Doc Emrick’s influence on the NHL’s next generation of voices


Mike “Doc” Emrick’s retirement announcement this week was a disarmingly heartfelt moment that burned through the clouds of cynicism, even if for a moment.

There have been comparisons drawn between his farewell and that of Fred “Mister” Rogers, and they’re apt. Both loved what they did and loved the people for whom they did it. Both exhibited sincerity, optimism and kindness that was out of sync with their times. One was famous for wearing a warm sweater and comfortable shoes, and the other had a vocal purr that evoked how it felt to relax in them.

This was a moment to appreciate the 50-year run of one of sports’ most celebrated broadcasters, while also appreciating how he has influenced the next generation of hockey voices — and not just stylistically.

“I’ve never seen someone as universally loved as Doc,” Brendan Burke, the play-by-play voice of the New York Islanders, told me this week. “I was going to go on Twitter and share some stories before I looked and realized everyone had a story like mine to share. It made me feel less special, and made him feel more special to me at the same time.”

Burke, 36, grew up in northern New Jersey listening to New Jersey Devils broadcasts, so he gets to play the “I’ve liked this band since before their first album” card, even if Emrick had called games for the Philadelphia Flyers and for ESPN back in the 1980s. He was the voice of the Devils locally before becoming the voice of the NHL on FOX nationally in 1995, and later the lead play-by-play announcer for NBC beginning in 2005 on the Outdoor Life Network, which would become Versus and then NBCSN.

“He’s been the voice of hockey my entire life. You’re starting to see broadcasters where that’s the same story. You’re going to hear more and more of that coming into the game,” Burke said.

Everett Fitzhugh is one of those broadcasters. The new play-by-play voice of the Seattle Kraken grew up in Michigan listening to Canadian voices like Jim Hughson, Bob Cole and Harry Neale. It wasn’t until he got to college that he appreciated Emrick while watching him on Versus.

“I loved his descriptiveness. I loved the passion he had. It could be a Tuesday regular-season game and he’s calling it like it’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final,” Fitzhugh told me. “He takes every game and makes it a production. And he’s so knowledgeable: He can call three different games in a week, with six different teams, and he’s an expert on every one of them.”

It’s said that greatness borrows and genius steals, and that’s never more evident than when you start playing “spot the influence” with a broadcaster or writer. There are technical aspects of Emrick’s approach to broadcasting that have been adopted by others. Burke tries to call the game to his tempo. Los Angeles Kings broadcaster Alex Faust mentioned being inspired by Emrick’s “diligence and demeanor” as an NHL announcer.

But inspiration is not emulation, and in the case of Emrick it’s because there is no emulating him. “No one else can do it. If I use his vocabulary or was as descriptive as he is, people would tell me to shut up. It just doesn’t work. He’s overly descriptive for television, but it works for him,” Burke said.

It’s a simple recipe:

  • Emrick calls the game as if it’s on the radio, filling nearly every moment of play with observations, explanations and asides. His voice acts as a soundtrack to the action as much as it details what’s happening.

  • His vocabulary is unparalleled, both in scope and in inventiveness. Shots are “waffle-boarded away” by goalies. Pucks “careen” off the boards. Blogger Stephen Douglas of The Big Lead once counted 153 different verbs Emrick used to describe puck movement in a single broadcast.

  • He combines those two attributes to “match the flow of the game,” as Burke puts it.

My favorite example of this is when there are multiple scoring chances around the net, and the goaltender is up to the task of stopping them. Emrick would begin at one level — “Shot by Letang and a save, rebound and another save!” — before increasing his sense of urgency to, “The puck is STILL LOOSE, here’s A CHANCE BY MALKIN and LUNDQVIST HAS IT!” And then, as the whistle sounds, he brings us all back down to earth while acknowledging what we all just experienced: “And play is stopped … myyyyyy goodness.”

There’s no one else I’ve ever heard who could do that.

“For me, the primary job of a play-by-play guy is to bring the energy inside the building through the television. It’s not about identifying players or rattling off statistics. It’s bringing what you’re missing by being at home [into your] home. He does that better than anybody. When he gets on edge, you get on edge,” Burke said.

That enthusiasm is something that early on drew Burke to Emrick.

“I remember as an aspiring broadcaster being fascinated that one person could say the word ‘SCORES!’ and every person says the same word, but his is different. It’s a weird concept. He says that word, and it feels different. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it’s the energy and passion that he has in calling the game that explodes in that moment, and makes you feel it,” Burke said.

If would be naïve and inaccurate to say that Emrick made everyone feel the same way. Every broadcaster has critics, and there are fans who simply couldn’t wade through Doc’s shtick while watching the game.

“It’s hard to even listen to them,” Burke said of those detractors. “To me, he’s perfect. I mean, obviously he’s not, but I say that meaning the way he calls a hockey game is the way I want to hear it. If you don’t like hearing that, then you probably aren’t going to like me, then.”

