With a PhD on his resume, NBC broadcaster Mike Emrick is the ultimate student of the game. And his meticulous preparation has made him one of the NHL’s best ever to sit behind a mic.
By Alan Bass On a crisp October morning in Philadelphia, Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick briskly strides through the hallways of the Wells Fargo Center. Wearing a Bowling Green State University polo shirt – a nod to the school where he earned his PhD in communications, hence the nickname – and an NBC Olympics windbreaker, he’s all smiles. Although he has broadcast more than 3,000 professional hockey games, the game that is most important to him is always the one he’s about to call. It’s 10:30 a.m., but Emrick was up early, taking the train from Connecticut where he and his wife of nearly four decades have been visiting family. Hockey is his passion, but his life always has and always will revolve around his wife, Joyce, their menagerie of two dogs and seven horses, and the many trips they take together throughout each year. But for the entirety of this morning’s three-hour train ride, his focus is on his work. As NBC’s lead hockey play-by-play broadcaster, he has perused dozens of pages of game notes, statistics, historical facts and stories, just as he does every day in preparation for calling a game. Today, it’s for the Blackhawks vs. the Flyers.
As Emrick, 69, walks at ice level toward an empty dressing room to unpack his belongings, he’s swarmed by dozens of people. Some are old friends, players, coaches or fellow media members, others are trying to meet him for the first time. He is genuinely happy to see each of them and spends as much time with them as possible before he has to excuse himself to get to the morning skate. Preparation for NBC’s signature Wednesday Night Rivalry matchup beckons. For a man who is so well known in the hockey world, Emrick seems rather shocked at the admiration he garners. After the morning skate, he runs into four members of the 2014 United States Olympic silver medal-winning women’s hockey team, in town for a charity event. As honored as they are to meet the man who made their names known throughout the U.S., he looks just as humbled to meet them. He chats casually with the four of them for nearly 10 minutes, discussing their careers and the newly formed NWHL. It’s the start of just another typical game day in the life of one of hockey’s most legendary voices. Growing up a diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fan in rural Indiana, Emrick had little opportunity to watch hockey. Every gym and stadium in the Hoosier State was reserved for basketball on a weekly basis. The closest pro hockey team was in Fort Wayne, more than 40 miles away. But as a teenager in 1960, he finally convinced his parents to take him to a Fort Wayne Komets game (an International League team at the time but currently in the ECHL). He was immediately hooked. “I mean, there was chicken wire around the boards,” he said with a chuckle. “Guys who played it were stitched up. The goalies didn’t wear masks. It was just a game that required an inordinate amount of courage to play. The collisions, and everything else about it, just struck me as a wonderful sport.” Despite his lack of understanding for the game at the time (he was surprised the bluelines didn’t get sucked into the Zamboni as it drove over them), he immersed himself in it and decided this was the sport for him. While doing an assignment for a college speech class, Emrick requested a few minutes with the team’s broadcaster Bob Chase, now nearing his 90s and in his 63rd season as the voice of the Komets, and got his chance to pick Chase’s brain about the world of broadcasting. “I still have the interview tape,” Emrick said. “Most people in that situation would probably give you 10 minutes and say, ‘Well, I wish you good luck,’ and that would be it.” Emrick took the lessons to heart, learning how crucial it is to take a few minutes of his time to help someone else.
Walking from Philadelphia’s dressing room to Chicago’s after the morning skate, Emrick spots an 11-year-old boy in a heavily autographed Blackhawks jersey standing with his dad in the hallway. After chatting with him for a few minutes, Emrick discovers the young fan spent the summer coming up with his list of the top 100 all-time NHL players and wanted to share it. Emrick’s eyes light up. He sits in the hallway beside his newest friend, debating the rankings: Bill Mosienko versus Bill Cowley, Frank McGee versus Sprague Cleghorn, Mario Lemieux versus Jaromir Jagr and more. After a lengthy conversation in which Emrick seemed to learn more than the young fan, he tells the kid’s father, “I want a photocopy of that,” and walks back to the stands. “He must have really done his homework,” Emrick said. “None of those guys played when he was alive. Here’s a kid who went to the trouble of looking up guys he never knew and will never see play the game.” Emrick shares the young fan’s studiousness. At 69, he’s still a student of the game. For tonight’s contest, he has a binder filled with information on every player, statistics, trends, historical facts and stories he’s kept in his pocket for years until just the right moment. But the most important part of his broadcast is what he calls the “Idiot Sheet,” a two-sided card he created decades ago in the minors. The card includes all of the information pertinent to tonight’s game in color co-ordination, including rosters, line combinations, other games being played, team stats and league standings. He also keeps three columns blank on the back to add everything he learns during his morning routine, including famous hockey birthdays, information on the Blackhawks’ newest Stanley Cup ring and anecdotes from players and coaches. Emrick's growing fame even saw him recently featured on HBO's 'Real Sports.'
Above all else, Emrick is a pure fan. He’s enthused by those players who toiled in the minors before making it to the NHL. While other media members surround the superstars prior to the game, Emrick quietly talks with rookie defenseman Brandon Manning about riding the bus in the AHL before beating out a veteran NHLer for the final roster spot this season. He talks with Blackhawks left winger Ryan Garbutt, who spent time in three different minor leagues where he had happily played for $400 a week before finally getting a spot on an NHL roster. The stories he collects are filed away for use at just the right time – that night, weeks or even years later. As the game nears, Emrick appears in the broadcast booth at 6:00 p.m. a completely different man. Gone is the playful smile and casual personality. Suited up for the pregame taping, he now radiates an aura of focus and intensity. His expression indicates the importance of this night. Every broadcast is an opportunity to garner a new fan for the sport he loves most, creating a chance to make a lasting impression on someone tuning into a hockey game for the first time. He takes his job as seriously as every player and strives for perfection each time. Once the game starts, though, it flashes by in a blur. The stage manager hands Emrick countless notes every few minutes that he is expected to work seamlessly into his call, all while flawlessly painting a picture of 10 players moving simultaneously up to 30 miles per hour on a sheet of ice. Production crewmembers frequently chatter into his headset, video co-ordinators assemble highlight reels, and Emrick is handed more notes and tidbits. It’s chaos to those unfamiliar with the game, but Emrick articulates the action with artistry. He does it with precision and accuracy, rarely looking at his cheat sheet, as if he has memorized hundreds of pages of notes in just a few hours. Through the three-hour broadcast, Emrick sprinkles in more goodies learned throughout the day, many of which are written on his Idiot Sheet: Manning’s AHL experience, Matt Read’s time at Bemidji State, tidbits gleaned from conversations with both coaches, birthday wishes to former players and even something Flyers right winger Jakub Voracek said to him earlier that morning: “This is the greatest job.” Emrick feels similarly charmed. In the midst of the second period, after a series of exciting back-and-forth plays, he leans back in his chair smirking, turns to fellow game analyst Eddie Olczyk and chimes on-air, “Isn’t this great?” As the final buzzer sounds on a 3-0 Philadelphia win, Emrick signs off after another broadcast. Almost as quickly as he came, he bolts out of the booth with a smile and a wink, leaving for a limo ride back to Connecticut to reunite with his wife. Tomorrow, he’ll begin preparing for the most important game of his career.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the November 23 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.