Hockey coverage tends to split in two directions. On the one side are those who either think hockey never advanced out of 1976, or seriously wish it didn’t, and try to accentuate and focus on the “crazies in a cage” aspect. This is your Jack Edwards/Mike Milbury school. What is it about Boston? Oh, right. The idea that hockey is still played by shaved gorillas for whom the puck is only incidental to what’s going on out on the ice.
The other approach is the very down-home, kids-on-the-pond, “hockey is the best thing and kept Canada from becoming just thousands of badgers drinking Tim Hortons.” The sweet story of local rinks, local junior teams, local zamboni-drives and how every NHL player is just a local kid from down the block that made good.
Juxtaposing these two philosophies can cause whiplash if you think about it too hard.
Doc Emrick, who retired today after nearly 50 years as a broadcaster, leaned toward the latter school of thought, and at times maybe a touch too heavily, but he was so good that it didn’t matter. It’s hard not to lean toward a sunshine-and-rainbows approach when you love the game as much as Doc clearly does.
Maybe that’s Doc’s greatest gift, in a time where it can always feel like the broadcasters are cynical about the games they cover, or they emit no discernible feeling at all. Joe Buck gets a lot of shit he doesn’t deserve, but the fact that he only really parachutes into baseball for the playoffs does give him an air of being above it. There’s always a sense with Al Michaels that he thinks he’s as big a part of the show as the game itself, given how long he’s been on the NFL’s premier broadcast. John Smoltz actively shits on everything in front of him.
Doc was around forever, yet it never felt like he was any less excited about doing a Rangers-Flyers game last December than he had been when he first started in Fort Wayne, Ind. Probably because he was just as excited.
Of course, what really set Doc apart was the vocabulary. To cover hockey right, you have to be so on top of everything, because it’s so fast, especially if you’re on radio where Doc started. To try and sum up the action is to constantly be involved and constantly talking. On TV you can occasionally let the action just play out, but if you want to capture the frantic pace of the action and the adrenaline that it can pump when it’s good, and the passion of the crowd in the building, you have to ride that wave. But if you’re constantly talking, things can get repetitive, watered down, in a hurry. If you keep hearing the same words over and over, it becomes a drone.
Which is why I love this.
It wasn’t just that Doc could roll out a new word to describe a defenseman clearing the puck off the glass every two minutes. This wasn’t Clyde Frazier actively reading from his thesaurus every night merely to entertain himself (which is also great, but only Clyde can do that). Doc used those words to perfectly illustrate what was happening, to make you see it perfectly. The level of description and accuracy was piercing, but it kept everything lively at the same time. While the vocabulary was endless and wonderful, you didn’t really notice while you were focused on the game. It was merely an accent. If you were listening specifically for his flourishes you always got what you came for. Either way, it was so perfectly pitched as to blend and lift both the game and the broadcast.
Emrick could be excited and passionate without putting himself above what he was there to describe. He was just enjoying it as much as you were, while letting the game tell the story and just adding to it. And even in the heavy-ass slog the NHL regular season can be — and it really can be in January and February — hearing Doc’s voice made all of those faceless and never-ending games seem important.
Doc’s voice gave you that feeling of a trudge through snow and wind into a packed and smokey arena (if you grew up when I did, and your first hockey experiences had the atmosphere of an OTB backroom). The way your heartbeat would rise heading to your seat as the nearly blinding light of ice would hit your eyes for the first time. The way a game could grab you even from the highest reaches and pull you toward the ice even when you were just sitting at home.
It certainly has to be mentioned that a huge part of Doc’s charm, appreciation, and love from the entire industry is that he is the guy you hear on the broadcast. You can’t find anyone to say a bad word about him, and anyone who has ever dealt with him — from national writers and players, to bloggers who somehow snagged a press pass — will tell you he gave them the same exact time and treatment: patient, warm, gracious, and engaging. Doc had time for everyone, and he made that time something everyone would beam about for years.
It was always easy to hear and see that honesty with Doc, and the moment I thought of this morning when reading the news of his retirement was his tribute to fellow legendary hockey play-by-play man Dave Strader, who passed away three years ago. Doc’s intro to the video package is simple, but it is as heartfelt as anything you’ve seen. Doc makes it clear how much Strader meant to him, and to everyone, while holding back the tears that make his love so abundantly clear. He doesn’t hide the pain and loss, but never gives in to it, so that he could give Strader the tribute he deserved.
That’s what Doc will take with him — his broadcasts always came from the heart. Honesty. He put in the work and did the miles because he genuinely loved the game without ever inflating it to something it wasn’t. For Doc, there just wasn’t a better time to be had than watching a hockey game for a couple hours, and that infectious joy simply bled through the TV’s speakers. It wasn’t overwrought, it wasn’t pushing an agenda, it wasn’t selfish. It was genuine, it was exactly who he was, and hockey will miss it terribly.