Some of this derision was born from juxtaposition. Some viewers preferred classic Canadian voices. Others wanted an announcer like Gary Thorne, who was Emrick’s contemporary and the other prominent national voice on U.S. hockey broadcasts during the past 30 years. To this day, there’s a little bit of a Beatles vs. Stones thing with fans when it comes to Emrick and Thorne: One was an artist with a unique sound, while the other was only rock and roll, but we liked it, as my colleague John Buccigross explains:

“Because they’re so different, people are going to be drawn to one of them, because that difference was so big. I’ve always had a love of language and craftsmanship, which is what Emrick brought. But I also love rock and roll, and no one cut through a crowd like Gary Thorne’s voice did. You can’t measure play-by-play. It’s not a metric. It’s not a shooting percentage. But it’s 75 percent voice. If you’re going to be a bodybuilder, you gotta have big pecs. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger always won because he was the biggest dude. Same with broadcasting: You had that voice, that’s a big start. Gary had that voice.”

If Thorne was percussion, then Emrick was the string section. Both drew out the emotions of a hockey game in different ways. But what made Emrick different, and in my opinion better, was his earnestness. Not just the kind that he exhibited this week in his news conference, when he would respond to reporters’ questions with ones of his own like “and how’s your dog?” and “I think the first time we spoke was when you were around 5 years old, correct?”

It was also in his approach to hockey, which was conversational and hospitable where other broadcasters traffic in bombast.

“For the casual hockey fan, he had a way of making you feel welcome,” Fitzhugh said. “You see it a lot in local broadcasters, because they’re the voices of those teams. They’re going to have inside jokes about them. On a national level, when you have season-ticket holders all the way down to the people watching their first game, you have to deliver on a level that’s interesting to the first-timer and not condescending to that 45-year season-ticket holder. Doc does a great job explaining the game, and does it in a way where he’s not talking down to people.”

I truly believe one of the greatest missions of the hockey media is to grow the game. We can do that by covering the sport or by being critical of its stewards. We can do that by amplifying new voices and highlighting progress in the game. Emrick has a lot of gifts as a broadcaster and virtues as a person, but among the greatest of them is his ability to invite so many people into the tent to watch the show.

Al Michaels, another iconic hockey voice, said it best as a surprise participant on Emrick’s retirement call: “I think of you much as I think of John Madden [in the NFL], as a man who has been as important to the National Hockey League as anybody, and I say that because you have made the game so much more relevant, interesting, relatable, exciting. I think just in listening to you — people who love hockey and are in that cult, we love you — you’ve also brought a lot of people into the game who might not otherwise have paid attention to hockey.”

Now that mantle falls to announcers like Faust and Burke and Fitzhugh, who will be the first local voice in Seattle Kraken history. It falls to every announcer who was ever inspired by Doc Emrick’s command, cadence and compassion. There won’t be another Doc Emrick in hockey. But hockey would do well to be a little more like Doc Emrick.

1. Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman made a dozen national and local media appearances this week to discuss the direction of the team, in the wake of captain Jonathan Toewson-the-record discontent about a rebuild.

“The expectation for the other leaders on this team and myself is to come ready to training camp every year to be a playoff team,” Toews told The Athletic. “We prepare ourselves to win a Cup for our fans. I’ve never been told that we were going through a rebuild. That has never been communicated to me, for that matter. A lot of this comes as a shock because it’s a completely different direction than we expected.”

Except it … wasn’t a shock? Bowman said he talked to Toews and the team’s leadership during and after the season about the direction of the team.

“Maybe the concept that everything is changing, that is something he was having a hard time wrapping his mind around? I don’t want to speak for him, I’m just guessing. I think maybe that’s where there was a disconnect,” Bowman told our Emily Kaplan. “In reality, there wasn’t a huge transformation in the team. Our team will continue to invest and develop young players over the next one year, two years, three years, so we can surround Jonathan with a better supporting cast to take some of the load off his shoulders. Because it’s hard for a couple guys to carry that load.”

So there you go. The team is just going to rebuild for like three years so it’ll be ready when [checks notes] Toews and Patrick Kane are unrestricted free agents? Oh …

2. I always love when general managers who are clearly rebuilding attempt to define their rebuild as anything but a rebuild. To Bowman’s credit, he used the R-word: “Rebuild … I’m not afraid of that word. But what I don’t want it to mean is we’re trying to tear this team apart and trying to bring in a whole new group of players in the next year and a half. But we do need to rebuild the depth of our team. We don’t have enough players, top to bottom, to compete with the top teams.”

Obviously you rubes hear “rebuild” and you think “teardown.” What the Blackhawks are doing is rebuilding the entire depth of their team, save for a few players to whom they gave trade protection. It’s not demolishing the building if there are two or three support beams in the basement still standing, obviously!

Bowman & Co. seem to be taking inspiration from two recent rebuilds. They released their own “Rangers Letter” to fans, explaining that old favorites will depart and young faces will arrive and there will be much pain. But they’re also doing the Los Angeles Kings thing; the Kings are hoping their youth movement syncs up with their aging core of Anze Kopitar (33), Dustin Brown (35) and Drew Doughty (30).

