Editor's Note: This story may not be super hyperlocal (it first appeared in Scotch Plains-Fanwood Patch), but we know a few rabid Devils fans here in Maplewood. Yes, this one's for you, Claire Sinclair!
Even by New Jersey standards, Mike “Doc” Emrick had a pretty brutal commute. For 21 years, he started his 1,200-mile trip to work with a 4 a.m. wake-up call in his St. Clair, Michigan home, take a one-hour pre-dawn drive to Minneapolis for a 7 a.m. flight to Newark.
The upside is that he was the play-by-play man for the New Jersey Devils, chronicling what might be the most successful NHL team in that time. In that time, Emrick, a 5-foot-6, 65-year-old Indiana native who has never played a game of hockey in his life, is the go-to play-by-play guy for NBC and the Versus networks’ NHL coverage. If Doc was doing the game, it mattered.
“Listening to him is like dinner at a six-star restaurant, where everything is just right,” said Stan Fischler, a member of Emrick’s Devils’ broadcast team. , and at age 79, one of hockey’s respected elders. “His ability to integrate phrases, catchphrases, that are original, and to do so at high speed – nobody comes close to him in terms of a literate, spontaneous broadcast,” Fischler adds.
Peers, TV executives and even the NHL players, laud Emrick’s skills, firing adjectives at him like slapshots. They call his work “lyric,” his knowledge of hockey history “encyclopedic,” his reverence for the game “unrivaled.” Hockey players have given him standing ovations, and the National Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded him seven New York Emmys, most recently in May 2011 for “Outstanding Sports Personality – Play-by-Play.”
He has been immortalized as a “distinguished honoree” in the Hockey Hall of Fame, which presented him the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for “outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster” in 2008. And this summer, he was elected to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
“He just turns it on,” said Chico Resch, 63, Emrick’s color commentator for Devils broadcasts. “The energy level just shoots up. It sounds like Doc has as much fun watching it as he does explaining it. He always makes it sound like the first time he’s seen that play.”
But Devils fans have to mark this season as “A.D.” — “After Doc,” since it will be the first time in more than two decades that Emrick won’t be there to shine a light inside the action on the ice. In August, Doc had announced that he had would continue covering games for NBC and Versus, but turn in his mic and makeup for Devils broadcasts on the MSG Network.
During his time with the team, the Devils storied run included nine division championships three Stanley Cups, and a host of players — from Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko to Zach Parise and all-world goalie Martin Brodeur — who made the Devils the most successful area sports team in the last 30 years.
“A good friend advised me several years ago that before any major decision, you should look in the mirror and look at your birth certificate,” he wrote in a letter to fans posted on the Devils website. “Since my contracts with MSG, VERSUS, and NBC all expired late this spring, this was another of those times. I discovered that the birth certificate couldn't be changed and it showed me to be 65 in a few days.”
He elaborated on his decision in an interview from his home in St. Clair. “I’m not feeble, I’m not wobbly, but I had to project ahead about how much of a workload I’d have in the next five years,” he said. “If it was just a matter of being Star-Trekked into these booths for the morning skates and the games, it wouldn’t be a problem. But it involved a lot of air travel, a lot of metal detectors in the morning. It was going to be too much to continue to do.”
A familiar voice takes the reins
MSG tapped Steve Cangialosi, 47, the anchor for MSG’s intermission reports and the substitute play-by-play man whenever Emrick was covering a national broadcast, to take over for Emrick. Cangialosi, the 11-year MSG veteran, faces the task of creating a new voice for passionate Devils’ fans, some of whom have known no other voice to help them understand what’s happening on the ice. Two weeks into the season, Cangialosi says he’s ready for the job.
“It was a wonderful thing,” he says, “Everytime somebody strikes a conversation with me about it, it's always along the lines of 'What's it like to replace Doc Emrick?' In the process of doing the game, it's always the farthest thing from my mind. I always have 30 other things to worry about at the time. I certainly understand the nature of the question and the respect that everybody, the players and the fans have for doc. It hits home for me, too. But it's nothing that I hadn't done before. For the last five year’s I probably filled in for Doc for approximately 100 games. So there was that comfort level, not only with Chico, but with our entire crew, that came back almost fully intact this year. So by now, they know what I'm about, I know what they're about, there's no guessing game.”
Fortunately, Cangialosi had another broadcaster in the MSG family he could turn to for support. Mike Breen was the play-by-play radio voice of the New York Knicks and occasional TV fill-in who was promoted to the fulltime TV voice when the legendary Marv Albert (no stranger to hockey broadcasts himself) didn’t return to call the games.
“He was terrific about it,” Cangialosi said. “His number came up on my cellphone and I didn't even know who it was, it was probably two or three days after the announcement came that I got the job. I worked with Mike minimally over the last 10 years. He'd be the voice of the Knicks, and I'd anchor the sports desk. There was some working relationship with him, but not a whole lot. It meant so much for him to call me. And he knew what it was like to replace an announcer who was so widely respected.
