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Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)

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As he’s done for eight previous Winter Classics, NBC’s Doc Emrick will be behind the mic for Monday’s game at CitiField between the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres.

The date will be 10 years since the Sabres took part in the inaugural event at Ralph Wilson Stadium — a snowy, messy picturesque day that saw a dramatic end off the stick of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Emrick was there, too, and his call of Crosby’s winner quickly became legendary.

The afternoon was the NHL going up against college football bowl season, which historically had played some of its top games on Jan. 1. In 2008, the Winter Classic went head-to-head against four NCAA football games, including Michigan-Florida in the Capital One Bowl. The curiosity factor into the outdoor hockey game coupled with the weather situation resulted in interest rising as the game went along.

“But the thing that I was guessing as the rain turned to sleet and then the sleet turned into snow and then the snow started piling up even more, was people calling people on the phone and saying ‘are you watching this game in Buffalo?’,” Emrick told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “[J]ust as the snow did, the viewership started to build, too. Just [like] that construction site you have that hole in the fence that people can stop on the sidewalk and peer in and look, they wanted to see how people were going to handle this. That’s the beauty of outdoor games. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and if the elements enter in how are these people there that are paid to do this going to somehow or other compensate for what the elements are bringing in?

“What better place than Buffalo to have a game like this and what better elements to have than snow and frequent stoppages and getting the Zamboni out to scrape it again and have all of these happen and then have the dramatic finish. It couldn’t have been a bigger star.”

We spoke with Emrick about calling that first game, his favorite venues and where his famous Crosby line came from.

Enjoy.

Q. It was a pretty special day for fans and the players involved, but what about the broadcasters? You weren’t just calling a typical hockey game.

EMRICK: “The strange thing was leading up to it, I don’t think any of us had a grasp on what it would really be like until the day of. We went out there the day before and we began by treating it like we would a regular game. [We] went out the day of the practices to see what a rink inside a football stadium would look like because it was the first of one of those things for us and we got as many stories as players as we could after that practice.

“We realized that with the stands being largely empty that day, that we had a rough idea that it would be pretty interesting the next day, especially given what the forecast was and what Buffalo’s persona was when it came to winter storms… We didn’t have a real feel on how spectacular it became until the players started down the ramps from the football dressing rooms and the bagpipes were playing and those bursts of fire were going up in the air. Still to this day guys will talk about never having heard 70-plus-thousand people cheering at once as they did for both teams as they made their entry and having that roar building.

“I believe Brian Campbell said it last year, it’s one of those things that builds and you hear it and you hear it get louder and it rolls. I think that’s the thing that we notice in all of these stadiums, but particularly in football stadiums.”

Q. How long did your notes last in that snow considering you and Eddie Olczyk were positioned outside?

“About the second period. I was advised beforehand that a smart thing to do was to get plexiglass and put our notes underneath that and that made a lot of sense. But my background is to use Sharpies and to record different colors of Sharpies for the different teams so they have contrasting colors. But the trouble is when you took it out from underneath the plexiglass to do that and then you put it back in, invariably some of the rain and then later on, the snow that had melted would roll underneath the plexiglass and get on your notes and get on your scorecard.

“By the third period, it was starting to run pretty badly and then there was that one time when Eddie and I were on camera that it had all pretty well drained off and it was in bad shape. I save all of my scorecards, so I still have that but it’s practically illegible. There are only a few things you can read on it.”

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Q. Has your call of an outdoor game evolved since that very first one?

“Well, what has evolved is this: it’s not the description of the game because I don’t prepare anything odd to say because it’s an outdoor game. I’m just calling a hockey game and I realize I’m pre-occupied more with the event than I am a game. In terms of who has the puck and describing passes and things like that, I don’t do as much as that. Part of the reason is that it is more of an event for people who may or not watch a lot of hockey. Secondly, our location is outdoors down next to the penalty box and it is somewhat difficult to see from either the press box in these giant stadiums or down near the penalty box because you can see really well in front of you, but to the sides you have difficulty and you have to shift to a monitor. You adjust somewhat and try not to be as precise and as descriptive of who has the puck now for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a little bit much for a non-hockey crowd, and two, you’re not really able to accomplish it and you recognize it going in it is an imperfect science, but the science stuff is not what the day is about. It’s about celebrating the sport outdoors where a lot of these guys, despite the fact that we’ve doing it 10 years, grew up playing.”

