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Love of hockey took Mike Emrick from Fort Wayne to NHL

Legendary hockey broadcaster Mike "Doc" Emrick has come a long way to his revered status as voice of the NHL.

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The inch-and-a-quarter thick document sat dormant on the shelf of a cluttered library for a decade, but last week, upon prodding by a reporter, Mike Emrick dusted off his doctoral dissertation and proceeded to tell the story of how Ernie Harwell became his nonacademic adviser.

The year was 1973, and Emrick was a first-year doctoral student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. In an effort to sate his academic responsibilities and gain some insight into the work-a-day-life of a professional sports broadcaster, Emrick embarked on a rigorous exploration of the history of baseball broadcasting. With Detroit only an hour or so up the road, Emrick reached out to the Tigers organization. Yes, he was told, Mr. Harwell would be happy to meet with you.

The Tigers broadcaster took an immediate shine to the kid and offered Emrick his walking Rolodex of contacts. He introduced him to broadcasters and writers, hot dog vendors and ushers, and even procured a dugout interview for Emrick with Al Kaline.

Shortly after he started his dissertation, Emrick landed his first job in professional hockey. The pay was just $160 per week, but Emrick found himself in heaven as the radio and public relations director for the International Hockey League's Port Huron Flags. Three years later, he completed his thesis, becoming the rare sports broadcaster who owns a PhD in something other than ego. The dissertation ("Major League Baseball Principal Play By Play Announcers: Their Occupation Background And Personal Life") contains a couple of paragraphs dedicated to Harwell in the acknowledgments section.

"I learned so many life lessons from Ernie," said the 64-year-old Emrick, who everyone except his wife calls Doc. "He always started each conversation with, 'I want you to shake hands with a friend of mine, Mike Emrick.' You don't forget treatment like that. Ernie always said: 'A man is really lucky if God gives him a job he enjoys.' That is what I found, and that is apparently what Ernie found, too."

Few in broadcasting have enjoyed their job more than Emrick, the NBC Sports and VERSUS announcer who will call his 13th Stanley Cup Final this year. Traveling through an alphabet soup of employers (including NBC, CBS, Fox, MSG, VERSUS, TNT, OLN, CSTV, SportsChannel Philadelphia, PRISM and Fox Sports Net) during his five-decade career, Emrick has earned enshirnement in the Hockey Hall of Fame and cemented himself as the announcer most associated with the sport in America. It's a fun parlor game to debate the best play-by-play broadcaster in a sport, but there is no debate when it comes to hockey here.

There is Mike Emrick, and then there is everyone else.

"We employ Kenny Albert and Sam Rosen for football, and they are both very good in hockey, but even they will even tell you: Doc Emrick is special when it comes to the sport," said Fox Sports senior producer Bill Brown.

Said Sam Flood, the executive producer of NBC Sports and VERSUS: "No one calls a hockey game better, no one paints a better picture, and no one is better at building up a moment. He is the voice of hockey in this country, and as talented a play-by-play guy as there is in any sport."

In addition to his national broadcast schedule, Emrick has served as the play-by-play voice of the Devils since 1993. He litters each broadcast with a panoply of verbs and imbues the audience with facts and stories that come only with intense preparation and a scholar's appreciation of history. For NBC and VERSUS, Emrick must navigate between his booth partner, Ed Olczyk, and on-ice analyst Pierre McGuire -- not an easy task given the pace of the sport.

"My role is to be a conduit between the skill of the players and the understanding of the fans," Emrick said. "I'm just more or less someone who can describe something, and hopefully with passion. If you have a good product, you don't have to do a lot of selling. I don't have a real grasp of how to describe what I do other than I try to enhance the experience and not get in the way of it."

Given hockey's standing in the U.S. sports landscape, Emrick is unlikely to be recognized in most American cities. His greatest exposure came last February when he called the Olympic gold medal game—the most-watched hockey game in the U.S. in 30 years. (NBC drew an average audience of 27.6 million and at least 52.9 million U.S. viewers watched a portion of Canada's 3-2 win over Team USA.)

