When the N.H.L. begins its next season, absent for the first time in four decades will be the man perhaps more associated with the league than any player, coach or official: the broadcaster Mike Emrick — known universally by his nickname, Doc.
Emrick, 74, who this year called the Stanley Cup finals for the 22nd time, announced his retirement on Monday. “In your mid-70s, you realize that you have had a very healthy and long run, except for the cancer scare, and you are looking outside and seeing this to be the autumn of your years,” he said on a conference call with reporters on Monday. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991.
Emrick ascended to the top of his profession, jockeying with Canadian-born greats like Bob Cole and Dan Kelly in the pantheon of hockey’s play-by-play announcers. He worked in print media covering the Pittsburgh Penguins, earned his doctorate in broadcast communications from Bowling Green State University (hence the “Doc” sobriquet) and transitioned to television from radio in a way that was at once seamless and iconic.
“He was able to get away with a descriptive, radiolike, wood-to-wood calls, on network television,” said David J. Halberstam, the founder of the Sports Broadcast Journal and a former play-by-play announcer for the Miami Heat. “The textbook says, ‘Caption, don’t describe.’ Vin Scully said: ‘On radio you’re a puncher, and on television you’re a counterpuncher.’
“Emrick broke the cardinal rule on each of his broadcasts, yet he was beloved. When I asked him about it, he didn’t hesitate: ‘It’s the way I’ve always done it.’”
Emrick was particularly known for his barrage of verbs. In a game between the American and Canadian national teams at the 2014 Olympics, one count had him at 153 distinct verbs to describe the movement of the puck. Among his favorites were descriptive but uncommon words like “jostle” during physical battles, and inventive yet understandable actions like “soccering” when players used their feet.
His default register conveyed a sense of ecstasy to be watching hockey, even as he called nearly 4,000 games, from playoff nail-biters to throwaway games in December. Some fans thought he was too excited and too verbose, but in a job that fans jump to criticize, Emrick was about as close as a broadcaster can get to being universally beloved.
“When the Doc Emrick evil chuckle comes in when two gentlemen square off on the ice, you know it’s a special day,” said Sam Flood, the longtime producer of NBC’s hockey coverage.
Al Michaels, the longtime N.F.L. broadcaster who also called the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, compared Emrick’s influence on the sport to John Madden’s on football.
“I think of you much as I think of John Madden, as a man who has been as important to the National Hockey League as anybody,” Michaels said to Emrick on Monday’s call. Michaels recalled being asked at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, 30 years after the Miracle on Ice, whether he should be calling Olympic hockey instead of Emrick.
“No. 1, I can’t do hockey one-tenth as well as Mike Emrick,” he said. “No. 2, I want to listen to Mike Emrick do hockey.”
Emrick’s career in numbers is astounding. He has broadcast 47 seasons of professional hockey, including 40 in the N.H.L. He called 45 Game 7s in the playoffs. He won eight sports Emmy Awards and is a member of seven halls of fame, including the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the Fort Wayne Komets Hall of Fame.
Emrick’s signature call during the Stanley Cup finals — what he recited after each of the nearly two dozen he has called — came from the American Hockey League beat writer Steve Summers, who died in 1993. Emrick adapted Summers’s description of a 12-0 Calder Cup run in 1988 by the Hershey Bears: “The episodes in life that last so many years in memory are often measured in fleeting moments as they happen.”
Dan Rusanowsky, the longtime play-by-play announcer for the San Jose Sharks, said that Emrick had become an invaluable resource to other broadcasters, creating a pronunciation guide for the N.H.L. — a league that has featured more than its share of names with uncommon vowel-consonant arrangements and distinct pronunciations thereof — and a method for condensing press notes into a two-sided sheet for quickly finding information.
NBC has not announced a successor for Emrick, who was its lead hockey play-by-play voice since 2005. The company has a number of others doing play-by-play, like Kenny Albert, who also announces Rangers games, and John Forslund. The network could also opt to hire a team or regional sports network broadcaster. Whoever it chooses, however, will have gigantic shoes to fill.
Emrick’s retirement could be just the beginning in seismic changes to how hockey is shown in the United States. NBC’s longtime exclusive rights agreement with the N.H.L. to show games expires after the 2020-21 season, and with television networks and streaming platforms as voracious for content as ever, there very well could be new broadcasters and new play-by-play voices involved in the game.