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Master of the Mic: NHL

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Masters of the Mic
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Compiling a list of the best hockey announcers -- like the age-old question: Ginger or Mary Anne? -- is a matter of personal taste. And taste is a question of experience and exposure. Now that the bloated NHL has, as our friend Kevin Paul Dupont of The Boston Globe likes to call it, The Original 30, it is impossible to listen to every broadcast team enough to declare any list of definitive. Certainly our age (a mere 52 -- even if we don't look a day over 51), also factors into this equation. Foster Hewitt might have invented the genre but we first heard him late in his career; if we're talking the titanic finale of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, give us Bob Cole's radio call over Hewitt's TV work any day.

Perhaps in 10 years, this list will look quite different. There are a number of still youngish announcers, like Chris Cuthbert on CBC and Gord Miller on TSN in Canada, whose fluidity at weaving information and commentary into straight play-by-play will stand as the paradigm for a future generation of telecasters. The pointed analysis of relative newcomer Pierre McGuire on TSN -- indeed in the era of the hurry-up faceoff and truncated replays, the analysts better be pointed -- might move him into the pantheon, assuming he develops a firmer grasp of his personal volume control. And surely there will be a special hockey moment that some announcer will capture with les mots justes.

So, until then, here's our list. 

MY TOP PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCERS

1. Dan Kelly: The St. Louis Blues telecaster for 21 seasons, who had national exposure on some of the early NHL packages in the U.S., was a man for all tastes. His call was crystalline and elegant, play-by-play delivered in a voice that stirred the heart, engaged the mind and pleased the ear. Like Cole's, the late Kelly's voice was a finely-tuned instrument that he could modulate to match the moment. His son, John, who had done such solid work for nine seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, moves next season into his father's old job in St. Louis.

2. Danny Gallivan: Gallivan did not speak in sentences; he spoke in paragraphs. The late CBC/Montreal Canadiens telecaster did not paint word pictures as much as he did an elaborate triptych, each period a masterpiece of its sort. Gallivan would husband his emotions in October and November, knowing he would likely be calling Canadiens' Stanley Cup games in May. If Gallivan were truly excited, the listener had no choice but to feel the same way.

3. René Lecavalier: Lecavalier was Gallivan's French-language contemporary, telecasting Canadiens games on the French arm of the CBC. He was French teacher to a nation, disdaining joual and speaking in a flowing, precise and elegant French that made him a joy to listen to even for those not far beyond the plume de ma tante phase. If Voltaire ever had a chance to call a hockey game, our guess is he would have sounded like the brilliant Lecavalier.

4. Cole: The lead voice on the CBC, Cole is an old-school announcer who gets the puck from Point A to Point B and allows his analysts to do the job. He is a master of inflection, able to add aural exclamation points and question marks as deftly as anyone ever has. His Januar 1976, call "They're going home, they're going home," when the Soviet Red Army abruptly pulled its team off the ice in Philadelphia after being bullied by the Flyers remains a classic.

5. Sam Rosen: Rosen is the mystery guest on the list. With apologies to Mike Emrick of the New Jersey Devils, ESPN's Gary Thorne and Bob Miller of the Los Angeles Kings, the New York Rangers/MSG telecaster is the best play-by-play man currently working in the U.S. His calls are crisp and accurate, his knowledge impeccable, his enthusiasm never feigned. He also combines splendidly with analyst John Davidson. Too bad Rosen has been stuck with the bumbling Rangers the past decade.

MY TOP ANALYSTS

1. Howie Meeker: Next time you hear a critical hockey analyst on TV, you can thank your lucky stars for Howie Meeker. Meeker, who worked in the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, was the first to truly explain hockey and, when necessary, scold players. He was a visionary, a man whose work only grows with time. He mostly plied his trade in the studio, between periods, breaking down the play with a telestrator. When Meeker would zero in on a gaffe by a defenseman and say in his inimitable squeaky voice, "You just can't do that," well, you just couldn't do that.

2. Davidson: Like Meeker, Davidson now works both sides of the border. He has been a beacon on ABC and MSG telecasts and, when he has been able to moonlight in the playoffs for CBC, his work has been immaculate. He knows his listeners well. He goes hip and inside when he works the Rangers on MSG or does games in Canada, and he broadens his analysis, without necessarily dumbing it down, to appeal to a wider audience on the weekly U.S. telecasts. He works tirelessly at ferreting out nuggets of information to slip into his telecasts.

