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Puck Daddy chats with NBC’s Doc Emrick about NHL to Olympic water polo transition, Zach Parise

Greg Wyshynski
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LONDON — There's a player on the Greek men's water polo team whose name probably translates as "play by play announcer's waking nightmare":

Theodoros Chatzitheodorou, all 24 letters of him.

"And here I thought Langenbrunner was long," lamented Mike "Doc" Emrick of NBC Sports.

From Jamie Langenbrunner to more exotic monikers, Emrick handles his share of difficult names during his coverage of the National Hockey League for NBC. He's the voice of hockey in America, with a radio announcer's picture-painting cadence and signature inflections ("BIG DRIVE!") that have made him iconic among fans.

But this summer, he's the voice of Olympic water polo, joining Wolf Wigo, a three-time Olympian and former captain of U.S. men's water polo team; and Julie Swail, former captain of the U.S. women's water polo team.

So how does Doc Emrick go from frozen ponds to Olympic pools in the London Games? We spoke with him this week:

Based on interactions with our readers, there are a lot of hockey fans who discovered that you're calling water polo and have found it to be like comfort food for during the NHL offseason.

EMRICK: Oh, I'm flattered by that. But I hope that once they search it out, they find a real reason to stay. It's pretty good stuff.

You called water polo back in 2004 in Athens, but skipped the 2008 Games; is calling water polo like riding a bike? Can you just hop back on?

This is my second run at it. I learn something every day about the sport. Julie and I did the '05 NCAAs, and that was the last time I had done a water polo match until we had a water polo match in Southern California in early July.

You relearn some things, but you basically go and book it. I went over a lot of my old notes and all of that. But Julie and Wolf have been around about 2,000 water polo matches, so I defer to them.

So you have your own notes about water polo and its rules?

Yeah, I did.

Oddly, a lot of the rules have changed. The length of the pool had changed for women. If you tipped the ball out as a defender, you get the ball. Before, if deflected the ball out of play, the ball went back to the team that took the shot. That's a significant change, because it adds more scoring.

Now where have we heard that before? We need to change rules for more scoring. That's what they do. [Laughs at his hockey joke]

How much prep time goes into learning about teams and players?

That took about a week.

We had a lot of help from the research department at NBC, which does a lot of interviews with athletes. But I've always find it fun to talk to the goaltenders. [U.S.} goalie Merrill Moses is hilarious; he reminds me of [former NHL goalie] Chico Resch in a way that he's very glib but pretty concise.

[Defenseman] Tony Azevedo is probably as friendly a guy to a reporter as you'll find. These guys really want to grow their sport. They realize they've been given a tremendous opportunity.

You're dealing with a sport that has goalies and shots and goals; how many of the classic Doc Emrick hockey calls find their way into your water polo coverage?

There is some crossover, like hitting the post and the crossbar. Not everyone in water polo uses "hat trick" but I heard Wolf use it the other day so I assume it's OK; they usually say "three-goal game."

Once in a while, I'll catch myself calling it a breakaway. It's called a "counterattack." And a counterattack can be a 3-on-2 or 3-on-1 as everyone heads in the same direction; it's not as if the defenseman has his back to the goaltender, waiting for these guys.

So some terms do carry over. But what appeals to me about it is probably the same thing that appeals to you about it: It's not a sport for the faint of heart. You have to be tremendously skilled and tremendously resilient too.

I've been told it's one of the most physically taxing sports in the Olympics.

If you pretend you're on a bicycle, and you're pedaling all the time, and as soon as you stop, you sink … well, that keeps you peddling, and you have to have tremendous leg strength to keep peddling. And now you get hit, and the ball goes to the other team, and now you have to swim back as hard as you can.

Most doctors say that swimming is one of the most exerting sports as there is for conditioning and everything else. And then you get gonged by a shot or hit by a ball at 50-some miles per hour. And then you turn and swim the other way.

There was a player on this team named Peter Hudnut. He plays two-meter defense. This is like directly in front of the crease on the power-play. He normally plays right there. In a game against Serbia in '08, a guy followed through with a shot with his hand, like a hockey stick, and cut him above the right eye. You can't bleed in the water, so you get to the pool deck right away.

They took blue duct tape put it over the wound. No gauze, no anything. They just have to get it closed and get back in there, so they found the stickiest thing they could find as fast as they could.

So he goes back to two meters where there's a lot of jostling and swinging and everything. Another guy tries to follow through on physical play and get the patch off. Well, he misses, and gets him on the chin, and opens another wound!

That appeals to me. It's a sport that requires an awful lot of courage. There isn't any position that's safe.

So have you seen [fellow NBC hockey announcer] Pierre McGuire much here?

Oh yeah, Pierre's doing postgame for us. He fits right in. The first night, Tony Azevedo was chosen for the interview after the first game. He came down — he's a Kings fan — and he said, "Oh, the hockey guy!"

They did a piece that ran before the second game that showed a comparison between the NHL and this. There were lots of shots of blood and everything else.

Finally, two quick ones about hockey: Your thoughts on the CBA talks?

I'm afraid I'm not up on it. As soon as I flew here, I was lost to hockey. We don't even have an American station in our hotel.

And your thoughts on Zach Parise leaving a team you're quite familiar with in New Jersey for the Minnesota Wild.

I was surprised at the [destination]. I wasn't surprised about Zach, because this was probably the one time in his career he could call it the way he wanted it. I sure Lou probably came in there hard and heavy; he tries to get it to the point late in the process where they're tempted to stay.

But I was surprised by the choice. Not because I'm critical of Zach — you can never fault someone for wanting to be closer to their family — but I was just sure this was going to be Pittsburgh. I had a feeling for Suter that I might have been Chicago or Detroit.

I thought with the history he had with Sidney Crosby, they might try to make some magic there for about a decade. But I was wrong, as I have been about these things before.

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