Emrick on less fighting: With 90 percent of the players in visors, it’s hard to find something to hit
NBC’s NHL voice Mike Emrick reminds many of the incomparable Vin Scully. Yes, if Scully was baseball, Emrick is hockey. And neither man is ever lost for the right word, on-air or off. Several years ago, thebiglead.com counted 153 separate verbs that Emrick used to describe the movement of the puck. Indeed, very Scully like!
This said, Mike Emrick is more Dick Enberg; the late play-by-play voice whose heartfelt calls were sprinkled with syrupy similes. It wouldn’t surprise most viewers to hear Emrick draw an Enberg like parallel, “Winning a championship is like falling in love for the first time.” Scully was silver-tongued but not gushy.
For 67 years on Dodgers’ broadcasts and elsewhere, Scully’s commas and apt exclamation points sufficed.
They punctuated big moments simply and magically. Outplayed in an NLDS series by the Cardinals in 2014, Scully said something like, “The Dodgers will tiptoe their way home.” There was no need to elaborate. Conclusions were left for the audience.
Even at the pinnacle of the Dodgers’ success in Brooklyn, Scully avoided getting sentimental, “The Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.” That was it. He later told interviewers, “If I would have said any more, I would have broken down and cried.”
More like Enberg, Mike’s tinged delivery heartily amplifies achievement and pandemonium.
Both Midwesterners, Enberg and Emrick earned PhDs and taught school before broadcasting games fulltime. Two wordsmiths, Enberg described Dolphins’ coach Don Shula as “lantern-jawed” and Emrick referenced the roof of Madison Square Garden as “fan shaped.” Professorial yet magnetizing, Emrick appeals and Enberg appealed to both the upscale and the blue collar.
But hockey takes sharp and risky turns in rapid succession. It isn’t tennis. At a verbal mile a minute, Mike Emrick is Dick Enberg on steroids.
Emrick’s love for hockey was spawned by an irrepressible boyish love. It took root when he attended his first minor league game more than 57 years ago. Still, the connection is curious. Swinging fists on the ice and eloquent narrations in the booth.
After broadcasting in the minors, Emrick did work for the Philadelphia Flyers, backed up on New York Rangers radio and had a 21 year stint with the New Jersey Devils. Emrick told SI several years ago that he owns three Stanley Cup rings from his years with the Devils. Doc wears the 2003 ring and of the other two, one went to his brother and the other to a nephew.
Emrick has called professional hockey for 40 years, 33 of those in the NHL. The Indiana native has been behind the mike for 18 straight Stanley Cup finals. He is the NHL’s most famous broadcaster ever. Talk with announcers around the league and they speak of him admiringly, whether veteran announcers or the relative newcomers.
Ten years ago, Emrick was honored with Hockey Hall of Fame’s coveted Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to hockey broadcasting. He has since won five play-by-play Emmys in his star-studded announcing career.
Emrick earned his doctorate from Bowling Green State in radio-television-film in 1976.
He opened up about his career, the state of the NHL and his future in our in-depth Q&A.
Why hockey? Were you a huge hockey fan growing up?
I had seen some games on snowy black and white TV in the 50s in rural Indiana (the closest station was 45 miles away in Fort Wayne). But when I saw my first game (12-10-60, Muskegon vs Fort Wayne) I was hooked! I wanted to see and learn everything about the sport at that point. To see guys of normal size, not overly large like football and basketball players, and not wearing any special head protection going at that speed, colliding with fences, and even fighting - not like Dick the Bruiser and Crusher Lazowski against the Shire Brothers on All-Star Wrestling - but really fighting. That was wild.
Who was the first hockey announcer you heard before you started broadcasting yourself?
Bob Chase in Fort Wayne. He was really the only one I heard because we were pretty far removed from the Original Six broadcasters. We did not get regular NHL telecasts, but the 50,000 watt station in Fort Wayne (WOWO Radio) came booming in day and night, and was always on in the morning and at night when I wanted to hear the Komets hockey games. Bob used English very well and he was a Komets fan on the air. I don’t think the Komets lost too many fights. The score he couldn’t color for us, but the fights he might have at times.
Your roots are minor league hockey and you still revisit it, including going back to call a game. Why?
Many of the players who fill out NHL rosters come from the development leagues. I believe the AHL had a statistic that over 90 percent of NHL players had played in that league. The pro leagues now – AHL, ECHL Southern Pro League and Federal Hockey League - are always proud when their players move up, although those last two leagues don’t get many guys to the NHL. I spent seven years in the minors (4 in the IHL, 3 in the AHL) and I wouldn’t have nearly the stories as if my entire life had been in the NHL.
Half of your life in the minors is on the bus. It’s not only where the professional player assesses his hockey life on almost a daily basis, so does the broadcaster. There were times we would be making the 14-hour bus run from Des Moines to Port Huron, Mich., after a blow-out loss, when I’d be wondering if there was anything in this for me. But, it was like Jeff Glass - a goalie with Chicago told me this winter when he was talking about playing in the KHL in Siberia and they had a 14-hour plane ride with a stop for re-fueling on a trip to Finland, - said, “The sun comes up each day and you are in hockey. So, if you just keep a good attitude, you enjoy it and maybe you get a better chance ahead.” This was on a day when he was going to play for the Blackhawks at United Center.