3. Harry Neale: In an era of loud voices and louder opinions, the lead CBC analyst has gone his own sly way. The former NHL/WHA coach uses humor as his blunt instrument. Neale doesn't do shtick or ha-ha stuff. Instead he offers wry observations, coating the occasional profundity with a turn of phrase that brings a quick smile. Neale is easy on the ears. He is precisely the kind of man you would want in your living room talking hockey for 2 1/2 hours, an underrated trait in any broadcaster.

4. Bill Clement: Clement, the ESPN lead analyst, is the straight goods. He is well-prepared, well-spoken and silky smooth -- a perfect blend of the man and the medium. He refuses to get mired in minutiae, a wise idea for a sport that many of his viewers sometimes struggle with. Instead he speaks to broad themes and personalities, the kind of analysis that plays well in the States.

5. Dick Irvin: The retired Montreal Canadiens announcer, defies definition. He did everything -- play-by-play, color, studio hosting -- and did it superbly. He might object to being classified on the list as an analyst because, in the strictest sense, he wasn't. Irvin, son of Hall of Fame player and coach Dick Irvin, was a true color man, a story teller who added lovely grace notes rather than broke down plays. Irvin made every telecast he worked better, no matter his role.

MY TOP-FIVE CALLS/CATCH PHRASES

1. "Do you believe in miracles? Yes." Al Michaels, America's voice, might not be a hockey lifer, but on ABC in 1980 in Lake Placid, he delivered the greatest call in any sport when the U.S. shocked the Soviet Union at the Olympics. It was, and is, perfect.

2. "He shoots, he scores." Hewitt is credited with the phrase, the template for all future goal calls. These are four little words, repeated over and over, that never lose their appeal.

3. "Savardian spin-o-rama ... stepping gingerly over the blue line ... cannonading blast." All these phrases tripped felicitously off Gallivan's silvery tongue. (Incidentally, puckheads, the Savard in question was Montreal defenseman Serge Savard, who often used a spin move, not 1990-93 Canadiens center Denis Savard, as too many of you assume.) Once an English professor at a Maritimes university in Canada sent Gallivan a nasty letter saying there was no such word as "cannonading." Gallivan wrote back: "There is now."

4. "Kick save, and a beauty." While some credit Chicago Blackhawks telecaster Lloyd Petit with inventing the phrase, the estimable Marv Albert, whom we would gladly listen to doing play-by-play on anything, made it his own while working the radio side for the Rangers in the 1960s.

5. "May Day, May Day ..." When Brad May's overtime goal eliminated the Boston Bruins in the 1993 playoffs, excitable Buffalo Sabres radio announcer Rick Jeanneret -- now a TV guy -- greeted it with a call for the ages.

FIVE WHO NEVER SHOULD'VE ENTERED THE BOOTH

1. Bobby Hull: During a 1981 Hartford-Vancouver game, Hull reputedly said, "Nine takes the shot and 17 scores on the rebound." Now there's cogent analysis. In his brief television career, Hull tried to get away with simply being Hull. The laissez-faire approach failed miserably. If son Brett follows in his Bobby's footsteps in the booth, as seems likely, he better work a lot harder.

2. Bobby Orr: The best defenseman in NHL history knew the game, but he was congenitally unsuited for his short-lived CBC job. Orr was loathe to express an opinion and was terrified of actually appearing on camera, not exactly the traits that would predict a long and happy career in TV.

3. Bob Prince: The iconic Pittsburgh Pirates announcer should have stuck with baseball. He tried his hand at the Penguins in the early 1970s. His apocryphal call: "They got it, we got it, they got it, we got it, we score."

4. Bill Chadwick: The Big Whistle was such an albatross on Rangers telecasts in the 1960s and '70s that it almost drowned the good work of play-by-play man Jim Gordon. Chadwick, a former referee, would butcher names so routinely -- his stabs at forward Lucien DeBlois were hilarious -- that the Big Whistle developed an almost cult-like following. Not for the right reasons, however.

5. Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion: He worked Atlanta Flames games in the 1970s with the splendid Jiggs McDonald. One night, Geoffrion said, "Jiggs, there are only three things to hockey: shooting and skating." McDonald said, "Right, Boomer. And what's the third?" The exasperated Geoffrion replied," Jiggs, that's the three. Shooting. And. Skating."

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Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber covers the NHL for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.

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