BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: A Visit from Doc
Blog #18 – July 10, 2020
by John Peterson
He’s the gold standard. The best to ever do it. The Great One.
You’re thinking of Wayne Gretzky.
I’m talking about Mike “Doc” Emrick.
Okay, so the opening sentences were a little misleading. Obviously as far as hockey players go, Gretzky is the undisputed “Greatest of All Time”. Upon his retirement in 1999, Gretzky held 61 National Hockey League records, many of which will never be broken.
While youth hockey players in previous generations idolized Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr or Maurice “Rocket” Richard, kids my age wanted to be like “The Great One”. I knew fairly early on I’d never be a pro hockey player. But I loved the game nonetheless.
We didn’t even have an NHL team in Minnesota at the time. The North Stars were long gone. The Wild weren’t even an idea in its beginning stages. Yet I watched hockey as a young fan of the game, listening to Gary Thorne and Bill Clement call the Stanley Cup Finals every year. That experience inspired me to stay involved in sports one way or another.
I entered my senior year at Arizona State University with three years of play-by-play experience in football, basketball and baseball, but had never called a hockey game. Shortly after broadcasting my first several Sun Devil club hockey games that fall/winter, I tuned in for every game of the Vancouver Olympic Games in February.
By then, Emrick had already established himself as the best in the business. His voice was soothing and trustworthy. His delivery made even the most mundane events sound extraordinary. His vocabulary was next-to-none. My roommates and I watched in awe as he delivered the waning moments of the Gold Medal game with an equal amount of calmness and urgency in his voice. The United States needed a goal to force overtime against the host Canadians.
Patrick Kane spun a desperate shot into traffic from the top of the right-wing circle.
“They score! Zach Parise, out of a net-mouth scramble! And the game is tied!”
We don’t need to relive what happened in overtime. Thanks, Sid. But for a 22-year-old aspiring broadcaster, I now had a vision, a career goal and an idol.
Ten years later, I shared that story with Doc.
Before anyone had “COVID-19” or “canceled season” in their vocabularies, I received an email in mid-February from Fort Wayne Komets Director of Communications, Chuck Bailey.
They’d be inducting former player Kaleigh Schrock, as well as Mike “Doc” Emrick into the Komets Hall of Fame before the game against the K-Wings March 7. Doc is a native of nearby La Fontaine, Indiana and considered legendary Komets broadcaster Bob Chase as his mentor.
Chuck mentioned he’d try to arrange an interview with Doc if I was interested in having him on the broadcast during one of the intermissions. I was honored just to receive the email.
Just this week Fort Wayne announced Chuck was retiring after 27 years with the organization. For my money, he deserves to be in their Hall of Fame. He’s always been kind to me since I broke into the ECHL in 2015, and I admired his professionalism and longevity in representing the Komets.
Less than two weeks before the game, Kalamazoo hosted Fort Wayne one last time at Wings Event Center in the middle of a playoff race. Following a heartbreaking K-Wings loss, I wished Komets broadcaster Shane Albahrani “safe travels and the best of luck until we see each other one more time in Fort Wayne.”
Shane said he’d be happy to introduce me to Doc up the press box that night. You see, the two teams have a longstanding rivalry on the ice, and it is fun to throw some friendly jabs back-in-forth from time to time, but I’ll always have a ton of respect for the Komets organization. They are a classy bunch.
In the days leading up to the event, I started thinking of some questions I’d ask Doc if given the opportunity. How does he remember the Kalamazoo Wings from his days working in Port Huron? Does he still get nervous before a big game? What advice would he have for someone who aspires to make it to the NHL someday?
You can’t afford to be star struck in this business. That went out the window when I was 15 years old, meeting Gary Bettman and Peter Jennings at the 2003 NHL All Star Game with my dad at Xcel Energy Center. Since then, I’ve interviewed players like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, Minnesota Wild Owner Craig Leipold, and former Governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton.
I even had a chance to meet Muhammad Ali in an elevator at a Coyotes game in college, followed by then Head Coach Wayne Gretzky in the postgame press conference. It doesn’t get much bigger than “The Greatest” and “The Great One” on the same night.
This was different. This was an opportunity to meet the best of the best in the profession I’ve chosen to pursue. In addition to the usual butterflies before any game, I was extra jittery on this game day. I nervously jotted down a few last minute questions on the back of an old game sheet, scribbled some of them out, and then repeated that process during the two-hour bus ride to Fort Wayne.
AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT
I didn’t have any expectations, just gratitude toward the Komets’ brass that they even offered me the opportunity to meet one of their guests of honor. So as soon as the bus pulled into Fort Wayne, I threw on my suit two hours before the game, scurried to the seventh floor press box up in the rafters of Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, and set up my broadcast equipment right away.
