SI has a nice profile this week of hockey's undisputed signature voice, Mike "Doc" Emrick. The story picked up some of the things that make Emrick a great play-by-player: his research, his enthusiasm, his longevity.
But the way Emrick announces a game wasn't mentioned in the SI story, and that's what makes him distinctive and great. Consider the above video, from last night's Game 1. He cracks and squeaks and roars. It's a voice that calls up an older era of sports broadcasting, without sounding like a man talking around his cigarette. Pat Summerall was raspier at age 15, I'm sure, than Emrick ever will be.
You can divide the play-by-play landscape into four types: There are the winning voices in empty suits (Mike Tirico, Jim Nantz), the children of legends (Joe Buck, Kenny Albert, Chip Caray, Thom Brenneman), and the all-purpose relics (Dicks Enberg and Stockton). And then there are the excitables. People around these parts and elsewhere fell in love with Gus Johnson over the past five years—he was the screaming yin to Buck's self-serious yang. But, lord, he always had to show off.
In hockey, Gus's closest counterpart is ESPN's Gary Thorne, who in our mind is always calling a Wings-Blues or Devils-Avalanche playoff game, trimming Bill Clement's mustache during commercial breaks. Hockey truly excited Thorne in the way that basketball did Gus. He would holler like a crazy man. And he had a truly great, deep voice, up there with Keith Jackson's or Marv Albert's in timbre. But Thorne just wasn't a very good announcer. Sometimes, he was too invested in the theater of the thing to get his call right. You become more aware of this when you hear Thorne on a baseball broadcast (he did Mets games in the early part of the decade, and now calls the Orioles). He's disinterested, too sonorous, rarely witty.
Emrick doesn't fit into any of those categories. He makes you realize that Gus/not-Gus, Thorne/not-Thorne are false dichotomies. You can have a little of both. He's never showy, and he understands the rhythm of hockey as well as anyone. When you condense a nearly three-hour telecast into 30 seconds of yelps, he sounds crazy. But a full game reveals how Emrick lets his analysts talk (there are two on NBC's telecast), how he slips in esoteric references to minor leagues in the upper Midwest. You start to hear his wit, his way with good verbs. ("Careen" is a favorite.)
Go back to that "helter skelter" line in the video, which Emrick uses to describe the just-ended flurry. He's easing us out of chaos, succinctly and cleverly. That's the kind of call Gus Johnson could never deliver. Gus Johnson would holler "March Madness," over a slow-motion replay. There's certainly some Gus to it, and maybe there's a little Johnny Most, too, but more than anything it's the call of a guy rolling with the ebb and flow of an exciting hockey game, pulling the audience along with him.