To spend a morning skate in the company of Mike “Doc” Emrick is to go to school.
The first media member to be inducted in to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Emrick has now called 17 Stanley Cup finals, each with the elegance and wisdom befitting of a man with a Ph.D. in communications and 68 years of life experience.
When Americans think of hockey play-by-play, they think of Doc.
Against the clatter and hollers of a Lightning skate during the championship series this June in Tampa Bay, Emerick and I sat in the stands and spoke about his favourite games, his treasure trove of verbs, and that time he called an IHL game twisted off sizzurp.
SPORTSNET.CA: Why do you think NBC's ratings increased for the Cup Final?
MIKE "DOC" EMRICK: It’s a tremendous product to begin with. Last year we had guys who played 110, 115 games because the playoffs went long—over 90 playoff games—and then we had guys playing another six or seven games in the Olympics, plus preseason. I don’t know how they were still standing at the end, but they were. That’s what we have to sell.
We have players and coaches that will talk to us during games, so people at home can get a grasp of what these guys are like. They’re likable human beings. I’ve been in this 42 years. I don’t think I’d put 10 guys on a list of people I never want to see again. It’s a remarkable group of athletes.
This is amateur sociology on my part: The reason is the sport started in Canada. We tend to spoil our athletes from a very young age in the United States. I’m sure there are Canadians that argue that hockey players get spoiled, too, but the road to compete for the Cup is not an easy one. Even though 55 per cent of the players are Canadian, the locker room is still about 100 per cent buy-in. Slovaks, Swedes, Finns, Americans, everything -- yet the room is still pretty much the same it was. They’ll do an interview during a game because five generations ago they were doing radio interviews during a game. It’s just part of the culture.
With the introduction of the [commentators’] area between the glass and the fact coaches will talk during stoppages of play while they’re coaching is a remarkable extension on their part. Without the players and coaches, there’s no product. And the product is good because it’s gladiatorial. We have coaches like Phil Jackson, who’s won NBA championships but watches the Stanley Cup playoffs because of the competition. It’s different than basketball.
"I’ve been in this 42 years. I don’t think I’d put 10 guys on a list of people I never want to see again."
SN: Do you still get butterflies before calling a big game?
DOC: You still do. I’m not putting myself in the same classification, but I understand this story: When Wayne [Gretzky] was finishing up with New York in the late ’90s, there was a kid they called up from Hartford and he was pacing back and forth before his first game. Wayne said, "You nervous?" He said, "Yeah." Wayne said, "I am too."
With all of us there’s a healthy bit of anxiety you have. Not fear. But you want to be sure you’re ready to do what the job requires. You’re not on edge, but you’re super alert because neither the players nor anybody else knows what’s going to happen. It’s not wrestling.
SN: How do you handle a Stanley Cup championship call?
DOC: It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most players. So many retire and never win one. So you explain it for the fans, so they can appreciate it. We’re in a different country. Not everyone grew up with the Stanley Cup like they do in Canada.
There’s a certain historical background that I like to do if we have time before it’s presented so people understand the significance of it--how long it takes to put the names on. The mistakes has been done so much that it’s trite. Anybody’s going to make mistakes over time; there’s going to be eccentricities to the Cup.
People want to be able to appreciate the moment with the players, understand how far back they’ve gone trying to win this thing and what it’s like when you do win it because you get to take it home for a day. It will probably not seem too significant to folks in Canada. We have to assume we’re getting a wide-open audience. Some of them may care about hockey, some may watch out of curiosity. All of these things make it a different animal in the States. Our producer wants us to broaden things so much that we don’t leave anybody out.
"You’re super alert because neither the players nor anybody else knows what’s going to happen. It’s not wrestling."
SN: Describe your pregame routine. How do you warm up?
DOC: I studied with a woman in New York named Lillian Wilder, and she had warmup exercises. She worked with George Bush Sr. and Oprah Winfrey and Charles Osgood. She had a set of exercises that I would start doing in training camp once upon a time. Now, because we record a bunch of commercials before [the game], that’s the warmup I have. When I was doing radio, I warmed up the way you might hear a vocalist warming up to do the anthem. Get his vocal chords warm a bit. Now we record promos and hour and 45 minutes before [puck drop], and if I botch it, I can do it over again. That’s a good warmup.
SN: Do you drink tea or anything for your vocal chords?
DOC: When I have colds I drink tea. Normally what I have up in the booth is Diet Coke if I need caffeine or decaffeinated coffee if I don’t. Or water. It varies. If the building’s cold, I drink something hot.
SN: Do you have a favourite call?
DOC: No. I don’t have anything I do that’s special. I don’t have a signature call. I’ve had games I’ve enjoyed more than others. I’ve done 17 finals. I liked the two back-to-back Pittsburgh-Detroit series most. Close behind that is Boston-Chicago. We had one blowout in the Boston-Chicago series, and that was 2-0; the rest were one-goal games.
