The Fischler Report 5/24/21

Doc Emrick talks about his retirement, and more! Reviewing relaxed Covid Protocols. The Code (and should it be KO-ed?). Isles-Pens set for Game 5!

AN EXCLUSIVE AND SENTIMENTAL INTERVIEW WITH DOC EMRICK

Award winning journalist Hillel Kuttler sat down with the legendary Doc Emrick.

No question, we all miss Mike (Doc) Emrick big time.

He was – and likely always will be – king of all hockey play-by-play broadcasters and loved by all in the hockey world.

Doc shocked fans when he announced last October, shortly after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup over the Dallas Stars, that he had broadcast his last game. This ended Doc’s illustrious career as the play-by-play man for the Philadelphia Flyers, the New Jersey Devils, ESPN, and NBC – and that was just the NHL. Let’s not forget his calling hockey at the Winter Olympics.

We already miss Doc’s passion for hockey and a prodigious vocabulary that put the first line – Merriam and Webster and Roget – to shame. The rocking chair remains unused, though, since Doc now broadcasts commentary and essays. He’s a young 74.

In an interview with prize-winning journalist Hillel Kuttler for his podcast, Athletics Beyond Coronavirus, Doc waxed serious and sentimental. He touched on his feelings and on the game. The following are some of the subjects Doc discussed.

On the snail-mails (along with e-mails and texts) he’s received from well-wishers and is responding to, Doc quipped: "The post office does need the money, and I do have plenty of stamps."

On deciding to retire:

"It was time to say goodbye to play-by-play."

“I don't regret the decision to not do it anymore. I don't miss airports. I don't miss hotels. There was 40 years of that."

On having envisioned his finale’ involving a shaking arena celebrating a Stanley Cup victory or a subdued arena following a loss in the final: "Well, it wasn't like that. I was working at home. I walked up two flights of stairs and saw [wife] Joyce sitting in the living room watching television and the dogs – and that was my last game."

On whether, given the pandemic, he felt deprived of a proper send-off from fans: "It is not something I would've been comfortable doing, because in my mind it was all about the athletes. That's what we're all there to celebrate: how skilled these guys are at doing what they do. It was not about myself."

On broadcasting a playoff game versus a regular-season game: "The playoffs are a great time because [for finalists] they'll have sacrificed everything that they had, they're going to have a short summer [and] it's going to be a hard start to the next year because they had such a short summer. ... That's a part of what makes this [the playoffs] so glorious. It's a remarkable experience, the playoffs, so, yeah, I get pumped up for it every year."

During the 2019 Bruins vs. Blue Jackets playoff series, the animal-loving Doc interviewed Jack Hanna, the Columbus Zoo's director emeritus. Doc fed a giraffe and played with penguins, then Hanna told about when the zoo was in financial straits and local businessman John H. McConnell presented Hanna with a check to help out. This occurred next to the gorilla cage.

"The gorilla grabbed the check out of his hand and ate it, and I thought to myself, 'That's it; we're done.’ But McConnell thought it was hilarious and made out another check – and that got us over the hump," Doc quoted Hanna as saying.

Doc added: "To spend some time with someone who not only loved animals but could trace the history of the zoo ... to the [future] owner of the Columbus Blue Jackets – that was pretty special. That's one of the best days I ever spent not at a hockey rink."

On joining play-by-play man and his long-ago mentor Bob Chase of the ECHL's Ft. Wayne Komets in the booth during a night celebrating Chase’s 90th birthday: "It was like Field of Dreams, playing catch like they do at the end, only it was wearing headsets – and we won the game. It was a lifetime memory – I hope for him, but it sure was for me."

On Chase’s death several months later: "I'm glad there's a heaven for people like that."

TFR readers will enjoy listening to Doc’s reflections. Just click here:

anchor.fm/Hillel-Kuttler

Kuttler has his own reflections on his 35-minute conversation with Doc.

“It’s the rare broadcaster who draws me in for a regular-season game when neither team grabs me, someone whose absence means I’ll shut off the TV in disappointment. Mike Emrick is one of those people,” Kuttler tells TFR.

