Among best announcers, Emrick still rises above - NBC Sports

Among best announcers, Emrick still rises above
Costas, Michaels, praise hockey's greatest voice
Charles Sykes/NBC
Even the best announcers admit: Doc Emrick is a step above the rest.
May 19, 2013, 3:05 pm

The voice of hockey grew up in a town called LaFontaine. That sounds perfect, doesn't it? LaFontaine! Could a city name sound more like hockey? LaFontaine! It isn't just the name of a Hall of Famer, the great Pat LaFontaine, it is French, with just the right number of syllables, ideal for the sport. LaFontaine! Say it loud and you can almost hear the puck clank off the pipe, almost see the mad rush for the rebound, almost feel the chill of the ice and the force of players crashing into the boards. LaFontaine!

"Only I should say," Mike Emrick is now saying, "we all pronounced it La Fountain."

Um . no . what?

"Yeah," Doc says. "La Fountain. That's what we called it in Indiana."

* * *

There are great announcers all over sports. No one on earth does basketball like Marv Albert with those phrases that are now simply a part of the game (Yes! He's on fire! From way downtown! Not exactly what he had in mind!) but for the way his resounding voice sings the city tune of the game. He's like a singer, Marv is. And football . how could anyone ever do football better than Al Michaels, that staccato voice, in perfect rhythm, always in control, every word immaculately pronounced, always one step ahead. Then there's Vin Scully doing baseball, timeless, wonderful each word perfectly chosen, each inning like a summer song you want to last a little longer.

But, if you ask them there's a pretty good chance they'll tell you the same thing.

Michael Emrick, who everyone calls Doc, is the best of them all.

"I have never heard a more technically perfect announcer in any sport," says Michaels, who you might recall had a pretty famous hockey call himself. "I marvel at Doc, I really do. . I remember when I went to Vancouver, I think it was (the New York Times') Richard Sandomir asked me: `Don't you want to do hockey?' I said, `Are you kidding? I want to listen to Doc Emrick, just like every other hockey fan. I couldn't do hockey one-fiftieth as well as Emrick."

"He's as good as anybody in keeping up with the action," Bob Costas says. "He's accurate and quick - he's always equal to the pace of the game. . But what separates him, the thing he can do that you generally don't get from any other hockey announcer, even the best, is he can tell stories or relate an anecdote WHILE the action is going on. The other things he does better by degree. But the last thing, no one else does at all."

Only - it is not chaos when Doc Emrick is calling the game. No, he somehow slows the game down. He somehow makes sense of the mandness. When you see it through his eyes, follow it with his voice, even if you know almost nothing about hockey you find yourself in tempo with the game.

At first his voice is low and easy (taken away by Duncan Keith, he feathers a pass to Jonathan Toews) and then you hear it building a little, gaining some gravity (Toews gains the zone, being harassed by Niklas Kronwall, he pushed it behind the net) and building some more (Brandon Saad back there wins the puck away and centers) until, at last, it lifts to a crescendo (the SHOHHHT by Marian Hossa and SAAAAAVE by Jimmy Howard!) and then the voice settles and it all begins again.

"I can tell you from doing all the sports," Al Michaels says, "that hockey is by far the toughest. And Doc . he's the best."

* * *

LaFontaine, pronounced La Fountain, is a small town in Northern Indiana. It is 164 miles from Chicago and 211 miles to Detroit, if you are wondering the closest NHL city. It did not matter, really. Young Mike Emrick never thought about the NHL. Those teams might as well have been playing on Mars.

His was an existence right out of the movie Hoosiers. Two grain elevators dominated the skyline in LaFontaine - if not for them you might have been able to see one county welcome sign from the other one. Mike's father, Chuck, was a band director turned school principal. His mother, Florence, taught home economics. When Mike was young, the family moved out to a four-acre farm with goats and sheep and dogs and cats - none of them working, all of them just part of the family because Florence could never say no to an animal in need. In addition to teaching, Chuck had a music store in nearby Wabash, and Mike worked there.

