Prepping for the most exhilarating challenge of her 17-year sports-broadcasting career, Leah Hextall has been hard at work, practising her play-by-play calls in an empty booth at AHL games in Winnipeg and soaking up pages of treasured advice sent to her by award-winning play-by-play man Doc Emrick.
Hextall admits that what she'll do on Sunday is risky and a little terrifying. Viewers aren't accustomed to hearing a female play-by-play voice on a national television broadcast of a professional hockey game, but her's will be the one describing the action on Sportsnet for the championship game of the Canadian Women's Hockey League season.
An all-female broadcast trio will work the Clarkson Cup for the first time, the Stanley Cup of women's hockey. Hextall will be joined in the booth at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum by Olympic gold medalist and NHL colour analyst Cassie Campbell-Pascall, while reporter Nikki Reyes will provide rink-side reports.
It will be Hextall's fourth game in the play-by-play booth after three regular-season CWHL contests, but this will have the highest profile. Last year's Clarkson Cup drew just under a million viewers for at least a portion of the game, with an average-minute audience of 100,000.
"The only reason I was willing to put myself out there like this is because of Cassie," Hextall said. "If she didn't get into the booth on Hockey Night in Canada and open the doors for other women, I would not have been able to step into a booth. She was my partner in my first game, and I knew if I fell on my face, she'd help pick me back up. She looked at me and said 'believe you belong.'"
It was Campbell-Pascall who convinced Sportsnet four years ago to get a broadcast deal with the CWHL, which has included a few regular-season games and the Clarkson Cup each year. It was Campbell-Pascall that Hextall turned to with her idea to pursue play-by-play, and the Hockey Night in Canada analyst heartily encouraged her.
"Leah's a risk-taker. She knows what this opportunity means, and she will give it everything she has," Campbell-Pascall said. "I always respected Leah, but I respect her even more now for taking this risk because it's a big one. But I know it's going to pay off for her."
Hextall grew up in a well-known hockey family that includes several NHLers, such as Hall of Fame grandfather Bryan Hextall Sr. and cousin Ron Hextall. She played lots of sports growing up in Brandon, but hockey wasn't one of them, largely because her town didn't have a girls' league then. She had a gift for public speaking and loved to take part in speech competitions.
She has held various broadcast roles for Sportsnet, ESPN and NESN over the years, but currently works in communications for the Government of Manitoba.
She auditioned for the CWHL gig by doing a practice call of a Brandon Wheat Kings game. Based in Winnipeg right now, with the Jets' American Hockey League Manitoba Moose nearby, Hextall shows up at home games, where she's been welcome to use an empty room in the press box to practise her play-by-play.
She reached out to Emrick for advice, and the veteran NBC sportscaster watched a tape of her calls and provided thorough feedback. He even helped her acquire phonetic pronunciations of the Chinese names she'll be calling in the Clarkson Cup, as the Markham Thunder face Kunlun Red Star (KRS), one of two expansion teams the CWHL added in China, made up of Chinese, North American and European players.
"I was born a Hextall, our family has three generations in the NHL, and I've been around the game my whole life. It might sound hokey, but this is my chance to represent my family in hockey," Hextall said. "I have so much respect for how difficult play-by-play is. It's the most challenging, most exhilarating, most wonderful thing I've ever done in my career."
It comes at a time when women are getting booth opportunities across several sports, such as NFL play-by-play voice Beth Mowins, ESPN baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza and NBA analyst Doris Burke. In Canada, Meghan McPeak, who calls games for the Raptors 905, is the first female play-by-play broadcaster in the NBA's G-League; while Sportsnet's Caroline Cameron recently did play-by-play of Davis Cup tennis.
Sportsnet says it will also have a large group of women working behind the camera on the crew for the Clarkson Cup broadcast.
"There's no question we wanted to make a statement with this," said Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties. "We wanted to develop the expertise of having a female play-by-play person in particular. Leah Hextall has a deep résumé in hockey, and she was interested in developing her play-by-play skills. Clearly with Cassie, we have one of hockey's top broadcasters regardless of gender.
"In an environment where we are trying to encourage more women to be major parts of the broadcast industry, we thought it was important. I think Leah in particular in this case will be seen as a trailblazer as one of the first female play-by-play broadcasters of hockey, and we are proud to trail-blaze with her."
This Clarkson Cup comes on the heels of the Pyeongchang Olympics and one of the most exciting women's gold-medal games played between Canada and the United States.
Expanding the women's game has been a hot topic because of pointed comments this month from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who pressed the CWHL and the National Women's Hockey League to co-operate rather than compete, so that the NHL can get more involved in a singular women's pro league.
Sunday's game will feature several Olympic medalists, including Canadians Jocelyne Larocque, Laura Stacey andLaura Fortino and Finnish star goalie Noora Raty, as well as former U.S. Olympians looking to prove something after being cut from the 2018 U.S. team, such as Alex Carpenter and CWHL leading scorer Kelli Stack, who led KRS to a Cup appearance in the team's first year of existence.
"To me, to be able to call the Clarkson Cup, it's such a tremendous honour. I'm still learning, but I can't see myself doing anything else in broadcast now because this has just been such a beautiful challenge and I live for it now," Hextall said. "If that's where it ends, it's still incredible for me and I can be proud of it, but I definitely hope to call more hockey games, because I've absolutely fallen in love with play-by-play. But for the moment, it's all about the Clarkson Cup for me."