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Five Questions With...

Five Questions with Jim Hughson

'HNIC' broadcaster discusses calling games with no fans, Foster Hewitt Award celebration

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With ..." runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Jim Hughson, the play-by-play voice of "Hockey Night in Canada." Hughson has been calling NHL games since the 1980s when he worked radio broadcasts for the Vancouver Canucks. He also was the voice of the Toronto Maple Leafs and worked for TSN and Sportsnet before CBC hired him for "Hockey Night in Canada" in 2005. Hughson was named winner of the Foster Hewitt Award, presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame to members of the radio and TV industry who make outstanding contributions to their profession and the game of hockey, in 2019.

Jim Hughson says working the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is the most unusual assignment of his career.

The lead play-by-play voice for "Hockey Night in Canada" has broadcasted regular-season games, playoff games, Olympic hockey and even Major League Baseball games over the years but nothing that matches this postseason, which followed the pause of the regular season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

"It is certainly the most unique event, just because there's nobody in the arena," said Hughson, who called games at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the Eastern Conference hub city, before moving last week to Rogers Place in Edmonton for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final. "It ranks right at the top of things that are unusual in your life."

The 63-year-old from Fort St. John, British Columbia, said the playoffs and Final are normally the most enjoyable time of the season because of the buzz inside and outside of arenas, and the outpouring of joy from the winners, their families and their fans.

There is a different vibe this season, Hughson said.

"I have great admiration for the players because they're going to pull this off and somebody's going to win the Stanley Cup and it's going to be completely legitimate," he said. "I fully understand now what these guys have to go through and how long it takes and how hard it is for them to win a Stanley Cup. There are things that are missing but what is good is the level of play and I guess I'd sum it up by saying I hope we never have to do this again. But I think this is going to be an incredible Stanley Cup to win, maybe one of the most memorable ever just because of the way it's been pulled off."

Before the playoffs started, Hughson said he was expecting the unusual. That hit home for him quickly when he discovered his own game-day uniform, a suit and tie, was not going to be enough in Scotiabank Arena and Rogers Place.

"Best summer purchase of 2020 was a winter coat," he said. "It was so cold in Toronto in the building that after the first game we did, I realized that I wasn't warm enough sitting there in a suit jacket. Then I got to Edmonton and realized the building was even colder. So, second-best purchase I was able to find there in September was long johns. I am bundled up like I'm going skiing. Those items have been complete game-changers inside the rink."

Here are Five Questions with ... Jim Hughson:


How is this working out, that you're calling games in the arena but you're not inside the NHL bubble?

"I felt like I didn't need to be in the bubble and when it became obvious that the NHL would allow us to work without being in the bubble, I still knew that I could have Zoom contact and we could ask questions and get answers when we needed them so I just felt like I was better to be outside of the bubble because there are so many hours. Even though you're doing a game every day and we were for a long time and sometimes two a day, the day stretches out and is so long that I felt it would be important to be able to go out for a walk, to be able to go for a run and get some exercise, to be in the fresh air more and to have some freedom. You give up a little of the personal contact you might have with the players or coaches in the bubble but you don't end up having that much anyway. There are five categories of security with No. 1 being in the bubble and we are No. 5, so have no contact with the other four, but we get our temperature checked and a questionnaire every day, go into the rink with a mask on, sit down at our work place, do the game and get out."


What's the challenge to call games with no fans, no fan noise?

"It's just different. One of the great exciting things about calling the NHL's playoffs is being in the different cities and watching what happens, as much inside the rink as outside. You know, what's happened the last few years with all the viewing parties and 20,000 people inside a building and there might be 20,000 outside enjoying the atmosphere, the excitement of the playoffs. That's all gone. So, like the players, you have to manufacture your own energy, manufacture your excitement for the game. I applaud the players for how hard they worked to be ready for this because the games are really good, really competitive. And once the game is on, it takes a TV timeout or an intermission for me to realize there's nobody there. Because once the game is on and you're concentrating on what's going on at the benches and what's going on on the ice and how competitive they are, I've found as the games have gone on, about 40 games now, for the most part I don't notice that there's nobody there anymore. I've got a little of that fake crowd noise in my headset, which helps the atmosphere a little bit, but it's just every once in a while when I sit back in the intermission and look around and think, 'Wow, there's only five of us in this building.'"


What or who has impressed you in these playoffs?

"The level of play, of course, and there have been some young players we knew were good but just didn't realize how fantastic they are, what great stars they are. (Tampa Bay Lightning forward) Brayden Point comes to mind. This has been an emergence that gone to another level, what a good player he is. It is a young man's league, but new stars, guys like Miro Heiskanen, Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz with [the Dallas Stars]. You kind of knew they were good but then you see them on a regular basis in this environment with so much at stake and they're fantastic. (New York Islanders forward) Mathew Barzal also comes to mind. He's been terrific. And that the players have been able to get to the level that I think is equal to what would be a level in normal playoffs."


What did you do during pause?

"I have a home in the Okanagan Valley (of British Columbia) so just went there and quarantined basically. When the pause hit, I did the last game in Edmonton against Winnipeg and that was one of the most surreal games I've ever done. I knew when I went over the rink that this was going to be it. I can remember saying at the outset of the game, 'Enjoy the atmosphere because we're not sure how long this is going to last.' And sure enough... So, my wife and I went to the Okanagan. We're empty nesters; our kids are older, so they don't live with us. We just hung out. I rode my bike, ran on the old rail trail, golfed three times a week and waited and watched. And it was a perfect place to be because social distancing there is not an option, it just happens. I was like everybody else, not sure in the beginning if they could pull this off but as it got closer and closer, realized by the end of July we'd be going to work and I was fascinated by it and still am. It's amazing they're going to pull this off."


Some months after, how do you reflect on winning the Foster Hewitt Award in 2019?

"Very humbled by that whole experience because I would say I don't do me very well. I'd rather not talk about those sorts of things but when I look back on it now, I guess the coolest thing was that it was such a fabulous time for family and friends. We had an event the night before the actual Hall of Fame presentations that we organized at a local bar and grille in downtown Toronto and had a room full of people that I'd worked with through my entire career, all of my family, my wife's family and people I'd worked with, some that I hadn't worked with for 25 years. We all got together and it wasn't so much a celebration of me but a celebration of us and all the things we'd done together. When I reflect about the Foster Hewitt Award, that's what I think about, the fantastic opportunities I've had and the people that have been with me along the way, enjoying those opportunities. That was fantastic to get all those people together again because it may not happen again. A great celebration of a life in the industry but seen through other people's eyes. To accept the award was like accepting it on behalf of a million people I've worked with along the way."

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