Hockey? What was hockey in LaFontaine? Mike's dream was the same as just about every other boy in LaFontaine, to be a baseball player, and when that became unrealistic, to be a baseball announcer. He scanned the radio dial after dark, and he grew to love Pittsburgh's Bob Prince (so much so he is still a rabid Pirates fan) and an old Cubs announcer named Jack Quinlan. "He was wonderful, wasn't he?" Doc asks of Quinlan. He always remembers one particular Quinlan call, when the Cubs were playing St. Louis and the Cardinals were threatening in the ninth inning. "Here comes Stan Musial," Quinlan said in Emrick's memory, "and the Cubs outfielders are playing him in the street."

So, yes, maybe he was always infatuated with the power of words, how they sounded, how they conveyed the moment. But hockey? No. He vaguely remembers catching a game on television - his memory is of seeing a hockey player wearing glasses, and that was soon-to-be legendary coach Al Arbour - and he remembers occasionally asking his father if they could go see a game.

In 1960, when Mike was 13, he finally convinced his father to take him to a hockey game. Well, Chuck decided to take all the employees of the music store. Doc remembers it perfectly. Before the game, they all went to Colonel Sanders' restaurant - not a Kentucky Fried Chicken, but an actual Colonel Sanders restaurant - and then they want to the Muskegon-Fort Wayne game.

"My life was forever changed," Doc says.

"So, wait, you're saying you saw one hockey game and you fell in love with the sport?" I ask.

He looks away as if he's considering the question. After a few seconds he says, "That's exactly what happened."

* * *

Bob Costas tells a great story about the first hockey game he ever announced. He was a student at Syracuse then, and the Syracuse Blazers were playing the Johnstown Jets. The Jets would later gain a small amount of fame as the team that inspired the Charleston Chiefs in the movie "Slapshot."

Moments before the game began, Costas learned that the Jets owner had decided to buy his team entirely new uniforms. All the numbers that Costas had so carefully memorized were now useless. "I'm totally screwed," Costas would say, and in desperation he recognized No. 2. When he tells the story, he does not remember the actual name of the player . so for the sake of a good story he calls the guy "Francois Limet," which is actually close to the name of golfer Francis Ouimet, who won the 1913 U.S. Open. He really just remembers the guy had a great French-sounding hockey name. Maybe it was LaFontaine.

Anyway, facing a worthless program and a bunch of players with the wrong numbers on his back, Costas made a decision: Francois Limet didn't know it, but he was about to play the game of his life.

"I had the guy passing to himself," Costas said. "I had him assisting on his own goals. The final score that day was something like 4-2, and I had Francois Limet score seven goals."

Obviously, this was just the story of a young person in an overmatched moment, we all have them, and Costas went on to be a good hockey announcer when he did St. Louis Blues game in the 1970s. But the point is hockey is like that. The sport constantly threatens to leave announcers behind. It constantly demands a sort of verbal dexterity that most people lack; it is like reading tongue twisters over and over. "I always like the challenge of doing hockey," Marv Albert told me - he was a magnificent hockey announcer too, it is Marv who really the coined "kick save and a beauty" phrase. "It's a sport where you have to be locked in."

This seems to be what other announcers admire most about Emrick. He stays locked in. He never falls behind. He never jumps ahead. That's not to say he doesn't make mistakes - "I haven't called a perfect one yet," he says - but to say that no matter if the pace is fast or slow, no matter how important or insignificant the game, no matter what the quality of play, he brings the same energy and eye for detail and perfection streak. He calls every game as if he believes he's lucky to just have a free pass.

This is largely because, of course, he does believe exactly that.

* * *

Mike Emrick has a Ph.D in Communications from Bowling Green, which is why everyone calls him Doc. Well, it's not exactly WHY everyone calls him Doc . it's just a good excuse. He looks like a doctor. He sounds like a doctor. And the years he has spent studying the craft of hockey announcing, well, Doc is really the only nickname that fits anyway.