“It was his unique inflections, diction, knowledge and command of hockey’s past and present. He possessed vocabulary and a sharp wit – and he did it all in the hardest sport to broadcast because of its breathtaking pace. Somehow, he remained understated. It was his manner. I’d have loved to sit down for coffee with Pat Summerall or Dick Enberg as they educated me about calling football, basketball or tennis – or anything, really. They’re gone, unfortunately. I’d still love to ask Vin Scully about his career broadcasting baseball, then sit back and listen. I’ve interviewed Bob Costas several times. In May 2020 and now May 2021, I’ve had first Gary Thorne and now Mike Emrick on my podcast to discuss just a bit about their careers broadcasting hockey. What an honor that’s been for me.”


THE UNSEEN HAND AND THE PLAYOFFS

When Hall of Famer Dick Irvin coached the Montreal Canadiens to Stanley Cups in the 1940s, he never referred to Lady Luck playing a part in wins and losses. Rather than Lady Luck, Irvin referred to "The Unseen Hand." as the unexpected factor that affects wins and losses.

Time and again we've seen it as a factor in the current playoffs. On the negative side, there was the totally unexpected, accidental and awful injury to John Tavares in Toronto's opening loss to the Canadiens. And on the positive end, a total Florida unknown Ryan Lomberg, comes off the bench to score a spectacular overtime winner over Tampa Bay.

Another positive has been the Bruins almost magically converting Taylor Hall from an overpaid stiff into a reconstructed star. Then, there was the abysmally stunning impeachment of Rangers president John Davidson only to have J.D. take a deep breath and wind up back running the Blue Jackets. Go figure!

There are four favorites to win The Stanley Cup; Colorado, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Toronto. If any one of them gets a first or second round heave-ho, you already know the reason why.

The unseen hand.


GOSSIP:

  • One of the key hires yet to be named for ESPN's new broadcast team for 2021-22 is for the position of lead play-by-play man. Normally it would be an open-net choice -- Kenny Albert -- but he's gone over to TNT.

  • That leaves ESPN with several wild card possibilities including some of the back-ups from the NBC broadcast teams.

  • The inevitable benching of Florida's Keith Yandle on Thursday night does not necessarily mean that the vet will be traded. He's got a no-move deal.

  • Whatever happens to the Panthers, even a first round exit will produce a major increase in 2021-22 ticket sales. The Cats have caught fire with South Florida fans and -- tough as it has been -- the Sunshine State's media.

  • Henrik Lundqvist's future as an NHL goaltender is in the hands of medics. Should Hank decide to retire, I know a couple of tv outlets that would love to have him as a regular on camera.

  • The Bruins scored huge getting Taylor Hall and no doubt will sign him big. If there's any dough left in the Beantown bank, Cam Neely might consider adding a center such as Jack Eichel, presuming he's healthy.

  • Dave Freed was one of my favorite p.r. guys when he worked for the Devils. Sad to say that his Toms River, New Jersey home took an awful hit with a fire. Dave and family are okay but the house is not.


NHL WAITING ON CANADIAN DECISION

Sports business columnist Evan Weiner has this compelling take on the playoffs and the Covid rules.

“The first round of the National Hockey League Stanley Cup Playoffs has begun but the league is concerned about the third round and whether there can be games played in Canada. There will be a Canadian team in the league’s semi-final round and that is a major problem. The NHL wants to know if an American team can travel to Canada or if a Canadian team has to be based in the United States as the US-Canadian border is closed and people entering Canada have to go into a quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Weiner writes.

“Canada is far behind the United States in COVID-19 vaccinations and Ontario is going through yet another lockdown. Alberta has a very high number of people in ICU because of COVID-19. Quebec is easing COVID-19 restrictions.  Just three percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But the Justin Trudeau government might be willing to make a special exception for the NHL and allow a visiting team from the U.S. to fly into a Canadian city to play Stanley Cup playoff games without quarantine requirements,” he explains.

“The NHL wants to know by June 1st whether the Canadian government will make that exception. The country did make an exception for the National Hockey League by cutting down the quarantine to seven days for players who were traded to a North Division team this season. The North Division housed all seven Canadian teams this year. In March, Canada opened quarantine hotels for international flights landing in the country, and in early May the country banned flights from India and Pakistan as those countries are dealing with a severe COVID-19 outbreak. The Wilson Task Force on Public Health and the U.S.-Canadian Border has not been able to come up with guidelines to reopen the border. Meanwhile, the NHL waits,” Weiner concludes.


