Just as Sidney Crosby has become the face of hockey, Doc Emrick, passionate Pirates fan and one-time Penguins correspondent for the Beaver County Times, has become the voice of the sport.
In both cases, the game couldn't be in better hands.
Thanks, in part, to Crosby's passionate play and Emrick's passionate announcing, the NHL is making progress with television viewers. The recently completed Stanley Cup playoffs were a ratings success by NHL standards, but still pale next to the NFL, MLB and NBA.
Emrick, a Hoosier by birth and Pirates fan by virtue of Bob Prince and the powerful signal of KDKA Radio, has become the voice of hockey. His regular gig is as the television play-by-play announcer for the New Jersey Devils. When the Devils aren't playing, he's liable to show up as the lead announcer on Versus, the NHL's cable television partner. When NBC carries NHL games, Emrick is their guy in the booth. He also does the Olympics.
No announcer in any sport dominates the way Emrick does in hockey.
He did 123 games this season, including, as if his passion for the game needed to be demonstrated, one on the college level.
"I have to keep in contact with these college kids," he said. "They're our future. I'd do it for nothing."
That's what Emrick earned in his first hockey job, covering the Penguins for the Beaver County Times.
He was teaching at Geneva College, on his way to a doctorate in radio, television and film at Bowling Green University, in 1969-70 and frequently making the trip from Beaver Falls to Pittsburgh to see the Penguins.
"I approached the [Beaver County Times] and told them I'd cover every Penguins home game. I didn't want paid. I just wanted to get into the game. All I wanted was to meet the hockey players."
It was a labor of love, with the emphasis on labor.
"It's a good thing it was an afternoon paper," Emrick said over the phone the other day. "I would rewrite and rewrite. I wouldn't get through until 3 in the morning."
Emrick's passion for hockey led him to Bowling Green, where he was promised the second period play-by-play duties of the college team. With his doctorate in hand, but with the intention of doing nothing with it, Emrick sent out application to every minor league hockey team. He landed a job with the Port Huron Flags in 1973. After four years in Port Huron, Mich., he moved to Portland, Maine, the top minor league club of the Philadelphia Flyers. In three years he was doing cable TV for the Flyers. Then it was on to radio work with the New York Rangers, back to the Flyers and then to the Devils, where he has been since 1993.
It didn't start out that way. He wanted to do baseball. Prince's Pirates broadcasts boomed into Indiana and Emrick became a dedicated fan. He still recalls his first Pirates game.
"My parents took us to Wrigley Field. It was Aug. 9, 1959. Ernie Banks hit a home run for the Cubs. What I marveled at was [Bill Mazeroski]. On the double play, it looked like the ball was going through a stove pipe. It changed directions by 90 degrees and it looked like Maz never touched it.
"I still have the ticket stub from that day."
When the Penguins won Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final in Detroit to bring the series back to Pittsburgh, Emrick had an unknown surprise awaiting him. Ben Bouma, a former Pirates employee working for NBC, set him up with a trip to PNC Park. He visited the Pirates clubhouse June 3 and admitted, "I'm like an 11 year old when I'm around the Pirates."
He threw out the first pitch and called it "a lifetime memory."
Emrick was pleased with the ratings NBC drew for the four games it carried. Game 6 earned a 4.0 rating and the four games carried by NBC averaged a 3.2. That's an improvement that makes NBC and the NHL happy but also shows how far hockey lags behind football, baseball and basketball. The Super Bowl had a 32.8 rating, the World Series a 10.6 and last year's NBA Finals a 6.2. The first two games between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers this year averaged an 8.6.
More alarming for hockey, it's not drawing well in the major markets. The top 10 markets for Game 6 included Buffalo, N.Y.; Richmond, Va.; Columbus, Ohio; and Fort Myers, Fla., but not New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, Washington or Houston.
"I'm happy with hockey's niche," Emrick said. "We've had better times in the past, like 1994 when the Rangers won, but I don't think there was a more important year than this one. For Game 5 we had people joining us in great numbers at 11 p.m. and 11:30 and they stayed. The numbers were in the 5.0 range for the rest of the game [which ended at 12:45 a.m.].
"I'm heartened by what happened."
Emrick, 61, spends his summer in Michigan where he relaxes with his wife, Joyce, follows the Pirates and awaits the start of the best time of the year -- another hockey season.
Evgeni Malkin is a Hart Trophy nominee as the National Hockey League passes out its hardware at 7 p.m. on Versus.
Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com .