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Elliotte Friedman, who covers national NHL coverage and Hockey Night in Canada for Sportsnet, is photographed on the show’s set on April 7, 2021. Lum/The Globe and Mail

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ten years ago, Ron MacLean and Elliotte Friedman gathered in a hotel room in Raleigh, N.C., to swap stories about the broadcast business and the NHL all-star game they had covered together that day for CBC.

Over a beer or three, MacLean told Friedman he didn’t know how much longer he was going to stay on as the host of the iconic television program Hockey Night in Canada.

“I told Elliotte I would keep the chair warm for him until he was ready,” MacLean recalls.

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Friedman, who had dreamed of such an opportunity earlier in his career, dismissed the idea.

“They’re not looking for someone like me,” he said modestly.

He was self-deprecating then and remains unpresuming today. That is the part of the charm that has won him legions of followers. There is a folksiness – similar to the enduring MacLean – that draws viewers in. The difference between then and now is that he has fine-tuned his approach.

In the decade since, Friedman has become as much a part of the fabric of Hockey Night in Canada as the multimillion-dollar athletes who play the games. He is Sportsnet’s most trusted hockey insider, a writer and podcaster, and is beloved by viewers for his sense of humour and unassuming demeanour.

“He takes his job seriously, but not himself,” says Caroline Cameron, who hosts the pregame program Hockey Central Tonight four nights a week on Sportsnet. “He delivers a high level of work, but at the same time is able to laugh at himself.

“This is sports. You want it to be fun.”

A year ago, when hockey games were suspended because of COVID-19, Friedman decided to grow a beard. He dislikes shaving, and during the offseason allows himself to look more like a guy who operates the Tilt-A-Whirl than a television celebrity.

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Over the next five months, he went from the buttoned-down Elliotte to a cross between Rip Van Winkle and ZZ Top. His beard, brown on the top and white on the bottom, took on a life of its own.

As the whiskers grew out of control, Friedman’s sisters begged his wife, Stephanie, not to allow him to leave the house.

Viewers, cooped up in isolation, loved them. They drew comparisons between him and Moses or Tom Hanks’s character in Cast Away.

Initially, bosses told him he could keep the beard as long as it was well-groomed. That was a mistake.

“I’ve got a little bit of ‘What can I get away with?’ in me,” Friedman says. “I want to see how far can I go before somebody says, ‘Cut that out.’ ”

Eventually, he sheared off the bristles on live TV with the proceeds going to charity.

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“If I can make someone laugh or say, ‘What the hell is wrong with that guy?’ I will do it,” Friedman says. “Hockey is business, but for the vast majority of people who watch it is an escape from their day.

“They want to watch a good game, learn something during the intermissions, feel connected and smile. If I can make them do that, whether it is through the information I give or a head that looks like a bird’s nest, I feel like I have accomplished something.”

‘He is authentic. He tells it like it is’

Elliotte Friedman, 50, was born and raised in Toronto. His father was a chartered accountant. His mother, a bookkeeper, died of cancer at age 35. His dad remarried, and Elliotte grew up with two sisters and two stepsisters.

He enjoyed playing hockey, but wasn’t very good. He quit by the time he was 13.

“Part of the issue was financial,” Friedman says. “The other thing was that I didn’t put enough effort into it. I had a terrible attitude as a kid.”

He went on to study at the University of Western Ontario, where he was sports editor and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Gazette. He finished school in 1993, and began to look for work.

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“I wanted to be a sportswriter,” he says. “I applied to basically every paper in the country, and couldn’t get a job.”

In April of 1994, he volunteered to answer phones in the newsroom of Toronto radio station The Fan 590. Eventually, he was given the responsibility of shuttling highlight tapes between studios. “I thought it was the biggest job in the world.”

From such a start he went on to do play-by-play for the Raptors and reported on Blue Jays games.

In April of 1997, he accepted a position as an anchor for the 24-hour television channel Headline Sports. The latter, established three years earlier as Sportscope, later became theScore and is now a successful digital-media app.

“We just let Elliotte be himself, and it was fabulous,” says John Levy, who founded the network and is still chairman and chief executive officer. “He is authentic. He tells it like it is. That is what great broadcasters do. You can’t be a phony. People see through it.”

One day over lunch Friedman confessed to Levy that he had a greater ambition.

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“He told me, ‘John, I love it here, but if I got an offer to work for CBC on Hockey Night in Canada I would take it,’ ” Levy recalls. “I said I didn’t want him to leave, but if he ever got that opportunity I would kick his butt out the door so he could do it.”

In 2003, Friedman got the chance and jumped to the CBC. He started as a reporter on Hockey Night in Canada, served as a studio host during Raptors and CFL games and helped with Olympic coverage.

After Rogers Media acquired the exclusive rights to NHL games in 2014, Friedman accepted a role as Sportsnet’s senior reporter on Hockey Night in Canada.

“He is extremely credible and someone viewers trust,” says Rob Corte, the show’s executive producer. “When he tells them something, they know it is true. Being an insider is a very tough job. It’s 24/7, and there is a constant pressure to be first.”

Pierre LeBrun, who fills a similar position for TSN, broke into the business at the same time as Friedman. They worked together at theScore.

“We remain friends, but we are also competitors,” says LeBrun, who spent 13 years as the hockey writer for The Canadian Press before moving to TV. “I have always had a huge amount of respect for what Elliotte does and how he does it.”

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Millions follow a handful of the most respected hockey insiders across different platforms. Over several decades, Bob McKenzie of TSN, who is now semi-retired, developed the largest following, 1.6 million, on Twitter. Combined, McKenzie, TSN’s Darren Dreger and James Duthie, LeBrun, Friedman and Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, have just shy of five million followers.

