A Doctor On The Call

By Bob Socci

Perhaps it was the veteran goaltender, his helmet dislodged after being barreled over by a teammate tumbling into the crease and his eyebrow bloodied by the puck careening off his head into the net.

Or the teenager, lagging in experience and unable to keep up with others in a patented playoff tradition, yet accelerating between and beyond defenders, leaving them behind in his first postseason series.

Blonde-bearded Tim Thomas was once the 217th player selected in the NHL Entry Draft and a journeyman of North American minor leagues and Scandinavian hockey. Now, at 37, he is a late-blooming star. The hopes of the so-called Hub of Hockey rest on his shoulders and skates.

Just last summer, Tyler Seguin was chosen 2nd overall among the world’s most-talented amateurs. His boyish face appears on screen to feature only smudges of hair attached to his 19-year-old chin. Born only two years before his teammate Thomas was drafted, he is emerging as New England’s next fan favorite.

On this night, as the Boston Bruins evened the Eastern Conference Finals with Tampa Bay, either one could have been the face of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Meanwhile, the voice of hockey’s second season – arguably the most arduous championship pursuit in pro sports – belongs indisputably to Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick.

Master of his craft for more than three decades, Emrick is in his 22nd consecutive spring calling the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’ll soon work his 12th Finals with a distinct style that makes him both a Thomas and Seguin of play-by-play storytellers.

His is the perspective of the veteran who’s virtually seen and told it all; and the enthusiasm of a fresh-faced teenager celebrating after he finds the back of the net.

Whether a fan of the sport or someone who appreciates broadcasting at its best, everything is in order when Emrick describes an odd-man rush.

In January 2009, the New Jersey Devils staged Mike 'Doc' Emrick Night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (www.devils.nhl.com).
Even during the tensest circumstances and most exciting situations – when there’s no time to sort through one’s vocabulary – he chooses his words exquisitely.

Passes are made “haphazardly,” pucks are “floated on” and shots are “flexed” aside. A goalie is “besieged,” while a skater losing an edge is left “powerless to prevent an off-sides.” Emrick goes where no one in this business east of Vin Scully can.

And as with his poetic baseball counterpart, he stretches the language to ensure accuracy. It’s substantive style not schtick, down to the very last detail. Thomas, for example, didn’t simply smother a shot in Game 3 on Thursday, he “trapped (the puck) on the spoked-B” of his sweater.

Considering Emrick’s background – more Thomas-like than Seguinesque – such devotion to precision shouldn’t be surprising.

When The NHL Network aired the series Voices several years ago, the episode devoted to Emrick was as much a half-hour how-to for younger broadcasters as a profile of the lead announcer for the New Jersey Devils, Versus and NBC.

Emrick grew up in Indiana, where he was introduced to the pro club in Fort Wayne and educated by Bob Chase, who well into his 80s and approaching six decades as the radio voice of the Komets continues calling their games.

Eventually, he joined Chase at the nearby Coliseum; though in Emrick’s case, his was an audience of one. Occupying an otherwise empty section of the stands, he spoke into a reel-to-reel recorder, unleashing the creativity that remains a trademark.

Emrick jokes about the time he pitted the faculty of Miami University, where he went to grad school, against fellow students. In his imagination, professors played for the Komets, peers for Toledo.

“It was just a way to try to practice,” he says, smiling, in the Voices documentary.

After tapes of those make-believe broadcasts failed to net any real over-the-air time, Emrick taught speech at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa. While there, he volunteered to cover the Pittsburgh Penguins for the local paper, paying his dues as an unpaid correspondent.

Emrick went back to school, at Bowling Green, to earn his doctorate – hence the nickname – and, in return for teaching a couple of classes, handled the second period of Falcons’ hockey games. In 1973, the Port Huron Flags hired him at the rate of $160 a week.

Rather than forget such humble beginnings, Emrick pays tribute to them. His preparation is as deep and broad as his roots in the game. Every telecast is a history lesson from the former educator.

“I do love to prepare,” he says in Voices, “It’s fun for me.”

And fun for us. That’s because there’s a purpose for everything Emrick shares. He’s not randomly disseminating information. He’s telling the stories of rivalries, traditions, players and – always foremost, far and away – the game we’re watching.

But as much as Emrick knows, he’s anything but a know-it-all. He is both talker and listener and, as well as anyone in his business, prods his partners to explain themselves. Instead of proffering his own opinions, Emrick is constantly questioning, almost as if he’s an absolute novice.

For instance, during the Bruins’ 2-0 victory on Thursday, Ed Olczyk suggested using Seguin during an early 4-on-4 situation. Said an inquiring Emrick, “What would he bring to that?”

Emrick centers his broadcasting team, setting up Olczyk and Joe Micheletti as analysts. He assists, they score with their points. You don’t have to listen long to hear their chemistry.

He seems absent of ego, quick to self-deprecate on his own broadcasts and often available for others on theirs.

Pete Michaud has been broadcasting hockey in Norfolk, Va. for 19 years, the last 12 with the Admirals of the AHL. As host of Admirals Hour each Tuesday, he recently invited Emrick to call in. Being the considerate pro that he is, Michaud tried to give plenty of advanced notice.

But as they talked on a Monday, Emrick was tied up the following week, as well as the week after that. “How about tomorrow?” he asked Michaud. A day later, Emrick was regaling Hampton Roads with minor league anecdotes about Michaud’s co-host and coach of the Admirals Jon Cooper.

Emrick is big time, but not too big for the Fort Waynes, Port Hurons and Norfolks of the hockey world. And certainly never too big to say he’s sorry.

There was a split-second on Thursday when he confused David Krejci with Rich Peverley, a 46 for a 49. Immediately, Emrick uttered the four words so many of us struggle with: I beg your pardon. Better to ask forgiveness, and get it right.

Most of all, hearing him simply makes you happy. Like Scully, Emrick articulates with an easy-listening lilt, even while calling a high-octane sport.

Six years ago, Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post, brilliantly profiled the legendary Scully, declaring him ‘The Voice of Heaven.’ Sheinin also quoted Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

“I don’t know how to say it, really…but hearing Vin’s voice,” Selig concluded, “just makes me feel better.”

Later that summer, as the Triple-A Norfolk Tides rode through the darkness of another night on the road, their coaches – all three of them ex-major leaguers – sat near the front of a sleeper bus equipped with satellite TV. They were wide awake, held captive by The Voice of Heaven, coming to them from the City of the Angels.

At one point, a fellow passenger, the team’s radio announcer, repeated Selig’s line. Several innings later, pitching coach Randy Niemann did the same.

“You’re right,” Niemann agreed with a grin. “He does make you feel better.”

No different, really, than the middle of this month, in a living room just south of Boston. A Bruins victory was great. Emrick made it better.

Thomas’s late stand in Game 2, supported by Seguin’s four-point performance, enabled the B’s to barely survive a third-period surge by the Lightning. They held on, 6-5.

Watching the teams leave the ice, Emrick wondered tongue-in-cheek whether any of the Bruins would enter the dressing room and proclaim, “Boys, we had them the whole way.”

Joking aside, it was Emrick who had us, the whole way.

Bob calls Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

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