Mike Emrick called more than 3,750 NHL and Olympic hockey games. He was on hand for 45 playoff Game 7s and 22 Stanley Cup Finals. He won the acclaimed Foster Hewitt Award, presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame for contributions in radio and television, and he was the first broadcaster inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
He was considered the voice of hockey in America until his retirement today at 74, after a 47-year career.
To hockey aficionados in northeast Indiana, he holds a much greater, more personal, distinction -- he’s one of them, a fan of the Komets mentored by Bob Chase, who called games at Memorial Coliseum for 63 seasons before his death in 2016.
“Bob and I never talked about how long we would wind up working,” Emrick said today, “but Bob gave us all hope because he was still doing games into his late 80s or maybe even until he was 90, very much like (longtime Detroit Tigers broadcaster) Ernie Harwell, another of the people I admired so much and was doing games a lot longer than I have.
“This seemed like the right time for me in my life to be taking a step aside, and watch other people work and also enjoying this time in my life. But I treasure the time that I spent with Bob, and those were spread out over several decades from the time that I first met him in 1967, while I was a college senior at Manchester, until the last time that we spent any time together shortly before his death.”
Emrick, a native of LaFontaine and a graduate of Manchester University, had a knack for bringing smiles to the faces of Komets fans, even while calling an NHL game from the other side of North America. He was prone to mentioning stories from the Komets’ 68-year history on broadcasts for NBC, for which he’d been the lead play-by-play man for 15 years.
“I’m going to do an interview on NHL Network later today, and the two jerseys that I have hanging behind me for that will be the smiling spaceman from the 1950s orange and black, which was the Komets jersey at the time I watched my first game in 1960, and the other will be the first team that I worked for in professional hockey, which will be the Port Huron Flags from 1973,” Emrick said. “So those two teams mean a lot to me, as well as those early years when the players were doing a good job, as well as the coaches, in those development leagues of teaching me the sport.”
Emrick hopes to now make more visits to the Coliseum, where he was inducted into the Komets’ Hall of Fame, along with former team captain Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock in March, and where he surprised Chase on Chase's 90th birthday in 2016.
Emrick was about 14 when he saw his first Komets game, and storied defenseman Lionel Repka made an immediate impression on him.
“I had a 35-millimeter camera with me, and my dad and I went down to the boards,'' Emrick said in 1999. "(Repka) saw what I had and said, 'Do you want a picture?' I was shy to talk, but I said, 'Yeah.' He looked at the camera and said, 'You know, I have one just like that.' It made quite an impression on me because the guy spent 15 to 20 seconds speaking to me before a game.”
As Emrick got older, he developed a passion for broadcasting and for listening to Chase. While attending Manchester, Emrick would bring a tape recorder to the Coliseum and call games himself, then he and Chase would review the audio.
Emrick, who graduated from Manchester in 1968, taught at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, from 1969 to 1971, while covering the NHL for the Beaver County Times. He began his broadcasting career with the Flags, a rival of the Komets, in 1973.
He earned a Ph.D. in communications from Bowling Green in 1976, hence his nickname of “Doc.”
His NHL broadcasting career began in 1982 with the New Jersey Devils, and he worked for outlets including ESPN, Fox and ABC.
“You have been simply magnificent at your craft,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told Emrick on a conference call. “You have been a magnificent representative of hockey for the last 50 years, particularly the NHL. There's nobody who does play-by-play as well as you do. And I just want to thank you for all the incredible energy and effort you’ve given us and our fans. In particular, the insights you’ve given them to the game, the experience you give them, watching hockey (with you) is just outstanding. We're going to miss you, I'm going to miss you.… You are just a treasure.”
Emrick, who had a cancer scare in 1991, said his health is good and it just felt like the right time to enjoy retirement with his family. He’s got so many frequent flyer miles, he’ll be able to travel much when the novel coronavirus pandemic settles down. And his new autobiography, “Off Mike,” which will be released Tuesday and includes much about growing up in Indiana, will benefit the care of animals, something he’s very passionate about.
His longtime broadcast partner, former NHL player Eddie Olczyk, was emotional in discussing Emrick’s retirement today.
“When you called me yesterday, it was pouring rain here at home in Chicago and I can honestly say that after I hung up the phone with you, my windows were up and the sunroof was closed, but there was water inside the car after finding out you decided to ride off into the sunset,” Olczyk told Emrick. “We’ve had so many discussions over the years, which I will take with me the rest of my life.”
Legendary broadcaster Al Michaels, hockey royalty in his own right, also chimed in with appreciation for Emrick.
“I had the great pleasure of working with John Madden for seven years and I’ve said many times that John Madden was as important and relevant for the National Football League as any figure I can think of. That’s because of not only what he did as a coach, but also what he did as a broadcaster. He created the template for football broadcasting and of course went on to make the largest-selling video game maybe of all time,” Michaels said.
“So, in your retirement, I would like you to create a video game because I think of you much like I think of John Madden, as a man who has been as important to the National Hockey League as anybody. And I say that because you have made the game so much more relevant, interesting, relatable, exciting.… People who love hockey -- and I’m in that cult -- we love you.”