Q. Do you a favorite Winter Classic venue?

“The reason I like Fenway [Park], Michigan [Stadium] and Ralph Wilson [Stadium], was No. 1, it snowed at least either all day or part of the day; it was cold and all three games went to extra time. There are a lot of other reasons why I liked the three, but those are the three common grounds that they share. I like the fact that Michigan had the biggest crowd of all and is probably not going to be topped.”

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Q. The call on Sidney Crosby’s famous winner in the shootout — “The game on his stick…” — do you have those lines planned out ahead of time for big moments?

“The game on his stick,’ I’ve only used that twice and that was the second time and the last time I recall ever using it was that day. It was just one of those things that crossed my mind at the time.

“It was the first year out of the lockout, Crosby’s rookie year. Eddie Olczyk is coaching the Penguins and they’re playing the Flyers in the regular season. John Davidson and I are doing it for OLN, which later became Versus, which later became NBCSN. Sid gets his teeth knocked out in the first period by Derien Hatcher. Konstantin Koltsov cranks a shot in the warmup and it hits Jocelyn Thibault, the regular goaltender for the Penguins, in the throat so he can’t play. So this kid, Marc-Andre Fleury, is just there and he winds up being put in goal for the game and stands on his head and makes 40-some saves and it gets into overtime. There’s an outlet pass [and] Sid gets a breakaway from center ice on in and it just came “with the game on his stick.” I thought out of a dramatic game, a guy gets his teeth knocked out and here it is, his rookie year, and they’re underdogs playing in Philadelphia and this game could end here…

“We’re in the sixth shot of the shootout and this could be the last shot, so you take a chance because if Ryan Miller stops him, then we move on. But as it turned out, Sid scored on it so it’s remembered more for that. I can’t recall ever using it since.”

Q. You mentioned your favorite venues before. Do you have a favorite moment or goal from the games you’ve done?

“I guess the ones that ended of those three games because they drew to an ending of a chapter of a Winter Classic that was kind of marvelous. I think in terms of the fans, the game at Michigan Stadium was probably the most exciting from what was going on in the stands because you had 105,000 people and it was almost 50/50 because of all the Toronto fans that were in Canada, 20 or 30 miles away from Ann Arbor, and they got hold of the tickets. It was the blue and red throng there of 105,000, and so when one team scored it was about as loud as when the other team scored. That was an interesting dynamic… For drama, the most dramatic of the games would have been Crosby’s.

“We still haven’t had in the Winter Classic a shutout. So, who knows? Maybe we’ll see that this year.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Power Rankings: Early look at 2020 NHL free agent class

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The 2019 NHL free agent class has mostly been picked over and is now down to the bargain bin of reclamation projects (and, for some reason, Jake Gardiner).

So let’s start taking a look to the summer of 2020 and the list of names that could be available next summer.

There is a pretty extensive list of big names entering their contract year, including the captain of the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, a recent NHL MVP, and two core players for the Washington Capitals.

Will all of them end up hitting the free agent market? Of course not, they never do because teams do not let their core players get away. But some of them will hit the open market, and it is never too early to start looking at the potential options.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take an early look at the list of potential 2020 free agents.

To the rankings!

1. Nicklas Backstrom Still one of the best all-around centers in the NHL. He is entering the final year of a 10-year, $67 million contract that proved to be an absolute steal for the Capitals given how much Backstrom has contributed over the past decade. The only potential flaws with Backstrom as a free agent: He will turn 33 years old in his first year of a new contract, so you will definitely not be getting the best hockey of his career, and, quite honestly, the Capitals are probably going to keep him.

2. Taylor Hall The 2017-18 NHL MVP is one of the best wingers in the league and contract talks between him and the Devils seem to be slow. If the team does not take a big step forward this season it might be all the incentive he needs to hit the open market. He lost most of this past season to injury, but he is still an impact, top-tier player and a big comeback year will only boost his value even more.

3. Jared Spurgeon This may seem a little high considering some of the other names potentially available next offseason, and especially on defense, but do you know what? Jared Spurgeon is really, really, really good. He may not put up the biggest offensive numbers among defenders in this class, but he is a darn good player that logs a lot of tough minutes, doesn’t get sheltered, and still manages to help his team finish on the plus side when it comes to goals, shots, and scoring chances when he is on the ice. He is a top-pairing defender and a great all-around player and the Wild seem to understand that. If we are to believe the words of general manager Paul Fenton this summer, they intend to re-sign him. Odds he actually hits the open market: Low.

