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the poetics of hockey

The poetics of hockey has suffered a terrible blow. Doc Emrick retired at the end of last season after forty-seven years as the most expressive and eloquent of sports announcers. He called an NHL broadcast on TV as though he were still on radio, delivering a nonstop monologue of every pass, every shot, and every collision as ten players on skates sped full tilt and swung a five-foot stick as they swirled back and forth on a walled-in ice rink, a rectangle with rounded corners measuring a mere 200-by-85 feet. Players play with such intensity that they rotate to the bench every forty-five seconds or so. Doc Emerick spoke each one’s name and every action in real time. Anyone else would be breathless, but he could keep it up, his voice steady or modulating or eruptive as fit the action, through every minute of play.

His signature phrasing included a verb and a preposition or adverb: dropping back in, feeds it on through, wristing one ahead, given back across, rattled it on around, lifted back along.

I am an occasional hockey fan, so much so that I probably don’t deserve to be called a fan. I didn’t acquire even a basic understanding of the game until teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose hockey tradition is so deep and fans so fanatical that season tickets are often a hotly contested item in divorces. A friend took me to a game and explained the rules and action as I watched in wide-eyed wonder and confusion. In the last several years I have sometimes followed the NHL playoffs. At some point, I simply wanted to watch a game if it were being called by Doc Emrick.

An alchemy occurs in English when a verb combines with an adverb or especially with a preposition to create meanings, idioms, metaphors, and images that are lacking in the verb itself. Check in, check out, check up on, check up. Often the preposition has an object: I came to a fork in the road, but the same verb and preposition without the object means something else altogether: a few seconds after my fall, I came to. Yet another meaning arises in I wasn’t sure how I came across. Idioms are spawned when to bring is yoked to around or down or up. Or take the most basic monosyllabic obscenity, fuck. Its meaning changes as soon as it is followed by up or over or off.

Anglo-Saxon verbs seem the most inclined to such creative transmutations. Occasionally, in a furor of attentiveness I have written down as fast as I could Doc Emrick’s phrasal creativity:

 

sped across                                                       nudged around behind

rattled along                                                    dropped it along

canceled out                                                    dealt along behind

handed back across                                        tipped back at

jammed on further                                        dished away

peeling it off                                                    whistled that one back down

drags it along                                                   tried to chip it on by

connected back behind                                 poles it in on goal

twisted it on                                                     played it along to

feathered along                                                popped it out of play

stepped back in                                               brushed on further

grabs it off there                                             shrugged it away

worked outside                                               spiked back out

forced along                                                     walks it across

directed back on                                             poked along

seeing it knifed away                                      skidded down the ice

elevated over                                                    shoveled on to

shaken back along                                          slopped it to

scaled it back along                                        sailed back out

floating one around                                       wound it around

forced back out again                                    lobbed on

lobbed back in                                                shoved off by

pitchforked on back                                      poked around

swept back along                                            punched away

skittered on to center                                    jammed back up the boards

floated up high                                               popped back up in the air

steers it away                                                   feathered forward

 

The “it” that all these expressions refer to, or silently allude to, is the puck. The verbal wealth surrounds the most mundane object in all sports. It can’t be dribbled or passed like a basketball, it does not spiral toward its target like a football, it is not made with the multiple materials and artful winding of a baseball; it requires no animal hide like all of the above. It is at once the essence of the game and the hardest thing for the spectator to see, especially on television. Hence it is the referent of nearly every of Doc Emrick’s turns of phrase.

He draws on another arsenal of verbs to describe the skaters: burrowing into the corner, wedging his way, gliding on in, the jostling continues, he was bumped off, swirls, slams on the brakes.

The ability to summon up a stream of verbs and their prepositions and adverbs at the speed of the puck’s movement up and down the ice, from player to player, off the boards or the glass, deflected away from the net, must have required, I imagine (hope!), disciplined preparation. Perhaps Doc Emrick habitually jotted down verbs and phrases and studied them long enough to create a reliable cache to tap during the game, just as he would memorize each player’s name and number before each game. Such carefully prepared and honed spontaneity has a similar but distinct manifestation in the announcers who call horse races, often a dozen in a day. They must memorize the colors of each jockey’s silks and attach it to the horse he or she is riding, and the jockeys wear different silks in every race, since the colors belong to the horse not the rider. A race lasts for three minutes give or take. The dozen or more horses change positions several times, and the announcer, watching through binoculars, resets the entire field every fifteen seconds or less, from front to back with all the changes in between while keeping attention on the contest for the lead. As seamless and enthralling as the call of the race is, the lexicon is limited, except for the horses’ tongue-twisting names: Improbable, Tiz the Law, Maximum Security, Shekky Shabaz, Sistercharlie, Shancelot, Got Stormy. To call a hockey game, the broadcaster must be able to immediately identify 36 skaters, 18 per team, via their jersey number or physical characteristics, as they come on or off the ice, pass, receive, shoot, rebound, or foul in uninterrupted 45-second intervals.

Doc Emrick had a poet’s verbal scope, facility, and depth. His trough of Anglo-Saxon verbs and alchemically combined adverbs and prepositions could aid even the most accomplished English-language poet.

But his call of a game was poetic in a more fundamental, less recognizable respect. If you closed your eyes and listened to Doc Emrick’s call of the action on the ice, you’d have no way of visualizing the action on the ice. Compare baseball. Any fan who listens on the radio to a skilled broadcaster call a game can imaginatively follow and visualize nearly every moment, every pitch, every hit, the trajectory of every foul ball or pop-up or ground-out or flyball or home run, every fielder and runner involved in the play. Not so listening to Doc Emrick. His language refers to but does not represent the game’s action. The rhythms—pitchforked on back, feathered forward, skittered on to center—give the feeling of movement not an image of the moves. The vivid palpable concrete phrases arise from intense observation of the game but do not produce a picture of it. Just such a connection-disjunction between attentiveness to reality and creation in language is at the heart of the art of poetry.

2 comments

  1. Stan Durey says:

    A true artist, the test of any such one might describe as the ability to reach the uninitiated, the dilettante, the aficionado, the savant, and provide full appreciation and satisfaction to each and all, regardless the medium. Thank you, John.

  2. John McCormick says:

    This headline atop this essay is ambitious, but the author delivers. His final paragraph is an elegant synopsis.
    Thus Stan Durey’s comment aptly applies not only to Doc Emrick, but to John Brenkman.
    Now deprived of the former, we do have the latter, jamming on further.

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