He was glowing up there, face illuminated by the hooked neck of the light perched in front of him on the desk, microphone off, looking out over the dark of the arena - the overhead jumbotron and its bulbs and screens extinguished, seats folded up with nothing to weigh them down, the ice dull white below the dimmed lights and populated with techs checking the integrity of the boards. But you could see from anywhere there was a light in the press box. And that - one of the few indications of life in the place - was Doc Emrick.
You know his voice even if at first you fail to recognize his name or face. When you get him on the phone the experience is surreal, and when you hear his voice - the voice -carried through the wires and shot-gunned through the holes of the earpiece, it's impossible not to recall ...
Patrick Kane able to filter it across, Ryan Suter has it there, through one that rattled behind, Pavelski there, slipped one in front, Kane, a shot off of the THEY SCOOORE! ZACH PARISE OUT OF A SCRAMBLE AND THE GAME IS TIED!
... Or the litany of moments in history to which Emrick and that voice are inextricably bound. His career is an easy flow of legend and anecdotes - the sort of voice and name that seems to kick memory into gear - a catalyst for the mind dredging up flashbulb "I- remember-exactly-where-I-was" sort of moments. The reason for all that is because of the indelible imprint his voice makes on memory and how common and well known his voice has become after nearly 40 years. Because his voice is the foundation of shared experience. And because people associate his voice with history.
The way that he talks, however, when he's talking to you, is the same way you hear him call games. Reminiscences are easily rendered and inserted into the conversation. And when he describes the development of a play from years ago, even in passing to make or illustrate a point, it's like he's calling a game with only slightly less intensity, equally matched interest, somewhere out of time.
The now 65-year-old Hall of Fame broadcaster possesses the sort of magpie intelligence that can pick from the bundle of scraps of paper, miscellany strewn about the brain, a series of anecdotes that slot perfectly into the context of whatever you might be saying. (Something which has taken on secondary existence in a physical form of a massive file that's carted around with him and filled with all sorts of clippings - not so large now since some of it's been consolidated on a computer and thus reduced the risk of hernia-inducing flights of stairs in dated airports and arenas.)
When he's calling a game, you don't always pick up on everything - the game is fast-paced and if you step away for a moment, funnel the crumbs from a bag of chips into your mouth, if you're engaged in a more-or-less passive listening as his voice is broadcast through the speakers - because the anecdotes that creep up and recede through the game's commentary seem so natural that you only really give them thought when you're listening for them.
With other announcers, there's a certain temptation to picture the voice, whoever it might be, being handed note after note from outside the booth for the exclusive purpose of adding a bit more color to the broadcast. It's easy to imagine everything that's being said is the result of a multi-person production. But when you actually have the opportunity to speak to someone such as Emrick, you know that all of those stories are being dredged up on the fly, even if they have been reviewed and anticipated for the purposes of that evening's game. On the phone, you can tell it's not an act.
Case in point:
The following is an excerpt of a conversation we had with Doc not too long ago when we were consulting him for a feature on myths:
It was just one of those games that was dramatic like that. When the Flyers win the Stanley Cup from the Bruins in six games, playing the sixth game in Philadelphia, the only goal was scored on a shot by Moose Dupont that was tipped by Rick MacLeish, one-nothing. I remember watching and it was hard-fought and all of those clichés that we have - well, the reason that we have clichés is because they're true. It's a part of truth. So we had that game and then you can go all the way to last spring really - the seventh game between Boston and Tampa. Nathan Horton scores in the third period. Well, we might have played into the first or second overtime because the goaltenders were that good - Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson were playing brilliantly and it seemed like they could shut down everything. So, if there is a myth about low-scoring games, that myth totally implodes when you get to one-nothing. There was a double shut-out game between Marty Brodeur and Dominik Hasek at the Meadowlands years ago before they had shootouts, but they did have overtime and those two brilliant goaltenders went 65 minutes with no score. We had a game in Calgary, four or five years ago, and that was Kiprusoff-Brodeur and it went sixty minutes and then almost within a minute of 65 before Patrik Elias scored, and those games were tremendous because I guess as they build in importance, I guess you realize that it's probably going to be only one goal that's scored the whole night, so that makes every play that's made offensively and defensively larger, which means that if we walk out of the arena that night, we think we've seen something really special.
And the reason that you don't notice is because you're not supposed to notice. You're not supposed to realize that all this information is coming at you.
In a perfect world what I'd like to have is a situation where I enhance the game but not get in the way of it. Because it's not about me. It's about all those guys out there spending their energies and their talents out there trying to get two points in the standings. So, that is the other philosophy that I have. And as I said, there are some days that you start talking about things that aren't about these athletes at this time; in the want to entertain people, especially in a game that's lopsided. But I think by and large the mantra is enhance the game but don't obstruct.
The stories people tell mirror the variety of his - but theirs are based on memory and its ethereal nature, and his come through hours of study, interviews, early mornings through the metal detectors and grabby hands to make the morning skate and the network of midnight trains to the network of cities where he works. You only need to take a look at his schedule and the amount of time he's maintained it to understand more about the man than narration could offer.
What makes this possible is that he possesses the same sort of work ethic as the young man he was almost 40 years ago sending out applications and never hearing anything back, when he'd tape record game after game to hear himself and what it sounded like. What makes it possible is that so many years in, the spark's not faded. If you start looking around enough, you start to note that some ideas have a way of reappearing when people are speaking about Emrick. And one of the most popular seems to be this.
"He still prepares for each game as if it was his first," said Joyce, [Emrick's wife]. "I can't really account why the passion grabbed him, but it did. I find it amazing, but I think it is something he will go to his grave with. I don't see him ever not having a passion for hockey. He has never gotten tired of it and it's been a long time."
(via Richard Deitsch's great column on Emrick)
Since he's taken his leave of the Devils, quoting in his note to the fans something that Lou Lamoriello said to him once - "that before any major decision, you should look in the mirror and look at your birth certificate" - that schedule has been tapered down to the lighter load he now has on NBC and Versus. But when you speak to him, even briefly, even on afternoons when he only has a few minutes to spare, you know that it's impossible for him to be any other way. You know that the light won't be going out anytime soon.