Sports Illustrated's amazing Dr. Z has been ranking NFL commentators for a long time (and with some hard work and luck will one day do it again), taking notes as he scores games and compiling those into an year-end column. I started taking notes at the beginning of the 2010-11 NHL season with the intent of doing the same.
My rankings however, also include tidbits gleaned from over a decade of Center Ice, watching countless regular season games through local market broadcasts.
My biggest pet peeve, even with the five-star announcers, is the overuse of cliches and hockey buzzwords, so I've excluded the use of those phrases in the analysis below. I will point out, however, that things like "net front presence", "head man pass" when being used to describe any breakout pass, "compete level" and "grit" have to go. They've had their run in hockey lexicon for far too long.
Stop with the cliches and give us poignant analysis, fellas.
The rankings below are entirely subjective, but I've used the same criteria to rank each crew -- criteria that are flushed out as we go. I didn't rank Montreal's crew because I don't speak French and therefore do not watch Canadiens broadcasts on RDS.
So, without further ado...
ONE STAR (or less)
John Ahlers, Brian Hayward - Anaheim Ducks: Ahlers might be an excellent play-by-play announcer, but Hayward overwhelms him on the air. Hayward is an ex-goaltender and as is often the case with ex-goaltenders, his analysis is heavily slanted in favor of goaltenders -- any goaltender. He speaks about goaltending as a mystical pursuit, which is extremely frustrating to viewers looking for answers or explanations about goaltending technique.
He's also heavily biased in his general game analysis and is hard-pressed to find fault in the Ducks for anything. He's the announcer who accused Brent Seabrook of "selling it" to draw a call on this hit.
He apologized later in the broadcast, but if his first reaction after seeing an opposing player take an intentional charge is to call out "Dive!", he should take a deeper look at how bias is clouding his broadcast.
Peter Loubardias, Charlie Simmer - Calgary Flames: Loubardias isn't awful, but his cadence is a special treat for Sportsnet and Northwest Division viewers. He has a bizarre habit of stretching out syllables in the middle of names, very similar to the Seinfeld "Hello!", but not during big moments like goals or hits -- just in the normal course of calling the game. His calls of "eh-GEEEEEEN-laaaaa" and "BO-miss-terrrrrrrrrrr" make his play-by-play particularly grating. He also has a terrible habit of stressing the first few words in a sentence and letting the rest of the sentence fall into the aether.
Charlie Simmer was once a very good forward for the Los Angeles Kings in the 1980s.
Ken Daniels, Mickey Redmond, Larry Murphy - Detroit Red Wings: Listening to the Red Wings crew is like sitting at your local watering hole and watching the game with the sound off. Redmond and Murphy tell tale after tale, interrupt Daniels at every turn, attempting to one-up each other from the pre-game show to the final horn, laugh uproariously and rarely pay attention to the action on the ice. Daniels, to his credit, tries to call a game every once in awhile, but typically gives up by the second period.
Kevin Quinn, Louie Debrusk - Edmonton Oilers: Quinn and Debrusk are the ultimate company men. The Oilers have been the worst team in the league over the last two seasons but you'd never know it by listening to these two. The only players they've criticized have been those openly criticized by the organization. They continue to call Nikolai Khabibulin the team's "MVP" and the worst criticism lobbed in his general direction has been "He wishes he had that one back."
Paul Steigerwald, Bob Errey - Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins replaced long-time play-by-play man Mike Lange with Steigerwald, and Errey took over for former head coach Ed Olczyk. Neither of these were good hires. Steigerwald is the second-biggest homer amongst play-by-play men in the NHL and allows it to creep into his call throughout the game. Even in the face of replay evidence he doesn't relent.
Errey has the same taint to his analysis, often allowing Steigerwald to build the (faulty) narrative and allowing it to continue into his explanation of the play. Errey also regularly speaks over the play-by-play call. Their calls are so bad that Twitter often erupts into a discussion about the two men in the booth rather than the game on the ice.
And of course, there was Steigerwald's horrible joke about Hobey Baker.
John Shorthouse, John Garrett - Vancouver Canucks: Western Canadians and Northwest Division fans are alone in basking in the glorious experience of the two Johns. Shorthouse and Garrett openly root for the Canucks during the broadcast and speak of the players as if they are family members during the game call and analysis. They combine to form the most biased duo in the league and it's not close.
Jack Edwards, Andy Brickley - Boston Bruins: Andy Brickley is good -- great, even. He knows his stuff and can analyze hockey on the fly with the best of them. He sees things accurately and can break them down quickly without sounding full of himself. I learn something from Brickley quite often, but only when I can stand Jack Edwards long enough to leave the sound on.
Jack Edwards is an unabashed homer and taints the entire broadcast with it. It's a shame NESN continues to employ him.
Pat Foley, Ed Olczyk - Chicago Blackhawks: Blackhawks' fans love Foley and his frank style, but his guttural exclamations during game play are bizarre. Foley truncates the words in the phrase he's using, then says the phrase like a drill instructor. For example, "Big save" becames "Bi Sayyyyyy", and "Missed wide" becomes "Mih wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii."
Olczyk obviously knows the game, but has an annoying habit of explaining on-ice technique by beginning with "Now for all of you young players out there...", rather than just explaining the proper play or technique. These two also tend to stray from the game and get lost in giggling fits when they do. The behavior isn't limited to just blowouts either. A player or celebrity sighting, a memory, or a story will set them on a meandering path where they forget the game exists.
Mike Haynes, Peter McNab - Colorado Avalanche: Haynes and McNab call an engaging game and they have very few flaws during game action. Haynes has excellent recognition and is quick with his calls, but struggles mightily with player names. His attempted pronounciations have become a running joke for those watching on Center Ice.
The two of them break down in other facets of the broadcast. McNab has said words like "Brandon Yip will be a star in this league," and "Ryan O`Reilly is showing why he's already considered one of the best defensive centers in the game," and "Slovakia will have a tough decision going into the Olympics on whether they should start Jaroslav Halak or Peter Budaj." He wasn't joking.
Haynes picks up on these cues and not only agrees but extends the point. It's no wonder the average Avs fan believes the team is on the verge of a dynasty.
Dan Terhaar, Mike Greenlay - Minnesota Wild: I've actually been embarrassed for Terhaar at times because of his botched pronounciations of player names. He and Mike Haynes from Colorado are neck-and-neck in the race for the most hilarious pronounciation attempts.
Haynes currently leads with "Day La Ray" for Deslauriers, but Terhaar's "FOLIG no" for Foligno was outstanding. These two toe the company line and rarely talk poorly of the team, going so far as to applaud things like "effort" and "grit" at the end of four-goal losses. Their between-period banter and segments are among the worst in the league.
Doc Emrick, Chico Resch - New Jersey Devils: I've written about Doc's impressive, sometimes non-sensical vocabulary, and touched on Chico Resch's awestruck, folksy demeanor, but overall, this broadcast has a tinge of insanity to it.
Doc does his thing, making up words on the go, while Chico talks about "Travis" and "Zach" like they are his grandchildren.
He is capable of calling an outstanding game and still does from time-to-time, but is the most disinterested play-by-play guy in hockey. As soon as he sees an opening, he's off and talking about baseball, Al Arbour, Bill Terry or the New York skyline right in the middle of play.
Goring knows the game, especially systems play and strategy. He's very good at detailing how and why a sequence was successful. The downside is that he's quick to join Rose's tangents on everything not hockey-related.
Jim Jackson, Keith Jones - Philadelphia Flyers: Keith Jones has become a caricature of the "good Canadian boy" ex-hockey player. On Versus, he's somewhat balanced and talks about things other than physical play.
On the Comcast broadcast, Jones wears his heart on his sleeve. Everything can be improved with toughness and every player having an off night "needs more effort", regardless of the level of effort. "Being more physical" in all aspects of the game is paramount.
Jackson carries a heavy Philadelphia bias and refuses to criticize a Flyer, even when the criticism is obvious.
Rick Peckham, Bobby Taylor - Tampa Bay Lightning: Peckham and Taylor call a nice game and are okay on the detailed analysis, but everything is terribly slanted. They aren't as bad as Jack Edwards, but they aren't afraid to show their love for the Lightning in everything they say.
Sam Rosen, Joe Micheletti - New York Rangers: Micheletti does a fine job of bringing the concepts of hockey to the fan and reinforcing those concepts with examples throughout the game. He generally nails what happened during the play without the benefit of a replay and is quite good at explaining what defensemen are doing and should be doing.
Sam Rosen fumbles too many player identifications and too much on-ice action for a man of his reputation.
Dean Brown, Denis Potvin - Ottawa Senators: Dean Brown is excellent at calling a game and manages to hang on to the end, even during blowouts. He's quick to identify line changes and can tell the difference between a shot and a block, and who blocked it, on a regular basis. He doesn't scream and yell when the momentum shifts in the Senators favor -- he's able to subtly alter his tone and cadence and quicken the pace of the call without screaming into the microphone.
Denis Potvin knows a ton about hockey and he wants the audience to know it. He's self-assured to the point of arrogance in his analysis, and why not? He's a Hall of Fame player, one of the greatest defenseman in NHL history. But being a great player doesn't make a man a great analyst and Potvin misses many of the little things that the really good analysts are able to pick up on the fly and explain. He gets caught up in the "oohs" and "aahs" of big hits and big shots and becomes a fan much too easily.
Randy Hahn, Drew Remenda - San Jose Sharks: Hahn is excellent when he's calling the game and Remenda is excellent when he's doing on-the-fly analysis. When the two veer off into the storyline or the narrative, they go awry.
I'm not sure if they write their own pre-game script or not, but there is no deviation from the pre-game story. If they open with Antti Niemi returning to Chicago, the game is about Antti Niemi throughout the night and it doesn't matter if four power play goals were the actual story. Coming back from a commercial, we hear about Antti Niemi. Between periods, we hear about Antti Niemi. fter a routine save, we hear about Antti Niemi.
Remenda twists his analysis to match the narrative, facts be damned.
Joe Bowen, Greg Millen - Toronto Maple Leafs: Yet another pair where the play-by-play man is solid and the color commentator is really poor. Millen makes these broadcasts nearly unwatchable with nonsense analysis and fumbled player identification. He's bad that he's inspired his own watchdog Twitter account.
Bowen is a solid play-by-play man, and though he does tend towards a slight Toronto bias, he has kept it in the bag during the Leafs recent troubles.
Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin - Washington Capitals: Beninati and Laughlin are excellent most of the time. When they're not, it's because they're both screaming at their audience. Beninati is an excitable gentleman and tends to crank up the decibles and excitement level in his voice when it's not necessary. He seems to want to build along with the play to a crescendo in order to make a big goal call, even when the play dies on the vine.
He ends up making calls like "SEMIN SKATES WIDE TO THE WING HE FIRES OFF OF THE SIDE OF THE NET...and the puck kicks to the corner." Laughlin does the same when he jumps in to give on-the-fly analysis, especially when coming in on a cue from Beninati.
Matt McConnell, Darren Eliot - Atlanta Thrashers: Left unemployed by the Thrashers' departure, McConnell and Eliot are very good in a terrible television market. Eliot has been picked up by Versus for a couple of national games and rightfully so. He knows what he's talking about and can explain what he knows in a very accessible manner. He does not pull punches for the home team and levies criticism at players and coaches when necessary.
McConnell could use some polish. He gets caught up in coming back from breaks and replays and often misses 10 to 15 seconds of game action as he's wrapping up the segue or in-game promo. Even with that criticism, more than half of the teams in the league could improve their broadcast by hiring these two in place of their existing crew.
Rick Jeanneret, Harry Neale - Buffalo Sabres: Jeanneret is outright despised by rival fans for his excitable nature and his strained voice, however, aside from the fact that he sounds like he's being asphyxiated when Buffalo scores, Jeanneret knows just about everything about the game as it unfolds.
He rarely misses a call or flubs a player and he's on top of small things like players bouncing around lines throughout the game. Neale is an old salt who has a story for everything. The only time these two get off track is when they recall the olden days.
Jeanneret is retiring, which is a shame because his replacements leave everything to be desired.
John Forslund, Tripp Tracy - Carolina Hurricanes: These two would be a five-star duo if not for Tracy's insistence on the infallibility of goaltenders. Forslund is very good with the in-game call, and has a special knack for hurrying back from commercials, ad copy or replay analysis to get back to the call of live action, something that even the best play-by-play guys struggle with.
Tracy knows his stuff and is very good at pointing out the mechanics of goaltending and defense, but in his analysis, goaltenders (especially Cam Ward) can do no wrong.
Jeff Rimer, Bill Davidge - Columbus Blue Jackets: Rimer and Davidge are the closest thing to a throwback announcing pair working today. Rimer is an old-time announcer, an older gentlemanly type who is both a fan and an objective observer watching the team play. He describes the action more than calls the action and has a very pleasant cadence.
His cadence is very similar to Detroit Tigers' great Ernie Harwell -- smooth and flowing. He's not nearly as excitable as your average play-by-play man, but will get riled up, especially when one of the Jackets' star players is involved. He misses details occasionally and he's not ideal for the role, but his call makes up for it.
Davidge is very similar to Rimer -- even-keeled and even-handed in his analysis -- and he's not the excitable type. He's torn between giving advanced analysis and appealing to the new hockey fan and isn't a true analyst, but he fits the attitude well. They are a true Midwestern duo.
Dave Strader, Tyson Nash - Phoenix Coyotes: Strader might be the best play-by-play man in the business. He's dead-on while working in-game, he identifies players, the action and works in line changes and team tidbits on the fly. He would shine in any market.
Tyson Nash has his moments. In fact, I listened to him explain forward positioning on the penalty kill one evening and came away extremely impressed, but far too often his analysis begins with "Oooohhh..." and he launches into 30 seconds of old-time hockey, or a story about his fighting days. I get the feeling he's still trying to establish his credentials and legitimize himself, thus the reference to his fighting days. If he would concentrate on the on-ice action rather than asking for a fight or a big hit, this pairing would be in the group below.
John Kelly, Darren Pang, Bernie Federko - St. Louis Blues: Kelly and Pang are very good, though Pang tends to allow his Blues bias to creep into his analysis, especially on penalty calls and questionable plays. There's no doubt Pang knows the game, but sometimes gets pulled into being a fan when he's detailing a replay.
Kelly calls the game with a very fast cadence which is outstanding for close and exciting games, but is tough to listen to during yawners. Federko's contributions to the team are exactly the same as Denis Potvin above. Federko knows hockey and is more concerned with the viewer knowing how much he knows.
Ralph Strangis, Daryl Reaugh - Dallas Stars: Strangis and Reaugh are the Abbott and Costello of NHL commentators, and I mean that in a good way. Strangis is a very good play-by-play man. He's not at Dave Strader's level with his calls, but he's very good at identifying the play and doesn't wander into the wilderness in the middle of games. He keeps things concise and frees up time for Reaugh to do his thing.
But it's not the vocabulary that makes the man, and Reaugh is not afraid to call a spade a spade and takes even the Stars to task when they deserve it. He is brutally honest in his assessments and is one of the few ex-goaltenders in broadcasting who will go after a goaltender when they deserve it.
Steve Goldstein, Bill Lindsay - Florida Panthers: It's a shame that less than 4,000 households per night watch the Panthers. Their television pairing is top-notch, hidden by the weakest television market in the NHL and a team that hasn't made the playoffs in ten years.
Goldstein is the prototypical television play-by-play voice -- engaging and fast-moving, introducing segments and reading ad copy quickly but in a relaxed manner. He calls a steady game without bias in his voice or tone and identifies line changes, blocks, tips and hits without fail.
Bill Lindsay was a plugger during his playing days, totaling 224 points in 777 games as a checking wing. His days on the penalty kill paid off as he, along with Andy Brickley, is among the very best at explaining special teams and individual breakdowns as they occur. He also understands coaching and systems like few other men on television. It's a treat to listen to him explain the tactics and strategies used by the Panthers and their opponents.
Bob Miller, Jim Fox - Los Angeles Kings: Miller is relatively high up the list for play-by-play men, maybe a rung or two below Dave Strader. Jim Fox is an ex-King who has made a name for himself as a broadcaster, not just an ex-player in the broadcast booth.
The two have been together for two decades and play off of each other extremely well. They show no active biases during the broadcast. Miller knows everything about everyone in hockey over the last 30 years and Fox isn't far behind. Fox is insightful in short bursts during the action as well as in the pregame and at intermission. Neither are afraid to criticize players or coaches.
Pete Weber, Terry Crisp - Nashville Predators: Another pairing hidden away in an extremely weak television market, Weber and Crisp know what they're talking about and connect with both the stereotypical "new Southern hockey fan" and long-time fans alike. Crisp played for a decade and won two Stanley Cups, then coached for a decade and won another, and he puts all of that experience into each broadcast.
He has no fear of taking a Predator to task for poor play or a mistake. He's plugged in with the Preds and is quick to point out when an inside tip about a tactic or strategy is applied on the ice. Weber calls a fair and error-free game and moves seamlessly from explaining the basics of the game to calling out line chances and on-ice play.