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You would be forgiven for thinking that Paul Bissonnette, loud, outspoken, occasionally obscene, is just another retired hockey jock. But underneath the battered exterior is a serious business professional who has reinvented himself. In Phoenix and Toronto, Jamie Ross spoke to a man with big plans for hockey, a former tough guy who may be the most influential person in the game

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Paul Bissonnette slides into the booth at his favourite Phoenix steakhouse and spots two Arizona Coyotes players eating across the dining room.

“Be right back,” he says, hustling across the restaurant.

And just like that, less than 60 seconds into our first formal interview, I’ve lost him. This would happen again and again over the next few days.

He returns after a few minutes. The men, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the team’s captain and Bissonnette’s former roommate, and Clayton Keller, were getting their protein on the eve of a game against the Calgary Flames.

Bissonnette, a former Coyote now employed by the team, stopped by as a courtesy. The pair returned the gesture on their way out.

As he settles back into our booth, Bissonnette empties his pockets: wallet, keys, phone and a clear, pinky-finger-sized plastic cylinder spill out onto the table.

The restaurant’s floor manager swings by to say hello. As a regular customer at nightlife spots around Phoenix, Bissonnette is a familiar figure.

Small talk gives way to hockey talk and the conversation ends as so many others do: With an offer of free tickets to a Coyotes game.

Our waitress also recognizes Bissonnette and they gab like old pals. Before long she, too, is offered Coyotes tickets.

“I’m explaining hockey to Arizona,” Bissonnette says. The NHL franchise in Phoenix had been moved there from Winnipeg and has faced instability off and on since relocating to the desert nearly 25 years ago. It has long trailed the Cardinals, Suns and Diamondbacks in the city’s public consciousness. Bissonnette is trying to change that.

He’s perfect for the job, his first in what has become a string of high-profile assignments in the hockey world after he retired in 2016.

Paul Bissonnette shows off the fists that helped him rack up 340 penalty minutes over 202 NHL games.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

As an enforcer in his playing days, his fists were his money-maker.

Now 34 and host of the wildly successful hockey podcast Spittin’ Chiclets, his mouth pays the bills and then some.

Bissonnette, who works as a radio analyst and community ambassador for the Coyotes, may be the most influential man in hockey. He has become the guy hockey guys call, text and want to hang out with. The NHL and blue-chip companies realize his reach is enormous and are along for the ride. Bissonnette is a bigger star in retirement than he was as a player. When he talks, people listen.

As he devours his order – filet mignon cooked to medium with two salad appetizers – Bissonnette’s frenetic mind jumps from one subject to the next: hockey, politics, sex, hockey. When I ask if we can dig into an interview, he demurs. There’s lots of time. We can get to the questions in my notebook later.

“We have a big few days ahead,” he says.

Unlike many professional athletes, Bissonnette’s rise to fame did not come from extraordinary accomplishments as a player. He skated in 202 NHL games, accumulating more splinters in his rear than time on the ice in six seasons.

Nor was he invented by a marketing firm or ad agency.

It was a simple calculus conceived by Bissonnette himself. He took an embellished version of his own personality, named it BizNasty (a nickname first coined for him by a minor-league teammate) and put it online.

In 2009, most players didn’t use social media, but Bissonnette saw opportunity in offering fans a peek behind hockey’s curtain. He started sharing the workaday comings and goings of NHL life on Twitter and mixed in his own commentary.

There was a hole in the marketplace and he filled it with photos of his teammates, sex jokes and Speedo selfies. His following exploded. If a standard NHL interview was the sports equivalent of Coronation Street, Bissonnette became the Real Housewives.

“So loud and obnoxious. Calling himself ‘BizNasty.’ What an idiot,” recalls Ryan Whitney, the former NHL defenceman who first encountered Bissonnette when they attended the Penguins training camp. “But you know what? He grows on you and pretty soon everyone saw it.”

But not right away. There were problems with Bissonnette’s newfound fame. In reaching for humour, he sometimes crossed the line.

He deleted his account after calling the Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk a “communist” and suggesting he go back to the “Soviet” when Kovalchuk’s mammoth contract with the New Jersey Devils was rejected by the league in 2010.

In 2011, he shared a picture of a teammate wearing a Jay-Z costume in blackface. He later apologized. “I didn’t understand it at the time,” he says.

He once found himself in the dog house after he made a crude comment about a hotel in Winnipeg that sold $9 bottles of water. The manager threatened to kick out the Coyotes’ entire team.

