As mic drops go, few compare.
It ricocheted, oh-my-goodness, around the world with the speed of a Zdeno-Chara-in-his-prime slapshot, leaving in its wake tremendous sadness, tributes galore featuring his best calls, and plenty of well-wishes for a healthy and happy retirement.
On Monday, Mike “Doc” Emrick, after five decades of calling more than 3,750 ice hockey games from the “bus league” games to 22 Stanley Cup series, announced his retirement as America’s NHL Voice.
What are the factors that led to Doc dropping his mic at age 74? What will he miss most? What are his fondest memories? What regrets does he have? What’s the mindset of a hockey player in the NHL? What will he do in retirement?
In a wide-ranging interview, Doc answered all my questions and then some. He also encouraged me to swap anecdotes and indulged me when I told him about my childhood memory of Bobby Hull signing my copy of The Hockey News in a hotel lobby in Montreal, my first and only goal playing club hockey at Marquette University and how we got trounced by the UW-Madison freshman team, my interview with Gordie Howe in the 1980s, my attempt to be a play-by-play announcer for a junior hockey team in Milford, Conn., and my old-man beer league where we play to get our names etched on something called The Coffee Cup.
We also talked about his new book, Off Mike, the proceeds of which will all go to causes that Doc and his wife Joyce support – local and regional animal causes.
So why now?
Well, blame the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the NHL’s shutdown, Doc got a chance to practice retirement. And he began thinking that – given his bout with prostate cancer in 1991 and his current good health – now would be as good a time as any to drop his mic.
During the pause, between mid-March when the NHL put the season on ice and mid-August when the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs began, Doc had the chance to look back and look ahead. “It gave me time, the pause that the NHL was under, to also see what retirement life would be like because, for four and a half months, I didn't have a game either,” he said.
Then after the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Doc realized that broadcasting live hockey games with a play-by-play announcer in one city with a game in another and a studio in yet another was not without its technological and financial challenges.
“NBC had been so good to allow me to continue during the pandemic to work at home,” said Doc.
But even though NBC accommodated him, Doc realized how difficult it would be for him to continue being a play-by-play announcer in the COVID-19 pandemic era.
So, a combination of factors led him “to listen to what other retired people had said to him: ’You'll know when it's time.’ And I think it was probably then that I realized that I'm very fortunate. It's the 50th year since I covered my first game in the NHL. It's my 40th year of doing games consistently. Those are nice round numbers. I'm still healthy. Thank God, my wife is too. And so, we are in our 70s and we're happy and we can get along. And so maybe this is the time. And I felt like it was when I was still able to do the work and also still healthy enough to do the work. This would be the time to go. So that was it.”
With his epiphany known only to him, he continued to cover the rest of the Stanley Cup series. He carried on as if nothing had changed. “The self-talk was, ‘Don't coast now because you haven't told anyone,'" he said. "'Do the work and work hard because you don't want to have any regrets about how you performed at the end.’ And so that's it.”
Yes, that’s it for his life as America's NHL voice. Or is it? I reminded him that Gordie Howe retired from hockey three times. But alas, that’s not in the cards for Doc. There will be no encore performance. Maybe an occasional blog. But no more play-by-play.
“No, no, no,” he said. “Gordie had so much skill and so much to give that he, he was always prompted to come back, but I've been treated so well, I can't imagine any -- any -- sort of perfect departure could ever be improved on by coming back and then doing it again. No.”
Doc retires "to" something
And unlike many older adults who retire “from” something but not “to” something, that won’t be the case for Doc.
For one, Doc has in storage (think Storage Wars) decades of hockey memorabilia – guidebooks, scorecards, and the like. And all of it (including the guidebooks for the Buffalo Sabres going back to the 1970s) has negligible value in the absence of him, and an assistant, organizing and compiling it and putting on a platform. “I’m told you can’t take your puck collection into the next world with you, that someone else should enjoy them,” he said.
What’s more, Doc plans to continue his efforts to support local and regional animal causes in southeast Michigan. He and his wife Joyce donate anonymously to veterinarians for some surgical procedures for humane societies that bring in special cases, or people veterinarians know of who need procedures done that are beyond their ability to pay. They also get gas cards for volunteers and they support DAWG, the Detroit Animal Welfare Group, which handles difficult cases, including animal abuse.