A few minutes later, Shane arrived in a snazzy blazer. You know it’s a big night when Shane breaks out the blazer. Then Chuck arrived. He walked from his end of the press box all the way down to my perch with an update. Doc planned on coming up to the press box in the second intermission. First he’d go on the air with Shane for an interview before joining me on the K-Wings broadcast, time permitting.
Both teams came out to their respective benches earlier than usual for the Komets Hall of Fame ceremony. Schrock spoke to the crowd of 9,279 first, before Doc shared his heartfelt sentiments.
48 seconds after the puck hit the fresh ice, Tanner Sorenson gave Kalamazoo an early lead. Justin Taylor added a late marker to give the K-Wings a 2-0 cushion after 20 minutes of play.
A flurry of Fort Wayne goals flipped the script in the second period as the Komets took a 3-2 lead, but Garret Ross evened things up for Kalamazoo in the final minute of the frame.
The second period buzzer echoed through the historic venue. I went to a commercial break.
As is tradition, I summarized the second period and rattled off some out-of-town scores during the intermission. Every couple of minutes I’d look over my shoulder, as Shane conducted his interview with Doc. We were now three minutes from the start of the third period. I hit my final commercial break and took a big swig of water.
Earlier that day, my dad called to wish me luck. If it was even possible, he was even more excited than I was.
I looked up to Shane’s booth again and they were wrapping up their interview. Komets Co-Owner Michael Franke walked Doc down to my booth, introduced us and even snapped a picture – for dad, of course.
Doc put a headset on and before we returned from break, I asked how long he’d be able to chat before heading to his next stop on the evening’s agenda. Comforting as you might expect, he ensured me not to worry about it.
“Just do your thing and I’ll try not to get in the way.”
Get in the way? The most recognized voice in hockey, gracious enough to hop on the visiting team’s broadcast for a few minutes during a busy night of celebration, was as humble and kind as I’d previously heard from some of my peers.
Now we were live. Almost immediately, Doc gave kudos to all the K-Wings fans who made the trip, reminiscing on his time broadcasting for Port Huron and some of the battles they had with Kalamazoo back then.
Just as I asked my first question and he started to answer, the referee dropped the puck and the Komets raced down and scored six seconds into the third period. That didn’t quite go as planned. He stopped his answer so I could call the goal. All I thought was, “sorry for cutting you off there, Doc.”
Intertwined during breaks in the third period action, I asked him about his longtime broadcast partner Ed Olczyk, when he decided he wanted to become a broadcaster, and what the most memorable part of the experience was for him.
I had the intention of thanking him and letting him move on to his next stop of the night as soon as we broke for the first media timeout. By rule, this happens with the first whistle after the 14:00 minute mark, not caused by a goal, penalty or icing.
Before we knew it, we were 21 minutes into the conversation. When that whistle finally came, I told him how much I appreciated the opportunity and went to commercial break.
As it turned out, he had nothing left on his itinerary for the evening. So Doc sat down about 10 feet away, grabbed a bite to eat and watched the rest of the game – as a fan. Thanks to a Brady Shaw hat trick, the Komets completed a 7-4 comeback win.
While a K-Wings victory would have completed a perfect night for yours truly, it was an experience I’ll never forget. Here’s the full audio from Doc’s appearance on the K-Wings broadcast that night, if you care to listen.
It’s a memory I’ll carry with me as I continue my career.
Looking back, I’m so grateful the Komets allowed me the opportunity. Doc had a jam-packed scheduled that night. Following his pregame induction speech, he signed autographs and took pictures with fans, navigated his way around a huge arena, and appeared on the Fort Wayne broadcast for a scheduled interview.
The fact I was even able to shake his hand was appreciated. Again, I want to thank Chuck, Shane, Mr. Franke and Doc for giving me one of the biggest thrills of my career.
Given the timing of his arrival and the third period starting right away, I adjusted on the fly from an anticipated intermission interview to an in-game conversation. This was especially cool because I could relax into my usual play-by-play, while asking my idol questions after whistles and during delays. It was like having a high-profile color-commentator pop in unexpectedly, even though I had prepared for an interview just in case.
One thing about my personality: I’m my own biggest critic. I’ll go back and listen to games to hear how it sounded and to pick up things I’d like to improve for the next broadcast.
This was no different. While listening back to the segment with Doc, I learned that no matter who the guest was, the game always comes first for the listening audience. When our conversation bled into the action, Doc would cut his answers short to allow me to call the play as it developed to benefit the radio listeners tuning in at home.
That’s a valuable piece of unsolicited and unspoken advice that I’ll carry with me. Your listeners always come first, even if your special guest is the legendary Mike “Doc” Emrick.
Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson twice weekly. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to email@example.com. Enjoy!