He got the doctorate from Bowling Green in the mid-1970s largely because the school offered him a chance to call the second period of actual games. Hockey possessed him by then. When he was in college, he would sit in an empty corner of the stands in Fort Wayne and call Komets games into a reel-to-reel tape he had bought at his father's music store. He sent those tapes to every hockey producer in North America, and he says he got many, many very nice letters - letters he still keeps in a three-ring binder at home to remind him of the kindness of people. Obviously the bottom line of each and every letter was "No," but Doc being Doc he was fascinated at the friendly ways people could say no.

Then, when he was teaching speech at Geneva College in Pennsylvania, Emrick called the sports editor of the Beaver County Times and made an offer: He would cover Pittsburgh Penguins games for free if they would get him a pass. He did that for two years.

And then . it was to Bowling Green to teach and study and do second period play-by-play for Bowling Green hockey on the radio. All the while, Doc Emrick studied the sport from the inside out. When he first fell for the sport, he had been most fascinated by the villains - those minor-league enforcers who would fight on a nightly basis. "I couldn't tell you the top scorers on each team," he said. "But I knew the heels." His favorite was Connie Madigan, who had started in Fort Wayne and who, after some years, threatened the all-time penalty minute record*.

*He did not get it - but he did get a part in "Slap Shot" as Mad Dog Madson and he was the oldest rookie in NHL history.

But after watching hundreds and hundreds of hockey games, minor league and NHL, he began to feel a deeper understanding for the sport, the way the game moved, the patterns that repeated, the improvisational moves and passes that sometime lifted the game into art. Doc loved jazz, and that's what he saw on the ice. Jazz. After calling Bowling Green games - the first hockey he was ever paid to do - he sent out his first set of real announcing tapes. He sent out a lot of them. Finally, one day, John Wismer - brother of original New York Jets owner Harry Wismer and, himself, owner of the Port Huron (Michigan) Flags of the International Hockey League.

"What's this going to cost me?" Wismer asked Emrick when they met.

"Um, well, um," Emrick said. He had no idea how much to ask for. "It will cost you $160 a week."

"Done," Wismer said - Emrick had bid way too low. But what did it matter? He was, finally and completely, a hockey announcer. He would soon be taking 16-hour bus rides across the International League and saying words like "Kalamazoo." He loved every minute of it.

* * *

You will ask how many different ways a hockey player can move a puck along the ice. Well, he can pass the puck, of course. He can dump the puck into the zone. He can shoot the puck. He can . um . you know . slap at the puck.

Then, you watch the master.

"He feathers the puck to Patrick Sharp," Doc Emrick says on television. Ah, yes, you can feather the puck. Then, Emrick proves, you can also paddle the puck, rattle it, elevate it, lob it, shovel it, finesse it, cover it, glove it, float it, stash it off, hold it, settle it down, ladle it, cradle it . this is all just from one hockey game, understand. Maybe Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, maybe they don't, but Doc certainly has dozens for every single action in hockey.

"I learned from an old announcer named Lyle Stieg," Doc says. "that you will drive people crazy if you use the same word over and over." It's good advice, but what makes Emrick so good is not that he uses DIFFERENT words when describing the action, but that he always seems to use the RIGHT word.

Al Michaels often talks about the danger of using words that don't fit in the action. Those words, like lyrics that that don't quite fit the music, take the viewer out of the moment. Somehow, Emrick - using a seemingly boundless bounty of different words and phrases and expressions - never does pull the viewer out of the moment. He never uses a verb that seems out of place. He never, in the words of Costas, gets in the way.

Well "Somehow" is not the right way to describe how Emrick does it, like it's a mystery. That would be like saying SOMEHOW Wynton Marsalis plays the right notes or that SOMEHOW the brilliant juggler Michael Moschen doesn't drop balls. Emrick has spent countless hours perfecting his craft. He takes meticulous notes. He watches the game actively, always looking around to see where the action is likely to lead. And he has spent his life listening carefully for anything he might learn about the sport, about the profession, about the language, about his own voice. From his parents, back in Indiana, he learned to love precision in language and pronunciation (Emrick has been a longtime editor of the NHL pronunciation guide). From hockey players and announcers through the years, he learned about timing and feel, how to anticipate a goal or a great save or a fight, even something as simple as when to begin a story ("In hockey, it's always a roll of the dice," he says).