Bissonnette ditched his account again in 2016 at the request of the Los Angeles Kings, who signed him to a minor-league deal on the condition he stay off Twitter.

It wasn’t until he retired that he was free to realize his online potential.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Bissonnette is a book so open he doesn’t have covers or binding. It makes it difficult to unearth parts of his life and personality he has not already shared with anyone who will listen.

“He’s telling you flat out exactly how he lives his life," says Whitney, one of his co-hosts on Spittin’ Chiclets. "And so many people respect that when they meet him. You can ask him anything in the world. He will talk to anyone about anything, nothing’s off limits.”

Not even his own dirty laundry. Bissonnette once told a tale about an “accident” he had in his pants in an airport bathroom while running to catch a flight, ruining new Lululemon underwear. The apparel company later gave him a tour of its facilities and some freebies.

Into episodes of Spittin’ Chiclets he tucks stories about sex and past drug use so lewd Howard Stern would blush. None can be retold here.

“I lay it all out there because those are the things I find funny,” Bissonnette says. “It’s sex. Who cares? I’ll tell stories about when I had a bad performance. We’ve all been there. We’ve all done that.”

Not even his sordid and scatological stories have deterred brands such as American Express and Budweiser Canada from partnering with Bissonnette. No fewer than a dozen companies, charities, leagues and teams worked with him last year to produce content or push their products or services.

Even the NHL, not known for taking chances, has recognized Bissonnette’s appeal, albeit a toned-down version. He has hosted and produced several social-media video series and appeared in league training materials to teach rookie players how to use – and not use – social media.

Heidi Browning, the NHL’s executive vice-president and chief marketing officer, considers herself a fan of Spittin’ Chiclets and Paul Bissonnette, but is quick to distance the league’s association with the type of NSFW content he shares on the podcast.

"That’s definitely a concern,” Browning says. “We’re really focused on what we create with Paul for our channels. Content and conversation [that] we can control through creative approval.”

Bissonnette has proved amorphous enough to assuage more family friendly brands such as Road Hockey to Cure Cancer and the NHL, while maintaining sufficient grit to entertain the type of hockey bros who like to mouth off online and fans who want to keep fighting in the game.

“As a result of his hard work and his personality, he’s helping us grow the game,” Browning says. “We’re growing the game through the NHL channels and he’s growing the game off our NHL channels.”

It’s a half hour since we left the steakhouse and we’re walking across a dark, empty parking lot toward an Old Town Scottsdale bar. Bissonnette is telling the story of how he hooked Sidney Crosby for Spittin’ Chiclets.

He and his showmates had travelled to Nova Scotia last summer and gained unprecedented access to the elusive Pittsburgh Penguins captain. Their trip included an hour-long sit-down interview and an on-camera round of golf with Crosby and Colorado Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon.

Getting Crosby to agree to an interview wasn’t complicated. The show had a good reputation with NHLers. Bissonnette and Whitney both played with Crosby on the Penguins. They asked and he said yes.

But he wasn’t keen on doing an on-camera “content piece” (one of Bissonnette’s favourite terms) and suggested killing the idea of filming their golf round, a match play between Whitney-Bissonnette and MacKinnon-Crosby.

“But he didn’t say no,” Bissonnette recalls.

Once they got him on the course, Crosby loosened up.

They ended up filming a 17-minute segment, sold sponsor rights to CCM and posted it to YouTube, where it’s approaching one million views.

“I may have put him in an uncomfortable position, but he knows he can trust me,” Bissonnette says of Crosby. “He knows how I’m going to make him look.”

To that point, the podcast had been enjoying a steady rise in popularity since Bissonnette joined as a co-host in the 2017-18 season.

The Crosby interview pushed them over the top.

Spittin’ Chiclets, produced by the fratty sports and pop-culture site Barstool Sports, began as a living-room operation with Whitney and co-host Brian (RA) McGonagle. Early on, it accrued an audience of roughly 60,000.

Now, it reaches about a half million people each episode, Bissonnette says. Those numbers can’t be verified, but the show regularly ranks among the top five weekly most-listened-to podcasts in Canada on iTunes, often trailing only The Joe Rogan Experience.

“Now that we’ve had Sid and Nate, everyone is available,” Bissonnette says. “It was a monumental stepping stone.”

He ends the story as we approach Coach House, a Christmas-themed dive that’s busy for a Monday night.

He takes from his pocket that translucent cylinder he’d been playing with at the restaurant, pops the top and produces a single joint.

