From the ice to the booth
by Scott King
The honest truth is that hockey broadcasters and media personalties who played the game just command more respect than the usual talking heads. They’ve been there, they’ve done that, and if they played in the NHL, they did it at the highest level.
It may surprise you to learn that once they see the red light in the booth or studio go on, especially for the first time, it’s not just as easy as talking about the game they love, the one that they played their entire life. For several ex-Blackhawks turned broadcasters, the transition from the ice to the booth, or studio, was no cake walk.
“No, it was not easy at all,” former Hawk and current NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick said. “Mainly because on television, you have a window of how much you can say and how long you have to say it.
“For me, who always has a lot to say about a lot of things, and has a lot of opinions, to try to get that [to be] something meaningful, something that I think is important and to tell a story about it, tell why, in 30 seconds, and to have to do it with people talking in your ear…
“Having people countdown while you’re speaking, and trying to ignore one thing and saying something [else] and not being afraid to understand that there’s millions of people that are watching and listening to everything that you say, and to be able to get it out of your mouth…
“There’s never a lack of information, but it’s how you relay that information and making sure that you’re up on the information. I found it very difficult, there’s no question.”
For Roenick, a member of the 500-goal club, the career change can be a tough one for more reasons than just learning the tricks of a new trade.
“There’s no question it’s more political and more competitive because there are far, far less positions available, and far less jobs available,” Roenick said.
“Everybody wants to be associated with the sport, or with a sport, but there’s a lot of competition. A lot of guys want to try to come in, get jobs. It’s up to you to stay sharp and stay loyal, do the right things for your company, or your network. It’s very political, there’s no question.”
“Just like anything else, it is a competition,” said former Hawks defenseman and 2010 Stanley Cup champ Brent Sopel, who has contributed to NBC Chicago, WGN Radio and 120 Sports. “Are you better than somebody? Or is he better than you? Can he dissect that game or that play better than you? Is he well spoken? Can he do this better than you? At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to, performance, whatever industry, it’s no different.
“Guys retiring this year, they’re fresh out of the game, they played against these guys more than I did. I’ve been out of the game for a little bit longer. Do they want that fresher voice, that fresher face? It’s a competition no matter what it is. Life is a competition. Doesn’t matter if it’s dating or anything.”
Stacy Lymber, the founder and CEO of OnSide, helps former hockey players transition into new careers like broadcasting and knows more than most that it’s no easy feat.
“Here’s the thing when it comes to media, not everybody is made for it,” Lymber said. “You have to be able to communicate, you have to be able to have something to say that’s interesting, you have to be able to relate to today’s game.”
If it’s a career in the media Stacy’s clients want to pursue, she has a series of questions and exercises for them to collaborate on.
“We have to think about who you are, what you’re saying, and how you’re going to resonate,” Lymber said. “Give me three people you admire in media and tell me what you admire about them. They’ll pick their people and we’ll kind of break it down from there.”
Former 2013 Stanley Cup champ with the Hawks and current Comcast SportsNet analyst Jamal Mayers says a difficult component of transitioning out of skating in the show is that there’s no replicating the thrill of playing the game.
“You can’t, you can’t compare [it],” Mayers said. “Unless you want me to slash you and crosscheck you in the face over here, and I’d love to do that (laughs). You know what I realized is that the mentality you have as a player is very rare and you can never duplicate that.
“I don’t even play hockey anymore, because I can’t turn it off. It’s in your brain, it’s the way you’re wired. For me, anyway. I have one way to do it, and it’s inside a big building like that (points to United Center). Other than that, I don’t even want to play.
“I think that once you retire, you realize that the game doesn’t stop for anyone. It doesn’t matter who you are.”
Another element former players have difficulty duplicating whether they go into broadcasting or not is the incomparable locker room fellowship.
“I miss the camaraderie,” Mayers said. “I miss the competition, I miss being around my teammates, I miss winning and losing and what that feels like, and getting back up and doing it again. I miss the selflessness of a team sport. You can’t duplicate that as much as you try.”
Blackhawks color analyst for WGN Radio Troy Murray won a Selke with the Hawks in 1986 and a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996. Murray used the same candid color commentary he does on the air that’s made him a staple and fan favorite in Chicago sports broadcasting to help paint the picture of what’s missed most when the skates are hung up.
“Everybody misses the game,” Murray said. “But when you realize how special it was to be around a group of guys like a team, when you travel with them, you’re in the locker room, there’s something special there.
“And that’s something a lot of the players, once they get out of the game, realize the game [is] over and all that stuff, but they miss that camaraderie that’s there, that you have a bond with all the other players and stuff, and then all of a sudden, when you’re done, you’re on your own and you’re not part of that group anymore.
“That was kind of the biggest thing that I’ve missed is not being a part of that group anymore and being in a position where you spend a lot of time on your own rather than having a purpose as a group [where] you bonded with all these guys.”
The camaraderie shared with past teammates may be gone for the former players turned media members, but when they go into the dressing room and speak with today’s Blackhawks, a new bond stands in its place.
“I think more than anything, I just know them,” Blackhawks alternate captain and three-time Stanley cup champ Duncan Keith said. “They’re former Chicago Blackhawks. I don’t necessarily think there’s any sort of difference in the questions they ask or the way I perceive them, but the fact that they were former Hawks and they’ve played the game with the Blackhawks and [have] been in this city.
“I think you’re naturally going to have that bond with them. They know what it was like to have the pressure on them and deal with certain things within the game. It’s always nice to talk to those guys, especially with the experiences that they’ve been through as a player too.”
“I think they respect the fact that I played the game,” said Murray of today’s Hawks. “I understand their point of view and I think there’s a trust factor there that they feel comfortable that they can talk to me about certain things that they may be guarded [about] in an open media type of setting.
“I think it’s important that they know I got their backs and I was a player, they have that respect for me because I did play the game. I know what’s going on, I understand when you’re struggling and what needs to happen. So I think it’s a big benefit.”
The trust that comes along with the player/ex-player relationship is an important part of the bond to Sopel.
“For myself, being in their shoes, and they know I’ve been in their shoes, they know that if they spill to me, I’m smarter than that,” Sopel said. “I’m never going to ruin a friendship, but as everybody watches and listens to you, I’ll tell it the way it is, good, bad or indifferent, but in the same breath, I would never toss an ex-teammate under the bus, ‘He told me this secret…’
“I would never do that to them. I think they have that confidence in me if we’re going back and forth doing an interview. They feel comfortable enough to say things to get a good piece out of it, but not a piece to hurt them.”
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