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Five Questions: Emrick on his love of Winter Classic

by Dan Rosen's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features NBC broadcaster Mike Emrick.

WASHINGTON -- NBC broadcaster Mike "Doc" Emrick lists his top-two events to call each year as the NHL Winter Classic and the Stanley Cup Final, in no particular order. He was on his way to the first one when he spoke to on Monday night.

Emrick likes to get into the host city for major events such as the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (Thursday, 1 p.m. ET, NBC) early in order to walk around the venue and talk to some of the people who work there about their city's sports culture. He never knows what kind of nuggets of information he'll be able to gather and potentially use during the broadcast.

For instance, Emrick said he went inside the famed Fenway Park scoreboard to see all the signatures on the wall the day before the 2010 NHL Winter Classic. He wound up meeting the guys who were going to operate the scoreboard for the game between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers.

"I said, 'If the Bruins score a goal, are you going to do like the Red Sox when they get a run and put up a yellow "1" until the period is over?'" Emrick said. "They said, 'No, we thought about it, but we only have one of them, and what happens if the Flyers score too?' So instead of doing that they just put up a total, but they didn't put up a yellow number and change it to a white number when the period ended.

"I've also never seen more signatures on a wall. That's the stuff you get to do when you do this game, especially in those places like that if you love history.

"Nationals Park is a newer facility, obviously, but they'll undoubtedly be things that you discover there. I mean, at Soldier Field we learned that nobody could use the Bears locker room, so the teams had to dress in other places. In Yankee Stadium you were more than welcome to have the [Yankees] locker room if you were the home team, which by contract turned out to be the Devils and Islanders."

Emrick was heading to the airport as he spoke, getting ready to start his on-site preparations for yet another NHL Winter Classic game, this time between the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals in the nation's capital.

He talked about his experiences with the Winter Classic, why he loves the event, the kick he gets out of it, and how he has to change his approach to calling games because of the uniqueness of it.

Here are Five Questions with…Mike "Doc" Emrick:

When you think of the Winter Classic now as opposed to when it first started, what gets your engine revved up, what do you love the most about this event, because you're on record saying how much you do love it?

"Nobody else is playing, and all of these guys know their peers are watching. The rest of the world is watching, including some people that don't normally watch hockey. They'll watch it on New Year's Day because it's odd. You're playing an indoor game outdoors, and you don't know what can happen by the whim of weather. That's why there is a meteorologist there. But more importantly I think the players, even when I was watching games in Fort Wayne in the '60s, they always have had a grasp that they wanted more people to love the game. Even when they were making $6,000 a season for playing in the IHL, it mattered for them whether the show was good or not and what they were doing was appealing to people. I think that's the other thing that enters into this from the professional standpoint: They know their peers are watching, but they also want to entertain people with a good show, and you don't do that by losing 5-1. You do that like what the Red Wings and Toronto did last year, or what Pittsburgh and Buffalo did that one year. You give it your best, and I fully expect that's what it'll be. What's more is you know No. 8 (Alex Ovechkin) loves to be in the spotlight, and he's going to get the greatest spotlight he's had since the playoff series against Pittsburgh or the [Winter Classic] game in Pittsburgh that was rained on, that his team won. The Chicago guys have been there before, but they have a real pride and that's why a lot of people think they'll win this thing (the Stanley Cup) this year."

In what ways is it different calling this game because you're not calling just a hockey game, you're calling an event? How does it change for you in how you call the game?