Bissonnette, right, fights Tim Jackman of the Calgary Flames during a pre-season game in 2013.The Canadian Press

Now that he’s good and high, Bissonnette turns to another favourite topic: cannabis.

The first time we met, at a diner in Toronto, he stepped out midway through breakfast to smoke up ahead of a business call. He said it helps focus his ideas during a brainstorm.

This time he’s using it to relax.

“It helps me socialize,” he says. “When I’m walking into a place where I know I’m going to have to talk and be Biz, it gets me in the right mindset.”

The bar is a neon hellscape of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling Christmas lights, tacky ornaments and inflatable reindeer hanging from the rafters. Like a Christmas market on acid.

Everyone watches Bissonnette stroll across the room. Women openly stare.

“They probably know me from the podcast,” he says.

Some older fans recognize him as the former Coyotes forward and enforcer, which was his role for 200-some games between 2008 and 2014

Younger men know him best by his internet alter-ego, BizNasty, the pro-wrestler-like persona that’s helped him grow a social-media following exceeding 1.5 million people.

A well-dressed Scottsdale restaurant owner remembers him as a former patron and for his unmistakable look: 6-foot-4, big busted nose, giant hands and sleeve tattoos.

His celebrity is extra pronounced when he’s operating inside the professional hockey bubble. People on the street in Toronto shout after him. When he appears at NHL rinks across North America, fans swarm him.

“To see him deal with so many people every single day that recognize him, it’s unbelievable,” Whitney says. “He gives every person there to see him attention."

Standing in black boxer briefs in the kitchen of his North Scottsdale apartment the following afternoon, Bissonnette is trying to dress for his day job, a suit-and-tie broadcasting gig for the Coyotes, but his phone won’t let him.

Text messages are piling up from people around hockey trying to make sense of this morning’s news: It’s Dec. 10, and the Dallas Stars have fired head coach Jim Montgomery for “unprofessional conduct.” Beyond a statement that he “acted contrary to core values,” the club offered no specifics.

Some reporters, chasing the story, have turned to Bissonnette. As hockey’s foremost influencer, it’s possible he’s heard.

He says he wants nothing to do with it.

“I’m not interested in getting involved in stuff about these guys’ personal lives,” he says. “I’m not interested in breaking news. I don’t want that responsibility.”

Hockey had been on high alert since Don Cherry’s “you people” Remembrance Day rant, and Akim Aliu’s revelation that he had been the target of racial slurs by former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters.

In early December, Chris Chelios, the hall-of-fame defenceman, made headlines when he appeared on the podcast and described some unkind tactics used by former Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock against Chelios and Johan Franzen while they played with the Detroit Red Wings.

The same day the Chelios episode dropped, the Blackhawks placed assistant coach Marc Crawford on leave while they reviewed his conduct with another organization. That decision, which eventually led to a suspension, was in part because of comments that former player Brent Sopel made about Crawford – who he played for in Vancouver – when he had previously appeared on the show.

In a matter of months, the Spittin’ Chiclets went from being a hardcore hockey outpost to a mainstream sports show setting the news agenda.

“We’re all listening,” Elliotte Friedman, the Sportsnet hockey insider, says. “They started to break news. If you’re covering hockey and you’re not aware of what’s going on on their podcast, you are missing something.”

As the show’s notoriety has grown, so, too, has reticence from some teams when considering requests to have players appear.

After NBC suspended (and later fired) Jeremy Roenick for joking on the show that he wanted to have sex with his colleagues, Whitney said one player backed out of an interview. He declined to say who.

Friedman said he’s aware of a club seeking reassurances from Bissonnette and Whitney that they won’t "embarrass our guy” or “cause us problems.” Guests are granted the final cut of their own interviews.

“We need to remind ourselves to stick to what we’re good at and that’s just making guys feel comfortable, laughing and having a good time,” Bissonnette says. “Because when all this stuff was going down, yeah. I was dreading getting on the podcast.”

Despite that unease, they scored another win in late January when Ron MacLean, the long-time hockey broadcaster who rode shotgun for Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada, did his first interview since Cherry’s firing in the fall.

MacLean was derided as an enabler of Cherry’s bigotry by some and criticized for throwing his running mate under the bus by others. He was turning down interview requests for months

That he granted one to Bissonnette, who had long defended MacLean, was not a surprise.

Less than 24 hours after Cherry’s rant, the two men spent a full day together for the Rogers Sunday broadcast Hometown Hockey, which took place in Bissonnette’s hometown of Welland, Ont.