Doc says there are some veterinarians in Michigan that will stay after they close the shop and will tend to turtles or ducks or things that are brought in that normally would just be allowed to stray off and die on their own. “One vet sent me a tape of a turtle with a cracked shell. I don't know what you do with them. But he was able to repair it… He sent me a tape of this repaired turtle shell, releasing it back into a pond and it happily swam away. You don't solve every problem with every creature, but once in a while, you can celebrate one. And that made me smile.”
Doc has also carved out time for some R and R. “We (his wife and he) also will have some time to enjoy each other and the dogs and the horses that we have, without having dates of travel on a calendar for the first time in 50 years, too,” said Doc.
Doc well prepared financially for retirement
Will Doc expect to enjoy the same standard of living in retirement as he did in his working years? Did he work with a financial adviser to prepare financially for retirement?
Yes, he said. He began working with his tax accountant/financial adviser some 35 years ago as Doc began to get more “important work.” And Doc, though it did require some sacrifice at the time, started investing. Among other things, his adviser showed Doc a projection of how that would help him later on when he got to this point. “And he was right,” said Doc. “I had the right guy.”
Of course, “God only knows what will happen financially to any of us, but I think we're fairly well prepared for this,” said Doc, noting that he doesn’t need the money from book sales or from selling memorabilia for living expenses. The sales from the book and memorabilia will go to other causes, he said.
What Doc will miss most
So, what will Doc miss the most about leaving behind his career as America’s NHL voice, a voice that he downplays as the result of nothing more than doing something “over and over again?”
Well, it was the guidelines issued by the NHL to the broadcast teams and journalists that made him realize what he’ll miss most. Because of the guidelines, it became difficult if not impossible to do what he enjoyed most – getting to know the players, their life stories, and their anecdotes. “We could not go in the dressing room,” he said. “We could not do any interviews with players unless we were… six feet away with a boom microphone. We could not enter the bench area unless it was from the ice, not from the interior in the dressing room. We could not do interviews during the game with coaches… And all of these things were becoming limiting to my favorite part of hockey other than doing the game. And that was sharing things that I'd learned from players. And so that is the thing that I miss the most.”
It’s easy to understand why he will miss getting to know the players. He tells me, for instance, of getting to know Boston Bruin Patrice Bergeron, his dog Wilson, and the reason why Bergeron chose during the 2004-05 lockout year in the NHL to play an entire season for the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins.
“My English wasn't really that good,” Bergeron told Doc. “And it gave me (Bergeron) an entire year to not only sharpen my skills but to work on my English.”
If you listen to Bergeron talk now, you wouldn't think he ever had an English problem, said Doc. “Those are things that you learned from players that you once in a while get a chance to share,” he said, noting that some of those stories didn’t make it into his current book but could “make it into a future book.”
And as if it was a bottomless cup of coffee, Doc shared yet another anecdote about former hockey player Paul Stewart, who as the story goes, said the following after his Dorchester Hat Trick (three fights in one game and an automatic game misconduct): “I've done it all. My skates are going into the Charles.”
And he threw his skates into the river, which is where they might be to this day, said Doc.
Doc also shared his thoughts on the mindset of hockey players, their dedication to the game, and their desire to have the name their parents gave them etched on the world’s most prized trophy.
According to Doc, there’s a tradition that “goes all the way back” that professional hockey players don’t talk about money during the playoffs. “We've always had the player's name that his parents gave him that can go on the Stanley Cup if you win,” he said. “And that's what you play for.”
And without fail, there’s yet one more player story to share, a story that reveals, well, you’ll see.
In 1979, the New York Rangers played the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup. The Rangers won the first game and then lost four straight games to the Canadians.
About 20 years later, Doc and John Davidson, who was the goaltender on that 1979 Rangers team, are talking and Doc mentions that “players don’t even think about the money.”
So, Davidson tells his story: About two weeks after the Stanley Cup series ended, Davidson went to his mailbox to discover an envelope from the NHL. “I'm thinking, what are they writing to me for?” asked Davidson per Doc. “And I opened the envelope and I realized it was my playoff check. And he said, ‘I forgot we got paid.’ And that, to me, struck a chord that I've never forgotten since. The sense that it's not why they're here going after the Stanley Cup. It's not for the cash because it's not significant. What's significant is getting your name on the trophy. And that means an awful lot.”
