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Love of hockey has carried Emrick to the top

The voice of hockey in the United States first found its inspiration 50 seasons ago, deep in the heart of basketball country.

Mike Emrick was an aspiring baseball announcer from La Fontaine, Ind., when his parents took him to an IHL game between the Fort Wayne Komets and visiting Muskegon Zephyrs.

It was love at first sight (and fight).

A half-century later, Emrick still talks about that night at the old War Memorial Coliseum the way other sports fans do about their first visits to Yankee Stadium or Lambeau Field.

"The ice was whiter than white, and the blue lines were bluer,'' he said. "The Muskegon uniforms were as rich a blue as the Toronto Maple Leafs. Fort Wayne was orange and black.''

The clincher was listening on the way home to Komets announcer Bob Chase, whom Emrick later befriended. And who, at age 84, still is on the job after 57 seasons.

"I feel good he's still doing the games,'' Emrick said. "It gives us all hope to last a while.''

At 63, Emrick appears poised to last a while, too.

After calling the Olympics gold-medal game in February - the most-watched hockey game in the United States in 30 years - and now in the playoffs as lead play-by-play man for both Versus and NBC, there is no announcer more closely associated with the sport in this country.

And there may be no announcer more universally respected, professionally and personally.

"He's the best in the business,'' Versus president Jamie Davis said. "Everybody wants him.''

Said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: "Not only does he set the standard in the way he calls a game, he's passionate about hockey.''

Glenn "Chico'' Resch, Emrick's MSG Plus partner on Devils games for 12 seasons, said he is "revered'' in the hockey community.

"No one can do what he can do,'' Resch said. "No one can throw out the verbiage and the description and the diversity, time after time. People are just amazed at how quickly his mind can go.''

Not bad for a guy who can't skate. But maybe that has helped, because Emrick has embraced Hockey Nation with the patriotic zeal of an immigrant.

Emrick dabbled in other sports. He called Brett Favre's first game as a Packer for CBS in 1992. But his focus narrowed after a lunch in the late 1990s with the late Marty Glickman, who mentored New York sports announcers from Marv Albert to Bob Papa and beyond.

Emrick told Glickman that calling football and basketball was hard work for him.

"He looked at me and said, 'Mike, you're the voice of hockey, just keep doing that.' In essence he was telling me, 'You can burn up all the energy you want, but stick to hockey.' It was easy advice for me to receive, let's put it that way.''

Emrick was honored by the Hockey Hall of Fame with its Foster Hewitt Memorial Award in 2008 and has won multiple New York Emmys for play-by-play, most recently last Sunday.

As impressive as his knowledge of hockey is, his use of language might be his best attribute - like Vin Scully, but vastly accelerated to match hockey's pace.

Emrick uses a wide variety of verbs, more than most announcers do in a month, which he traces to long days in the library at Bowling Green earning the PhD that earned him the nickname "Doc.''

If there is a criticism of him, it is that he is too descriptive for TV. Emrick has heard it before. He disregards it.

"I don't think I can do that much editing without taking away the spontaneity and energy I have with the call,'' he said. "It's a philosophical choice, and I guess by now I've made it.''

Emrick's instincts are consistently sound. In the third period of Game 4 Tuesday, he said of the Devils, "I'm not sure if it's a spark or what, but it's something just not quite there.''

Seconds later, the Flyers scored to take a 3-1 lead en route to a five-game series upset.

How long will Emrick stay on the job? There is no sign yet that the enthusiasm he first felt in Fort Wayne has diminished.

"This is it, right here,'' he said, showing off his Devils credential. "You get in free.

"The [public relations] man for the Komets got me a Commissioner's Pass the second year I was in college. It meant I could go to Komets games for free, but also ones in Dayton, Toledo, Port Huron, Flint, Muskegon.

"It was the biggest gift I ever got.''

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