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SIMMONS: Retirement of Doc Emrick will leave a hole in hockey broadcasting

Legendary broadcaster Mike (Doc) Emrick announced his retirement Monday after almost 50 years behind the microphone, including the past 15 as the voice of the NHL in the U.S.
Legendary broadcaster Mike (Doc) Emrick announced his retirement Monday after almost 50 years behind the microphone, including the past 15 as the voice of the NHL in the U.S.

The very best of broadcasters can be like close members of your family. They can make you smile, they can make you comfortable, they can make you laugh and sometimes they can make you cry.

Doc Emrick made a lot of people cry on Monday, many who know the great hockey play-by-play man, and many who don’t.

And all he did was announce his retirement.

And then one by one, all over the hockey world, in households mostly across America, everyone had a story to tell about what he’d done for them, what he’d meant to them, the game they remembered, the call, the moment, the circumstance.

This is sports at its essential best when it’s personal, in your home, with your television, you and your team and a man or woman calling the game. And nobody ever called a game — any game, in any sport — better than Mike (Doc) Emrick did. Kenny Albert, a legendary broadcaster himself, the son of an even larger legend, called Emrick “the Vin Scully of hockey broadcasters.”

By counting Emmy Awards alone, if that matters, you can reverse Albert’s line and call Scully the Emrick of baseball broadcasters.

His career was that remarkable. His stage — hockey in America — wasn’t exactly huge. Ninety-nine million people watched the Super Bowl this year in the U.S. Only two million, on the good nights, watched the Stanley Cup Final on NBC.

And yet in eight different years, seven of them in a row, Emrick won the Emmy Award for best play-by-play man in sports broadcasting, which is like winning the Oscar for best actor every year from movies hardly anyone ever watched.

That was part of Emrick’s power and charm as a play-by-play man. He became the soundtrack of his sport. There was Doc and everybody else in America. And as Canada had Jim Hughson and Chris Cuthbert and Gord Miller and many others doing games, there was still Doc and everybody else.

Bob Cole was pushed out last year. Danny Gallivan worked his last game in 1984. Dan Kelly worked until 1988 and passed away a year later. Foster Hewitt was the originator of the profession. And in French, on almost any Mount Rushmore of hockey broadcasters, you would need to include the name Rene Lecavalier.

That’s the list, from this desk. Those are the difference-makers and as Emrick’s retirement became official Monday — a day before his book, On Mike , is to be released — the hashtag #thankyoudoc was trending on Twitter in two different countries.

And that was before Emrick took to the telephone in the afternoon for a part-farewell press conference and a part-tribute that went on for almost 90 minutes. I don’t remember being on any conference call like one before.
It was like a roast without insults — one hockey celebrity after another coming on with the odd question.

Earlier in the day, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had released a statement almost as eloquent as an Emrick broadcast. “Nobody has ever conveyed the sights, sounds, passion, excitement, thrills and intricacies of our game better,” wrote Bettman, who then added that Emrick transformed hockey broadcasting “into art.”

Bettman came on the conference call. So did Sam Flood, the longtime producer at NBC, who said there was no crying in hockey, except he’s cried twice in the past 24 hours. Ed Olczyk, Emrick’s longtime broadcast partner, came on the call and tried to say thanks and express his feelings for Doc.

He could barely get a word out. A few words, then a pause of emotional silence. A few more words and another pause.

“I had the best seat in the house for 14 years,” Olczyk told me afterwards. “I got to listen to Doc. Sometimes, he’d be calling the game and I would just listen. I’d get lost in the game. I didn’t want to say anything to screw it up.”

Olczyk got on the call after Bettman, who came on before Lou Lamoriello, who came on before Al Michaels.

Emrick’s first NHL job was working for the Philadelphia Flyers. But his longest stint, before going national, was with Lamoriello’s New Jersey Devils.

Emrick loves stories and loves to tell them. Yesterday in broadcasting. Tomorrow in book form. He told a story from the 1987 Stanley Cup Final: the great Edmonton Oilers vs. Mike Keenan’s Philadelphia Flyers.

Apparently Keenan, known for such chicanery, hijacked the Stanley Cup prior to Game 6 and brought it into the Flyers dressing room, just to give his players a glimpse of what could be theirs. Edmonton coach Glen Sather, hearing of Keenan’s move, got hold of the Cup prior to Game 7, or so the story goes. Sather put the Cup in his vehicle in the parking lot so the Flyers couldn’t get anywhere near it.

The Oilers won their third Cup that night. Emrick adores the story, even if he isn’t certain the Sather part actually happened.

But he tells it with precision and cadence and excitement and energy, just as he would as if he was broadcasting a hockey game. Pure entertainment.

“I’ve never done a perfect game,” said Emrick. “I was never going to do that.”

A lot of us who went along for the 47-year-ride, a lot his fans and admirers, would naturally disagree.

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