The Lightning are Stanley Cup champions, and I’ll never get Doc Emrick’s voice out of my head

HEDMAN with a shaaawwwwwwwt!

HEDMAN with a shaaawwwwwwwt!

Over the past few weeks I’ve gone to bed with that hollered phrase, or something akin to it, ping-ponging around in my brain. They came courtesy of Mike “Doc” Emrick, NBC’s lead hockey announcer who called most of the Tampa Bay Lightning playoff contests, including Monday night’s Game 6 that saw the Bolts win their second Stanley Cup championship. It was Tampa Bay’s first major sports title since the Lightning’s in 2004.

GOURDE with a shaaawwwwwwwt!

Am I getting on your nerves a little? Perhaps you’re among the Tampa Bay area residents who, like me, don’t watch hockey unless it involves the Lighting—and then mostly when they’re in the playoffs.

[Let us pause here … “Fuck yeah, LIGHTNING! Congrats!]

Let me say first that Doc Emrick is amazing. He’s 74 years old. No one that age—or any age, really—should be able to talk as incessantly, with as much energy, precision and volume, as Emrick does during a hockey telecast. And you can argue that no one should be allowed to. He has a shrill, somewhat nasal voice that is the antithesis of the dulcet baritones more often heard in sports play-by-play.

Interestingly, Doc Emrick is not a Canadian. He’s from Indiana—and earned, fittingly, a degree in speech from Manchester University in that state. He came up through the ranks, starting out as a radio announcer for the Port Huron Flags, a minor league team in Michigan.

The key point here is that Emrick started on radio, where the announcer in most sports has to jabber non-stop because, y’know, the listener can’t watch the action. Thing is, Doc never stopped doing radio play-by-play—and nobody ever stepped in to stop him. 

There’s no denying he’s a master wordsmith—with a Masters degree in verbs. I watched a few minutes of Monday night’s game on my DVR and transcribed Emrick’s verbs over the course of a few minutes. I had a hard time keeping up, and I was only typing one word at a time. I got: swept, dished, blocked, rattled, slip, curled, chased, carried, hunted, fielded, forced, knifed, directed, wound, poked, dished, bounced, ricochet, battle, flashed, retrieves, escaped, weaving, tapping, sprung, nudged, golf [yes, as a verb] and something that sounded like drubbed.

Impressive. And … phew.

Probably more amazing than the verbs are the names. Spewing from Emrick’s mouth were not just Johnson, Coleman, Goodrow and Lindell, but Sergachev, Shattenkirk, Vasilevsky, Verhaeghe, Heiskanan, Pavelski and Khudobin. There was nary a mispronunciation during the entire Finals. Did he misidentify some players? Dunno, things were moving too fast.

Machine-gun patter is not just an Emrick thing in the world of hockey announcing. It’s common to most of its practitioners. The Lightning’s regular play-by-play man, Rick Peckham, who retired this year, was a motor-mouth, too, although he was not as nerve-grating as Emrick.

My wife, Bonnie, did her hometown duty and watched a fair amount of Lightning playoff hockey this year, even though she says it makes her edgy—as much the result of the verbal assault as the game itself, she realized. “Why does he announce like that?” she asked me several times. My trenchant response was to mumble, “I don’t know,” while keeping my eyes on the TV. 

But I, too, wondered why, so endeavored to find out. I Googled various phrases like “why do hockey announcers talk so fast?” and “why do hockey TV announcers do radio play-by-play?” Here’s what I came up with: 

I don’t know. Sorry, I just couldn’t find anything. 

I have some theories. First is, simply, tradition. That’s how it’s always been done. But that’s useless ‘cause it just leads to another why. How about this? In the days of black-and-white TV, hockey viewers could hardly see the puck on their 19-inch screens, so had to be guided along by the announcer. Color TV and larger screens (hey, 32-inch!) helped, but the action was so fast that it still needed nonstop rhetorical accompaniment. Then came high-def and 85-inch screens. We can see the puck, but somehow the announcers didn’t get the memo. Really, are you gonna tell Doc Emrick to slow his roll?

He has won six Emmy Awards and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. My guess is that a lot of diehard hockey fans love Doc and a lot of diehard hockey fans hate Doc. I don’t have strong feelings like that, but I hope his voice echoing in my noggin fades in the coming days. 

I watched about a half-hour of Monday night’s postgame, mostly to bask in the Lightning celebration. I had no one to jump up and down with. Bonnie had gone to bed. But I also wanted to hear Doc Emrick talk normally. He did, sort of. He slowed down, a little, but … still annoying.

Now comes the baseball playoffs, with the Rays holding the top seed in the American League and having a legitimate shot at bringing another title to Tampa Bay. So there’s more watching to be done. Of course baseball is a whole other announcing ballgame. The men on the mic have a lot of time to fill with arcane information, anecdotes and treatises on sign-stealing. It’s slow stuff, man. Bonnie once cooked dinner between pitches. 

The Rays playoff games will crawl compared to the Bolt’s. But they’re more apt to help me fall asleep than keep me awake, strung out on post-hockey anxiety.

Gotta go. Time for a nap.

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