The Hockey Hall of Fame inductions are this evening in Toronto. Which means Igor Larionov's incredible career and inspiration to younger players shall be rewarded. Which means linesman Ray Scapinello will have a place in history to go along with beloved-figure status in hockey circles. Which means the late Ed Chynoweth will be honored for his contributions to the Western Hockey League. Oh, and Glenn Anderson will be there, too; but we've said all we'll say about that.
But while the hockey world pauses for a moment to give thanks to these now-legends, and expresses the mandatory outrage over snubs like Pavel Bure, we turn our attention to another guy getting honored this evening at the Hall of Fame but absent from most of the coverage: NHL play-by-play man Mike"Doc" Emrick, who will be given the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions by a broadcaster to the sport of hockey.
Emrick has given over 25 years to the business, calling games on ESPN with Bill Clement in the 1980s; becoming the voice of the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils; as well as the voice of the NHL for OLN/Versus and NBC, working well with current St. Louis Blues President John Davidson for years.
In partnership with NBC Sports Philadelphia
And god, what a voice: Not the booming baritone many would expect from a legendary broadcaster, but that sing-song purr that rises and falls with the action of the game. Emrick's secret has always been that he's actually calling radio on television, detailing the action with such vivid descriptions that you could be in the other room and not miss a pass.
Oh, but when those passes become chances ... that's when Emrick morphs from your affable accountant friend who loves talking hockey to the staccato-voiced barker of exclamations like"BIG DRIVE!" and "SAVE BRODEUR!" Listen to Emrick on a frantic scramble in the defensive zone, as the goalie gets peppered; his voice grabs you by the eyelids and commands attention. There aren't many others who can.
I interviewed Emrick for along-gestating book project about the Devils back when OLN was getting ready for its first NHL broadcast in 2005. Talking hockey with the man is talking hockey with someone who balances an enormous knowledge of the game with a scholar's hunger to know more each day. Like, for example, understanding the toll the Stanley Cup playoffs take on a player.
"I remember John Madden, after the 2000 finals, saying that it took until the middle of July," Emrick said, before a patented pause, "before he could wake up and not hurt somewhere. That stuck with me ever since. We don't see these guys after the celebration, or after they get knockedout."
He's also someone who understands how to sell the game, although god forbid the NHL actually seeks the counsel of someone like that. His prediction that HDTV would transform the game has come to pass; his other prediction, that the Rail-Cam would do the same, seems hindered only by technology.
But what was interesting about Emrick in our chat is that he never thought the bells and whistles on TV are what will bring new viewers to the NHL.
"I don't think it has to do with the technology, because we tried so many things. It is an arena sport. What happens in the life of a fan is that he goes to a game, whether it's in Laredo, Texas in the Central League or Indiana in the United League, and he gets hooked on the sport. Then, he becomes a television watcher, because he loves the sport," he told me.
"I think we hook more people in the arena than we do trying to hook them on television. That sounds heretical, but what it means is that with these new rules, we can show them thegame on television and they might stop, because they'll see more action than slowdown. I'm hopeful it becomes more of a TV sport."
Listening back to that interview, it was surprising to hear Emrick opine on several topics quite passionately: Calling the shootout in the playoffs an "atrocity," and guessing that the European leagues embrace it more because of soccer's influence, for example.
That we don't know where Emrick stands on some of the day's issues is, of course, a testament to his professionalism: Call the game, drop some hints but let your partner be the opinionated hatchet man. It's actually a rare treat, as play-by-play men now seem to all believe they're the show rather than someone talking about one (*cough*Joe Buck*cough*).
That is to say that times have changed. And it would be hypocritical of me not to point out that while I've railed against the recycling of NHL talking heads like Brian Engblom and Darren Pang, I haven't called for a changing of the guard for Emrick as a national voice for hockey. Perhaps that time is coming, or has come. Or perhaps we just need to remind the young fans about Doc's virtues by having him call "Gears of War":
For me, Emrick's voice is synonymous with and symbolic of hockey. There's reverence. There's humor. There's the "soft to loud in an instant" aspect that makes the NHL like a great Pixies song. (That's for you, Bucci, if you find yourself here.)
When I used to sit in my basement and play NHL '94 until 3 a.m. on the weekend, I'd call the games like any other loser would. But I wasn't being Mike Lange or Bob Cole or Sal Messina or Bob Miller or any other Hewitt Award winner.
I was yelling "BIGDRIVE!" Or "OH, AND HE JUST MISSED!" Or slowly bringing the whole thing back to earth with an exhausted "Stoppage in play..."
I was parroting a voice that always meant I was watching something worth watching. And that's a gift, Doc.