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Mike 'Doc' Emrick knows NHL's return will be a tough call

In this Wednesday, May 29, 2019 photo, NBC

In this Wednesday, May 29, 2019 photo, NBC hockey broadcaster Mike Emrick poses for a photo while preparing to call Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final between the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins in Boston. Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

This is not the first time that Mike “Doc” Emrick and other hockey fans have been deprived of NHL games. It has happened three other times in the past quarter-century.

But those were labor disputes that resulted in lockouts, when “men on either side of a boardroom table or maybe more sophisticatedly on telephones were discussing what our future would be like,” as Emrick put it on Tuesday.

Then there would be hints of movement on either side that might at least be cause for hope, and what was at stake mostly was mere money and/or contractual nuances.

This time, even the unofficial voice of hockey in the United States as NBC’s lead play-by-play man has not a clue when there will be hockey again, and a powerful sense that there are more important things going on.

“The first thing is, you don’t know anything,” Emrick said of the state of the NHL season, which has been on pause since March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So all you do is say prayers for the people that are getting out there and battling every day and making it happen for us, so whenever we go into an arena the next time, we’ll be grateful for those people that are doing all of that and wearing the face shields every day for us.”

During the 2012-13 lockout, Emrick was able to get his hockey fix by calling college games, but this time there is no hockey at all in the United States.

So he has spent his downtime in part by finishing an autobiography due out this autumn and in part by idly playing around with potential re-start scenarios.

Emrick calculated various playoff formats, including one based on points percentage (in which case the Islanders would make it) rather than total points when the season halted (in which case the Islanders would not make it).

If the Islanders were to face the Bruins in the first round, Emrick would not put an upset past them. "As Lamoriello-ian teams of the past have shown, the regular season and the playoffs are altogether different animals," he said.

At the moment, though, none of that means much.

“It’s like getting Play-Doh out and trying to build a kangaroo when you were 5 years old,” Emrick said. “It’s just a fun exercise. And you tear it up at the end of the day and stuff it back in the jar and close the top, or otherwise it’ll get all crusty and then you won’t be able to use it again.”

Emrick trusts the NHL has spent the past seven weeks working on “Plans B, C, D and E,” but in the end, the league is at the mercy of government officials and medical science.

“The networks aren’t going to order trucks and put crews together until there’s something definitive,” he said, “and we seem to be a good distance from definitive right now.

“So we just stand on one leg and then on the other and wait.”

If the games do return, it certainly will be without fans in the stands and might be with announcers calling games from a studio rather than in person.

Emrick remembered calling a game  from a monitor in a studio once in his career, when the teams involved were in Sweden and he and analyst Pierre McGuire were at NBC’s facility in Stamford, Connecticut.

He also called two games at Yankee Stadium off a monitor in 2014, but at least there were fans present; he was just too far from the ice surface to see the action clearly.

“If that became the steady diet, I’m sure I’d get used to doing it that way,” he said. “But in 3,700 games, that would be three games I could remember doing that way.”

At this stage, no one is in position to be choosy. And no one is in position to complain.

“You realize that we’re putting on masks to go into a supermarket, but it’s a lot more dangerous for the people fighting for us,” he said.

“So that is disheartening, and you’re just so thankful every night when you go to bed that those people are doing that and you’re amazed at the courage they have.”

He added, “I’m forever optimistic, but this time I’m sure understanding, because none of us wanted this. So as much as I want to see hockey, I realize there’s a battle on. Until we get virus victory, our role is not important.”

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