Length of time as a sports broadcaster: 10 years, following 13 years playing hockey on Canada’s national team.
How did you first fall in love with hockey?
My older brother Jeff played. My parents put me in figure skating at first because that’s what girls did, but I finally got smart enough to say, “Jennifer Linkus plays.” She played on my brother’s team and our families were quite close. Once I said that—she was a really good player on the team—my parents looked at each other and said, “I guess we don’t have an answer.” They put me in boy’s hockey the next year, when I was about six years old. I was a little tomboy. I don’t think the team knew I was a girl until we showed up at their swimming party at the end of the year.
Did you feel any negativity?
I think that first year my parents probably heard it more than I did. Later, I went to the Eddie Shack Hockey School in Ontario. My friend Steph and I were the only two girls. I’m sure people said stuff to me, but I don’t remember it. I was just having too much fun. When you’re young, you fit in; boys don’t really care. It’s the parents probably, but mine hid that from me.
Did you watch hockey on TV growing up?
Definitely, I watched Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday—and I’m not just saying it because I now work on the show. I remember being thoroughly impressed with Ron MacLean. I think we all were in Canada. Years later, when I met him for the first time, I was in awe. I couldn’t believe he knew my name. He had done the research and knew who I was. It shows his dedication and his personality.
Did you ever think you’d one day be a broadcaster yourself?
No, I didn’t even know it was possible. I thought you had to go to school for it. When I started making the national team, I began dabbling in broadcasting in my spare time. I went to breakfast shows and filled in for people, and did some work for Rogers TV. I’d have to do commentary for CIS Women’s Hockey and Esso Cups from time to time when I wasn’t playing. Soon, I realized I kind of liked it. After I retired as a player, I worked on TSN’s women’s hockey coverage, then I got a call and had a meeting set up with Hockey Night in Canada. Next thing I knew, I was working on the show. It was a really quick transition.
Has being a sports broadcaster changed the way you watch hockey games?
Yes, and I hate it! You see the little technical difficulties. When I watched before, I would have never noticed a mistake but now I do. I always try just to watch but it’s really hard.
What does a workday look like for you?
Most days, I drop my daughter off at school, then go for a workout, either a spin class, boot camp or running group. After that, I come home and do research in my office. I might watch a game I couldn’t see the night before. I watch two to five games a day if I can. I have them on my PVR so it only takes me an hour. If I’m in Calgary, I go down to the rink. If there are two teams in town, I’ll go talk to them. Later, I pick my daughter up, have supper, do family stuff, and then watch hockey when she goes to bed.
For Hockey Night in Canada, I fly to the city where I’ll be hosting the night before, on the Friday. On Saturday, I get up, go to the rink, talk to the players and coaches, fix up some of my stories, do some research in the afternoon, keep up with what’s going on in the league, then go back to the rink at 4 p.m. The game is at 7 or 8 depending where you are. Then, off you go! You’re on the air. Sometimes I’m the colour person (that’s what they call the person in the booth adding colour and flavour, while the others do the play by play), and my other role is rink-side reporter, where I do interviews, open the show, and tell stories in between the broadcast.
I also work for a variety of organizations. I’m on the board for the Calgary Police Foundation and the Hockey Canada Foundation, and I’m a governor for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. I work for Scotiabank as well doing a bunch of events and different things for them. Every day is different for me.
What do you do to get yourself ready to go on air?
I’m a tomboy so I have to go get my hair done wherever I am. I can actually do my own makeup now though. I also like to get to the rink a little early. I find you get an extra little scoop or conversation with someone. I have three words I say to myself before almost every broadcast but in particular when I’m feeling a little less confident or having a tough day. I say, “Believe you belong.” It’s a reminder that I should be confident and that I know what I’m doing.
Sports broadcasting is typically a male-dominated industry. Have you faced any particular challenges because of that?
Not really. Hockey people are really nice. It helps that they know I’ve played. My colleagues have been tremendous. Once I gained trust with the stories and ideas I brought to the table, the producers just let me run with things. That comes with time, work ethic, and trust. The guys have treated me really well. I haven’t had even a player say anything sexual to me. I’ve been really fortunate in that sense.
Do you find the same can be said for viewers?
