When the country’s two sports television networks tear into each other on Monday in the ultimate bit of Canadiana – all-day live coverage of deadline day in the NHL for making trades – the goal of each of them, aside from ratings, is beating the other guy by a few seconds to announce a trade first.
But no matter who wins the intense battle for scoops between TSN and Sportsnet, there is one fact neither network can argue: TSN’s Bob McKenzie is the most trusted source of hockey information on any media platform. He may not always be first with the trade announcements or other news, although he is not often beaten, but he is always right.
“Bob is the ultimate clearinghouse for hockey information, that is his role,” said Steve Dryden, TSN’s senior managing editor for content. He has worked with McKenzie since the late 1980s when they were both at The Hockey News. “He is the ultimate triumph of substance over style.”
Indeed, there is nothing stylish about McKenzie, 59, who was part of the great migration of print reporters to broadcast outlets that began in earnest in the 1990s. But unlike many of his colleagues, particularly in the United States where current and former print types make up the casts of dozens of sports-talk screamfests, McKenzie stuck with what worked for him from the start, a solid work ethic that developed the widest variety of sources in the sport, from junior scouts to NHL owners.
That means any information he provides, whether to his 1.22 million Twitter followers, on a TSN television panel, a radio appearance or in a written report on TSN.ca, is solid.
“Bob often jokes he sits at the end of the panel,” said TSN hockey analyst and ex-NHL player Ray Ferraro, who is usually on that panel with McKenzie. “I always look at it like he’s the period at the end of a sentence.
“The ex-players sit in the middle. Bob will debate a point if he needs to, but Bob’s the information guy. He’s like the period at the end of our sentence. When Bob says it, it is.”
Trade-deadline day may not be McKenzie’s favourite day on the hockey calendar, especially with a year like this one and 2015 when almost all of the big stars were traded before the deadline, leaving everyone on every network scrambling to find something to talk about. But he will do what he’s done every day since he started covering the NHL and junior hockey 35 years ago, grinding it out, contacting sources he’s developed over those years among NHL general managers, agents, coaches and scouts to find out who is going where.
McKenzie says his job is easy compared with deadline show host James Duthie and analysts such as Ferraro who have to fill dead air.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s one deal or 50 deals, it still requires the same amount of time and focus on our part,” McKenzie said of himself and fellow news hounds Darren Dreger, Pierre LeBrun and Gord Miller. “We don’t have to talk for endless hours like Duthie, who has to pilot this ship. Me, I just do what I do most days at home in my pyjamas, work in text messages, work in e-mails, work the phones, following Twitter, chasing stuff.”
McKenzie’s title is hockey insider, a role he pioneered in Canada in the late 1990s as his role at TSN grew to a full-time position. Its meaning is clear – someone who has connections to the important people from top to bottom who provide the most reliable information. It is a title, however, that is easily tossed around in today’s world of Twitter, other social media and on seemingly every second radio or television sports show carrying the word “insiders.”
There may be many imposters in the role, but McKenzie is not one of them.
“Obviously, there is no one in our business that is more trusted,” Dreger said. “[It’s] how he works very closely with scouts in piecing together his [NHL] draft coverage and the [player] rankings.
“You see it in how [NHL] general managers are always keen to hear his opinions after hours at GM meetings. And obviously on Twitter, when Bob McKenzie weighs in, it is the gospel.”
It is also seen in the television ratings. The 2015 trade deadline was the first year TSN did not have any national NHL broadcast rights, having lost the package to Rogers Media, which agreed in 2014 to pay $5.2-billion over 12 years for the NHL’s Canadian national broadcast rights. But TSN trounced Rogers’s Sportsnet network on deadline day, drawing an average of 206,000 viewers to its 10 hours of coverage compared with 76,000 for Sportsnet. TSN drew more than double the total viewers to its show, 2.3 million, than Sportsnet (1.1 million).
While this cannot all be attributed to McKenzie, a major share of it can, given that he dominates the hockey discussion on Twitter, where viewership starts. And he is the one looked to by most for confirmation of a trade.