Weekend Wrap with Rob Taub

The Toronto Maple Leafs made it their mission on Saturday night not just to get even in their first round series with Montreal, but to win in their captain’s honor. They did it in convincing fashion, smoking the Habs 5-1, just 48 hours after seeing John Tavares stretchered off the ice during a scary incident. Said Auston Matthews: "It means a lot, not only for the guys in the locker room but for John himself. He's such a big part of this team. He's our leader. When something really scary and serious goes down like it did the other night, I think the response from our group was unbelievable tonight. The guys that came in stepped up big. This was a big win to even up the series."

While the first postseason battle of the Sunshine State has brought fireworks each game, the Tampa Bay Lightning continued to show why they are the defending champions. Losing Game Three in OT, the Bolts came out Saturday striking at every turn — pardon the pun — scoring three times in the first and then early in the second to chase Panthers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. The final score was 6-2 and Tampa is now one victory away from advancing on to round two.

Marc-Andre Fleury is clearly on another level this postseason. He was stellar once again on Saturday evening in Vegas’ 4-0 victory pushing Vegas one win away from their third second round appearance in four years. “Flower’s” latest performance has added up to Fleury allowing just four goals on 116 shots. Truly dominant. "I feel good," Fleury said after the win. "The body feels good. And my defense has been great for me."

While Fleury might be the elder statesmen when it comes to goalies in these playoffs, the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin is new to the scene. Only though his tremendous showing on Saturday afternoon might feel like he’s been doing it for years. The 25-year-old Sorokin helped backstop the Isles to a 4-1 victory and make their series with the Penguins now a best of three. Sorokin’s victory made him the first rookie goalie in franchise history to win his first two postseason starts.

One series that has been quietly more entertaining than previously thought: Carolina and Nashville. Everyone predicted the Canes would steamroll the Preds, but each game has proven to have a different feel to it. On the other side, the Winnipeg-Edmonton series — which was expected to be full of high-scoring, high flying contests — has produced more tight affairs and only six goals combined. But Game Three was back to normal. Lots of goals and yet another Winnipeg win. S.O.S. for the Oilers!

We’d be hard pressed not to mention Colorado's Nazem Kadri and the eight-game suspension that was handed down to him for his illegal check to the head of the Blues’ Justin Faulk. It’s another bullet point on the 31-year-old’s playoff resume which has become a story in its own both when he was in Toronto and now Colorado. "The guy can't control himself," said Blues center Brayden Schenn. "In the playoffs, he's a repeat offender. Bad hits. Greasy hits. He had a guy in a vulnerable position and he picked nothing but the head."


COVID PROTOCOLS RELAXED FOR PLAYOFFS – A WELCOME CHANGE

TFR’S Florida-based pundit, Alan Greenberg, discusses some of the behind the scenes changes to NHL Covid restrictions.

The NHL, the NHLPA and the teams are to be commended for conducting this season under the most difficult of circumstances. The extensive and detailed protocol might have looked seamless to the fans but was arduous to the players and all team personnel.

As in last season’s delayed Stanley Cup Playoffs, this year it was life in a season-long bubble. The only real difference was that this bubble travelled within divisions. Because of quarantine requirements when crossing the Canada-United States border it was necessary to establish an all-Canadian division. Teams in the three other divisions played only within their own division and to minimize exposure from travel they played multi-game sets.

Off-ice, players and team personnel had a routine which consisted of little more than the rink and home or hotel. Team meetings were remote, workout rooms were split to limit occupancy and all team meals were together under very restricted conditions. There was basically no socializing on the road nor was there interaction between players on opposing teams who are friends or former teammates.

Only three teams – Florida, Nashville, and Arizona - allowed fans to start the season and that was after extensive precautions in the arenas. By the end of the regular season all US based teams had limited fans although teams in Canada still were not permitted fans. This prohibition extended to the playoffs where the four Canadian teams are still performing in empty arenas.

With the Quebec government easing restrictions, the Canadiens have announced that they will allow 2,500 fans at Bell Centre starting May 29 – Game 6 of the opening round.

There is still no finality of protocol when a Canada-based team must play a US team in the third round.