I love re-visiting minor league cities because it is nostalgia and you see how energized minor league players are about having the motivation to take the next step.
Growing up in the late 1950s and 60s, which other hockey play-by-play announcers impressed you and what did you learn from them?
Danny Gallivan (Montreal Canadiens and CBC). His vocabulary was outstanding and his love of weaving in humor and moving right through to the play-by-play without selling the humor, “Now Robinson through center to Napier, who will marry Pat Hughes’ sister in June.” I enjoyed being around Flyers announcer Gene Hart because he loved to laugh and enjoyed the job and preparation. I learned a lot on our frequent drives from Philadelphia to Long Island and New York City. We basically talked about the mechanics of calling a game, what was safe and what was “on top of it.”
You seem to get the occasional itch to do baseball? Why baseball, more so than football or basketball?
Not anymore. I like being around baseball and the Pirates allow me to come on during a pre-season game (usually St. Patrick’s Day) in Bradenton. Bob Costas invited me to work with him on one Pirates game vs Chicago in 2016. He promised me, “This will be set up for you to shine,” and it was. No announcer could give another a better gift than that. It was so wonderful, down to getting to call a rare Pirates win over the Cubs and the last three outs, that I have no thoughts of ever doing another one. On the way back to the hotel afterward, I thought, ‘How do guys ever do 162 of these in a season?’ I had just done one and that was enough.
Basketball and football never interested me as much. I got to do an NCAA regional with George Raveling in 1993 in Albany, a Syracuse-Providence regular season game in Providence with Bill Raftery, and seven NFL telecasts on CBS (five with a newcomer named Matt Millen, and five with Hank Stram). All were fun, but all were a lot of work. Hockey has come very naturally to me. Those sports were a lot of work just to get up to speed on calling them, let alone getting down the preparation on a game. I had done both in college but not lately. When Rick Gentile at CBS gave me the opportunity, I was grateful, but it was also good when the time passed.
You tend to provide more of a descriptive stick-to-stick call than many television announcers do, calling hockey. It works. You’re loved by NHL fans. Still, why more ‘paint the picture’ than ‘capture it?’
It’s the way I have always done it. I try not to be too wordy, but it’s just the way I have always done it. I try not to use position — near boards, far boards – that can be seen, but when the puck cannot be seen, I’ll use around the net. I always admired Ray Scott, who would identify the ball carrier in football and then say nothing until the player had been tackled. Football is covered far differently and the ball carrier can be seen and, unless he laterals, there is never a transition. In hockey we have passing almost every second, which because of player identification requires a name. So, the flow is more words.
Based on your early bio, you also have the credentials of an academician. You earned your bachelors, your masters then your Ph.D. Therein ‘Doc.’ You did teaching. Did you enjoy the classroom and do you have any desire to teach again?
I sure did. But, to stay up and have something besides life experience to share, also requires intense study. At this phase, my only return to the classroom would be as a guest one-time speaker rather than teaching a course. I have been away from the technology of broadcasting for so long that it would require much time in preparation to be able to share with the students. So, in my opinion, my main value would be life experience. I could only flesh that out to one or two sessions.
You have many interests. How much longer do you want to do this?
As long as I enjoy it and am satisfied with my work. NBC has been very kind in allowing me to work on a series of Walter Alston contracts. So each year after the season, it’s a matter of talking with people I have grown to trust. I have no other interests. Certainly my wife and the dogs and I aren’t going to get on a lot of airplanes. We do hope to see Britain, Ireland, and Scotland sometime. But, we do some camping trips inside of our state of Michigan that are the highlight of our off-season.
Any suggestions on how hockey can grow its audience and fan base?
Its doing a lot of it now. In Vegas they have 500 coming to practices and cheering goals in scrimmages, sellouts as well. I don’t have any suggestions.
Carolina’s Chuck Kaiton and ESPN’s Steve Levy say they miss the more physical play. Do you?
Tough time for me to say it’s not physical because I am in the Washington-Pittsburgh series and its plenty physical. In terms of fighting it’s not. With 90 percent of the players in visors, it’s hard to find something to hit in a fight anymore, so fighting is probably never going to be illegal but just rare. A survey in SI found that almost 100 percent of the players did not want to ban fighting.
Many call you the Vin Scully of the NHL. How does it make you feel and what would you pick up from Vin?
I am flattered to be in any sentence that also includes Vin. He has the greatest grasp on uniting our country for three hours. Pull up a chair. It was never about what politics you were, where you were on the economic ladder, what race or religion or whether you had a cell or flip phone... it wasn’t about differences... it was about why we were all together right then. It was to watch (or listen to) a game. And so the job was to have everyone enjoy that game. It is a privilege. That’s what I learned most of all from Vin.