Fresh out of Manchester College in 1968, an aspiring 22-year-old hockey broadcaster needed a job.
He applied to any team he could find in the hockey writers’ journal, from the minor leagues all the way to the NHL. The responses poured in: rejected, rejected, rejected.
Not so much discouraged as delayed, the young broadcaster headed back to school, this time to get a master’s degree in radio/television from Miami of Ohio. While watching the Montreal Canadiens take care of the St. Louis Blues in the 1969 Stanley Cup finals, he repeated the same process again, typing out a letter to every team.
Again, nothing but polite rejections.
While working on his doctorate at Bowling Green State University, he went through the routine a third time. This round, he got a bite. In 1973, Port Huron’s John Wismer offered him a job as sports director – and $160 for about 80 hours of work per week. The young broadcaster had finally landed his play-by-play gig, with the International Hockey League’s Port Huron Flags.
Not many in hockey would believe that man was Mike “Doc” Emrick, the broadcaster now synonymous with the game in the United States. NBC, Versus, Fox Sports, even the Olympic Games… hockey fans can’t avoid him. From Port Huron, to Portland, Maine, to Philadelphia, and finally landing in New Jersey, Emrick’s eloquent delivery has made him hockey’s version of must-see broadcasting. And today, he tells similar stories of hockey players’ perseverance on game broadcasts.
“I knew somebody,” said Chico Resch, Emrick’s broadcast partner with the New Jersey Devils and former NHL goaltender. “I had an inside track. Doc knew no one. The only way he was going to get there was to rise above a lot of people who were trying to do the same thing he was.”
CHASING A DREAM
Emrick grew up in La Fontaine, Indiana, a town of fewer than 1,000 people, an hour southwest of Fort Wayne. It’s not exactly Hockeytown; it’s the heart of basketball country. And Doc only played baseball. He wasn’t a very good athlete, but he was fascinated by sports on the radio.
In fifth grade, his direction changed forever when his parents surprised him by taking him to see the Fort Wayne Komets of the International Hockey League (IHL).
“I had always wanted to broadcast baseball until then, and then I saw what hockey was like and I was hooked on the first game,” Emrick said. “And so I kept pestering them to take me back. So what was a once-a-year trip became a once-every-other-weekend [trip] when I was of high school age and I could drive. I just became a fanatic.”
But the countless trips to Fort Wayne weren’t merely to cheerlead. He quickly befriended the team’s play-by-play man, Bob Chase, whom Emrick had admired over the airwaves as a kid. Chase inspired Emrick to make the switch from baseball to wanting to broadcast hockey games.
Now 81 years old, Chase has broadcasted Komets games for 54 years and isn’t planning to stop anytime soon. But even in those days, Emrick’s level of passion mimicked that of Chase.
During high school, Emrick would record himself broadcasting Komets games on his hand recorder and then bring the tapes to Chase for critique.
“Just to get the feel of it,” Chase said.
Anyone who has ever heard a “Big drive!” or “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” can confirm that the early training paid off – the feeling is in his blood now.AT HOME ON THE ROAD
You won’t find 60-year-old Emrick sleeping in his own bed many nights, much less sleeping at all. Emrick owns a house in Port Huron, rents out a hotel room in New Jersey, and travels cross-country doing broadcasts for NBC and Versus. That leaves just over a day at home with his wife Joyce per week. He lives out of a suitcase and racks up frequent flyer miles faster than an Al Iafrate slap shot.
Stan Fischler, who works Devils’ games between periods, recalled a recent Washington broadcast that showed just how intense Emrick’s schedule gets. It was snowing hard outside, and Emrick was in danger of missing his flight to Boston. But no worries: Emrick already had a contingency plan to take the train. The meticulous planning doesn’t even faze Emrick.
“The only downside of the job is going through metal detectors at 5:30 a.m. in the morning, so that you can fly out to be at the morning practice in whatever city you’re working in,” Emrick said.
Many days, the morning comes early. Emrick often has a Devils’ game one night, and a national telecast the next. And he believes that 50 percent of a play-by-play man’s work is lost if he misses the morning skate, since he can use material from practice to set the night’s broadcast apart from the newspapers and blogs published earlier in the day.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who can put more miles on a body, go with less sleep, but with arrive with more energy than Doc,” Resch said.
