In the days following Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, it was not difficult to find sounds and images from around the sports world that attempted to offer heartfelt support and consolation to our staggered city.
Two that stood out among the sympathetic gestures: The Canadiens’ decision to turn down the lights for a moment of silence before their game with the Flyers Monday night. And the symbolic gesture of playing of “Sweet Caroline’’ after the third inning at Yankee Stadium (among others around Major League Baseball) Tuesday night.
Neil Diamond’s schmaltzy contribution to Fenway Park’s so-good party vibe suddenly has deep personal meaning to our city now.
And the message from Montreal and New York was one and the same:
We’ve been rivals a long time. But we’re all teammates now.
There were some truly admirable efforts among local media outlets to offer information and perhaps some catharsis, whether it was “Toucher and Rich’’ co-host Rich Shertenlieb’s harrowing first-person account or “Dennis and Callahan’s” must-listen interview with instant responder Carlos Arredondo or Channel 4’s extraordinarily poised on-the-scene reporting amid the chaos.
But with the Bruins postponing their Monday game and the Celtics canceling their Tuesday regular-season finale, it meant the city’s first opportunity to gather for a significant sporting event and grieve and mourn and grasp for normalcy and maybe cheer a little bit did not come around until the Bruins’ home matchup with the Buffalo Sabres Wednesday night.
The game was not broadcast on NESN, but on the NBC Sports Network, with the great Mike Emrick, who should pretty much be our official national emcee of everything, on the call.
The result was a broadcast that may not have been technically perfect — there were audio difficulties with a Jimmy Roberts pregame report from outside the Garden — but one that in large part because of Emrick was absolutely pitch-perfect in capturing the emotion of the players and, in particular, those in attendance.
“At times it was overwhelming, and I think a lot of people felt that way,’’ said Emrick, who acknowledged he got choked up after the pregame homage to those who died in the bombings while paying tribute to the day’s heroes and the city. “You’re inside there and you realize that, yeah, they’re here for a sporting event, but the overall effect was an inching sort of step toward healing. You don’t want to overstate because you don’t know how much was helped last night. But I had a sense that a lot was helped. By the atmosphere, by being together, by the bond with the team.”
Emrick said he was aware that Rene Rancourt, who has sung the national anthem before Bruins games for 37 years, was going to turn it over to the crowd after the first few notes. It may not have been an impromptu chorus, but it was beautiful and extraordinarily affecting.
“I was trying to fight through it,’’ Emrick said, “I started this sentence, and I didn’t think it was going to be that hard. It was seeing some of those pictures [on the Garden video screen], and some of those little kids and the crowd, and one guy behind the bench who was dabbing his eyes. And all the players had backed up from the blue line so they could see the big board and see the tribute. The Sabres, too. It was incredibly emotional.’’
Recognizing the magnitude of the event and emotion it would carry, Emrick did not leave anything to chance despite his experience of calling, by his estimate, roughly 3,000 hockey games. He asked Boston friends such as former Bruins public relations gurus Nate Greenberg and Heidi Holland for insight on how the crowd might respond to certain moments.
He jotted down some comments and thoughts Tuesday night, then Wednesday afternoon received the format of the one-hour pregame show and 10-minute game intro from producer Matt Marvin, which helped him, along with color commentator Ed Olczyk and reporter Pierre McGuire, prepare even more.
And all along, he kept in the front of his mind some sage advice from another enormously respected sportscaster.
“I take my cue from someone I respect so much, Dick Enberg,’’ Emrick said. “He often said the best ad-libs aren’t ad-libs. They’re written down. There are some things that you want to be very careful about in what you don’t say and what you say. I wanted to make sure I said the things I wanted to say the way I wanted to say them.’’
And when Emrick couldn’t find the words to say, he had the discipline to get out of the moment’s way.
“You can talk your way into trouble by talking too much. And the main thing to do was to make sure you were letting the crowd and the circumstance come through,’’ said Emrick, who noted executive producer Sam Flood never minds when the broadcasters allow the game to breathe. “There are times that it really helps to have the crowd do that rather than describing the play that they can really see.’’
After the game, the Bruins and Sabres uniting to salute the crowd before departing for their dressing rooms, Emrick took a moment to take stock of the broadcast.
“Like at the end of most games, you back through your mind on how you feel that you did things,’’ he said. “I think that we had to feel like, ‘OK, we stayed out of the way, we just showed what was there, and that was what was important.’ The most moving thing to all of us wasn’t what was said, but what we got to listen to.”