And it might work! The Rangers bounced back quickly with draft luck and a free-agent prize, Artemi Panarin — whom Bowman shipped away in 2017 out of contractual concerns, regrettably. The Kings amassed a deep prospect pool and now have a jewel in their crown with Quinton Byfield. ESPN’s Chris Peters had Chicago with the ninth-best prospect pool in the NHL at the start of last season, and they’ve since added first-rounder Lukas Reichel. Why tear down when you can rebuild?

3. That said … let’s fantasy cast the core to new locations: Kane goes home to Buffalo to be Jack Eichel‘s new BFF (perhaps after Taylor Hall takes the money and leaves); Duncan Keith reunites with Joel Quenneville in Florida; and Toews becomes the French-speaking captain of the bleu, blanc et rouge in Montreal. And no, we have no idea who the Blackhawks get in these trades or how it all works under a flat cap. That’s why it’s fantasy casting, silly.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Emily Kaplan and I take our annual look at the top 10 stories of the NHL season, from EBUGs to bubble hockey. Plus, Bucci joins us to talk about Doc Emrick and offers some insight into the future of college hockey. Subscribe, rate and review here! And thank you to everyone that supported our podcast. Despite unprecedented competition, our numbers remained strong from the summer through the end of the season.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Seattle fitness

Gary Roberts has been one of the most important behind-the-scenes influencers on player training and fitness for the past several years. The Kraken hired him as their first “sports science and performance consultant,” with an eye on helping to design the team’s training center.

Losers: Norfolk fans

The Admirals became the second ECHL team to opt out of the 2020-21 season due to restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, joining Atlanta on the sideline. The team cited Virginia’s cap on indoor attendance at 1,000 fans. Wait ’til next year, and all of that.

Winners: Vegas Fourth Jerseys

I have no idea what a “reverse retro” jersey is, although Icethetics has been told that they’re “throwbacks with a twist.” Now, we know what you’re thinking: How can the Golden Knights have a “throwback” when they’ve been around in the NHL for a shorter time than Mathew Barzal. Well, Sin Bin reports that these jerseys are inspired by the Las Vegas Thunder, the International Hockey League team that played there through 1999. Also, these jerseys are straight fire and arguably better than at least two of the team’s other sweaters.

Losers: Lovers of Good Ducks jerseys

The Ducks’ Wild Wing jerseys from back in the day were fun. Atrocious, but fun. This is just atrocious. What should be a homage to the team’s colorful past instead looks like they took the original design and soaked it in Minute Maid. Gross.

Winner: Joe Thornton

We can’t say that signing with a franchise that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and hasn’t won a first-round playoff series since 2004 puts Thornton within reach of his first championship. But he’s closer with the Leafs than he would have been with the Sharks, to be sure. Here’s hoping Thornton finally raises that Cup … and also that he takes the time to recreate photos that Patrick Marleau took with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and texts them to Patty back in the Bay Area as a goof.

Losers: People who hate the Leafs but want Joe Thornton to win the Stanley Cup

A bit of a Jumbo’s Choice here, innit?

Puck headlines

  • We’ve been doing Puck Headlines for over a dozen years, and in that time no one, and we mean no one, has learned to not use hockey bags to smuggle their drugs.

  • The Kraken hiring someone from Microsoft for their front office is a little too on-brand for Seattle. What’s next, announcing Howard Schultz as director of beverages?

  • This was a next-level interview with Todd Bertuzzi, especially as it pertains to his attitude while playing and his thoughts on the media: “I wasn’t very cooperative at times because I wasn’t ready for that stuff. I didn’t want to speak every day. I was paid to go play hockey and entertain fans, not to have stuff written in the paper. I could care less what was written in the paper, the stories that you guys needed. I just wanted to go play hockey and entertain fans, that’s all I wanted to do.”

  • The Yzerman Effect in Detroit. Said Bobby Ryan: “I walked out of the room (after talking with Yzerman) and told my wife, ‘I think we’re signing in Detroit.’ I didn’t feel I needed to hear anything else from anybody.”

  • Nice piece here on the off-ice impact of Mark Borowiecki while with the Ottawa Senators.

  • Good work here from The Athletic’s Sean Fitz-Gerald and Lisa Dillman as they examine why there aren’t more women working in sports talk radio.

  • Inside EA Sports’ decision to do an NHL 94 revival in its latest game. “We wanted to bring it back and bring a different experience to people who maybe never have had that,” said Andy Agostini, senior producer at EA and the lead on the NHL ’94 Rewind project. “I work with a bunch of guys on the team that are much younger than me, and when you mentioned something like NHL ’94, they never played with the Genesis or Super Nintendo.”

  • A Five Thirty Eight report on hockey diversity: “Stopping racism in sports, let alone the broader world, is obviously no easy task. But there are tangible steps that the NHL could take to make the league, and the sport, more equitable and inclusive.”

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Offseason grades for all 31 NHL teams. Who passed the flat-cap test the best?

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