Resch challenges you to watch five tapes, with one game being the third game Emrick broadcasted in four nights. Just try and pick which one that third game is.
“You can’t,” Resch said. “It doesn’t matter how many games in a row he’s done; he’s just on fire and as professional as if he had been off for a week. I don’t know how he does it.”
Besides his chipper demeanor and flawless travel-agent skills, chock up the success to extensive preparation. Back when he was working in the IHL, Emrick started saving newspaper clippings and stats – whatever he could get his hands on. Today, his massive collection provides him with stories that the public hasn’t heard in 25 years. And those pack-rat habits give him an edge.
“His filing system, with what he brings on the road, is incredible,” Resch said. “It’s probably why he had to have a hernia operation – because he’s lugging this big, heavy bag around.”
Emrick’s drive for preparation and information isn’t limited to hockey; it extends to every one of Emrick’s broadcasting endeavors, exemplified by NBC’s request for Emrick to broadcast water polo at the 1994 Olympic Games.
“Michael had never seen water polo in his life, but he plunged into it and he took a crash course,” Chase said. “By the time Mike did water polo matches, you’d think he was the original old-timer doing a water polo match. And he was as excited about water polo as he is doing hockey. There’s no limitation to what he could do if he wanted to.”CHICO AND THE DOC
Resch takes a backseat approach in the booth with Emrick. He will jump in the play when Emrick needs a breather, but most of the time, Resch just stands back and lets Emrick work his magic.
“When you get the best play-by-play guy in the business, Doc Emrick, what the heck am I doing as color man,” Resch said, “talking over the play and taking away from that tremendous excitement that Doc can conjure up by the way he can call a game?”
Sometimes Resch just sits in awe, much like the fans floored by the way Emrick can weave a five-syllable word (paraphernalia) into the discussion of a routine Martin Brodeur save. Emrick may have acquired his nickname from his doctorate degree, but his natural brilliance also comes through every broadcast.
“I’m even sitting up there marveling,” Resch said. “He always comes up with something, and then I look at him and give him a thumbs-up, indicating that’s one I hadn’t heard.”
They’ve been working together for nine years on the Devils’ broadcasts, but no broadcast is ever perfect. Recently, Resch likened Scott Gomez soaring through the neutral zone to the “Galloping Ghost of the Alaskan Coast,” a reference to Notre Dame’s “Galloping Ghost,” football legend Red Grange.
Trouble was, the standout varsity halfback didn’t go to Notre Dame. But Emrick didn’t just let the slip-up go unnoticed. And yet, he mentioned it in a way that shows both his sly wit and his respect for his broadcaster partner.
“And then Doc says, ‘Well, I’ll tell ya - that’s not going to make fans of the Illini very happy.’ He actually went to Illinois, so I got that wrong,” Resch said. “But he did it in kind of a humorous way.”BEYOND THE MIC
Fans know Doc the broadcaster. But ask his colleagues, and that’s the same as knowing Doc the person.
“What you hear is what he is,” Chase said. “On the game and away from the game, he’s still the same personable guy.”
Personable doesn’t even begin to describe his professionalism, his unwavering devotion to the game he loves, or his strong faith. Not to mention, he’s just an all-around good, and even eccentric, guy who occasionally sports a paisley tie and burgundy suit.
“With whatever we do, we all aren’t fortunate enough to work with people we really like, who we really like to be with as friends and who we like as companions,” Fischler said, “people who are interesting, who are special. And Doc is one of the most special people I’ve ever met.”
When Chase was being honored for his 50 years of broadcasting hockey, the Komets asked Emrick to send in a greeting to show at the ceremony. Emrick simply wouldn’t have it. Fitting it in the only Saturday he had free all winter, he emceed the event.
It just shows that the hockey passion that started in Fort Wayne half a century ago is still going strong. And Doc isn’t likely to leave the game anytime soon.
“He is the best. People know he’s the best, and they like him to be the best,” Resch said. “And most of all, people want him to continue to be the best. When you’ve got that kind of peer pressure, it also helps drive what’s inside Doc. Those things coming together… and it makes him the best in the business.”