The 112th in our 118-part series.
We know he’s something of a controversial figure among our less-enlightened readers, but there’s no denying that, for us, Doc Emrick simply makes hockey better. Sure, it helps that we’ve never known another regular play-by-play guy for the Devils, so hearing him do a call makes us feel more at home, but even so, the man is incomparable. He has a marvelous, welcoming voice that has none of the “well, aren’t my pipes so special” pomposity of some big-time sports broadcasters (*cough*JoeBuck*cough*), his vocabulary is colorful and creative, and his love of hockey (and knowledge of the game) just radiates off the television in waves. When you watch a game called by Doc, you know you’re getting narration from a guy who can’t think of anything he’d rather do than work a hockey game. Any hockey game. He speaks with fondness about all manner of minor-league and largely irrelevant games that he’s called over a staggeringly long career, yet still makes every game he’s calling in the present feel like it has the significance of a Stanley Cup Final. There are some broadcasters who confuse volume with excitement, or who get overly worked up over the smallest things, but Doc is always pitch-perfect in conveying the urgency (or lack thereof) at any point in a game. No one works the ebb and flow of hockey with the same honesty as Doc, who’s not afraid to pipe up about it when things are getting dull, but who is unparalleled in his ability to make the casual observer leap out of his seat when things are getting thrilling. A worked-up Doc isn’t like the broadcasters you chortle at for getting shouty; rather, you don’t even notice he’s shouting because the game just requires it. It’s only when things calm down again that you realize your heart is racing, and Doc is suddenly sounding quieter.
But perhaps the thing that makes Doc so great is the absence of self-awareness in the way he works games. There is no “trademark” ululation, no awkward attempts at catchphrases, no clumsy stab at orchestrating a “classic” call. He just does what the game demands. And as a result, his game calls are almost all classics. We scoured the internet to find one particular game, from the mid- to late-90′s, when the Flyers and Devils played a barnburner match in Philly that ended in OT. The teams traded monstrous chances in the extra frame, flying up and down the ice for what seemed like an eternity of raging, unbelievable, non-stop action until the Devils scored a wild goal to seal what we remember being something like a 5-4 win. This was still the ’90s, so the highlights were on SportsCenter later that night, and we tuned in to see what they’d say. And ESPN’s highlight package for that game was simply, without any interference from the obnoxious anchor, the entire OT as called by Doc. Sadly, this was in they days before YouTube; but seriously, if anyone at the NHL front offices can find a tape of that game, we can’t think of a better way to market hockey than just that clip. Of course, just having more games called by Doc — without what seems to be NBC’s directive for him to dumb down his call for the non-fan and without Pierre McGuire stepping on his play-by-play — is a good start.