A week and a half ago, without much attention or notice, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost an invaluable member of their family. You knew his voice and you know his work, you just don't realize it. That man was Ray Walker, Executive Producer of the Penguins Radio Network.
Ray's excellent obituary, from Jason Mackey, can be read here. It will give you so many details about the impact Ray Walker had on the Penguins and their community. A full time employee of the team since 1999, Ray was the man responsible for Pens Radio 24/7 and the entire Penguins Radio Network.
Every time you heard a male voice tell you about tonight's Pens Points code word, a male voice introduce Mark Madden or Brian Metzer, a male voice fill in the gaps between commercial and game play, that was Ray Walker. You may have even heard him at Pitt Panthers games as their voice over man.
Ray was, however, far more than a voice. Ray was far more than the man Mike Lange would credit during broadcasts for keeping them on air. Ray was, more importantly, a friend.
Five years ago I first spoke to Ray Walker. It was via a phone call that I stepped out of class to take. He wanted to know why I, someone with management experience in radio, wanted to take an unpaid internship far from my home and school in Charleston, South Carolina. I couldn't tell you what I said because of nerves, but I can tell you that I could hear his smile on the other side of the phone as he said that reply, with the passion it had, was exactly what he wanted to hear and to plan to see him in a month.
As I moved my life from Charleston to Pittsburgh for a year I already felt in good hands. Radio and television can be a rough, terrible business for the self confidence and mind was beaten and bloodied. I had been let go from two different stations for various reasons, some dubious and some not so much. I was doubting myself more than ever and didn't know if it was right for me.
Ray Walker changed all of that.
Over the next nine months he would trust me with things other interns wouldn't have the liberty of trying or doing. He could tell early on, with my resume and personality, that this was where I was meant to be. After a particular quip to Brian Metzer one day in studio he simply laughed and said, "Right there, Nick. That's how I know you have 'it.'"
My internship was largely studio based, but that was fine. It kept me around Ray and let me get to know him more and more. It let me know the man with no ego, no pretension, just a man of passion and a desire for a great product and success. A man who cared about you, something so rare these days in this industry.
After my internship ended I would keep in touch with Ray. He would help me out professionally, landing me an interview with the Steelers and adding considerable credibility to my references list. Above all, however, he remained a friend.
My last time in town was for Game 2 of the Cup Final. It was a spur of the moment trip where I'd later propose to my fiancé and see the Pens win in overtime. I reached out to Ray to see if he'd be at Consol and that's when he'd told me he was on sick leave undergoing chemo. It broke my heart.
Five years before he'd told me about his health issues and battles with Crohn's Disease. I didn't know how many he'd entrusted the info to, but it didn't seem like a wide net that he'd ever cast. I had hoped that his body wasn't too tired from fighting and that he'd over come it.
He ended his text during that visit with "Hope all is well. All is fine here...aside from this." Our next communication was after Game 6. Five years before he'd presented us all with his 2009 Cup Ring. We all got the chance to hold it, wear it. My text said "Congrats Ray. Keep fighting. I want to see the next ring." It was read but never replied to.
When I was informed of Ray's passing it wasn't a shock. He was generally prompt to reply and I'd tried to tell myself he was swamped with messages or was so busy celebrating but part of me suspected the worst. I may not by shocked, but I'm still saddened deeply, greatly.
Ray Walker was a wonderful man. Anyone that knew him will tell you that. In an industry that can harden anyone, he stayed as genuine and original as one person can be. He was there to help and he helped me in ways he will never know, despite the many times I've tried to tell him.
Every year that passes I realize more the impact Ray Walker had on me. I wish more people knew the impact he had on them. The Penguins Radio Network, no matter the replacement, will never quite be the same. That's when everyone else will know the impact. I'm just sad more weren't able to know who he truly was. Because I'll never, ever forget.