But the low profile suits Emrick; his colleagues refer to him as "egoless" and his bosses say he needs very little stroking. When the NBC crew goes out to dinner the day before a game, Flood says that Emrick will metronomically order the same thing (a Caesar salad and a single glass of Sam Adams or Diet Coke) while his analysts chow down on thick steaks.

The son of a high school principal and guidance counselor, Emrick grew up in a La Fontaine, Ind. (pronounced La Fountain and not like Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine). He initially fell hard for baseball, but his life changed on Dec. 10, 1960 when his parents took him and his older brother Dan (a retired junior high school teacher and coach) to an IHL game between the hometown Fort Wayne Komets and the visiting Muskegon Zephyrs.

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"It was love at first sight," said Emrick, who was 14 at the time. "I had seen hockey in black and white on our grainy television. We were a long way from Indianapolis and by the time the signal got to us, it was pretty snowy. You could see the Pistons in Detroit or basketball at any high school gym, but there were only two places in Indiana that had hockey: Indianapolis and Fort Wayne."

While calling games in Port Huron in 1974, Emrick met Joyce Sult at a social outing at their local parish. On their first date, he told her that he wanted to some day broadcast in the National Hockey League.

"After I stopped laughing, I realized he was very serious," said Joyce Emrick, now his wife of 32 years. "I more or less tried to not get interested at that point because I knew it would take all he had to pursue it."

The couple dated for four years and were married on July 1, 1978. Times were lean during the early years. Mike landed a job in Portland, Maine, to broadcast the AHL's Maine Mariners. To subsidize their income, he and Joyce often walked along the forest and shore-lined highways of Cape Elizabeth to search for beer and (soda) pop cans for the deposit money.

"There were a couple of times where we paid our groceries for the week from the money we earned from those cans," he said.

It was in Maine when Emrick had the "Doc" sobriquet bestowed on him by Ed Anderson, the president of the Mariners. "He knew I had a doctorate from Bowling Green so he started calling me Doc. It's not a terribly creative nickname, but it stuck."

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So did Emrick with hockey, including a number of different on-air roles with the Devils and Flyers during the 1980s and his being hired as the full-time voice of the Devils in 1993. The turning point of his broadcasting career came when CBS asked him to call the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics. Fox Sports vice chairman Ed Goren, who worked with Emrick at CBS, brought him over along with John Davidson to be the lead broadcasters when Fox acquired the national rights to the NHL in 1995.

Today, he and Joyce live in St. Clair, Michigan, an hour north of Detroit, so they can be close to Joyce's family. The couple have no children, but own two Yorkies (Liberty and Joy Bells) and two quarter horses, a reigning horse and a rescue horse named Sappy Pants who had been left to die in a deserted field before the Emricks brought her in. Animals play a major role in the couple's life. In 2006, Mike opted not to travel to the Turin Olympics when the couple's first dog -- a four-year-old terrier named Katie -- was diagnosed with a serious kidney ailment. The dog was put to sleep three days after the hockey tournament started.

Two years ago, the Devils honored Emrick with his own night, and last month at New York City's Lincoln Center, he won his first Sports Emmy in the category of "Outstanding Sports Personality -- Play-By-Play" topping Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Joe Buck and Verne Lundquist. It was his third nomination and first national Sports Emmy. Upon reaching the stage, Emrick received a standing ovation.

"He still prepares for each game as if it was his first," said Joyce. "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."

Flood said he hopes that Emrick will be a part of the entire life of Comcast's deal with the NHL which gives NBC/VERSUS the rights to broadcast the sport through the 2020-21 season. When told what his boss said, Emrick laughed.

"I'm flattered that Sam would say so, but 10 years? Well, I don't know, but it's always nice to be asked."

The bet here is that Emrick will be around in the next decade. The pipes are good and the love of the game is even stronger.

"When my parents took me to that game in Fort Wayne, I don't know how to describe it other than it was a life-changing adventure that night," Emrick said. "My family probably thought it was a normal night when they trudged back to the station wagon we rode in. But it wasn't a normal night for me."