Not always. I did colour commentary for Hockey Night in Canada my second day on the job. I got thrown in last minute because a colleague had an emergency situation at home. It was the first time viewers heard a women’s voice doing colour on Hockey Night in Canada, so it was a change. I got ripped in the paper, ripped on the radio, ripped on Twitter, ripped wherever you could get ripped. Unfortunately, my poor dad had to listen to it on Toronto radio stations. That was probably the hardest part for me—him calling me and asking if everything was OK.
How do you handle that sort of negativity?
You’re always going to be get negativity when you’re dealing with hockey in particular. People are passionate about their teams. The negativity on Twitter isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be. Someone way back when called me the C word and I retweeted it. I felt kind of bad after because they got lambasted. I don’t engage anymore. That’s exactly what these people want. I know there are little girls out there following me and they don’t deserve to hear that stuff. I’ll take one for the team.
You obviously have a ton of highlights as a player with two Olympic gold medals. Do you have a career highlight as a broadcaster?
Doing colour my second day on the job. I got thrown into that, and because of it, I got more and more opportunities to do colour. I didn’t realize at the time that no woman had ever done colour for Hockey Night in Canada before, but I guess it was kind of a big deal. I remember when I went to Sportsnet, the man who did my contract negotiation said to me, “I don’t see you in that role here.” He wasn’t being trying to be negative or anything. I said, “No problem. I guess I’ll have to prove you wrong.”
What attributes does someone need to become a sports broadcaster?
They have to be helpful and understand that the broadcast has nothing to do with them. Being humble and understanding that you’re telling stories and showcasing a product that’s much bigger and better than you are—that’s what makes Hockey Night in Canada so good. A lot of our commentators are so humble. Our producers are so humble. I think it shows up in the broadcast.
How important is high-level experience playing the sport?
I think it really helps. You garner respect and it opens doors for you. Having said that, there are a lot of people that never played high-level hockey who are doing a great job covering hockey based on the fact that they’ve worked hard and built up those relationships. But it does help you to know the inside of the game. You know what people are thinking about. When something bad happens, you get a sense of why it went that way.
What will you be doing for Hockey Day in Canada this Saturday?
We’ll be going to the schools in the community. We’ll be on the ice with the kids. We’ll be doing fun events. I’ll be up at 6:30 and going until 1:30 in the morning with different functions. It’s a grind but it’s so much fun. You get to hang out with NHL alumni and meet local people. I’ve never been to Kenora, Ont. so I’m looking forward to that, too.
What does a celebration like Hockey Day in Canada mean to you?
It really brings me back to the grassroots of hockey and what it’s about. We get a sense of what the brand of Hockey Night in Canada means to people and how many people across this country watch it. It gives you a bigger understanding of that responsibility to be the best on Saturday nights. And over the years, I’ve really enjoyed seeing the number of girls that play in the community. When I first started, they’d be sprinkled here and there on the teams. Now we have full girls’ teams.
Do you have a favourite pro team now?
My dad and brother were huge Montréal Canadiens fans and still are to this day, so I was definitely influenced by them. Then, growing up in Toronto as I got older, I was cheering for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now my husband works for the Calgary Flames. I cheer for all the Canadian teams, really.
When you comment on a game, is it hard to put personal bias of a favourite team aside?
My husband took a job with the Calgary Flames a few years ago, and I obviously want him to do well, but I’m professional enough that I can cover the Edmonton Oilers just as well as I can cover the Flames or another team. You do want your husband to do well and not lose his job, but I also have a job to do and I have to be negative sometimes. He and I have had those conversations. He lets me do my job and I let him do his.
What’s the most challenging aspect of commenting on a sports game?
The live nature of it. Interviewing the players in between periods, especially if their team is down or they’ve just let in a goal—I understand those emotions. Dealing with the players, especially in the playoffs when things aren’t necessarily going the greatest, is the hardest part.
What’s your favourite part about being a sports broadcaster?
Being in the rinks and getting to watch the morning skate. Getting to talk to all these amazing players. Getting to sit one on one with a coach. Meeting legends of the game. On Saturday morning, I was having breakfast and there was Wayne Gretzky. After the game, I was at the bar at the hotel and there he was again. He hung out with us. It’s off the record at that point so I get to really pick those people’s brains. Hobnobbing with those people and learning more about the game from them is really cool.
Celebrate Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada—Saturday, February 18 at 12 p.m. EST/9 a.m. PST on Sportsnet and CBC, and join in on the celebration by using the hashtag #HockeyDay!