The top broadcast team assembled by NBC Sports Group -- Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk
in the booth, with Pierre McGuire between the benches and Mike Milbury
in studio -- is about to embark on a strenuous journey that begins Thursday with opening night in Boston and won't end until the 2012 Stanley Cup champion is crowned in June.
And to listen to Emrick speak on a conference call Monday, they all can't wait to get started.
"It's exciting to have our group back together," the Hall of Fame play-by-play announcer said. "The 10 minutes we spent on the phone before the conference call started were hilarious, and I anticipate a lot of that being on the air, too. I'm glad Eddie Olczyk
didn't sing at Wrigley Field when he was out there for the seventh inning stretch -- it saves him to do a duet if (famed Bruins anthem singer) Rene Rancourt wants him. Pierre's stitch reward is up to $500 a stitch this season, and now that Andy Rooney has cut back we have the resident curmudgeon in Mike Milbury
While there figures to be plenty of jocularity this season between the close-knit group, there also will be lots of serious hockey talk and analysis. NBC Sports Group, which includes not just the national network but the soon-to-be-rebranded cable channel Versus, will televise more than 100 regular-season games starting with Thursday's doubleheader in Boston and Vancouver, in addition to the introduction of a Thanksgiving Friday telecast, the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and national distribution of all Stanley Cup Playoff games.
"The caliber of play in the League -- it's just amazing to see where the young players have taken the game, how it improves and evolves." -- Pierre McGuire
"They will have frequent-flyer upgrades across the board, flying across the country chasing the best games in hockey," said Sam Flood, the executive producer for NBC Sports and Versus.
It starts in a matter of days as the Bruins raise the Stanley Cup banner they earned by outlasting the Canucks in a seven-game Cup Final prior to Thursday's opener against the revamped Philadelphia Flyers
. Hours later, Vancouver commences what it hopes will be the long road to redemption -- and the first championship in franchise history -- when it welcomes in the Pittsburgh Penguins
Versus will air seven games over the first seven days of the season, including a pair from the 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere, and its new exclusive Wednesday night game of the week. Viewers can expect to get glimpses of superstars like Alex Ovechkin
, the Sedin twins and Sidney Crosby
as soon as he gets back in the lineup, but it's the amount of talent spread around the sport today that has the NBC broadcasters excited.
"The caliber of play in the League -- it's just amazing to see where the young players have taken the game, how it improves and evolves," McGuire said. "This is not just Ovechkin's league, it's not Crosby's league or (Anze) Kopitar's league or the Sedins' league. It's a plethora of stars -- it's Claude Giroux
's league, James van Riemsdyk
's league … it's Patrick Kane
playing at center in Chicago's league. We don't need one or two guys to carry the League anymore; there are a multitude of stars able to do it, and we can't wait to bring it to you because it's going to be an unbelievable year."
The four on-air personalities tackled numerous subjects during Monday's conference call, often backing up one another's opinions, like whether the Los Angeles Kings
are ready to take the next step or the Tampa Bay Lightning
building off a breakthrough season in 2010-11, but also disagreeing on topics like whether the Detroit Red Wings
will remain a Cup contender and if a heavy preseason crackdown on illegal hits ultimately is in the best interests of the game.
After the summer blockbuster to acquire former Flyers captain Mike Richards
, expectations in L.A. are that the Kings will be better than a one-and-done team come playoff time.
"Realistically, I would be really disappointed if they didn't take the next step," said Olczyk, who pointed not only to Richards but the signing of Simon Gagne
as an important secondary scorer. "Not a lot of people are talking about the L.A. Kings, but they're one of those teams that has a legit chance to get to the Western Conference Finals."
"Richards was supposed to be Bobby Clarke
in Philly," Milbury said. "He has an Olympic gold, he's tough as nails -- now his pride is wounded, the team he thought he'd be with his whole career quit on him, traded him. He's a committed, enthusiastic leader in the locker room, a guy who plays under pressure, plays to the big scene. It's going to be a great year for Mike Richards
, assuming he stays healthy."
The consensus also seemed to be that behind emerging stud scorer Steven Stamkos
and a talented young defense, the Lightning are poised to challenge the Washington Capitals
for the Southeast Division title and perhaps avenge last spring's Game 7 loss to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. The one thing that might stop them is if veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson
, who turns 42 on Oct. 12, doesn't hold up.
"The question is can 'Rolie the Goalie' do it again, be an elder statesmen in goal, and give them the same consistency over a whole season," Olczyk said. "Goaltending is the greatest equalizer -- if you don't have it, as Doc likes to say, you have no shot."
Olczyk also expects to see the Red Wings "right where they always are -- competing for the conference and division championship," and lauded Detroit's ability to find players like Todd Bertuzzi
and Danny Cleary
, who appeared to be fizzling out or whose careers never had taken off, and get production out of them.
Milbury, however, was less convinced the Wings remain a legitimate title contender following the retirements of players like puck-moving defenseman Brian Rafalski
"I think they're terrific, but they need a surprise on wing and maybe on defense to really contend for a championship," he said. "No doubt the pieces are there, and every game they're never anything but a high-end team, but they need some fresh, dynamic, off-the-wall guy to lug the puck on the blue line, and unless they get that, do I think they'll win a championship? No."
The continued debate over head shots and the League's increased discipline during the preseason also divided the group. McGuire noted the season opens in Boston, where the Bruins have in recent years dealt with concussion issues for Patrice Bergeron
and Marc Savard
, as well as the hit on Nathan Horton
during the Cup Final that prematurely ended his season.
"This has to sort itself out and I think it will," he said. "Coming out of the lockout there was zero tolerance of obstruction and it took some time for the players to adjust. Once they did, it became better, and I think the game still will be better if we get rid of head shots."
Emrick had a positive reaction to what NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan
has done so far, though he expressed reservations, as well.
"If we're losing guys we have to come down heavy," he said. "I'm for this, though I worry about whether we're going to reduce our game to football's two-hand touch. But I'd rather err on this side for now and trust the League to do what it's been set out to do."
Milbury, who never lacked snarl and racked up 1,552 penalty minutes during his 12-season NHL career with the Bruins, took a different tack.
"I don't like the trend of it. I hope my colleagues are right, that it's a work in progress and that we're going to settle down and get things back to where they would be," he said, pointing to Boston's championship team as an example. "I love the way the Bruins played -- they hit everything that moved. I'm not sure (with the current crackdown) we wouldn't have had a different Stanley Cup champion."