In 2004, we could’ve had a track meet between Tampa and San Jose if San Jose had beaten Calgary, but they did not. Because of the contrast in style and the lockout afterward, that’s probably what prompted Brendan Shanahan to have his meeting in Toronto with about 20 people and make some changes, nine of out 12 were adopted right away. Had we had a track-meet final, the changes might not have arisen.
SN: For a big moment, like clinching a Cup, do you think of a sentence you want to say to capture that?
DOC: No. It either happens, or I let the crowd count it down. I’m not looking to be held on a Stanley Cup reel forever. Usually I’ll say something about so-and-so win the Stanley Cup, and it may be after the fact. If the crowd is boisterous beyond belief, I’ll let them count it down. In Detroit when [Marc-Andre] Fleury made the save, there was no time to say anything other than, “Save--and the Penguins are Stanley cup champions!”
The only time you get to work on it is if, like in ’07 with Anaheim, the lead was three goals with half a period to go. That morning I had checked with the Ducks to see if they had a slogan for the year. Turns out, they had one--can’t remember it now—and they had T-shirts with it on the back.
If you have that kind of time, you pay tribute to the losing team and the year they had, then you finish up with the home team, and I let the Ducks crowd count down the last seconds. So that time there was plenty of time to talk about the Cup. You want to keep people along and not change the channel, so they know the trophy is really impressive when they bring it out. White gloves on a red carpet. It’s 36 inches high, 35 pounds, and people have had hernias and everything else but they’ve managed to raise it.
SN: Your vocabulary is legendary, and there is this incredible clip online of all your synonyms for the verb “pass.” Where does the depth of your lingo come from?
DOC: From doing 3,500 games. There’s nothing conspiratorial about it. When I was in graduate school trying to get into this line of work, I talked to a lot of people about it.
One guy in Daytona, Ohio—his name was Lyle Stieg—he was the broadcaster for the IHL team there. He said, “We have so many things that happen over and over again in hockey games. If you can come up with a different way to say them, you won’t drive people nuts as much.” I never wrote anything down. One guy I worked in the same league with, he’d write words on a three-by-five [inch] card and try to work them into the broadcast that night. I never did that. [Turns attention to practice and effortlessly transitions into play-call mode] Slides across, carries it on, drops it back.
If a guy does a backhand pass to get it out to centre, that’s a pitchfork. Or a wedge. You are conscious if you’ve used a word already. And if you’ve used it two or three times, you shut it off. You’re getting predictable to yourself.
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SN: Why is your mind so sharp? How are you able to see something and say it as it’s happening?
DOC: The great educator Suzuki said, “All skill is, is knowledge plus doing something 10,000 times.” I’m not going to make 10,000 games. That’s going to take another 45 years. I don’t have that. But doing it over and over helps a lot.
And at this level, unlike the IHL or American League—which I called—you get pretty predictable plays. You wouldn’t have that kind of [accurate] pass in a drill in the IHL; it’s not executed as well. You get goaltenders handing the puck over to the other team. There are more surprises because the skill level is not as high. In the NHL, it’s so predictable. Rarely is a forechecker going to strip the puck from a defenceman standing behind the net waiting for his team to change. It’s just not happening.
So I have the blessing of calling a predictable game in terms of the types of plays executed. It’s a slippery game, but the execution level is high. You see openings on the power play of where it’s going next. These are the best pros in the game: They know where the opening is, and that’s where they send it. Rarely do they make a bad decision.
SN: The worst conditions under which you've called a game?
DOC: Having a cold. In the days of the IHL and AHL, if you were sick, they had nobody else, so you had to get through it. I remember once in Saginaw in the IHL, I had a bottle of cough syrup. Every stoppage of play, I’d take a swig. And on the bus on the way home, I looked at the back and there was a doctor’s warning about taking too much. I had taken too much, and it was 35 per cent alcohol. I don’t know what the broadcast sounded like; I know I finished.
The conditions you work in for the outdoor games aren’t that bad. They give us blankets and keep us warm. We’re spoiled that way. But a cold always settles in your throat—that’s the worst.
"I had a bottle of cough syrup. Every stoppage of play, I’d take a swig."
SN: Do you have a favourite hockey word?
DOC: No, I don’t. Somebody asked if I had a favourite hockey name. It’s Bart Crashley. He was playing in the ’70s with Kansas City [among others]. It always struck me as the perfect name for hockey, especially in that era. Bart is 69 today. There’s a lot of words I like. It’s like having a number of clubs in your golf bag—lots to choose from.
SN: What’s your take on some of the newer hockey slang, like “celly” or “sauce”?
DOC: I don’t do that. I’m not a product of that era. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong and I’m right. It would just seem odd coming from me.
SN: Does your voice get recognized when you’re ordering pizza?
DOC: That does happen. It’s flattering when it does… as long as they’re kind about it. It’s nice.
(Luke Fox photos)