Friedman has more than 585,000, which, by comparison, is 200,000 more than Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.

“I spend less time thinking about the scoops that I have had than I do the ones someone else has gotten,” Friedman says. “You are only as good as your last broadcast.”

On Saturday afternoons, Friedman pores over his phone and walks circles around the 10th-floor atrium at CBC’s headquarters in downtown Toronto. He is constantly mining for details to share on the air. Even during a telecast, off camera he taps on his phone with his left hand seeing if there is anything new to report.

“He is probably the hardest-working person in the business,” says Cassie Campbell-Pascall, the former Olympian who serves as a panelist on Hockey Night in Canada. “I lean on him all the time. He is the conscience of our show.”

Without fail, Friedman is last to arrive on the set.

“He is always late, pacing around and talking on the phone,” says Brian Burke, the former Sportsnet analyst who is now president of hockey operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s crazy the stuff he finds out.”

In 2011, when Burke was general manager of the Maple Leafs, he and Friedman butted heads. At the time, a journalist had reached out to the mother of James Reimer, the Toronto goalie, and talked to her about concerns she had for her son’s health.

Burke was enraged. Friedman felt the sportswriter had not overstepped a line and defended him. Burke did not speak to Friedman for a year.

“We have generally had a friendly relationship, but sometimes it becomes adversarial,” Friedman says. “It’s not anyone’s fault. When it’s over, it’s over.”

‘The rewards are high but so are the risks’

In 2016, Elliotte Friedman was assigned by the CBC to cover swimming at the Rio Olympics after another sportscaster fell ill.

While calling the 200-metre individual medley final, he accidentally declared Ryan Lochte the winner rather than his fellow American, Michael Phelps. Friedman realized his error immediately and apologized, but it was too late.

He was criticized for the mistake and lambasted on social media, but it could have been worse.

“The general public was unbelievable to me,” Friedman says. “I have seen people make mistakes that were nowhere near as egregious and they got dragged through Twitter worse than I did. The vast majority of people were very gracious, and I haven’t forgotten that.”

Friedman was tougher on himself than anyone.

“It took me three years to stop torturing myself on a daily basis,” he says. “Whenever I get asked about it, or I speak to young journalists, I say, ‘You know the rules going in.’ The rewards are high but so are the risks.

“The thing that bothered me the most is that it should never have happened. I make no excuses.”

His biggest worry was how the backlash would affect his family.

“In that moment, I felt I had let down the CBC, let down my co-workers and let down the viewers, but the biggest gut punch came when I thought about the effect it could have on my family,” he says. “You know everything that affects you, affects them. That was what got to me.”

Friedman and Stephanie have been married 11 years. They have a nine-year-old son named Max, who has autism.

To recognize that, Friedman wears a blue-and-white lapel pin during Hockey Night in Canada telecasts to create awareness about the developmental disorder that causes cognitive, communicative and social challenges.

“We like to keep things private, but I am very proud of my family,” he says. “They probably don’t need me to protect them but I do.”

When faced with challenges, Friedman draws inspiration from his grandparents, who were from Poland and survived the Holocaust. Like so many others, they had family members who didn’t.

His grandmother, Mania Bodner, grew up in Oswiecim, which was near the Auschwitz concentration camp. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 19 and imprisoned in the camp. She married while captive there, but her husband didn’t make it. In January of 1945, she was among a group of prisoners who were taken to Bergen-Belsen, another internment facility. Part of the nearly 700-kilometre trip was by train; the rest by foot. Those who could not march any longer were executed.

His grandfather, Moishe Yaakov Kujawski, had a wife and two-year-old daughter, both of whom were murdered by Nazis. He met Mania at Bergen-Belsen. They married, and came to Canada after the Second World War.

Before she died in 2012, Mania told Elliotte, “Please don’t ever forget me.”

There is not a chance.

“My grandparents had every reason to be bitter and angry and refused,” Friedman says. “They laughed. They loved. They did everything they could to enjoy life. They didn’t let what happened define them.

“Whenever I face challenges, I think about how they would have approached them. They always found a way. What excuse do I have not to?”

‘I think about the responsibility that comes with my job’

Elliotte Friedman kept all of the rejection letters he received from employers who turned him down when he was trying to break into the business. He used to reread them whenever he felt he was getting a big head.

“When I think about great things that have happened to me, I don’t think about the events I have covered but about family stuff and the moments I have shared with the people I work with,” he says. “And I think about the responsibility that comes with my job all the time. I have been wrong about things before, and it sucks.

“Before you report something, the biggest question you ask is, ‘Are you sure? Can you prove it?’ You don’t want to be wrong.”

His beard is gone, but recently Friedman took to wearing a turtleneck as part of a Twitter challenge from Caroline Cameron, who often wears one on the set.

“I was watching Hockey Night in Canada one night and innocently tweeted that it could become Elliotte’s new look,” she says. “But I never actually thought he would do it.”

He did, and viewers loved it. They bombarded him with photographs of Ron Burgundy, the fictional TV anchorman played by Will Ferrell.

For now, the turtleneck is in storage.

“It may return,” Friedman says. “If it is up to me, it will at some point.”

On Hockey Night in Canada, he is not the host or anchorman. He is more.

“It used to be that storytellers were critical to our history,” MacLean says. “Then the camera came around, and it became a storyteller. But a camera can’t tell a story by itself. I think Elliotte represents the ingredients of the storyteller today.

“He is a throwback.”

He is MacLean’s spiritual successor if nothing else.

“We have a game we love, and people we love in our care,” MacLean says. “Elliotte’s deference and listening ability is one of his great gifts. It would be nice to have someone with his sensibilities in that chair.”

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