Doc Emrick: The Master

There are two things that blow my mind about Mike Emrick, NBC’s legendary hockey announcer who on Monday announced his retirement. The first is how awed other sports announcers are of him. There are a handful of people in the world like this, people who are not just good at what they do but who leave everyone else in their business dumbfounded and dazed. Richard Pryor or Mel Brooks in comedy, Prince or Aretha Franklin in music, Michael Lewis or Laura Hillenbrand in non-fiction writing, Jeffrey Wright or Patricia Clarkson in acting, their genius goes beyond the simple wonder of their work, the stuff that the rest of us notice.

Others in their fields simply cannot understand how they do it.

So it is with Doc Emrick. A few years ago for a Doc story, I talked to some of the most famous sports announcers in America — Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, etc. — and they talked about him not like he was a great announcer but like he was magical. They talked like he didn’t just call the games, he actually could bend time.

See, every sport has its own challenges to announce*, and with hockey, the challenge is bringing order to chaos. Players are constantly shifting in and out, the puck is always moving and changing sides, the game presses on at a mind-bending clip, it’s like being inside a tornado.

*This sounds like a fun future essay — breaking down the challenges of calling each sport.

And yet, somehow, Emrick slows the tornado. While other mortal announcers try to keep up with the action, with Doc it’s the opposite, it’s like the hockey action decelerates to match his pace.

“He tells stories during the action,” Costas said with genuine amazement in his voice. “He’s the only hockey announcer I’ve ever seen who could do that.”

If you are a hockey fan, you already know about Doc’s lifelong search for the perfect hockey verbs. He always wanted his verbs to precisely describe the action, so in his world players didn’t just shoot or pass or block the puck. They shuffled it, shoveled it, tapped, pitched, chopped, chipped, skipped, squibbed, whacked, deflected, rifled and stifled the puck. This was a 50-year pursuit for Emrick, this dream of calling the perfect hockey game, and he never stopped working at it, never stopped pushing himself, never stopped trying for a higher place.

And, here’s was the coolest part, he kept striving because of how much he loves hockey, because of how much he has wanted to express that love. In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with so many of the play-by-play masters — the aforementioned Costas, Michaels and Nantz but also Vin Scully, Marv Albert, Kevin Harlan, Joe Buck, Verne Lundquist, Dan Shulman, the late Ernie Harwell and Dick Enberg and on and on and on — and though they are obviously very different people, there is something that connects them.

They try to make music.

That’s the part that is so difficult for us people outside broadcasting to understand. It’s tempting for the rest of us to think they are just talking, just narrating the action, just telling us down and distance, the count, how much time is left in the quarter and when the team is going for a shift change. But that’s the easy stuff. The great ones lift and soften their voices, sharpen and blur the scene, take us inside but also put us up in the top row so we can see everything from afar. And when it’s just right, yes, it is music, the action and the voice and the crowd and tension all fitting together to create a song.

Nobody made music quite like Doc Emrick.

I mentioned at the top that there are two things that blow my mind about Doc Emrick. The second is personal. Everyone will tell you what a great guy Doc is, how hard he works to connect with everybody. Well, here’s my story. The first time I met him, well, he knew how much I love baseball. And, first thing, he handed me a baseball card of himself in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. “It’s corny,” he told me, “but I wanted you to know how much I love baseball too.”