From 'Squirt' To 'Squib,' Mike 'Doc' Emrick's Verbal Mastery Makes Hockey More Vibrant

Jun 7, 2018
Originally published on June 7, 2018 12:00 pm

If you tune into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Thursday, it's unlikely you'll hear NBC hockey announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick use the word "pass" very often to describe action on the ice.

You may hear that a player "squirts" the puck — or possibly, he "ladles" it.

The renowned announcer is famous for painting a visual picture of a hockey game — which has long streaks of uninterrupted action — using ultra descriptive language. Listen to him describe the burst of action at the start of this clip:

A fan once logged 153 different ways he used to describe how the puck moved in a single game.

And every one of these words is intentional, each with a very specific meaning.

The Morning Edition staff asked him to define a few.

Here's how Emrick explains "pitchfork":

"It is a sweeping motion — very much like a pitchfork from Green Acres — with the stick. And it's a jabbing motion that players often use to get the puck lifted out of their own and get it out of there as fast as they can."

And "shuffleboard" — and "squib," too:

It's tempting to try to link his richly detailed play-by-play calls to his educated — and very verbal — background. Emrick has a doctorate in communications (hence the nickname "Doc") as well as a bachelor of science in speech and master's degree in radio and television.

But even as he worked toward his degrees, Emrick, 71, wanted to be a hockey sportscaster. He says as a kid he originally wanted to be a baseball announcer, but that changed when he went to his first hockey game at 14 years old.

Since then, he tried to find ways to get into the business; his first thought was to get there by going to school.

"The question was, 'How do I get to do what I really want to do in life?' " Emrick says. "First of all, it seemed like education was the way."

When he wasn't in the classroom, Emrick would bring a tape recorder to hockey games and do play-by-play commentary on the games. He'd send those recordings to teams, hoping to land a break.

It wasn't until after receiving his doctorate that he got a job as a sportscaster in Port Huron, Mich. That was 45 years ago.

"It didn't happen overnight," he says. "It was one of those overnight success stories that took about 15 years."

But despite all of his schooling, Emrick says his announcing style is really just how he talks after calling about 3,600 games.

"Those words just come out because it's how I describe things," he says. "Some of it you do to amuse yourself and you hope that it doesn't turn people off."

Emrick says the players — and their skills — form hockey's appeal for him. He says the Canadian players — who dominate the league — remind him of the people from the small town in Indiana where he was raised.

"[The players] looked you in the eye, they answered your question as long as it didn't hurt their team, and they were shirt-sleeve kind of guys," he says. "We've brought in players from other countries, and they've gone from making $10,000 a year during the time that I first started covering the game to being millionaires, and the dressing room is still, basically, rural Canadian. And they're still great people to be around."

When it comes to sports reporting, Emrick says he gleaned a basic lesson from watching NPR's longtime sports commentator, the late Frank Deford. He noticed that Deford's notebook was stained with steam from post-game showers.

"He did not sit up in a press box and just come up with these glorious things, and not interacting with players. He was down there with them, so he knew the agony of sometimes having to walk up to a player who'd just made a fatal error for his team in a game," he says. "He was able to get people to think about something other than whether their team had won by four runs or lost by four."

Steve Tripoli edited this story for broadcast. Tori Whitley produced it.

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