Doc shares Davidson’s sentiments about the game of hockey, about how he got a chance to do something he loved and, oh, by the way, get paid for it, too. “I encourage young people to get into it if they have a love for it,” he said. “And if they have an affinity for it because you get in free, you get a good seat for the game. You get to work with some of the most interesting people in the world, even if it's only in the minors when you're first starting out. And then I found out later on that you get something in the mail twice a week. And for a while I was like John Davidson -- I forgot we got paid. But after a while, I realized that you count on that because you plan for the future with that, just like a lot of your viewers do.”
Getting paid, however, whether it’s 1979 or this year’s Stanley Cup, is not what it’s about. Far from it.
“We have a four-and-a-half-month absence between games,” said Doc. “The guys come back from no less than 20 countries to comprise 24 teams… Everybody comes back and they're not making a lot of money to do it. And they come back and do they ever compete hard… it just makes you proud to be around guys that care that much. And it's all to get their name and engraved on a trophy and maybe get a ring that's too big to wear except once a year. But that's the commitment that they have. And that's what makes this so magical that even after going the longest they probably have in their lives without training, without competing in a game, they came back and they put on a whale of a tournament for two months.”
No regrets for Doc
Doc also said he has no regrets as he looks back on his career calling hockey games.
“I leave with no regrets really,” he said, recalling a discussion he once had with the legends of the game, including former Boston Bruin great Bobby Orr.
Orr told Doc that he had no regrets, even when pressed. Doc asked Orr what if he had played during the modern era when he could have had arthroscopic surgery “instead of those awful knee surgeries” he had to endure, how much different it might have, could have been.
“He said, ‘Yes, but I have no regrets.’ And I have none either,” said Doc
If, however, he had a genie in a bottle there are two wishes he would ask for. He had the chance to call the last game Wayne Gretzky ever played, and best of all, before a home crowd at Madison Square Garden – the Rangers versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But he never got the chance to call Gordie Howe’s last game, nor Bobby Orr’s.
“And so, if I would have had a treasured wish it would be to have been there,” he said. “If the audience would have been a home crowd, like it was for Wayne's last game, to hear the appreciation and to not have said anything magic, but maybe to have said nothing and to just listen to the crowd just to be inside the building, that would have been special.”
Doc's autobiography: Off Mike
As for his autobiography, Doc says readers will learn about his growing up in a town of 600 people in rural Indiana in the 1950s, the first hockey game he ever saw, and some of the more unusual or fun games that he had a chance to call.
On the wall behind Doc in his office are two hockey jerseys that speak to his roots. He began his career doing play-by-play for the Port Huron Flags in 1973. “That was my first paying job,” he said. “I negotiated my own salary and thought I had done really well at $160 a week.”
And then he realized it was about 80 hours of work a week. “So, I was a two-buck an hour guy, which was below minimum wage, even in 1973,” he said.
The other jersey that hangs behind Doc (which incidentally blocks the famous Ray Lussier photo of Boston Bruin Bobby Orr scoring the game-winning goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs against the St. Louis Blues in 1970) is that of the Fort Wayne Komets.
As the story goes, Doc dreamed of becoming a baseball announcer until Dec. 10, 1960, when he attended his first hockey game, the Komets versus the Muskegon Zephyrs. The Komets also had a play-by-play announcer, Bob Chase, that many say provided inspiration to Doc.
There’s a chapter devoted to those he has worked with over the years and “the people that have been good to me along the way and without whom I wouldn't have had success.”
There’s a chapter on the “iron five” in his life, including his wife, Joyce; his brother, Dan; Lou Oppenheim; Sam Flood; and Eddie Olczyk, with whom he worked with for 14 years.
“A lot of times in the more difficult times of your life, you remember the people that are there for you,” he said, noting that he’ll often rib Eddie O for horse picks that don’t pan out. “We don't let up on him if we lose, because we all take his tips,” he said.
The last chapter is about what he calls his last elevator ride. It came on March 11 after a San Jose Sharks versus Chicago Blackhawks game. At the time, he didn’t know whether it would be the last NHL game that he would call. “A lot of times you don't know those things because when a pause is declared the very next day to an NHL season, and there's such uncertainty, you don't realize that that's the last one that you do.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t the last game he would call. That came on Sept. 28 when the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Dallas Stars 2-0 to win the Stanley Cup in six games, 4-2.
And now, like many who have gone before him, Doc is in uncharted waters.
“I'm new to this retirement thing,” he said. “It's only two days ago now. And I don't know how to do it.”
Yes, Doc might be a novice at retirement but, oh my goodness, no doubt it won’t be long before he’ll be as good at it as he was being a play-by-play broadcaster.
Here’s to a happy and healthy retirement, Doc.