GAME DAY WITH BOB MILLER
There's much to like about the play-by-play call of Kings' broadcaster Bob Miller. Now in his 33rd year in Los Angeles, the Chicago native delivers a crisp, up-tempo description of the action, lacing his informative call with light-hearted anecdotes and cold, hard facts.
But deconstruct the elements of a style that has landed Miller in both the Hockey Hall of Fame and on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (he gets his star later this year), and one quality stands out, weaving its way through every syllable of Miller's broadcast: Context.
Miller sets up each and every play of a game by giving it its proper gravity, so that it fits perfectly into the overall tapestry of a hockey game and of a hockey season. So deft is Miller at this particular skill, that he can often convey the importance (or lack of the same) of any given moment through a mere change in the inflection of his voice.
It's why Miller's call of a goal in sudden death overtime sounds entirely different from one that's scored in a 7-2 blowout. It's why a tight-checking playoff game sounds different than a wide-open shootout. And it's also why, when you listen to Miller, you get a feel for what's going on in the game beyond the scoreboard.
Miller's wife, Judy, says if she happens to be in the other room when the Kings are on television, a sound in her husband's voice tells her when something of consequence is about to happen. Usually, she's right.
After more than three decades of listening to Miller, most Kings fans have developed a similar sixth sense. Back when Miller's call was simulcast over both radio and TV, a radio listener could quickly ascertain the feel and flow of game, the importance of that particular game in relation to the standings, as well as who was playing well that night and who wasn't, all from Miller's inflection and judicious choice of words.
Miller's uncanny ability to give each moment of a game its own appropriate context, and to translate the feel of what's about to happen before it actually does, can seem downright otherworldly.
But there's a simple explanation for it, and it's not telekinesis.
"A lot of preparation goes into it," Miller says from his home in West Hills, while – naturally – preparing for the next day's broadcast.
"I've told people that there is absolutely no substitute for preparation," Miller says, "and that's probably true in any business. You want to be prepared for your work. We do a lot of preparation that might not even get used, but you want to be ready for anything. If the glass breaks, you want to have material to rely on."
For Miller, game day is actually plural, as in game days. His preparation actually starts the day before the Kings play and sometimes extends to the day after. The night before, he'll tune into the Center Ice package at home, paying particular attention if the Kings next opponent happens to be playing. If the Kings game is rebroadcast the day after it's originally aired, Miller will watch and critique his own call of the game.
"A lot of people think you walk up to the booth at 7:25 and go on at 7:30," an amused Miller says. "They don't realize that the preparation starts maybe a couple of days before that, doing research on players and memorizing names and numbers so you are all set when they drop the puck."
The information age has altered the way Miller gets ready for a game.
"I think it's more time consuming to prepare now than it was 30 years ago," the University of Iowa graduate says, "and the reason is there is so much more information now. It's not only available to me, but it's available to fans that can sit at their computers and digest all this information. I think announcers know they've got to keep up to date with everything because if I say something wrong, the fans are going to know it. The more times you do that, the fans lose their confidence in you."
The spotting cards that Miller creates for each player are kept in a folder in front of him during the broadcast. The cards contain statistical information and back-stories on each player for both teams.
Because the play unfolds at such a rapid pace in hockey, Miller seldom has time to refer to the cards. Instead he memorizes their contents, then keeps them close at hand so he can refresh his memory during timeouts and between periods.
"Every announcer has a different way of memorizing things," Miller says. "It takes me maybe 15-20 minutes to write the names and numbers down, then I write them again, and again, just to make sure I have everybody memorized. Memorizing the rosters is really essential in hockey because you don't want to have to take your eyes off the ice."
When he arrives at the arena, Miller will go directly to the source, in order to ensure that has the proper pronunciation of each player's name. Sometimes, however, getting a name right requires more than one source.
"I go to the player to ask for the correct pronunciation," Miller says, "but sometimes, with a player from Europe, he will say his name in a dialect that I can't do. In that case, the most reliable place to go is the visiting teams announcers. I'll ask them how they are pronouncing a given name, and then I say it the same way they do."
In addition to the individual player spotting cards with the pronunciations, Miller also prepares another two-sided sheet for quick referral to the game's pertinent facts.
Those cheat sheets are largely responsible for Miller's ability to give the game's every occurrence its proper context.
"In addition to the spotting cards," Miller says, "I make out a sheet for every game that has the Kings on one side, their current record, home and road record, their power play and penalty killing, goaltender's records and then any notes about players who are on scoring streaks or something like that. When something happens in a game, like a milestone goal, I can simply refer to that sheet and be up to date on it."
The flip side contains the same information on the Kings' opponent.
Preparation, of course, only goes so far. Ultimately, the broadcast comes down to Miller's ability to describe what's happening on the ice in a way that's both entertaining and informative.
Miller says that once a game begins, it's a matter of his preparation and concentration working in unison to provide a call that's true to the moment.
Like an athlete who lets the game come to him, Miller allows the game to find its own form and then relays what is happening to his listeners instead of trying to create false drama.
"You can't be overly excited if there is nothing to really be excited about," Miller cautions. "You've got that ebb and flow in your voice. You don't have to describe everything, and you don't have to do it at a fever pitch.
You can't be sky-high all night long when the score is 0-0. If you are, where are you going go when it really does get exciting?"
When something does happen, Miller will let you know. After 33 years, his call can be prescient at times.
"If Luc (Robitaille) has got two goals and he's coming down the left wing," Miller says, "that's where I want to say, 'he's looking for the hat trick!' To me, that takes the viewer right there as it happens. If Luc scores his third goal and Jim (Fox) and I say, 'that's his third goal,' that's flat.
"To me, the announcer has to bring the audience into the game."
Which is exactly what Miller works so hard at making look so easy.