Prior to the start of the playoffs, with most personnel already vaccinated, the NHL modified its Covid-19 protocol. It was a welcome change to playoff participants. For fully vaccinated individuals, quarantine, testing, social gathering, and masking requirements were substantially modified. Although not part of the NHL/NHLPA modifications, US-based playoff teams were permitted by most local authorities to increase arena capacity.

The most visible impact of relaxing of Covid restrictions has been the presence of more fans. Between regulatory authorities relaxing restrictions and the presence in some arenas of huge supplemental air handling equipment the capacities have been increased for playoffs.

While the North Division has not been able to increase attendance because restrictions have not been lifted in Canada, most other arenas have hosted more fans. More than 12,000 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, 12,000 at PNC Arena for the Carolina Hurricanes and 9,000 plus, or just under 50%, in Tampa Bay, Florida and St. Louis. Somewhat less in the other arenas but all with the goal of increasing fans in successive rounds. Each one of the arenas required approval of the NHL and local authorities and had to meet specific air circulation and humidity control requirements.

A live crowd sounds a lot better than canned fan noise.

The players feed off the enthusiasm. The Lightning won their Stanley Cup in a fan-less bubble but love having the hometown crowd cheering them now.

Lightning forward Alex Killorn discussed the prospect of fans prior to the first game against Florida in Tampa. “I think it's more physical, these playoffs than last – just a little bit (This turned out to be an understatement).  When you get the crowd reaction after a big hit it just makes guys hit people more often and that energy kind of goes throughout the lineup. We're excited to have fans and Amalie is going to be rocking tonight.” He was right.

His coach, Jon Cooper, looked at it from a different perspective and addressed the difficulty in coaching with the severe regular season restrictions.

“(The biggest impact is) having all the guys together because it was multiple locker rooms, multiple eating rooms - all that stuff. You were chasing guys around - it was hard to get your message across. You're either doing it in two different rooms - it was difficult so to me just from a team standpoint that's been big at least to have the guys around each other and then for sure, number one is being able to take the masks off a little bit more here…There are still many protocols in place. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg here. We got to relax a little bit. It’s definitely been a welcome change. The last one would be fans in the building. That’s a big one for me. To be able to have our people in there enjoying the greatest game in person. They deserve it.”


IDIOCY OF HOCKEY’S ‘CODE’ RESURFACES IN LEAFS-HABS OPENING TILT

TFR’s Rob Del Mundo weighs in on the aftermath of John Tavares’s injury.

Regardless of one’s allegiance in the playoff series 42 years in the making, no fan wanted to see John Tavares wheeled off the ice on a stretcher.

But that was indeed the case ten-and-a-half minutes into the opening game of the first round series between Toronto and Montreal, after Tavares was concussed on a freakish, accidental hit to the head courtesy of the knee of the Canadiens’ Corey Perry.  The Leafs captain was released from hospital after an overnight observation and will be out of the lineup indefinitely.

No sooner after the game resumed did the absurdity of hockey’s so-called ‘code’ rear its ugly head when Leafs trade deadline acquisition Nick Foligno took it upon himself to engage Perry in what amounted to a meaningless fight.  A perceived exhibition of machoism that proved – absolutely nothing.

"My captain was laying on the ice. I don't think [the hit] was malicious but my captain was laying on the ice," Foligno told reporters after the game.

Or to paraphrase: ‘My captain suffered a head injury, so even though there was no intent to injure, let’s try to even the score by possibly also giving my opponent a head injury.’  

This is the type of nonsense that doesn’t belong in the game.

Had Tavares been the victim of a pre-mediated hit to the head, or a check from behind, then absolutely Foligno, or any Leafs player would be expected – and rightfully lauded – for coming to his teammates’ defense.

But engaging in fisticuffs for the sake of so-called bravado after an accidental collision is the type of action that has no place in the sport.

Perry clearly did not intend to side-swipe Tavares’s head with his knee. The veteran Hab, distraught, extended his well-wishes to his felled opponent as the medical staff whisked Tavares off the ice.

“I honestly felt sick to my stomach when I saw it. When I saw him, with the way he is, it's a scary situation. I'll reach out to him and talk to him and hopefully he's OK,” Perry said of Tavares, his two-time international teammate with Canada at the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

If any Montreal player should have been the target of Foligno’s wrath, it was Montreal defenseman Ben Chiarot, not Perry. Chiarot recklessly – though not maliciously – tripped Tavares with his leg, causing the Leafs player to tumble to the ice and into the path of Perry, who could do nothing to avoid the eventual, horrifying, collision.