4. Alex Pietrangelo Pietrangelo is an outstanding player, but you can be sure there is going to be a Stanley Cup tax attached to his next contract. Meaning, when you are the captain of a recent Stanley Cup winner your value immediately skyrockets even more. Given how important he is to the Blues (he is their best defender and one of their top players) they will probably be the team paying it.

5. Roman Josi Josi’s contract has been an unbelievable steal for the Predators for the past six years, counting just $4 million against the salary cap since the start of the 2013-14 season. During that time he has had four top-10 finishes in Norris Trophy voting and been one of the most productive defenders in the league, scoring at least 12 goals every season and currently sitting in fourth in total points and sixth in goals among defenders.

6. Braden Holtby Along with Backstrom, the Capitals also have to deal with a contract for their starting goalie. That is two significant core players whose contracts are expiring at the same time, and that is going to present a lot of challenges. If the Capitals have to choose to let one go, Holtby might be the smart choice. The Sergei Bobrovsky contract in Florida is probably the measuring stick for what Holtby can — and will — get, and that just may not be the best use of cap space for the Capitals.
Holtby can still be dominant, but he has shown signs of slowing down over the past two years.

7. Torey Krug Krug doesn’t look the part of a top-pairing defender and he doesn’t play the toughest minutes in Boston, but there is still a ton of value in an offensive, puck-moving defender that can help drive possession and offense. The problem for the Bruins in keeping him is going to be that they have a lot of contracts to juggle over the next year, including one major contract this summer with their best defender, Charlie McAvoy.

8. Tyson Barrie It is going to be interesting to see what happens to his production in Toronto. He has always been an outstanding and productive defender, and now he gets to feed the puck to a deep, talented group of forwards. Given Toronto’s salary cap situation, as well as the fact one of their other top-defenders, Jake Muzzin (more on him in a second) is also an unrestricted free agent after this season, they are going to have to let someone go.

9. Jake Muzzin — One of the most underrated defenders of his era because he was always overshadowed by Drew Doughty in Los Angeles. Muzzin is an outstanding defensive player but can also move the puck and chip in some offense.

10. Evgenii Dadonov Since returning to the NHL Dadonov has been one of the most productive forwards in the league. He will be 31 at the start of the next deal so you have to be prepared for some decline.

11. Justin Faulk Faulk has been the subject of trade rumors for years now, and he may finally be nearing the end of his time with the Hurricanes one way or another. He is not a perfect player, but he brings a lot to the table offensively and given how tight Carolina’s salary cap situation is starting to get as its young players get better and more expensive, it may not be possible to keep him.

12. Mikael Granlund His debut with the Predators after the trade probably did not go as planned for him or the team, but that’s a ridiculously small sample size and shouldn’t — and doesn’t — outweigh what he has done over the past few years. He is a top-line scorer and should still have a few years of top-line play ahead of him.

13. T.J. Brodie Everything about Brodie’s resume looks great, but there is one big concern that is a bit of a red flag — He is a different (and not as good) player when he is not on the ice next to Mark Giordano. They will not be going as a package deal.

14. Chris Kreider Given the Rangers’ rebuild and what is a reasonable future expectation for Kreider, the Rangers would be wise to consider trading him right now. As long as he does not lose his speed he should still be a good player for a few more years, but there is no guarantee he maintains his current level of play.

15. Mike Hoffman He is a bit of a one dimensional player, but the one dimension is a useful one. He can score. A lot. He is coming off of a huge season in Florida and another big season could price him out of the Panthers’ cap situation, especially if they want to also keep Dadonov.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lamoureux twins start foundation to help disadvantaged kids

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, stars of the United States’ gold medal-winning hockey team in South Korea, are hard at work training to make another Olympic team in 2022. But they’re also carving out time to do good off the ice, launching a foundation Monday that seeks to help underserved children and communities.

The Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux Foundation will work with groups that support disadvantaged children through education and extracurricular activities, primarily in their home state of North Dakota. It’s an extension of the sisters’ hockey camps for girls and their work with cable and internet provider Comcast, where the twins promote such things as gender equity and internet access for low-income families.

”Sometimes there’s a lack of awareness around the need that the kids need, and so we’re hoping that we’re able to inspire more people to give back,” Lamoureux-Davidson said.

”We want to be part of bringing a solution around issues,” Lamoureux-Morando said.

