(Editor’s Note: Re-posting this piece from November 2008 felt appropriate today. Note that this was written as he was entering the Hockey Hall of Fame.)
My hockey watching dates back to about 1995. Just after the New Jersey Devils had won their first Stanley Cup, my father had purchased (do you still have to purchase MSG Plus separately, dad?) what was then called SportsChannel. I’d like to say that my first remembered Devils game was against the Leafs, because that was definitely the first one I watched. But the first one I actually have a pictured memory in my brain of? It was a January 1996 game between New Jersey and the Islanders. It was hockey, so it was good. Oh, and this happened:
If you listen closely, you can slowly hear a 6-year old boy from North Jersey getting hooked on the sport. Doc was there from the start. He called every hockey game that existed to me. I wasn’t a big ESPN-fan, except for SportsCenter and the weekend morning reruns of NHL 2Night, and Doc called the Devils and he called FOX, and that was about all I knew.
I’m pretty sure the first time I ever met Mike Emrick was when I was 12. I say this because I was wearing my Little League team’s town championship jacket, which I had won over the Summer (Also, the days where I was any good at playing sports were close to their end) and I believe, in keeping with my team’s black and gold theme, it was a game against the Penguins. We were sitting in the upper deck, and someone must’ve noticed that Doc and partner Glenn “Chico” Resch were easily accessible to fans from the seats, so we went over.
There was a crowd, as there always was anytime I ventured to the broadcast booth. Not just folks looking to badger the Devils first local star, and television analyst who could regale you with stories for hours and not get tired. They wanted to talk to the play-by-play man too. I always thought if my career as a starting NHL goaltender in the winter, and Major League 3rd Baseman in the Summer didn’t work out, I would want to call hockey games. I had done play-by-play whenever my friends played video games, or played street hockey, and used “Doc-isms” (pitchforked to center, feathers a little pass thru, etc.) throughout.
So I went up to Doc, and was likely scared out of my mind. Of course, he was a gentleman, as he’s always been whenever I’ve met him. He happened to take a look at my jacket, and spent a minute or two talking about it and talking baseball. As friendly and engaged a man as you’ll ever meet. I’ll have another story about Doc in a little bit, but let’s move on in your heroic writer’s hockey story. For now, check out this awesome call of an OT game in Philly:
The clip really emphasizes the two things that make Emrick and Resch work. Emrick’s mastery of the english language even in the tensest, craziest moments of a game, mixed with both his and Chico’s passion, love, and just plain amusement for how much fun this sport can be.
By the year 2002 or so, I started to keep track of when Doc was calling games and when I could see him. As he was usually on the C-team for ABC, I always made it a point to watch his calls with Barry Melrose or Brian Engblom. By the time the lockout rolled around, I had sort of reached a crossroads in my hockey fandom, that I bet some other young people had too. Either follow the lockout and come back to the sport more diehard than ever, or just ignore it, and maybe never come back.
I chose the latter, and went about a year without hearing Doc, or any of my favorite announcers call a game. His voice got me to watch the National Lacrosse League All-Star Game and Championships, and even the Summer Olympic Water Polo tournament in 2004. By the time hockey returned, I had followed the lockout so deeply, that getting the sport back meant I had to have my full investment. That it did, and it certainly helped that Doc would be calling games for both NBC and OLN, meaning about 25 extra Emrick games a year, plus the 2006 Torino Olympics. Oh, and he was reunited with John Davidson, where they called one of the best Stanley Cup Finals of the decade.
Again, it shows off Emrick’s greatness. His ability to work with the best analyst in hockey, his ability to follow the game, and at the end, he shows off that next gear that so few play-by-play men have. Jim Hughson and Chris Cuthbert don’t quite have his passion level. Gary Thorne doesn’t come close on a vocabulary test. Joe Beninati is getting there, but can over-do at times. There simply aren’t many with the man’s gift. The fact that he hasn’t won the Foster Hewitt Award ’till now is baffling.
I last met Doc once more in February. It was after a Devils-Ducks game in Newark. Now, if you’ve been to the arena, you know that the announcers are much less accessible to the common fan. They’re barred off by the barriers of the Fire Lounge at Prudential Center. But anyway, a friend and I waited at those barriers for Doc and Chico to come over. Chico came first, and he was his usual friendly, chatty self. I embarrassingly asked him to get Doc to come over (which I apologized and thanked Chico for the next night, by the way!) and he obliged.
I’ve long since decided that I want to call hockey games for a living. I’m studying in communication arts at college, and I know I’d take any job in sports, but hockey would be the realization of an amazing dream that’s lasted since age six. I decided I’d take a risk and tell Doc all this, and maybe, if he had the time I could pick his brain. I did, and he seemed genuinely interested as always. Then, he put down his suitcase and took something out of it.
“The problem is” I recall him saying “was that when I was your age and wanting to do this, there weren’t too many people willing to talk about it”. He saw his chance to pay it forward my way, and took out a copy of the sheet of notes he prepares for every game. I wish I could scan it onto the computer so you all could see it. In about 16 square boxes on double-sided paper, he keeps basic, read-able stats on both the two teams playing that night and the league, so they can fill two-and-a-half hours of airtime. All that, plus a few basic storylines he and Chico could go over at some point during the game. They don’t always get to everything, but it’s good to have the extra material.
Emrick is the greatest American hockey announcer ever. There are more good ones than fans will give credit for, but his excitement and love for the game, which oozes out the screen and into your living room, combined with his almost strange, in-depth knowledge of the English language, make him someone any hockey fan would wanna’ learn from. Thank goodness I live so close to his main employers.
So, if you ever get a chance to read this, congratulations Doc. My hockey watching, loving, and eventual hope to be covering (if that makes sense grammatically, probably not) it are inspired and always affected by what you’ve done. Congratulations on your award and induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame. And for readers who will come to this blog throughout his existence, you no longer need to know what I think of him! Here’s one last clip that, while before I became a fan, is definitely one I’ve heard more than others.