Mike “Doc” Emrick logs more frequent flyer miles than some small birds.
As the lead television play-by-play analyst for the New Jersey Devils, Versus and NBC, the NHL’s 30 arenas become homes away from home for Emrick.
It’s been that way for more than 25 years for the legendary broadcaster.
He doesn’t mind it, though. But, when the league and televisions schedules are released, there are a handful of dates every year he circles on the calendar – the games in Pittsburgh.
That’s because Emrick, who lived in Beaver Falls from 1969-1971, got his start in hockey here. As a professor of speech and broadcast at Geneva College from 1969-71, Emrick got his first experience of the NHL covering the Penguins as an unpaid correspondent for the Beaver County Times newspaper.
“At the time I covered them, Red Kelly was the coach and it was 1970-71 and they had a player named Glen Sather. That and I think Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President,” he said with a laugh. “First of all, there aren’t many people I have talked to in the broadcast circuit who don’t like coming here. A lot of it has to do with the tradition of having good teams is back. That went away for a while, but now it’s even more reason to come.
“The other side of it that has nothing to do with hockey is that there’s no more scenic city in the United States,” he continued. “And, this is a like a Midwestern town even though it’s in an Eastern state. I grew up in the Midwest in a town of 600 people. Pittsburgh has a friendliness that most Eastern big cities don’t have just because of the nature of putting so many people in such a tight area. That’s not to trash the other cities; it’s just that Pittsburgh is special that way.”
While the area will always have special meaning for Emrick, also a Pirates fan, he is excited about watching the young Penguins continue to improve on the ice.
“This team has been better than I ever imagined,” he said. “I thought they would be good. I didn’t know they’d be real good, projecting down they road they’d be really great. I have been pleasantly surprised. I can’t speak for the NHL, but franchises around the league are paying attention to Pittsburgh now.
“Unless you’re anti-Pittsburgh, and I don’t know many of those people, I think many people – even if they are neutral – have to be thrilled about what’s going on,” he continued. “But, if you have any feeling in your heart for Pittsburgh or for the trials this franchise has been through, it must make you feel so much better to have seen now what they are on the threshold of becoming. These guys are going to do nothing but succeed.”
Emrick believes the Penguins got even better at the NHL trade deadline with the addition of Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque and Joel Kwiatkowski to their roster.
“To have somebody like Roberts come in, who won [the Stanley Cup] in Calgary in 1989 and has been a playoff-type player is huge. It’s a different game at playoff time. The games are rougher and you’re starting to see that now,” he said. “Georges Laraque is a guy who can play as well as fight. His problem is that he’s a heavyweight fighter and can’t get many fights. Guys don’t want to mess with him. As a result, if you watch a game that he’s playing, he’d go in the corner and guys would give him at least three feet of room. So, he could play along the boards and nobody would knock it away from him. That is another advantage – Georges not only could fill a lineup, but he could play a shift and he could play regularly.
“I think, in the long run, the more-important thing to me is, not only is the team better and potentially great, but the franchise hasn’t been on this solid of ground with its assets since Jagr, Lemieux, Francis and all those guys were here 15 years ago,” he continued. “At a time that is so critical to the franchise’s future, to have assets that anyone can recognize are terrific is outstanding.”
The Penguins’ biggest asset – Sidney Crosby – continues to amaze Emrick as well.
“You hesitate to go overboard [in talking about him], but he is worthy of going overboard,” he said. “That’s the thing about Sid that is remarkable. Not only can he play, but he’s a better person than he is a player.
“And, now I am not speaking officially for the NHL, but recognizing what the NHL desperately needed. We needed somebody because, from the time Wayne [Gretzky] handed over his stick in 1999 at Madison Square Garden, we have not had anybody. To not have an ambassador and to not have someone people can identify with and who they perceive as being friendly because he is – we had that for half a century before Wayne retired because we had Gordie Howe from the late 1940s-on. Then we had Orr and then we had Gretzky. We had them all and then we had nobody,” he continued. “It’s been a long absence, but we have that person now. If we get more – great. There are all kinds of debates about who the best young player is. Great. I am glad there are debates because that means we have more than just one of them. I remember sitting here 20 years ago and the debate was who was better – Gretzky or Lemieux. Who cares as long as we have them both to watch. They are both great satellites in the same solar system.”
Emrick has been impressed with the Penguins’ two young rookies, too – 18-year-old Jordan Staal and 20-year-old Evgeni Malkin.
“And they are such old players, too,” he said with a smile. “Malkin is great. He’s young and you can’t teach size, which he has. Staal is well-skilled and certainly big. He comes from a great family. The Penguins are going to have these guys for a while and that’s terrific.”