Doc's orders: Just listen
From a cell phone in his car somewhere in Michigan, Doc Emrick was apologizing for the behavior of his dogs in the back seat, and indeed, they sounded like capable adversaries who had just dropped the gloves.
Had they been the kind of dogs who wear little sweaters, one must have pulled the little sweater over the other's head and begun to take liberties.
"It's not that," Emrick said, "they've apparently spotted another dog they don't like, so this should end very soon."
Whether it's his fluid play-by-play of Olympic hockey, whether it's the Stanley Cup playoffs, whether it's hockey's popular Winter Classic, or whether it's Doc Emrick doing bark-by-bark from the front seat, the listener feels welcome, informed, and an indispensable part of the event.
I called Doc just to deliver my congratulations on his 3,000th hockey broadcast, a milepost that flicked past Monday night when the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings met in Detroit, where Emrick's family and friends celebrated in a suite at Joe Louis Arena.
By Friday the Hall of Fame broadcaster was in a far more reflective mood.
"I count myself as just fortunate because it would have ended somewhere around 1,200 [games]; I had prostate cancer 19 years ago," he said. "It was caught early, which is always key, but I'm so lucky. My general practitioner knew some family history and was always suspicious. He'd sent me to a place to get an ultrasound and it would always come back clean, so he said, 'Go somewhere different.' I was working in Philadelphia and I went to Hershey Medical Center for an ultrasound. It was clean, but they said, 'Since you've come all this way, let's just do a biopsy. And they found it."
Emrick had to take four months away from his gig broadcasting Flyers hockey, the longest he had been away from the game since he first wandered into the Civic Arena as a volunteer hockey correspondent for the Beaver County Times, circa 1970.
"It's a good thing it was an evening paper, because I was terrible," he said. "We didn't have the technological advantages we had today, so me and some other guys would sit in the press box and try and figure out how the goals were scored, who might have assisted, who might have deflected it. I'd write it over and over trying to get it right."
That wasn't what Doc wanted, of course. He hadn't picked up a Masters and Ph.D. in radio and television so that the folks in Beaver Falls could be sure who had the second assist on that Andy Bathgate goal.
"I sent letters and tapes to every minor league hockey team that moved," he said. "What I got back was some very fancy stationary saying no."
But somehow between the time he finally broke through to bring you that first one -- Fort Wayne against Port Huron, a coupla International League clubs that didn't like each other -- and this week's Penguins-Red Wings meeting, Emrick's erudite tones have found a place among the greatest play-by-play deliveries in sport.
Mike Lange is more colorful, Paul Steigerwald likely more analytical, and various other legendary hockey voices league-wide have all brought uniquely stylized approaches to the same job, but Emrick lends the sport an accessibility no one can duplicate. His voice has a kind of relaxed urgency, if you will, and his manner can be enjoyed by the grittiest hockey veteran and the novice viewer simultaneously.
His manner virtually injects the audience with a specialized confidence in the sport -- that it deserves our attention, that it will entertain, that it matters, and especially that it matters that you like it as much as he.
This is some definition of graciousness, and in a weird way, that's Doc's curse. He's so approachable and knowledgeable that you can't let him off the phone unless you ask this, and this, and this, and what about this?
So how about the league's new approach to protecting players' heads?
"It always reflects back to the time in this sport when the players policed themselves," Emrick said. "Prior to the rule requiring helmets, if a guy got cut around the head you knew it was intentional, and we knew when the helmet rule came in players would be a lot more reckless. Now it's like going out on the Parkway East in the middle of the Friday rush hour. You just hope you're not out there with someone who has had too much to drink or hasn't had enough sleep or has road rage or what have you. You just trust that you're all trying to get somewhere and no one is going to do anything foolish. There's a chicken and egg element to the league taking over the policing. It's upset the balance."
What about the advent of hockey in 3-D.
"There was a Rangers-Islanders game in 3-D, but I didn't get to see it," he said. "The people I know who did said it was really unusual, really unique, but there was so much picture, so much depth, that it gave them a headache."
Maybe they'll pass out helmets.
But most importantly, what of Doc's beloved Pirates? There is, after all, only one man who can insert the Pirates into an Olympic hockey broadcast.
"Somehow or other some twisted stuff got into my blood stream when I was 11, and I can't get it out," he said. "I really like the players, and it's not their fault that they're not comparable to most teams in the league. I started cheering for them 51 years ago and I got to see some of those guys at fantasy camp a couple of years ago -- Vern Law, Bill Virdon, Bob Skinner, Bill Mazeroski, my nickname was Maz when I played in high school because I played second and always wore my Pirates hat. Those guys were on teams that always won.
"I still watch the telecasts and admire the guys doing the broadcasting because there are times when that's gotta be a very hard job."
First Published March 28, 2010 12:00 am