Figurski was being prepped for a cardiac catheterization when his condition suddenly changed. If he wasn’t sure that he was having a heart attack before, there was no doubt in the next moment.

“Wham – just like that – I had the proverbial ‘elephant on your chest’ feeling. I was gasping for air. I felt this huge weight and then saw the machines go and everyone came rushing to my side.”

He would later learn that he had an almost complete blockage of his left anterior descending artery, completely restricting blood flow to a large portion of his heart, including the front part, which is the ‘workhorse’ of the heart. The medical staff quickly sprung into action.

“They told me if I had walked into the hospital even a few minutes later, I would have been dead.”

Figurski was incredibly lucky to have survived. Kaser still remembers hearing about his radio partner’s heart episode for the first time.

Photo: Mark Newman

“I’ll never forget the day,” Kaser said. “I was driving back from Flint and I was so riveted by the conversation that I had to stop and pull over. This was my close friend and radio partner who almost died, so I pulled off the road into this park to continue the conversation.”

Kaser says he had no premonition or ominous feeling that this was some kind of foreshadowing of his future. “It was only a concern for a dear friend,” he said.

Nevertheless, a little more than 11 years later, Kaser would have his own story to tell.

Kaser looks like the picture of good health, but he admits that he had not felt right for a long, long time before he suffered a mild heart attack in December 2019.

Of course, medical conditions are not always evident and some circumstances can lead to outcomes that a person might not foresee.

Kaser said he felt like something has been off since his days in Kansas City when he was caring for his father, who had moved in before he passed away from lung disease. “Stress was getting the best of me and I had a bout with depression. I was eventually diagnosed with a gluten allergy. I just never felt normal.”

Kaser had spent a Saturday morning at Griff’s IceHouse that December, announcing the introduction of the teams at the start of the Griffins Youth Foundation hockey season. “When I was leaving the rink, I felt something in my chest, but I didn’t think much of it,” he said. “I went home and told my wife and we went to Metro Hospital where they put in a stent the next day.”

Kaser finished the 2019-20 season, which was ultimately cut short by the coronavirus. He admits that he began feeling “cruddy” again. He was in the protective bubble with the team at the time, preparing for the start of the new season. He decided to make a call to his cardiologist’s office.

Soon after he was in an ambulance on his way to the Meijer Heart Center. Surgery was planned for five days later because doctors wanted to ween blood thinners from his system, but his surgery was moved up a day when his heart showed signs of faltering.

Kaser had quintuple-bypass surgery, meaning all five of the major vessels to his heart were showing varying signs of concern. The doctor harvested blood vessels from his leg to be grafted onto his heart vessels, with the bloodstream being routed around (bypass) the blocked portions.

He spent eight hours in the operating room, and recovery took place over the next several months. And while Kaser still experiences some occasional fatigue, he says he feels like he has a new lease on life. “I do feel like a million dollars,” he said. “I forgot what it was like to feel good because it had been so long.”

Certainly, a heart attack is something that nobody ever wishes for, but health scares have a way of resetting people’s priorities. “I want to be around to see my boys getting married and having kids,” Kaser said. “I’m looking forward to becoming a grandfather, being a good husband to my wife, and hanging with friends. That stuff means so much more to me now than it ever did.”

He is thankful that Figurski was willing and able to do the play-by-play for the Griffins’ home broadcasts (both radio and TV) last season.

Figurski admits that he felt more than a little trepidation.

“I was nervous because I didn’t want to embarrass anybody,” he said. “Let’s be honest. I was following the best guy in the American Hockey League. I was taking over for a guy who belongs in the NHL and who has proven he can do it at the NHL level.

“Doing color and play-by-play are apples and oranges,” he continued. “They are not the same, not even close. As the play-by-play voice, Bob tells you what happened. As the color analyst, my job is to tell you why or how it happened because you can’t see it on the radio.

“I’ve certainly learned a lot listening to Bob, but I just tried to be me. Bob is Bob. You can’t replace Bob. So I tried to be myself.”

Kaser didn’t listen to and watch every game – he was trying to focus on his recovery – but he saw and heard enough to shower praise on his partner’s efforts.

“Over time, you could see that he became more and more confident in that chair,” Kaser said. “By the end, he was just having himself a ball – to the point where maybe he wishes I would go away,” he added with a laugh.

Figurski is content to resume his normal place in the broadcast booth. During the playoffs, he is usually between the benches, which is his favorite place to work because he is right in the middle of the action. Over the years, he’s dodged his share of sticks and flying pucks.

“It’s the buzz, the atmosphere, the excitement that you feel when you’re at ice level,” Figurski said. “It’s also how you can tell that Bob and I have really good chemistry, whether you like us or not.”

Both men approach the new season somewhat gingerly, not having worked together for the better part of 18 months.

“The last time I did color for a hockey game was the last time Bob did play-by-play, and that was pre-pandemic,” Figurski said. “We did the game on a Wednesday night [March 11, 2020] and the next day the AHL stopped the season. But we’ve worked together so long, I’m sure the chemistry will come back. I’m banking on the fact that 20 years together will make it easier.”

“I am so happy just to be alive and on the mend,” Kaser said. “Heading into the new season, I’m as excited as can be.”

They know they might be a little rusty, but that’s OK because it happens at the beginning of every season. And no matter how long it takes them to find their chemistry again, you can be sure of one thing. They will put their hearts into everything.