Always there was the voice, to begin with. It came out of your radio like winter itself, the voice of a particular season and a particular city and a particular joy, a voice that slapped you on the back and grinned and said, heck, yes, it's cold out there, buddy. But ain't we havin' fun?
Bob Chase was the scrape of blades on ice and clear icebox nights and the paused silence of a January wood, everything slumbering toward spring beneath a comforter of snow. He was as cyclical, and as eternal, as the seasons themselves. There was spring and there was summer and then here was Chase and Komet Hockey, comin' at you again from the mighty 50,000 watts of WOWO.
Turn on your radio now, and hear it still:
Aaaand here comes Terry McDougal, raggin' the puck into the zone ...
In comes Cressman, look, shoot, SCORE! ...
He's tryin' to get around Labelle, he gets around him ... SCORE!
On and on. One decade and then two and then six, 63 winters in all, so many winters that after awhile it seemed impossible to conceive he wouldn't go on forever. Because what was that season and this city without Bob Chase -- who was, in the end, sadly mortal after all?
He passed Thanksgiving morning at the full and noble age of 90, and we will never see his like again. His very longevity, and those booming 50,000 watts, took him beyond this one small place, took him beyond all those road trips to hockey hinterlands like Flint and Port Huron and Toledo.
A newspaper columnist in Georgia, the late, great Lewis Grizzard, heard Chase's voice coming out of his car radio one night and wrote about it. Listeners as far south as North Carolina knew Fort Wayne because of Komets-with-a-K and a man named Bob Chase. And on one of those clear icebox nights, in Vermont, I turned on my own car radio and Chase's voice barreled out of it, some strange eddy in the atmosphere carrying it across hundreds of miles and the low hump of the Green Mountains as if I were home in the Fort.
By then, of course, Chase was more than just a voice to me. He was a friend and a colleague and, if everyone in hockey knew him, you never would have guessed it. He was still the same rawboned kid from the Upper Peninsula who came to Fort Wayne in the early '50s, with a booming laugh and a vitality that made those of us decades younger shake our heads in wonder and envy.
"I hope I have that kind of energy when I'm Bob's age," I used to tell people, as Bob went scooting off at his usual brisk pace.
In his later years, belatedly, honors came to him. The NHL gave him the Lester Patrick Award for service to hockey, an extraordinary gesture for a man who'd spent his career, willingly, in the minor leagues. It was a nod not only to his longevity, but to his loyalty to his city -- and to the fact that, because of that loyalty, his fame had grown well beyond that city. Everyone, it seemed, knew Bob Chase.
There was a night, for instance, years ago, in a hotel bar in Gettysburg, Pa. I was in town to feed my Civil War nerd, an occasionally annoying creature that demands constant feeding. A few locals drifted in, and after awhile one of them, an elderly lady, asked where I was from.
"Fort Wayne, Indiana," I said.
Immediately she brightened.
"Fort Wayne! WOWO! Komet hockey! Bob Chase!" she cried.
I told her then that I knew Bob, and she brightened again, and then she veered off into this story about how, as a young girl, she danced barefoot in the moonlight on a West Virginia road to music from WOWO. The story didn't have anything to do with Komet hockey or Bob Chase, but there was a vitality to it, a joy, that I recognized.
And then one night, years later, I was making my way back to the pressbox to write after a Komets postgame presser. It was a playoff game, if I remember, and the Komets had won with a late goal. And now here came Chase the other way, grinning broadly.
"Heeey," he said. "That was something, eh?"
And off he went, a man in his 80s by then, practically skipping. And I imagine somewhere today he is skipping still.
Oh, hell. I know he is.