Ask Me Anything: Mike “Doc” Emrick, Hockey Broadcaster
How did a self-described hick with a Ph.D. from tiny La Fontaine become hockey’s most acclaimed broadcaster and the voice of this month’s NHL All-Star Game? A tape recorder, thousands of handwritten thank-you notes, and 153 different verbs to describe puck movement in one game.
You grew up in La Fontaine. What did you do for fun?
Locals pronounce it La Fountain. According to the city-limits signs, [the town’s] population was 627. Had there not been two grain elevators along the bend in Highway 15, you would have been able to see one city-limits sign from the other. My brother and I had a paper route, but other than that, we played ball into the evenings. We’d ride our bikes and come home after dark and my parents never had to worry about us. This was the 1950s—a pretty idyllic time to grow up.
When you were 14, your parents took you to your first hockey game—an IHL contest between the Fort Wayne Komets and the Muskegon Zephyrs. Was that a life-changer for you?
It seems dramatic to call it an epiphany moment, but that’s what it was. I was a point guard and I earned a letter jacket as a second baseman, but I wasn’t going to go beyond high school as an athlete. I wanted to be a baseball broadcaster until I saw hockey for the first time in Fort Wayne. That was it. There were two hockey teams in Indiana at that time— the Indianapolis Chiefs and the Fort Wayne Komets. The chances for someone coming out of Indiana to be a hockey broadcaster were pretty slim. It seemed far-fetched—especially to my parents—but they encouraged me all along.
So how did you work at becoming a hockey announcer?
My dad was a band director who became a high school principal. But he also ran a music store. One of the things he had at his store was a battery-powered, reel-to-reel tape recorder. So he gave me one of those to use and I would go to Fort Wayne Komets games on Wednesday nights. I’d go to an empty section, sit by myself, and call the game. I would listen to my tape in the car on the way home. That helped in my development and I encourage kids who are just starting this to do that.
You’ve made a habit of writing handwritten letters every day to friends, colleagues, and others who have influenced you. Why?
When you write a letter, you get to really think through what you want to say, because you write slowly, you don’t rip it off quickly like you would in an email. At a leisurely pace, you can think through what words you want to use and arrange them from the heart in a way you hope will be meaningful for people. I like them to be a surprise, so I can’t send people an email asking for their addresses. There are some people I still want to reach that I haven’t found yet. You want that to happen as you get older before you can’t do it anymore.
Do people write back?
I do get some back. And that’s the selfish part of the gift, is when you hear back.
What do you love about the All-Star game and the skills competitions?
I enjoy the fastest-skater contest and the hardest-shot competition. Zdeno Chara’s mark (105.9 mph, set in 2011) has been there for almost a decade. One of these years that record will fall, but that competition interests me a lot. The game itself, it’s fun to watch the guys interact with each other and see what kind of creative plays they can come up with. I feel sorry for the goaltenders though. Three on three has made it more entertaining to watch and more creative for the players. But by and large you realize that after the All Star game is over, we get back to full-bore hockey, where you have body-checking and the kind of hockey that appealed to me in the first place. But it’s fun to see the best players in the world on the ice together.
How do you keep warm during the Winter Classic, those outdoor hockey matches?
We usually have blankets and winter underwear on. We’ll drink lots of coffee. My coldest Winter Classic was in Ann Arbor in 2014. It was 18 degrees and it snowed all day. It went to overtime and a shootout. By the third period, my teeth were chattering and I was hoping it wasn’t coming through on the air.
What do you do if you need to go to the bathroom during the game?
Red Barber, in his influential book on broadcasting, said that you take care of that before the game. As I’ve gotten older, I go before each period, whether I have to or not! You never know if a pane of glass will break, or anything like that. You never walk by a toilet before the period starts.