“I had this conversation with Mike,” Cangialosi said of . He told me, 'You're going to find yourself in more of a groove going on. It's not like you call a game, and then your next one is three weeks away. When you have a great game, you're excited for the next one the next day. And if you have one you want to forget about, you have 75 more opportunities to make it up.' “But the biggest help that he gave to me, was simply imparting the wisdom, 'Don't change what you're doing. You're there for a reason. Don't try to be anyone other than yourself.' It certainly struck a chord with me, and it's been the best piece of advice moving forward.”
One thing is clear, Cangialosi — who lives in Manhattan — will at least have an easier commute as he begins the next phase of his career.
“The best answer I can give you — and I mean this from the bottom of my heart — I'm not thinking past 7 o'clock tonight. When the light goes on and we're eight minutes away from Devils-San Jose Sharks tonight, that's about as far as I go. We're in the real beginning, the real early stages of something I think is very good. Not for me, but for the team and the fans and to keep all of this alive and strong, because this is a great hockey market.”
BEFORE HE WAS ‘DOC’
If the young Mike Emrick had his way, Cangialosi would not have had to worry about replacing the hockey legend. Baseball was Emrick’s passion.
Emrick grew up in LaFontaine, Ind. – he says that it’s “LeFountain” to locals. As early as the third grade, Emrick and his older brother, Dan, cruised the dial on their family’s radio, listening for as many baseball games as they could find. On a bulletin board they hung from a wall in their bedroom, they kept a running catalogue of the teams’ runs, hits, errors, and pitchers.
“It was a way to immerse ourselves in the game,” Emrick said. “That was my hobby: follow baseball.”
Play-by-play followed soon after. On summer weekends, the brothers would pick one Major League game to play by themselves in the family’s yard. Each brother would represent a team’s entire lineup, Dan said, and whoever was batting was responsible for providing the game’s play-by-play commentary. Emrick’s affinity and enthusiasm for the challenge quickly showed.
“He really got into it,” Dan, a retired middle school teacher, recalled. “It wasn’t just every batter he announced. It was every pitch.”
By his eighth birthday, Emrick began dreaming of becoming a baseball announcer, one of those voices that floated from the radio, carrying him and his brother to a game taking place hundreds of miles away. Even more, “I really liked the idea of getting in free to baseball games, and traveling with the teams,” he said.
It took only one year for Emrick to be swept off his feet by a new love, one that forever eclipsed baseball: ice hockey, a sport he had never heard of until he watched a game on the family’s first television.
In the winter of 1956, while his parents, both schoolteachers, graded tests and papers at the kitchen table, and the wind whipped snow past the windows, Emrick and his brother watched Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the “NHL on CBS.” On the family’s small, black-and-white TV, the players were blurry and the puck was lost in the grainy picture, but Emrick was captivated.
“There were a lot of things that told me that this was not baseball,” he said. “Guys with no helmets, and shots that were really hard, and pucks whistling by their ears. And some of the goalies had no facemasks! It was fascinating to see that speed, those collisions, that danger.”
Forty-six years later, that fascination, the euphoric delight of discovery and the joy of sharing his love of hockey with millions of others, still illuminates and shines through his broadcasts.
In Emrick’s enthusiastic delivery, pucks are not merely passed or shot, they are “knifed,” “feathered,” “hoisted,” “batted,” “driven,” “poked” or “slapped.” Players do not just check an opposing player, they “smear,” “cancel” and “bang” each other into the boards.
“He’s got a voice that you don’t hear everyday on the air,” said Morris Snider, 86, former general manager of the minor-league Port Huron Flags, Emrick’s first boss in the business. “He has a voice that sells.”
It's not just love for the game of hockey that has made Emrick a hockey legend. It’s a dedication to the craft that he honed in his living room before he ever called a game before an actual audience. His college dorm rooms and one-room apartments were broadcast booths, the places where he’d watch games on muted televisions and tape his delivery into a tape recorder. He’d researched the teams and mail the calls to station managers across the country, hoping for a break. To hedge his bets, he earned a PhD — and became “Doc” to friends and family — so he could work as a college professor in case he couldn’t get a break in the business. But keeping the dream alive, he enrolled at Bowling Green University in Ohio – a school with a hockey team and radio station.
The call eventually came in 1971, when Snider hired him to call Flags’ games. Emrick spent the next three years in Port Huron, then moved on to broadcast jobs in Portland (where Mariners president Ed Anderson dubbed him “Doc”), Maine, Philadelphia and New York City – all the while maintaining his research and practice regimens. Along the way, he met Joyce, and in 1990, like a deflected slap shot, landed in New Jersey, where he has remained.
The constant moves led Emrick and Joyce to decide against having children. “We both agreed, because of the travel I was doing, it wouldn’t be fair,” he said. “I felt I wouldn’t be as good a father if I was gone nine months out of the year. We couldn’t take the responsibility to raise children because of the helter-skelter nature of our lives. For more than 20 years, we didn’t even have a dog.”