The 30-year-old Grand Forks natives and University of North Dakota standouts helped the U.S. win the gold medal in South Korea in 2018. Lamoureux-Morando scored the game-tying goal late in the third period of the gold-medal game against Canada, and her sister scored the game-winner in the shootout.

The twins are now training six days a week on the ice to try to earn a spot on a fourth Olympic team in Beijing in 2022. Each gave birth to a baby boy less than a year after the Olympics, and the women’s children will accompany them at a USA Hockey camp next month in Lake Placid, New York.

”It’s a total game-changer being a parent,” Lamoureux-Morando said.

The twins said their mother, Linda, was a champion of the underdog, and taught them a lesson they have come to realize goes beyond the rink. And it has become the heart of their foundation aimed at helping the disadvantaged.

”She would always just cheer for the one that’s behind,” Lamoureux-Davidson said of her mother. ”In hindsight, it was meant for sport, but it’s really has really turned into something so much more for us.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

Can James Neal bounce back after ugly season in Calgary?

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James Neal figures he’s re-invigorated.

One can assume the salivating prospect of playing alongside Connor McDavid would have that sort of effect. For Neal, it could also mean putting behind him a horrible season where he failed to hit double-digit goals for the first time in his career and finished with just 19 points in 63 games.

The 2018-19 season made Neal the biggest bust of last year’s free-agent crop. Despite playing on the team that was tops in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season, the only thing Neal’s game topped was the scrap heap. It got so bad that when the Flames needed a win in Game 5 of Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Neal was parked in the press box as the Flames crashed out of the postseason.

But there’s hope in Edmonton after Ken Holland and the Oilers acquired Neal for Milan Lucic. Hope, because Holland has already done what those previous to him couldn’t: get Lucic out of town. And hope, because as bad as Neal’s season was last year, there’s optimism that he could turn it around this year.

That faith rests in his shooting percentage. Never before had Neal shot below 10 percent in all situations in his career over a full season and never below nine percent in five-on-five situations. Last year, his shooting success was just five percent in all situations and 4.63 percent in five-on-five.

As Willis points out, if that shooting percentage just returns back to the mean, Neal could double his goal total without much extra effort.

Neal’s shot contributions are very good. Using CJ Turtoro’s player comparison tool, you can see just how stark the contrast is between himself and Lucic, who replaces Neal in Calgary.

Take those shot contributions and put them on a line with McDavid and profit?

So there’s it’s a good bet that Neal can contribute. How much so remains to be seen.

He’s still a positive possession player, even during his down year last year (50.58%). Over the past three seasons, he’s been outscored five-on-five, something that hadn’t happened previously since 2008-09. His expected goals were the third-lowest of his career. And he shot just 141 times, the lowest total outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Either last season was a sign of things to come or an outlier for a player fully capable of potting 20 goals. At 31, he isn’t a dinosaur by any means.

Shedding Lucic’s no-movement, $6 million a season contract was a win already. And if Neal is on McDavid’s wing, it will be interesting to see how big of a rebound season he can have.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Maroon’s future uncertain; Gillis wants NHL return

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Patrick Maroon isn’t sure if he’ll be back in St. Louis this season. (NHL.com)

• NHL commentators with rave reviews for Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland on Milan Lucic trade. (Edmonton Journal)

• After fives years away traveling the world and expanding his hockey mind, Mike Gillis is ready to return to the NHL — just not as a general manager. (Sportsnet)

John Tavares knows Mitch Marner will play for the Maple Leafs this season. (NHL.com)

• Jets could find great value in acquiring Stars’ Honka. (Winnipeg Sun)

• The Vancouver Canucks have improved more than any team in the Pacific. (The Canuck Way)

James Neal is feeling re-invigorated after move to Edmonton. (Global News)

• Colorado Avalanche star forward Mikko Rantanen isn’t going to the KHL. (Mile High Hockey)

• Flyers need impact from Hayes, Vigneault. (NHL.com)

• After years of stunted talks, Calgary may be ready to build a new hockey arena. (Globe and Mail)

• What it may take for a player to reach 50 goals or 100 points this season with the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

• Predicting how long the Penguins’ Stanley Cup window will stay open. (Pensburgh)

• The Predators should make a push for Nikita Gusev. (Predlines)

• Why Peter DeBoer is confident Sharks can fill Joe Pavelski‘s scoring void. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Coyotes need more offense from well-paid blue line. (The Athletic)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck