If you know anything about Mike “Doc” Emrick, you know he has some ties to and affinity for Pittsburgh. So upon news Monday that he is retiring after a long and decorated career as a hockey play-by-play man, here is a description that Pittsburghers wanting to know more about him can relate to:
Doc reminds you of Fred “Mr.” Rogers.
No, Doc hasn’t dedicated his life to enriching children’s lives. But there is an aw-shucks, friendly neighbor quality to the man, a gentle soul who takes a genuine interest not only in hockey and his profession, but also in people he meets.
He never uses foul language, at least never that I heard, and he is loath to complain about, well, anything. And this is a man who, over several years of his work as the voice of the New Jersey Devils was not allowed to travel with the team.
Think about that. Most team broadcasters are part of the traveling party on the charter planes and buses, but while Lou Lamoriello was running things in New Jersey, broadcasters were on their own for travel.
Doc felt an obligation to be at as many of the Devils’ practices and morning skates as possible, and would even get to as many of the opponents’ morning skate as he could. That often meant schlepping to the airport at an ungodly time after a short night’s sleep while the rest of the team traveling group had arrived the night or day before. And yet, he was always chipper, bright-eyed and, as always, inquisitive around the rink and in the locker rooms.
If there was anyone who would have been respectful and unobtrusive as part of a team traveling group, it would have been Doc.
When he was in the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room with other media members, he was often sought out by others to say hello. He always sort of worked the room passively, moving around in his unassuming manner while talking with players and reporters. A lot of visiting broadcasters hover around Sidney Crosby and linger at his stall for as long as possible. Doc was not one of them.
Fortunately for the hockey world, Doc did a lot of national broadcasting work in addition to games describing the Devils over two separate stints, ending in 2011. He has widely been considered one of the best in the business, and it’s easy to see why. His style reflected his personality perfectly – except for the excitement in his rising voice when play warranted it, something that was reserved for the booth for a man who was so modest away from it.
He not only described the game action with a fun take on the English language, but he also slipped in little bits of information he gathered in his research, done by studying things such as game notes and by talking to people and really listening. And he has never been afraid of humor.
Doc (journalism rules suggest referring to him as Emrick, but it just seems wrong to call him anything but Doc, even if he occasionally called me Sherry) has a special bond with the Pittsburgh area.
You might have noticed he finds a way to work a Pittsburgh Pirates reference into many of his broadcasts. It’s kind of like Carol Burnett tugging on her ear. Given that Emrick is 74, he no doubt would get that reference. He also has sat in with Pirates broadcasters during spring training games, which he has described as a thrill.
That all goes back to listening to Pirates radio broadcasts growing up in Indiana, and then teaching speech and broadcasting at Geneva College a county over from Pittsburgh – and covering Penguins games for free for the Beaver County Times – for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
So trips to Pittsburgh might have held a little extra thrill for Doc, but truth be told he brought a light to every hockey city he visited.
Once, sitting in the stands in a Canadian city watching a Penguins playoff practice — Doc was working for a national broadcast — he pulled out some of his extensive, hand-written research. It was his contention that teams that win the Stanley Cup usually have at least one short or easier round, and he backed that up by sharing some of his meticulous notes in tiny, perfect handwriting.
That same day, the conversation turned to travel. A couple colleagues at the time and I had difficult travel that round, including some very long car trips on little rest due to a lack of good flight connections and the cost of flying. Doc immediately noted that he had accrued thousands and thousands of frequent flyer miles but never used any of them and offered to donate whatever we needed to make things easier. We couldn’t accept, of course, but what an incredibly generous gesture.
It’s mind-boggling to think about how many people Doc met and interacted with across North America. But he made a point of really getting to know them and find out what was going on in their lives.
He was supportive but characteristically respectful in asking how things were going when I had a cancer battle several years ago. He referred to his own earlier battle as just a scare so as to keep the conversation about me.
More recently, during a couple summers that included an assignment that had me covering Pirates home games, Doc showed up a couple times when he was in town for playoff games. He made his way to the press box and moved around talking to people he knew and enjoying the game. While sitting near me at one of those games, it came up that I was doing some teaching at a local college. He wanted to know all about it, and we shared a laugh over some of the students’ antics (all in good fun, former students).
Ever the dedicated type, he left after just a few innings so he could spend the rest of the day preparing for the broadcast – which was not until the next day – because he figured the hockey game notes would be released at any moment.
Months later, when we ran into each other, he followed up to see how the class went. What a memory. What a gracious man.
We’ll miss you, Doc. Be well.