But Foligno, without the benefit of slow-motion instant replay, abided by the ‘code’ that has been instilled in him throughout his career – which dictated him to challenge the perceived offender to drop the gloves.

Even if the hit was an accident. Even, in some cases, if his teammate was crushed on a check that was perfectly legal.

Hockey is a sport predicated on physical play and toughness; traits which are appreciated by an overwhelming majority of fans. 

But meaningless altercations like the one instigated by Foligno only diminish the product.


PENGUINS VS. ISLANDERS: LOOKING AHEAD

It’s anyone’s series as the Penguins and Islanders faceoff in Pittsburgh tonight with the series tied a two. The series has already had several twists and turns, but the best is yet to come. TFR’s Vince Comunale examines how the Penguins can get back on track for Game Five.

To nobody’s surprise, the Penguins and Islanders are heading into Game Five with the series tied at two games apiece. These two teams are so evenly matched that it is a coin flip as to who may win the series. Both teams are well-coached, system-oriented, and just as confident in their fourth line as they are in their first. It almost seems inevitable that this series is headed to a Game Seven.

Five of the eight games in the regular season series were decided by one goal, two of which were decided in overtime or a shootout. Despite this series being a one seed versus four seed, only six points separated the two teams in the final standings. Compare that to the other three, one versus four matchups. In the West, Colorado, the one seed, finished 19 points ahead of the four seed, St. Louis. Similarly, in the North Division, Toronto, the one seed, finished 18 points ahead of the four seed, Montreal. Lastly, in the Central Division, Carolina, the one seed, finished 16 points ahead of the four seed, Nashville.

For the Penguins, it appeared that they had a breakthrough in Game Three, scoring five goals against an Islanders team that gave up the second-fewest goals in the NHL this season. However, that was against goaltender Semyon Varlamov, not Ilya Sorokin. After the Penguins won Games Two and Three with Varlamov in net, Islanders head coach Barry Trotz turned back to Sorokin who won Game One. The Penguins have only managed to tally four goals in the two games against Sorokin, compared to the seven goals in the two games versus Varlamov. Needless to say, it’s Sorokin’s net to lose now.

Despite Sorokin not having any playoff experience, the Penguins have not made it hard on the rookie netminder. There has been little to no traffic in front of him and plenty of perimeter shots that are easily stopped. If the Penguins want to figure out a way to crack Sorokin, they are going to have to test him first, which they really haven’t done.

Another area in which the Penguins need to improve is discipline. Anyone who has watched these two teams play the past few seasons knows that the Islanders are going to try to play a physical style against the Penguins and attempt to get their star players, particularly Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, to take needless retaliatory penalties. This became very apparent in Game 3 when a simple scrum in front of the net led to an all-out donnybrook with all five members of the Penguins’ top line in the penalty box and the Islanders receiving a power play during which they scored. We saw it again in Game 4 with Malkin taking an undisciplined penalty early in the game and then Letang taking one late.

While the Penguins’ overall play in Game 4 left a lot to be desired, the good news for them is that the series is tied 2-2 and two of the potential final three games are on home ice, where the Penguins finished tied with Colorado for the best home record in the NHL at 22-4-2. The home cooking could put the Penguins right back into the series lead and one game from eliminating the Islanders. Of course, the same can be said for the Islanders if they were to win Game Five.

Overall, the first goal in these games is essential because it allows whichever team that scores it to dictate the style of play. The Penguins don’t want to get into a physical battle and the Islanders don’t want to get into a track meet. The team that is able to establish their game first and force the other team into that style will likely emerge victorious. My prediction, Penguins in seven games.


TRIVIA CORNER:

This goalie was the playoff goat in the 1942 playoffs and a hero a year later. Who was he?

(Answer below.)


CLEVER COMMENTS FROM YESTERYEAR: "In Montreal, you can't even have a bad practice."

-Pat Burns on the pressure of coaching in Montreal.


TRIVIA ANSWER: Johnny Mowers was Red Wings goalie who lost four straight games to Toronto after winning the first three in the Cup Final.

A year later, Mowers powered Detroit to the Stanley Cup.