McKenzie, though, will not tell you he is driving the ratings. In a business where egomaniacs are as easy to find as trade rumours, he maintains the outlook of his beginnings, the kid from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough who grew up a few blocks from what is now TSN’s studios and wondered if he would ever get a job writing about hockey.
“I just get up and do my job every day and make sure I don’t feel like I have to back up to the pay window at the end of the week,” McKenzie said.
The pay window has to open wide for McKenzie, as his annual salary is well into six figures. That and the fact he is now one of hockey’s most recognizable figures across Canada and even the United States, thanks to his work on NBC’s hockey broadcasts, is something he still shakes his head about.
“No, I just wanted to be a hockey writer,” McKenzie said. “I really didn’t envision doing anything in television. The thought never even crossed my mind.”
Back in 1981, McKenzie quit his job as a newspaper reporter in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to head home to Toronto. His goal was to land a job in the sports department of one of the city’s three daily newspapers but none of them would hire him.
Eventually, McKenzie managed to land a couple of shifts a week as a copy editor in The Globe and Mail’s sports department along with a few freelance writing assignments. But when no full-time job was ever offered, McKenzie took a job as editor-in-chief of The Hockey News, a title that was far grander in name than it was in salary.
It was a foot in the door of the hockey world, though, and McKenzie worked it with all his might. He steadily expanded his list of contacts as he impressed people in junior hockey and the NHL with his knowledge of the game and its issues.
The television opportunity arrived in the 1986-87 season when The Hockey News bought a half-hour of time each week week on TSN to promote itself with a magazine-style hockey show. Part of the program saw McKenzie spend a minute chatting with host Jim Van Horne about hockey issues. That led to work on the network itself, and by the early 1990s, McKenzie was hired as an analyst for Canadian Hockey League games.
McKenzie became a regular presence on junior hockey telecasts, particularly on the world junior championship, and he would be seen on the panels for NHL games.
During that time, McKenzie also held down a full-time print job, first at The Hockey News and then as the Toronto Star’s hockey columnist for six years before going back to The Hockey News in 1997.
This left McKenzie’s wife, Cindy, with most of the responsibility of raising their two sons, Mike and Shawn, although he managed time with the boys by coaching them in hockey and lacrosse.
“When you’re the coach, you get to choose what day to practice, what time to practice and do the schedule to a large degree,” McKenzie said.
The sons obviously absorbed a lot of hockey wisdom from the old man. Mike, who will turn 30 this year, played NCAA hockey and is now the assistant GM and assistant coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers. Shawn, 26, is a sports broadcaster for Sportsnet.
But by the 1999-2000 hockey season, the 80-to-100-hour weeks became too much. McKenzie approached Keith Pelley, then the president of TSN, and said unless he was hired as a full-time broadcaster he was going to stick to The Hockey News. “I was at my limit,” McKenzie said.
Fate played a role here, as McKenzie’s decision coincided with the first time TSN lost the NHL national broadcast rights to Sportsnet. As a result, the TSN brass decided their priority was to be the main source for news about hockey, and McKenzie was hired as part of that push.
The ensuing 16 years saw him evolve into the ultimate hockey insider and took him around the world covering the sport. But now, with his 60th birthday coming up this summer, McKenzie says he can see the finish line. He may be down to one full-time job but it remains all-consuming, and there are few days off until he can retire to the family cottage in the Kawartha Lakes for July and August.
He plans to work four more years beyond this season and then cut the cord completely. There will be no part-time gigs, no winding down.
“The hard thing about the job description I’ve got now is there’s no such thing as being semi-retired,” McKenzie said. “You either know everything or nothing. You either chase all the stories or none of them. You can’t pick a day of the week you want to know what’s going on.
“You have to follow it all the time. It’s a grind for 43 weeks of the year. I don’t expect people to feel sorry for me, but it’s not easy.
“I am looking forward to doing other things. Travel. I’ve been to different places in Europe for hockey but I’ve never been to Paris, never been to Italy.
“I’ve got lots of things to do. I like to ride my mountain bike in the summer, I like to sit on the dock, drink red wine and listen to Frank Sinatra. There’s lots of things I can do without being a hockey insider. I’m not worried.”Report Typo/Error