As we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns for Poynter.
I approached Mike Emrick with a request prior to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final at the United Center in Chicago Monday.
I told him that I thought aspiring journalists and broadcasters–and established ones for that matter–can learn quite a bit if they pay close attention to his calls of hockey games for NBC and NBCSN. I asked him to share some of his lessons and insights about the art of mastering the English language.
“Well, I’d certainly like to try,” said Emrick, who is his working his 14th Stanley Cup Final with the Chicago-Tampa Bay series.
Emrick has more than a passing interest in teaching. He got his nickname, “Doc,” for receiving his Ph.D in communications from Bowling Green in 1976. His dissertation was on the history of broadcasting in baseball.
For a while, it appeared as if he would be better known as Professor Emrick. The son of two parents who were teachers, he taught some college classes in speech. The education route was looming as a viable Plan B with each rejection letter he got in his bid to become a hockey announcer.
“I still have the binder,” Emrick said. “There’s some famous names on that stationery. They said, ‘We don’t have any place for you right now.’”
Eventually, Emrick landed a minor league play-by-play job in Port Huron, Mich. in 1973, setting him on the path for a NHL Hall of Fame broadcast career. Now 68, he has reached such iconic status that he is referred to as “the Vin Scully of hockey.” Or as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says, “Vin Scully is the Mike Emrick of baseball.”
Like Scully, Emrick is a master storyteller and is exceptionally skilled in using vivid descriptions. The Big Lead’s Stephen Douglas once documented how Emrick used 153 different verbs to describe puck movement in a game.
No less than Frank Deford, hardly a slouch himself as a writer, lauded Emrick in a NPR commentary.Deford said, “The eloquence he brings to such a bombastic activity is the sort of giant contradiction that even overwhelms irony.”
At the top of our interview, I told Emrick I felt that the premium on writing has diminished in the 140-character new media age. He shares the same concerns.
“Words are the hammers and nails to build a sentence,” Emrick said. “You probably talk to young people about the value of putting together a good sentence, even a spoken one. This will sound like an old guy talking, but it is sort of a lost art.”
Emrick then told a story he heard while sitting next to a job recruiter on a plane.
“He said he talked to a young lady from Haddonfield, N.J. who ‘blew me away,’” Emrick said. “He said, ‘I asked myself why? She put together a good sentence; she made eye contact; and she had a good hand shake. I’m thinking why is that unusual?’ But he added, ‘Today, that’s unusual.’”
Emrick obviously has some natural talent, but he also needed to build a foundation. Looking back, he said it came from reading at a young age.
The short version is that Emrick recommends reading as the best method to improve writing and verbal skills. Naturally, though, he puts it in a much more colorful way.
“Reading is the No. 1 thing that builds vocabulary,” Emrick said. “Read the fun stuff, but also read something with more than a couple syllables. It’s fine to enjoy a milk shake, but also eat a good salad now and then. The milk shake may be fun, but you also need to do something that’s good for yourself.”
Emrick also talked about the importance of learning from role models in the business. In his case, it started by listening to Bob Chase, a minor league hockey announcer in Ft. Wayne who still is calling games at the age of 89. Richard Deitsch of SI.com did a story on Chase this week.
“He is so good at formulating sentences,” Emrick said. “Hearing the King’s English come out over the radio at a young age was very helpful to me.”
Later, Emrick had the good fortune of spending time with Ernie Harwell, the long-time voice of the Detroit Tigers, while researching his Ph.D dissertation. He saw how legendary announcers like Harwell and Scully use stories to connect with their audience. Emrick is big on stories, as he always tries to incorporate a few in his calls.
“I usually have five minutes of material that I have to whack down to 20 seconds,” Emrick said. “But I think the stories are the most lasting. When I listen to someone speak, usually once a week on Sunday, it is the stories that I remember. The stories are far greater than statistics. Stats are here today, gone tomorrow. I remember stories from 20-25 years ago.”
I asked Emrick how he came up with the approach to use so many different verbs to describe puck movement? The list includes pitch forked, shuffleboards, and ladled. I mean, who uses “ladled” in a hockey call?
Again, it came from another influence from his youth, Lyle Stieg, a hockey announcer in Dayton.
“He said you have to come up with different words because there are things in this game that are repetitive,” Emrick said. “He said, ‘If you say it the same way all the time, you’ll drive people nuts.’ I realized I had to expand my hockey vocabulary.”
Clearly, Emrick enjoyed sharing his lessons. However, time finally ran out on our class. He had a little thing like getting ready to call a Stanley Cup Final game.
Emrick, though, wanted to share one last pearl. In a speech he once gave to college students, he offered his advice on how to go into a job interview. Among the key points: Coming in clean-shaven; making eye contact; and ditching the cell phone.
Given his background, it hardly is a surprise that Emick’s list included using sound, well-constructed sentences.
“If you use the word ‘like’ in every other paragraph, strike it,” Emrick said. “It will convey an inability to communicate effectively.”
Emrick then added one bonus tip. “Before you go into the interview, say a prayer,” he said.