Each spring brings a tortured-yet-friendly handoff of hockey’s broadcasts from regional networks to national crews. Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin, Al Koken and the rest of the NBC Sports Washington broadcast team endure the ebbs and flows and doldrums of an 82-game NHL season, stretching from early October into mid-April, when the truly elite hockey clubs emerge. Then they step aside.
“The only bit of solace we get,” said Koken, who has covered the Capitals since 1984, “is that we get to listen to the great Doc Emrick.”
That would be the lead voice of NBC’s national hockey coverage, a 71-year-old who has been in the business 45 years and who has never learned to skate.
Mike “Doc” Emrick is the man of a thousand phrases, with an encyclopedic knowledge of hockey and energy to spare. He won an Emmy for “Outstanding Sports Personality — Play-by-Play” in 2011, the same year he was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and won the Emmy again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. When the NHL was locked out for the 2012-13 season, Emrick went to Troy, Mich., about 45 miles from his home, to call a 12-year-old girls’ youth hockey game.
“We’re all professionals,” Koken said, “but if there was ever a night where they said, ‘We ran out of money, but would you still please do this game for us?’ Doc would say, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Emrick is the voice to whom all others in hockey broadcasting are compared. Born in tiny La Fontaine, Ind., he grew up a baseball fanatic until his parents took him to a minor league hockey game in 1960. He was hooked.
In graduate school at Bowling Green, he got his first chance to call a hockey game, drawn to its fast pace and hard hits, he has told countless interviewers. Doing play-by-play was crucial because it allowed him to stop paying for tickets. All the while, he was working his way to a doctorate in communications — hence the nickname “Doc.”
And as hockey emerged as North America’s fourth major professional sport, Emrick emerged with it, touting years worth of knowledge to new fans, with a vocabulary and cadence that transfixed television viewers and radio listeners.
He became the godfather of announcing hockey on television, said Beninati, the Capitals’ longtime play-by-play man. As a young broadcaster with the minor league Maine Mariners, Beninati used to send Emrick tapes of his broadcasts and ask for feedback.
The first time Beninati met with the owner of the Mariners, the boss pointed to a photo hanging in his office of Emrick, who once worked for the Mariners but had since moved on to the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
“If you do it like him, you’re going to be just fine,” Beninati recalled the owner telling him. That meant developing a rhythm that drew fans into the game and describing the action with a vocabulary that magnified the experience.
All of those anecdotes Emrick has stored up over the years also make audiences trust his authority, Koken said.
His vernacular — Deadspin once counted 140 ways Emrick used to describe passing the puck in a single game, then mashed them all up in a Daft-Punk-like remix — tells viewers he’s experiencing the sport’s joy in the same way they are, said Kenny Albert, who will have the national radio call of the Stanley Cup finals for Westwood One.
“It’s like poetry with Doc,” Albert said. “When you watch him and listen to him, some of the phrases he uses are just perfect. If some of us tried to use some of the same phrases, it wouldn’t work.”
Then there’s that patented boundless energy — Emrick is known for belting out at full tilt “HE HIT THE POST WITH THE SHOT!” when a puck strikes the iron or “MY GOODNESS!” after especially hectic moments of play. Such verve is almost mandatory if you’re the network’s big-game voice, Beninati said.
“His cadence and his excitement level can be relentless,” Beninati added. “He’s doing the games we all want to do, and in that theater, you do have to be that animated.”
And it all combines to offer a measure of consolation, Koken said. When the regional-to-national handoff takes place after the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington crew rests easier knowing the call is in Emrick’s hands.
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