And he says that perhaps he learned the biggest lesson from legendary speech coach Lilyan Wilder, who worked with Opah and George H. W. Bush and Charlie Rose and countless others. Emrick actually recorded their sessions - he still has those tapes too - and he says that he learned too many things from here to recount, but one stands out. He gave her a tape of him calling a hockey game. She listened to it and then said: "Well, you got it all in didn't you?"

And then she said this: "The human ear can hear everything. But the human mind can only take in so many words."

"That was such wonderful advice," Doc says. And, when he says this, there is something about Emrick's announcing that suddenly made more sense. The next time you listen to Doc Emrick, try to pick up how fast he talks. He's a hockey announcer following the fastest sport. He must talk blazingly fast .

Only he doesn't. Oh sure, if the action is especially frantic, he can rev things up and ram words together and stay with the game. But most of the time, while the action is fast, his flow is not. The vowels are elongated - a DRIIIVE, he SHOOOOOTs, a SAAAAVE - and the words are sparse, but there's a surprising amount of time he spends saying nothing. The composer Claude Debussy said that music is the silence between the notes.

The hockey announcer Doc Emrick says, "You don't want to say too much."

* * *

Doc announced minor league games in Port Huron, then in Portland, Maine. He was everything in those days - announcer, marketer, promoter, media man, statistician. Once in Portland, the Maine Mariners were giving away a car - a Chevy Chevette - and it was a big enough deal that Doc was announcing the contest over the radio network. They had a big drum filled with names at center ice, and someone pulled out the name Sue Hamilton.

Well, Sue was thrilled as you might imagine - she was sitting a few rows in front of Doc, and she celebrated. Then she went down to the ice and walked across in high heels. The crowd was into it - a great moment in minor league hockey promotion. Only then, someone on the ice started to wave frantically. They pointed to a different corner of the building. There was another woman there. Her name, it turned out, was also Sue Hamilton. In fact, she was the RIGHT Sue Hamilton.

"Two cars! Two cars! Two cars!" people in the stands chanted while the man from the local Chevy Dealership leaned over to the man next to him and said, "Get me out of here." The promotion had gone from raging success to titanic fiasco in 3.1 seconds.

In the end, it all worked out - they gave the right Sue Hamilton her car and the wrong one a boatload of prizes that probably ended up being worth more than the Chevette - but the point is that this is what hockey came to mean to Doc Emrick. It isn't just the action. It is the fans. It is the fighters. It is the crazy promotions. It is the silly rules, the wild bounces, the brief flashes of brilliance, the terrible moments of failure and how closely tied they are.

After Portland, his career went about like you would expect. The hard part was getting from LaFontaine to the Maine Mariners . after that it was a dream. He got a break doing some work for the Philadelphia Flyers, then the New Jersey Devils, then he backed up Marv Albert on some Rangers games. He went back to Philadelphia then back to New Jersey, where he became an icon. He and his wife Joyce have been married for 33 years. He's a cancer survivor. He was the first broadcaster inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. He was the first hockey broadcaster to win the Emmy for best play-by-play announcer.

"Well, what's really left to say?" Michaels says. "He's just the best there is."

* * *

Before I leave our interview, Doc gives me something. He's a bit embarrassed to give it to me, but he thinks I might like it. It's a baseball card of himself he got when he participated in the Pittsburgh Pirates fantasy camp. "I don't know if you want that," he says, "but if you do it's yours."

I do want it. On the baseball card, Doc Emrick has fielded a ground ball and is about to throw it to first base, and even through the static photo you can feel the joy he was feeling being out there. That, in the end, is what Doc Emrick transmits. Joy. I ask him what still thrills him about calling hockey games. He says he's still amazed they give him a pass - and as silly as that might sound, you can tell in his voice that he means it.

"You know what thrilled me?" he asks, "when I was going into the Hall of Fame, I got a call. I picked up the phone and it was Con Madigan, you know, the old fighter from the days in Fort Wayne. Con Madicgan. Can you believe that? He's 88 years old, and he just called me out of the blue. Here was one of my childhood heroes, just calling me up. That was nice, wasn't it? That was really so nice."

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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