By Dale Hemmila
Who says you can’t come home?
This past Monday, sports broadcasting legend Mike Emrick returned to McMorran Place in downtown Port Huron, Michigan, just steps away from center ice in McMorran’s Main Arena, which, for Emrick, could be considered his home ice, the place where his legendary career began.
If you follow broadcast hockey then the voice of St. Clair, Michigan resident Emrick should certainly be recognizable. Emrick is the current play-by-play announcer for National Hockey League broadcasts on both NBC and the NBC Sports Network.
Emrick recently closed out the 2018-2019 Port Huron Town Hall Lecture Series by reminiscing about his 46 years of calling hockey on radio and television. It is a career that has taken him from calling minor league hockey games in small towns and cold arenas, to full-time positions with several NHL teams, to the broadcast networks to call Stanley Cup playoffs, to calling some of the most exciting Olympic contests as well.
Emrick entertained a full and friendly audience at the McMorran Place auditorium with his memories and experiences, but beforehand he met with the media, including Blue Water Living and Travel, to talk about his profession and approach to broadcasting.
Emrick’s career actually began just a few steps away from where he spoke as he took on the broadcasting duties for the International Hockey League’s Port Huron Flags in 1973 calling the games in the adjacent McMorran Main Arena.
It took a lot of letters sent to countless teams before Emrick got his shot, but he said that is part of the business.
“I still have a stack of rejection letters,” he said. “They were motivation, if nothing else. This gets in your blood and there’s rejection with this, and disappointment.”
That disappointment disappeared, however, when the Port Huron Flags said yes, back in 1973.
“It was my first job 46 years ago,” Emrick said, “and it was the best day of my life. The hardest job to get is your first job.”
That job at WHLS radio in Port Huron lasted until 1977, when job number two came along, working for the Maine Mariners of the American Hockey League (AHL). Since then, it has been a litany of play-by-play opportunities beginning with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, and then working for an alphabet soup of broadcasters, including NBC, ABC, ESPN, TNT, CSTV, Fox, Fox Sports Network and more.
Along the way he has collected six national sports broadcasting Emmy Awards; he was the first media member elected into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame; he will be enshrined in the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame later this year; and he has received other accolades too numerous to mention.
With all that, however, he remains grounded and remembers what his job is at the rink when the red light comes on.
“It’s still people watching a game, transcending an event,” he said. “You’re there to be a conduit to what the athletes are doing – just get out of the way.”
As for advice to want-to-be sportscasters, he said: “Two words—don’t quit.”
He suggested honing skills by doing what he did.
“Go to a corner of an arena and do a game into a recorder,” he suggested. “That’s what I did in Fort Wayne, and until I got my job in Port Huron, that was my experience.”
Well, he is loaded with experience now after calling literally thousands of games. And it was that experience he shared when he took to the Town Hall stage.
First of all, for Emrick, it was a short commute to Port Huron, as he and wife, Joyce, call St. Clair Township home. He made a point of offering the crowd his recollections of businesses long gone from downtown Port Huron as he drove across the Military Street Bridge, remembering a dime store here, and Sperry’s as a department store, and not a movie theater. He used his memories and a few props to make some of his life experiences more vivid.
His props included one of his Emmys, and he shared a game program from a long-ago minor league game in Des Moines, Iowa, where he recalled a wedding on the ice between periods. He noted years ago the International Hockey League (IHL) concession marketing of “hot dogs, ten cents; popcorn, ten cents; and pop, ten cents.” Basically, anything arena managers could do to fill the seats.
Throughout his presentation he casually dropped names of colleagues and friends such as Al Michaels, John Madden, Bob Costas, Vin Scully and Ernie Harwell.
Emrick explained it was Harwell who helped him legitimately earn his nickname “Doc.”
Harwell was one of Emrick’s advisers when he worked on his inch-thick dissertation, which he brought along and held high for the audience to see, that earned him a Ph.D. in Communications from BGSU.
Big names and big events aside — like calling Stanley Cup games and hockey and water polo at the Olympics — Emrick continued to come back to Port Huron stories.
He remembered negotiating his first salary at WHLS of $160 per week; he used a photo of the first Flags team he worked with on the big screen behind him as he recalled that “you never forget your first hockey team.” He asked the former and current pro hockey players in the audience to stand whether they once played for the Flags or play for today’s Prowlers or some other hockey club.
And then he recalled Silver Stick.
Emrick held up a thick raft of papers that he said included the names of the players who passed through Port Huron as kids during the Silver Stick tournament over the years on their way to spots on NHL rosters.
In one particular story, he highlighted a young hockey player as a source of will and perseverance.
Pat Verbeek, a Sarnia native and Silver Stick participant, was an up and coming player in the NHL, playing for the New Jersey Devils in the early 1980s. In the offseason, in 1985, Verbeek’s thumb was cut off in a farming accident. Thanks to family members who found the thumb and rushed Verbeek and the thumb to a hospital in London, Ontario, the thumb was reattached.
If you are a winger on a hockey team at the highest level, an incident like that could have a devastating effect. But with extensive rehab, Verbeek was ready for the regular season with the Devils and scored 25 goals and 27 assists that year. In fact, Verbeek played for 20 seasons in the NHL and his 522 goals places him 37th on the all-time NHL scoring list.
But Emrick wasn’t done. Pointing to his left, Emrick told the audience “I’ve got a good one for you. Pat Verbeek
, and your wife, Diane, would you please stand up?”
Yes, Verbeek, who is now assistant general manager for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, was in attendance to the delight of the crowd.
In a way it is a measure of respect for Emrick that someone such as Verbeek, whose team is leading the NHL’s Eastern Conference and working its way to the Stanley Cup playoffs, would take the time to travel and attend this presentation at Emrick’s request.
But as Verbeek told Blue Water Living and Travel, Emrick is special.
“He’s just a wonderful, wonderful man,” Verbeek said. “He is so gracious and his humor and wit are underrated. He brings an energy and a history to the game, bringing on new fans and explaining hockey in layman’s terms. It’s a very special gift.”
As for Emrick, he keeps giving that gift to hockey fans everywhere. His signature “my goodness” after a special play is as well-known as the dozens of adjectives he uses to describe how a puck is played along the ice. In the minds of many hockey fans no one has done it better.