PITTSBURGH - Mike "Doc" Emrick is not Roman Catholic, but he walked into Church of the Epiphany, next door to PPG Paints Arena, on Tuesday and lit a candle for his NBC Sports Network broadcast partner Eddie Olczyk.
Olczyk, 51, is undergoing treatment for colon cancer, so he won't be in the booth with Emrick to call the season opener between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV), but he remains very much on Emrick's mind. Emrick says he's been lighting candles in various Roman Catholic churches for Olczyk, his partner on national telecasts since the 2006-07 season, and his family.
"When we took this on together after John Davidson left, he said, 'I'll always have your back' and he always has," Emrick said Wednesday. "In a course of decade or so when you go through health issues and I have as well, you rely on people that are a part of your team and he has always been what he said. So I certainly do miss him, that's for sure."
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While Olzcyk is going through treatments, Mike Milbury will fill in for Olczyk on the three-man broadcast team with Emrick and Pierre McGuire. Emrick said he knows Olczyk will be watching from his home in Chicago.
"He will undoubtedly be watching and I'm certain he'll have a lot of hilarious things to text to Mike when the evening is over and probably me as well," Emrick said. "That keeps him in the mix and that keeps us aware of his sense of humor."
After the game Wednesday, Emrick will head to Detroit to call the inaugural regular season game at Little Caesars Arena between the Detroit Red Wings and the Minnesota Wild on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV). Dave Strader, who was the Red Wings' television voice for 11 seasons (1985-1996), was originally slated to call that game, but died Sunday at the age of 62 from cholangiocarcinoma, a form of bile duct cancer.
NBCSN will honor Strader, known as The Voice, with a video narrated by Emrick during the first intermission of the Penguins-Blues game.
The hope had been that Strader would be able to do the opening game in the Red Wings' new arena and attend the Hockey Hall of Fame NHL Media Awards Luncheon in Toronto on Nov. 13 to receive the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster.
"To receive the award in November would have been wonderful for him and his family too," said Emrick, the 2008 recipient of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award. "You don't have this kind of a career without the support of other people. I would see him and [his wife] Colleen together and [their three sons] occasionally and you just realized that he had a tremendous support system at his home that enabled him to be gone because we're gone a lot.
"Somebody has to keep the fire burning while you're gone on all of these trips."
Emrick first met Strader when Strader was working for the Red Wings American Hockey League team in his hometown of Glens Falls, New York, a job he held from 1979 to 1985.
"I think the thing that struck me about Dave was that anytime I'd see him I'd ask him about guys that we knew in Glens Falls and he always knew what they were doing because he never really left his home base, even though he did," Emrick said.
Olczyk's and Strader's battles with cancer strike close to home for Emrick, 71, because he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the fall of 1990 when he was 44 and had surgery in January of 1991 to remove it.
"Fortunately, I didn't have to have chemo or radiation," Emrick said. "It was caught early."
Emrick has been free of cancer since then and said he feels very fortunate to be beginning his 45th season broadcasting professional hockey.
"As much as you swear that you will never take it for granted, days pass and you do," he said. "Especially after this many years, you do and then you slap yourself and say you shouldn't take it for granted."
Emrick said he and Olczyk text a lot and talk on the phone whenever Olczyk calls, which is often. Olczyk promises to be back calling games with him sooner than later. In the meantime, he'll watch from home.
Emrick has learned over his career that watching sports can be a way to escape. He's hoping that will be the case for some Wednesday after the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday. Prior to their game, the Penguins and Blues will hold a moment of silence to honor the victims.
Then, the season will begin.
"It's escape," Emrick said. "It's maybe derisively looked at as escape, but escape is sometimes necessary. So we're a part of presenting that in a way that we hope will entertain people."