Al Michaels is most recently known as the play-by-play voice for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” where he’s called more than 30 Patriots games in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. He’ll be in his usual play-by-play perch in the booth Sunday night alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth for the Patriots-Texans matchup.
But he’ll forever be best known for a certain call of a hockey game 39 years ago, when he asked us if we believed in miracles, then confirmed with an emphatic “YES!” that we’d just been blessed to witness one.
For all of Michaels’s achievements calling big events over all sorts of sports for decades now, he remains a diehard hockey fan, one who has long-owned Los Angeles Kings season tickets.
His acumen as a broadcaster and passion for hockey make him the ideal person to ask about his NBC colleague and fellow broadcasting legend-in-his-own-time, Mike “Doc” Emrick.
Like Michaels — and much to the easy-listening good fortune of local sports fans and TV viewers — Emrick had the call of a Boston team’s game this week, handling play-by-play for NBC’s broadcast of the Bruins-Rangers matinee Friday.
Michaels’s assessment, like his own play-by-play style, is authoritative, on-point, and couldn’t be clearer.
“Doc is the best ever,’’ said Michaels. “I don’t want to diminish Dan Kelly or Foster Hewitt or Fred Cusick going back to the Bruins. But Doc, he’s brilliant. He’s one of a kind. It’s such a pleasure to listen to him. He makes the game so interesting. He’s got just the right level of excitement.
“And his descriptions of things are phe-no-men-al,’’ said Michaels, emphasizing each syllable. “Phenomenal. Every once in a while he’ll come up with something you’ve never heard and I’ll just laugh and go, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ ”
The appreciation is mutual, which isn’t always the case in a business so competitive.
“The thing that strikes me about Al is how flawless he is,’’ said Emrick. “I’ve done over 3,600 games and I haven’t done a perfect one yet. And he’s got the names of the guys that received the pass and the tackler and all of that, I marvel at how accurate he is and how he has a great enthusiasm for it. Al is just a marvel.
“I’ll never forget him showing up in the booth in 2010 in Vancouver before the US-Canada gold medal game [which Emrick was calling for NBC]. He’s always been so kind to me and always said so many nice things. And Chris Cuthbert, who was doing the game for CBC, came over to get his picture taken with Al. That, of course, shows the international admiration for Al’s work not only in hockey and 1980 and other games that he did, but the admiration for him as one of the greatest broadcaster of sports.”
Michaels joined NBC in 2006, but hadn’t done any Olympic broadcasting since 1988 in Calgary, when he was with ABC. When those 2010 Olympics in Vancouver came around and he was set to be a part of it, there was a suggestion that Michaels should call some hockey. After all, it was the 30th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice.” He would have none of it.
“A couple of writers called me and said, ‘Gee, you should be doing hockey.’ And I said, ‘Get out of here. I can’t do a game one-10th as well as Doc Emrick,’ ’’ said Michaels, who was the daytime host in Vancouver. “I want to listen to Doc Emrick. I can’t hold a candle in hockey to him.’’
Michaels said calling a hockey game has become much more difficult in the years since he did it so famously at Lake Placid.
“When I did the Olympics in 1980, all you really had to do as an announcer was explain icing and offsides and talk about some of the guys. There are so many more details to it now,’’ he said. “It’s well known that I got that assignment because I was the only guy on that staff that had done hockey, and I had done one.
“Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell, Jim McKay, Bill Flemming, down the line,’’ said Michaels, citing some of ABC’s biggest broadcasting names in 1980. “No one had ever done a hockey game, so I got that assignment rather than, I don’t know, the biathlon.”
He laughs. “There were no miracles on the biathlon course that year, of course.
“Hockey is so different now. Granted, it’s still a bit of a cult sport, I know that, and listen, I’m in the cult. I love hockey as much as anybody. But you didn’t have to explain it the way you do now. It’s a completely different animal. It’s on a level that didn’t exist in 1980. I did it on a level that was good for the Olympics in 1980: Here are the kids, here’s who they are, here’s a little bit about the rules, period. [Emrick] has so much more to do.”
Emrick acknowledged that one of the subtle tricks is being precise in the times when he deploys statistics and biographical information, making sure he’s not stepping on the action.
“Often times, if it’s a routine start to a game rather than a lightning-like start, the statistics and details — the Bruins have lost two games in regulation since the end of the World Series, that sort of thing — are the things you will talk over when play is back in one defensive end and no one is forechecking, those are the things you can get in,’’ he said. “With teams like the Bruins, that’s a very dangerous thing to do, because with the forecheck they have they steal the puck and it’s in the net and you’re caught still reciting numbers. I don’t want to get caught doing that.”
Several years ago, during an interview with Andrea Kremer on HBO’s “Real Sports,’’ Michaels said Emrick “could make a cockroach race in your basement sound exciting.”
“And that’s the truth,’’ said Michaels. “His use of language is phenomenal. And that’s the hardest sport to do. That’s hardest. The one thing that makes hockey different than other sport is that it’s a closer blend of radio and television than any other sport. You would just wear the audience out if you did a football game on television like you do on radio. Baseball is completely different, too. Baseball is wonderful, there’s time to tell stories, you can paint the picture. Basketball is relatively similar [to hockey], the pace, but what’s different is that one team has possession for a little bit, and you can see it in your mind’s eye if you’re listening to it on radio. In hockey, the possession can change seven times in 60 seconds. To be able to do that . . . I don’t think there’s anything harder, and Doc makes it look so easy.”