The Commute to ‘Camelot’
The regular gig led to one concession for the Emrick’s life on the road. Joyce was thrilled that her husband got the job in Jersey, but wanted to live in a rural town closer to her family. After the years she spent following Emrick from town to town, he happily obliged. Despite the difficult commute, Emrick if effusive in his praise for the Garden State and his days with the Devils. For the rapport and mutual respect Emrick and his colleagues have said they shared, it was a work environment he called “Camelot.”.
For more than two decades, Emrick’s monster commute would get him to the Prudential Center in time for the Devils’ 10 a.m. morning skate, or as Emrick called it, “The Shot Club.”
From there, Emrick’s preparation regimen took hold – a routine he practices to this day. Hours before almost every game, as the players warm up, Emrick reviews line combinations and speak with the team’s coaches. In a tight, curved scrawl, he uses a personal shorthand to record anecdotes and statistics that he sprinkles into every broadcast, the information he gleans from his morning interviews supplemented by files that stuff two triple-wide black suitcases he brings to every game – and which he suspects are responsible for two hernias in 10 years.
“I’m an analog guy,” he said with a smile. “The stats you can find…serve an antiseptic interest. But I think more people are interested that Travis Zajac has three brothers who also are playing hockey, instead of the stat that he’s the team leader in assists. Or that [Phoenix Coyotes’ forward] Shane Doan has five family members in the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame.”
Besides, he doesn’t want stats to mar the action and emotion on the ice. Last March, after New York Rangers forward Ryan Callahan scored his fourth goal of the game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Emrick shouted, “It is Callahan! It is four! Hats and maybe toupees will be coming down! If you don’t have a hat, what do you do?”
Emrick and Resch say that, while it might be work, it’s easy to be enthusiastic during games. “If someone said you’re going to a playoff game, and we’re going to put a mic and TV on you and evaluate your love of the game, with that kind of presence and pressure, you better be excited,” Chico Resch said.
There’s no missing its fundamental authenticity. “I’ve just always loved hockey,” Emrick said. “I don’t know where it comes from. Does it get tiring to get on the planes? Yes, it can, but it’s a job I really enjoy going to…. There are times Chico and I still look at each other before a game and say, ‘Isn’t this great?’”
That enjoyment helps ease the loneliness of the road. But as much as he loves the job, the sacrifices are significant. Not only is the travel taxing, but sports broadcasting is an inherently solitary pursuit and it just got harder to be away from Joyce.
“When you’re at the hotel doing preparation, it’s a Saturday night, most people are doing something recreational, and you’re in one place while your wife is in another place with the dogs, those are times it’s kind of a lonesome existence,” he said. “The next hotel room, the next set of notes.”
But roughly 40 regular-season and playoff games — plus an equal amount of away games — and the grind of the team duties, as well as his other broadcast duties, made Emrick want to get off the road.
So, while Devils fans have to give up the voice of the Devils for the last 21 years, NBC and Versus officials new they needed to deliver him to national audiences. Emrick’s Midwestern voice resonates with wit and excitement as he weaves into the action stories of the players, coaches and officials that enhance the games. He brings music to the game, his voice rising in a crescendo on close plays, subsiding when the shots whistle just wide of the net. It’s no coincidence that NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs have generated their highest ratings year after year since NBC and Emrick took the microphone in 2005.
Last May, the Versus network flew Emrick 2,000 miles to cover Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals between the Detroit Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks, replacing the west-coast broadcast crew – which had covered the first six games of the series
Life in the slower lane
Sports broadcasting, he maintains, is a noble profession. “It’s not like delivering babies,” he said. “Just because it’s fun doing it doesn’t mean it’s not noble. You provide entertainment for people who may need it. In the words of that great philosopher, Fred Rogers: ‘A ministry doesn’t have to be only in a church.’”
So as the days grow shorter and night creeps earlier, if there is one thing you should do one evening, it is this: Skip Dancing With the Stars or The X Factor, give Cangialosi a chance to win you over. As the new season continues, if the Devils aren’t playing, flip around the dial. You can spend a couple hours with Emrick and hear him deliver one of his spontaneous, rapturous sermons in the hope of converting more enthusiasts to one of his ministries: ice hockey.
Today, in St. Clair, Emrick and Joyce get to savor a little extra time together, raising two dogs and three horses. During the off-season, they do “regular married-couple things,” Emrick says. They go to movies, play with the dogs, and walk around the mall. They are active in their church, where Emrick delivers a guest sermon once or twice a year.
But now it’s hockey season. Even if he’s not crisscrossing the country to broadcast from the Prudential Center broadcast booth, fans of Emrick and the NHL will be able to hear his hockey sermons. But the Devils faithful also will be breaking in a new, if familiar voice, and they’re hopeful that Steve Cangialosi will get the chance to immortalize more moments of inspired championship hockey and be the voice of a new generation of Devils fans.