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NBC hockey's voice, Mike Emrick, is best of the best

NBC’s Mike “Doc” Emrick recently won his third Emmy for play-by-play announcing. “I’m a rink rat,” he says. “This is a fun life.”
NBC’s Mike “Doc” Emrick recently won his third Emmy for play-by-play announcing. “I’m a rink rat,” he says. “This is a fun life.”
Published Jun. 5, 2015

TAMPA

If you're lucky, you have tickets to the Stanley Cup final.

But if you're really lucky, you don't have tickets to the Stanley Cup final. That way you can listen to NBC's Mike "Doc'' Emrick call these games between the Lightning and Blackhawks.

Emrick is the Wayne Gretzky of hockey broadcasters. Best of all time. It's not even close.

Emrick has been doing this for years — more than 40, in fact. But it seems that only very recently has Emrick started receiving his just due as one of the great play-by-play announcers in all of sports.

"I wish I could explain it, but I do recognize the fact folks are asking me more questions than before,'' said Emrick, who recently picked up his third Emmy for top play-by-play announcer. "I don't know why that is. I think some of it is the games are so much more engrossing.''

That's classic Emrick right there. His best guess of why he is so good is because the games are good. He couldn't be more wrong. It's because of him. He's so good.

"I'm a rink rat,'' Emrick said Thursday. "This is a fun life.''

He spends his days talking to Zamboni drivers and equipment managers. He spends his nights turning good games into great ones with his descriptions.

By the way, Doc is not just a nickname. He has a doctorate in communications from Bowling Green University. That's where he started calling hockey games.

Growing up in Indiana, his first love was baseball. He saw his first hockey game on Dec. 10, 1960. He and his brother pestered their parents to drive 40 miles to see Fort Wayne host Muskegon. He still remembers the game going to overtime.

"I loved it,'' Emrick said. "Looked like a very rugged sport, and with two seconds left in overtime, two guys fought.''

Emrick was hooked.

But his plan was to be a school teacher, just like his parents. He taught speech and broadcasting at Geneva College in Pennsylvania. He was making $7,000 a year and found out that if he got his doctorate, he could make $7,600. He applied to Bowling Green so he could get his doctorate and call the university's hockey games — well, one period each for 18 home games.

"My big chance,'' Emrick said.

His first game: Bowling Green vs. Ryerson College.

"I guess I was okay,'' Emrick said. "I was excited. I don't know how accurate I was.''

He put together a highlight tape and sent it everywhere. He got one offer. He took the job for $160 a week calling minor-league games and handling PR for the Port Huron (Mich.) Flags.

He eventually worked his way up to the NHL, calling games for the Flyers and Devils, then picking up national TV work as well. He used to call 120 games a year. Now it's down to a more manageable 60 or so for NBC and the NBC Sports Network.

Emrick has moved to the top of sports broadcasting, and he has done it without shtick. He doesn't yell just to yell. He makes the game the focal point and the players the stars. He doesn't even have a catchphrase. He has a photographic memory and is a master of the English language, often coming up with nearly 200 verbs in a game to describe what is happening to the puck, such as shuffleboarded, pitchforked, soccered and collared.

"It's from a lot of years of calling games,'' Emrick said. "There is nothing conspiratorial about it. I never made a list of words. It's just watching as many games as I've had over the years.''

Still, Emrick prepares obsessively and refuses to accept any mistake, such as the one he had in Wednesday's Game 1 of the final. He was trying to credit a Lightning defenseman for making a fine diving block. He announced it was No. 5 Jason Garrison. Turns out, it was No. 55 Braydon Coburn.

"It's an easy mistake to make,'' Emrick said, "but it's still a mistake, and you're paid to get those (right).''

Emrick is the kindest, most mild-mannered person you would ever want to meet, yet he admitted that he slammed his hand on the table so hard when he confused Garrison for Coburn that he was sure the thud made it over the air. A day later, the mistake still was eating at him.

It's that striving for perfection that makes him such a favorite among hockey fans. He rarely says the wrong thing and seems genuinely excited every time he is on the air.

But hockey is not his entire life. In the summer, he and his wife of 36 years, Joyce, travel around in a motor home on camping trips. No airplanes. No big cities. Just peace and quiet and lots of reading. He didn't find out until they were married for 25 years that his wife always wanted a horse. So he bought her one, and now they also rescue horses. Joyce loves to ride. Doc, not so much.

"The only horse I ride is that little one outside of Kmart that you feed quarters into,'' Emrick said. "The embarrassing part is being in line with 5-year-olds.''

Emrick turns 69 this summer. After a prostate cancer scare in 1991, Emrick is fit and healthy. He doesn't need the money, so he doesn't have to keep working. But he still loves it. He has no plans to pack up his microphone as long as two things are true.

"The network needs to be happy with my work, and I need to be happy with it,'' Emrick said. "So far, that's the case. But it's a motor skill, and I'll be 70 next year.''

He points out that fellow 70-something announcers such as Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery say 70 is the new 40, so as long as he feels good, he'll keep going.

That makes all of us who watch hockey very lucky.