“It crushed me because he was getting dragged through the mud that entire day,” he says. “Anyone who thinks there is a mean-spirited bone in his body is an imbecile.”

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Pulling up to the security gate at Gila Arena in suburban Glendale later that evening, Bissonnette rolls down his window as a smiling arena staffer checking credentials approaches the driver’s side.

This is my guy, Bissonnette says as he sticks his head out the window to greet the man.

“Hey peckerhead,” he shouts. “I’ve got something for you.”

Bissonnette reaches into the back seat and produces a bottle of Spittin’ Chiclets-branded, pink-lemonade-flavoured vodka and hands it through the window. He is waved through.

A pair of Glendale police officers working security witness the handoff and approach the vehicle as Bissonnette parks. They also get bottles of vodka.

So does everyone else between the arena entrance and the press box, until all 12 bottles have been handed out to rink workers, security staff and seat ushers.

Those who miss out settle for a high-five or fist-bump.

Bissonnette is always hawking products and dishing out freebies from companies he’s in business with. Today it’s vodka, tomorrow it could be sugar-free candy, CBD oil or detox-hangover pills.

“When he comes in, it’s like Christmas, he’s always got something for someone,” says Bob Heethuis, the Coyotes play-by-play radio broadcaster and Bissonnette’s seatmate in the booth.

After eating dinner – a whole organic avocado and a dry piece of chicken parmigiana – and a quick chat with Flames general manager Brad Treliving, it’s time to go.

Bissonnette rushes up to the middle concourse for a pre-game TV hit at the Fox studio with former Coyotes forward Tyson Nash.

Then he’s back to the press box for puck drop. For the next three periods he works his radio role alongside Heethuis. He films another TV hit at each intermission, sprinting from one commitment to another.

“He can be a handful,” said one staff member, who recently joined the Coyotes video team. “He doesn’t stop.”

When people want BizNasty, that’s what they get: a confident, boisterous and friendly giant with a personality equal to his 6-foot-4, 200-pound-plus frame.

To witness all his crowd pleasing and picture taking, you’d think it comes easy. But occasional darkness clouds what should be Bissonnette’s brightest mornings.

They last four or five days at a time. What he describes as a “foggy brain.” On those days, he can’t think as clearly or make decisions. Words don’t come easily. His body aches. He believes his symptoms are a result of many years playing hockey.

Bissonnette does not use prescription drugs, but he follows a self-medicating routine that includes ingesting CBD oil, marijuana or psilocybin mushrooms.

He microdoses the mushrooms, which he says provide him with the mental clarity necessary to perform at his best, either on the job or interacting with fans. He eats approximately one-half of a cap before work.

“Then I’m not thinking about how I wasn’t feeling confident when I woke up,” he says. “It just makes me happier and I’m able to give people more.”

Bissonnette got serious about his mental health when his NHL career was winding down. When the Coyotes opted to not re-sign him after the 2014 season, he returned to his home in Welland to stay with his parents.

Yolande Bissonnette, Paul’s mother, remembers seeing her son crestfallen by the uncertainty of the coming season.

“I always say when Paul is smiling the whole world smiles,” Yolande says. “When Paul is not having a good day, no one is. I can say that it was not a good summer.”

He saw a psychologist, but his depression returned after he was cut by the St. Louis Blues and then by the Coyotes minor-league affiliate. His mental health did not come back around fully until retirement in 2016.

He continues to work out and stay fit, and maintains a healthy diet – low sugar, lots of protein and vegetables, which he says helps keep his mood stable.

Entering 2020, he’d resolved to give up alcohol for the year. For the first time, he was in bed before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

“Work is what makes me happy right now,” he says.

Bissonnette fights Trevor Gillies of the New York Islanders during a 2010 game.Al Bello/Getty Images

At 10 o’clock on Wednesday morning Bissonnette is rushing to prepare for the day ahead. He’s finished his breakfast of scrambled eggs and a smoothie and is about to head to the gym.

He needs to get some exercise before driving across the city to do a team MTV-cribs-style video shoot with Coyotes players Vinnie Hinostroza and Christian Dvorak. Then he’ll hustle to the local TV station to do a Coyotes segment before returning home to record the podcast in his kitchen.

“His schedule is a puzzle,” Jeff Jacobson, Bissonnette’s manager, says. “The next step for him is to get an executive assistant. He’s going to need one.”

Hockey’s most in-demand personality, Bissonnette is sought after for his access to the young male demographic, which is reflected in his massive social-media following and makes up a large portion of his podcast’s audience.