"You're not that concerned about identifying every player that has the puck, and we are told to really explain ourselves if we delve into inside stuff, to make sure we clarify because we are going to get some people who don't watch hockey on a regular basis, so they know the terminology. The way [NBC Sports and NBCSN executive producer] Sam Flood always talks to us about it, it's the same thing as a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final or any Olympic game is, the Winter Classic, because it brings on more people that we want to love the game. The players do their part by always putting on a really good show, but we have to do our part by enhancing the game but not getting in the way of it. A lot of times you don't say anything because what you're seeing are the shovel guys out there working and you see the pileup of the snow along the boards, or a guy has a collision and the snow falls off the shelf. You don't have to say anything to that. It's television, people can see it. I think that's why it's so much fun because of the high skill level they have and their commitment to putting on a good show. I talked to Don Van Massenhoven and Marc Joannette after the game in Buffalo; it was weeks after and it still brought a smile to their face just like it did to the players to talk about it. They said, 'Yeah, we had some ice problems, we had to get the Zamboni out a few extra times, but not one player complained, not one.'"

Have you found the stories about these games, telling them and retelling them weeks, months, even years after the fact, has added to you enjoyment of the Winter Classic?

"Exactly. Exactly. I spoke with Ryan Miller probably three months after the game in Buffalo, and Brendan Smith two or three months after the game in Ann Arbor, and the first reaction both had was to smile even though their teams lost. Then there was a phrase kind of like, 'I know we lost the game, but…' They would usually say something like, 'What an experience it was to play in it.' I remember, because we were right up against the glass last year like we'll be this year, as soon as the game was over, the Red Wings were discouraged because they lost, but they all came onto the ice to congratulate Jimmy Howard and they immediately went to one of the attack circles to start applauding the fans. Niklas Kronwall was probably the closest guy to me, maybe 25 feet away, and you could see the expression on his face and the words that he was saying, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' as he was applauding them. The players really appreciate the whole experience, and I think it's not only what they get from it, but what the fans get from their commitment to the game. You know, these all sound like Pollyanna terms, but you and I both know that's how they feel."

You're used to being up in a booth with a great vantage point to call the game, so how does it change your view, what you see, and how you call the game when you're right up against the glass?

"It's like being in the front row to the 500-mile race because it comes at you and leaves you pretty fast. We are right on the blue line at one end near a penalty box, so at the other end of the ice it goes away from us really fast, but they can come at you fast too. I remember last year in Ann Arbor, Henrik Zetterberg got the puck probably at the red line and went around the right-wing side, right in front of us, and he went right by everybody to get a pretty good chance off. To see that speed, you realize why Cody Franson or Dion Phaneuf couldn't catch him, because he had the jets going and he knew what he was going to do, and they had to try to react to him. You get a real grasp of how fast it is. Then there is a monitor that is placed to my left so when the play shifts to the end of the ice to my left, I just shift over and look at the monitor. I don't normally call any games off the monitor, but last year at Yankee Stadium I did quite a bit of the first [Coors Light NHL Stadium Series] game off of that because it was very difficult to read the numbers from where were. From that distance, unless they're really unusual skating styles, you can't pick them off without getting a close look at them. We were a good distance away."

Did you get a sense in Buffalo, when the first Winter Classic was unfolding, that this would be as big as it has become and now as historic as it has become?

"Let's pretend that there was no snow in Buffalo that day. And let's pretend it was a pretty good game, but it was 3-1, pick whichever team you want, and it went 60 minutes. Since it was the first one the NHL did in the United States, it's an interesting debate as to whether there would have been another one right away. But after the sleet in the second period, after the snow in the third period, after it went to overtime, after they got the Zambonis out a couple of times during the third period and they just tried to make the best of the ice, and then Crosby wins it with the snow falling and the powder blue uniforms and all of that, all of a sudden it becomes incredibly, if you want to use the word for hockey, romantic. It becomes something people look back on positively. I mean, ask the Penguins how many powder blue jerseys they sold, and they're probably never going to wear them again because they already have a third jersey and it's not the powder blue one. The thing is it was a magnificent and fitting end to the day, even though Sabres fans might not have seen it that way. It became, 'Well, we've gotta have another one of these,' whereas going in it was, 'Well, let's see what happens.' After that was over it was, 'Geez, where are we going to go next time? How about Wrigley Field?' Makes sense to me. 'Who do we have in it?' Well, Chicago, of course, and Detroit.' That's good. That's good."


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