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TELL-US-STRADER: MY JOURNEY TO THE WINTER CLASSIC

Tuesday, 01.06.2009 / 9:41 AM / Tell-Us-Strader: a Blog by Dave Strader
By Dave Strader
On Saturday, Dec. 27, I received a voice mail from NBC producer Sam Flood informing me that Mike “Doc” Emrick, the lead play-by-play announcer for the NHL on NBC, had laryngitis. Doc, who is the TV voice of the New Jersey Devils, had been unable to finish a telecast the night before. Sam’s concern was the upcoming Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Losing one’s voice is the ultimate concern for anyone in our business and we all fight through various ailments during the course of a long winter of hockey. But, with five days until the event, I figured that Doc would probably be OK by game time.

Later that night at Jobing.com Arena, as Darren Pang and I prepared for our telecast against the Los Angeles Kings, I decided to tell our team’s director of broadcasting, Doug Cannon, about the call that I received from NBC. As most of you know, Panger had long been scheduled to be a part of the NBC crew for the Winter Classic and Doug had made arrangements for Sean Burke to be my partner for the Coyotes’ New Year’s Eve game against the Colorado Avalanche. I told Doug it was a long shot that I would get the call to go to Chicago, but he was totally supportive of the idea that I might get to work this once-in-a-lifetime event. He made a call the next day to former NHL announcer Mike Goldberg who lives in the Phoenix area. Doug also made sure that Fox Sports Arizona was aware of the possible change.

I didn’t hear much over the next couple of days until a text from Sam Flood on Tuesday that Doc was doing better, but he didn’t want to make his final decision until Wednesday morning. I knew the uncertainty of the situation wasn’t easy for anyone trying to prepare for the Coyotes-Avalanche telecast on Wednesday night. I e-mailed some information to Goldberg to help him prepare, including line combinations for the Coyotes and Avalanche from their most recent games. After watching the Red Wings and Blackhawks from Detroit on Tuesday night, I went to bed thinking that I was likely not going to Chicago.

The Detroit Red Wings celebrate their 6-4 win over the Chicago Blackhawks at the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
I set my Blackberry to wake me up the next morning, but I woke up before the alarm sounded. At 7:45 a.m. I turned on my phone and instantly heard the familiar beep of incoming text messages…about eight of them. They were all from Sam Flood and Darren Pang telling me to “wake up”… “call me right away”…“we need you in Chicago ASAP.”

I called Sam immediately and he said that Doc’s voice had worsened over night and I was going to call the game in Chicago the next day. My mind raced between the excitement of the opportunity, empathy for Doc’s situation, the people I had to notify right away and the fact that I had a lot to do over the next hour or so before racing to the airport!

My first call was to Doug Cannon and he was thrilled that I was joining Panger on the NBC crew for the show. He took care of contacting Goldberg. Next, I was on the phone with one of the production assistants at NBC making flight arrangements. There was a 9:49 a.m. US Airways flight that I knew I would struggle to make, but there were several back-up options.

I printed some material that I needed for game prep, packed my bag and left for the Phoenix airport by 8:45a.m. As expected, I was too late to catch the 9:49 a.m. flight, but NBC already had booked me on the 11:15 a.m. American Airlines flight. I started to get text messages from friends and colleagues all around the NHL as NBC had sent out a press release announcing the fact that I was replacing Doc on the Winter Classic telecast.

Upon arrival in Chicago, a car was waiting to take me to The Drake hotel where NBC’s personnel were all staying. As I checked in, I was handed a large white envelope. Inside I found all the notes that Doc Emrick had assembled in his preparation for the telecast. On the top page was a hand written note from Doc thanking me for doing the show and apologizing for such late notice that he was unable to work!

As broadcasters, we all dream of calling these types of events. We also have nightmares about losing our voice and not being able to call a game. Doc is a Hall of Famer, this was his gig, he had every right to wait until the last minute, and he didn’t have to share all his detailed notes. But, that’s Doc. As big a name as he is in this business, he knows better than anyone else that nobody is bigger than the show or bigger than the game.

Fans watch the action between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings from the bleachers during the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, we had a production meeting to go over the format of the show. When I walked into the room, there were a few jokes about the “relief pitcher” coming out of the bullpen, but we quickly got down to business. I felt comfortable right away as I had worked several NHL on NBC events with most of the people in the room over the past couple of seasons. The only guys in the room I hadn’t met were Bob Costas and Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel (you know it’s not a normal show when a weatherman is going to be part of the open!)

Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of sleep on Wednesday night. I knew the game would take care of itself, but there were so many little details that make preparation for an event like this different from a normal NHL telecast. One of the biggest differences of course was wardrobe…no suit and tie with dress shoes. We each had a heavy winter coat, a scarf and a tuke to protect us from the elements!

We arrived at Wrigley around 9 a.m. I shared a car from the hotel with Mike Milbury and Panger. After checking in at the production trailer, I went inside Wrigley with Panger, who needed his skates sharpened. As we walked along the lower concourse I stopped at the first set of steps that led to an opening out to the field. I still remember a similar walk up some steps at Yankee Stadium when I was nine years old and looking out to see that perfectly manicured green grass for the first time. It’s a visual I’ll never forget. Nor will I forget the first time I looked out on the scene at Wrigley Field on January 1, 2009. The positioning of the rink from third base over to first base was spectacular. The outside of the dasher boards made to look like the brick exterior of Wrigley. The specially constructed platforms for NBC and CBC announcers to call the game were positioned in short center field. The extra skating rink for some kids to play on before the game was set up behind the announce positions. Snow was covering every square inch of the ground. It was breathtaking!

At 10:15 a.m. it was time for rehearsal. We first went to the NBC “lodge” out in right-center field and ran through all the elements from the top of the show to puck drop. The lodge was the studio where Costas and Milbury would work once the game began. We then took our positions for the open and did a dry run. Around 11:40 a.m. a roar started to build as the crowd spotted the Red Wings and Blackhawks emerging from their respective dugouts for the warm-up. Watching the teams skate around from our announce platform behind the Red Wings bench, I felt like I was backstage at a rock concert looking out from behind the curtain. The rink was like a stage and the crowd that stretched from the right field foul pole to the left field foul pole looked like a jam packed double-decked amphitheater. As I turned around to look at the scene behind me, there were the “bleacher bums,” the old scoreboard and beyond that were the famous rooftop seats filled with more raucous fans.

Twelve noon. It was show time. The half hour pre-game show went smoothly with only a couple of minor glitches that are almost always a part of live TV. I have to admit that having Bob Costas toss it to “the voice of the Phoenix Coyotes” was pretty cool. But the most stirring part of the pre-game for me was the fly-over by two military jets at the conclusion of the national anthems.

The game itself was terrific and the players put on a great show. I was proud to be a part of this spectacular event. The NHL, the Blackhawks, Wrigley Field and the city of Chicago hit a home run. It was special to share it with my good friend and Coyotes’ broadcast partner Darren Pang. I have so many people to thank for helping me pull this off in a span of about 36 hours: the Coyotes’ organization, Fox Sports Arizona, Mike Goldberg, Doc Emrick and NBC.

I hope the fans that watched the Winter Classic on NBC enjoyed the telecast. Now it’s back to the Coyotes broadcast booth and what should be an exciting second half of the 2008-09 season.

Happy New Year and thanks for stopping by phoenixcoyotes.com!


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