From big corporations such as Amex, Rogers, or McDonalds, to smaller outfits such as Goodfood or SmartSweets, people are throwing a lot of money at him.

“He’s a power broker,” Friedman says. “People clearly trust him. Look at what he’s doing. The podcast, the endorsements, the NHL. People like him. They trust him. They want to be associated with him.”

All that attention helped Bissonnette earn more last year than he had in any single season playing in the NHL, where his greatest payout was a reported US$750,000.

Requests for his time have become so numerous he started turning business away.

“A lot of content that athletes put out, especially in hockey, is pretty lazy. You can tell it’s an obligation,” Jacobson says. “That’s not Paul.”

Bissonnette announced his arrival with the release of his 2018 mockumentary BizNasty Does BC, a comedy-travel mashup that included cameos from Connor McDavid, Tyson Barrie and Shane Doan.

The production, filmed partially out-of-pocket by Bissonnette and filmmaker Pasha Eshghi before being purchased by Barstool, generated enough attention that NHL players are lining up to appear in a sequel.

He’s working hard now – on the podcast, the sponsor side-hustles – so he can have fun when he’s in charge 10 years from now. Or sooner. Bissonnette has big plans. He wants to turn Spittin’ Chiclets into its own hockey-media company and wants to help women’s hockey become commercially successful.

“I don’t like working for the man,” he says. “Monetizing what I’m doing now is important to give me the freedom on the whole scope of a project down the road.”

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Bissonnette hasn’t punched anyone since his last year playing professional hockey, but on a Scottsdale road later that afternoon, he’s coming around to the idea of chucking the knuckles again.

Driving from his health club to the gated-community home of Hinostroza and Dvorak, Bissonnette notices a sedan following closely.

He taps the brakes a few times to signal to the trailing car to back off. Instead, the sedan accelerates, pulls into the adjacent lane and travels parallel with Bissonnette’s Jeep SUV.

The man driving the sedan rolls down his passenger-side window, flips the bird and shouts at Bissonnette. Bissonnette responds in kind.

“Does this guy think it’s the Indy 500?” he shouts to himself.

It’s the second time in recent days Bissonnette has exhibited frustration behind the wheel. Earlier in the week, he was the guy riding someone else’s bumper as the other driver passed through a parking lot too leisurely for his liking. (The driver of that California-plated car had “probably smoked a fat one and got lost,” he said.)

The car is usually Bissonnette’s happy place. Part of the reason he loves living in Phoenix is because of the sprawl. He also likes having a year-round tan.

Aside from the occasional bout of road rage, he’s able to get a lot of thinking done behind the wheel.

From his place in North Scottsdale, it can take up to 45 minutes to get to the rink in Glendale.

He takes a lot of calls on the road. A night earlier, on the way to dinner, he was talking with a PR person from the Vegas Golden Knights about setting up an NHL First Timer video segment for a fan who’s never been to a game and the possibility of getting Knights forward Alex Tuch on the show.

Today, he is on the horn with former NHL agitator Sean Avery, who’s sent over a demo for his new podcast soliciting feedback.

It’s past lunch and Bissonnette hasn’t eaten yet. He’s been forgetting that a lot lately.

“Honestly, I’ve gotten so busy I don’t even know the day of the week most of the time,” he says.

He hangs up with Avery and makes a call to Hinostroza to push back the shoot by 30 minutes. Then he detours to a healthy eating joint he likes near Phoenix’s Arcadia neighbourhood.

When we arrive at the restaurant, Flower Child, I start hitting him with some questions. It’s my last day in town and there are a few things left to get to.

But before I can get an answer Avery’s calling and they jump back on the phone. For the next 10 minutes they gab about god knows what.

Bissonnette, multiple times, head-fakes the woman behind the counter waiting to take his order.

He continues his conversation, pacing up and down the rows of tables and chairs in the near-empty dining room.

When he finally hangs up and sits down to eat, he is served a steak salad and a beef and barley soup and I finally have his attention.

Shoot, he says. Before we start, he needs to text Whitney. After a big year for the podcast, they’re planning to get their producer Mike Grinnell a Rolex for Christmas.

“Okay, so what’s up?“ he asks, still looking at his phone.

Just one second. Raising his finger, he says he needs to send himself a reminder to contact Browning about the NHL First Timer segment. He wants to put it on her radar while the thought is fresh.

The phone goes down on the table. Finally, I have his attention.

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