A Conversation With the Voice of Hockey Night in Canada: Jim Hughson


This is a guest post by Liam Porter, who approached me recently after he had been fortunate enough to get to speak to the voice of Hockey Night in Canada, Jim Hughson, about a multitude of different topics. Their discussion ranged from how he got into broadcasting, to his most memorable calls, to what Hockey Night in Canada will look like under the new TV deal.

Most importantly for our purposes, though, he got to get the former Canucks play-by-play man’s thoughts on where the team stands right now, and how he feels about analytical analysis when it comes to hockey. I think you guys will really enjoy this one. Read on for the transcript of the interview.

Liam Porter: I read that you wanted to be an actor growing up, rather than a sports broadcaster. Is that true?

Jim Hughson: Well, I wasn’t entirely sure. I had been very active in community theatre and in the theatre in high school, so when I went to the University of Victoria I got into the fine arts department and was in the theatre department. And I really enjoyed that and thought that might be the direction I would go. But I wasn’t really sure, I mean, I was your age, I was 19 and not sure about what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved doing plays and acting and that sort of thing.

It didn’t take me long in University for me to realize that the University of Victoria wasn’t going to pay me very much, and I liked the idea of having a job. I’d been working part-time at the local radio station in my hometown of Fort St. John during high school, and we did radio plays and things like that, and because of that I was offered a weekend job reading the news and doing the weather and being a DJ; it was a part-time job at a radio station.

I worked there for the summer after I graduated from high school and went off to University and after I’d been at University for a while I thought, “Jeez, I kind of liked what I was doing back home at the radio station, and it paid better than school,” so I went back there and went to work. And that’s sort of where I started. I didn’t go back to necessarily work in sports or broadcast hockey games, but I went back to work in the media.

LP: One of your first co-workers at CKNW was Jim Robson. How did he influence your approach to play-by-play and how much of a role did he play in mentoring you as a broadcaster?

JH: Well, never really as an actual teacher, but because his presence was there, and he did have an effect. When I left University and went back to work at the radio station in Fort St. John – that’s way up in Northern British Columbia – they carried the Vancouver Canucks hockey games. And so one of my jobs, sometimes, was during the evening when the Canuck game was on, I would have to listen to the feed that we would get from Vancouver of the game and I’d plug in the local commercials for the game, and so I was just a monitor and a technician. So I listened to Jim every night, and was therefore very familiar with his call.

I moved around quite a bit before I actually got to CKNW; I worked in several different small radio stations in Penticton, in Kelowna, and I went off for a while to Brandon, Manitoba for a year before I actually worked at CKNW. After I’d been at CKNW in Vancouver for about a year, one of the jobs that came open was when Jim Robson would broadcast Hockey Night In Canada games on television on Saturdays, they needed somebody to fill in on the radio. And I got that job. So I’d get about 15 or 20 games a year, and that really created an appetite for what I wanted to do.

In a way to answer your question, Jim was always there and was very open and a good friend, but never really as a professor or a mentor or the teacher as we would know it. But just simply by watching him all the time, being allowed to be around him and watch him work, he taught me an awful lot about how to prepare and how to be ready and what kind of things you had to do to be in the business.

LP: In your career, what do you think is the most memorable game or series of games that you’ve called?

JH: I still think they come all the time. I don’t spend an awful lot of time looking in the rearview mirror. I’ve had the opportunity to do some terrific games, some really memorable events and series, and I always think the best one is still around the corner.

The World Junior Championships in 1991 in Saskatoon was a watermark series in that it was the first time all the games were on TV on TSN, where I worked at the time. The WJHC hadn’t become as big a deal as it is now; we didn’t put all the games on television before. That was the first year that we decided that it would be a good idea to make the Junior Championships a big deal and put all the games on TV. Since then, it’s become a huge TV event, as you know.

And that was the first year that Canada beat Russia, the Eric Lindros year, and John Slaney scored the winning goal to beat Russia 3-2 in the last game, so that was a huge game.

The 2011 playoffs, when Vancouver played Boston in the Stanley Cup Final. It was just a terrific run to watch. And just terrific to be in the City of Vancouver while that was going on, and watch the reaction and how passionate people were for the game. Despite what happened at the end of it, it was big.

And every year, the Stanley Cup Final. I think that the quality of the games in the SCF in 2013 between Chicago and Boston was as high as I’ve ever seen. Game 4, which was a 6-5 overtime Chicago win with Brent Seabrook scoring the winner, was maybe the best playoff game I’ve ever watched.

The game is evolving, the game is so good, and I think that just around the corner the next “best game I’ve ever seen” is right there.

LP: Just referring to 2011, I almost associate your voice with that run. Whenever I hear a Canucks game now and you’re calling it, it brings back memories of that run and how much of an emotional roller coaster it was.

JH: I think more than that it sort of transcended the game. If you were in Vancouver, and part of the city, and how excited it was about those games, it was fantastic to see. Everything, for that whole springtime, in the City of Vancouver, revolved around where you were going to be for the next game, who you were going to be with; people scrambled to get things done on the off-day so they could be ready to get off work early and make sure, that if the game was in the East, that they’d be off in time to watch it. It’s what everybody talked about; it’s what made the city tick for like two straight months.

 And so it’s no wonder that at the end of it, despite the disappointment, there was just a complete and utter exhaustion in the city over what had happened because people had invested so much passion into two months. It speaks volumes about how Canadians feel about hockey.

LP: What’s your take on the usefulness of advanced statistics in hockey?

JH: I wrestle with them. And I am not opposed to looking at them. I’ve long watched the game differently as a play-by-play guy: I watch matchups, I watch who plays against whom, so I look at the game a little differently than some guys do in my profession. But, I’ve taken all the advanced stats that I look at, and there are some interesting ones, but they haven’t grasped me around the throat and said, “this is telling me something I can’t see.”

I find that, yes, Corsi and Fenwick and five on five deployment and the different things like that, I look at closely. They just confirm what I can see. If you’re really watching the game and you watch the matchups, you can see which player’s in trouble, which is having a good game, and which teams are getting away with something.

The one team that we talk about more than any team in the league, this spring, and because it’s come up a lot, and because there’s a lot of people in Toronto using these stats, are the Maple Leafs. Last season, the advanced stats people said they were getting away with something that they shouldn’t be, you know, they’re outshot constantly, they’re playing way too much in their own end, they don’t have the puck enough, and the possession stats show that. But they flat-out won. And I don’t think you ever have to apologize for winning, or apologize for having a good goaltender.

So, I look at the games, and even this year, without looking at any of those advanced stats, I could’ve told you in a conversation that the Leafs are playing with fire. They’re winning, but they’re getting some timely scoring, they’re getting great goaltending, and this is going to catch up to them. And it has. And I don’t think statistically you needed to see that.

There are some interesting things to look at in there; buried in some of those statistics you can find a gem every once in a while. It’s all fine. If you’re a hockey fan and you want to use advanced statistics, that’s great. They really don’t tell me anything I can’t see though.

LP: I find they (when I say they, I mean shot-attempt numbers and PDO) do hold a lot of predictive value, but at the same time you can’t rely on them completely because they haven’t exactly been perfected yet.

JH: Well, here’s the other thing too. The advanced statistics people are relying on some of the stats coming out of the buildings, from the National Hockey League statistics, and I think those vary wildly from building to building. For example, I’ll see a game after the first period, and the statistics from the actual building, the NHL statistics people will come to me and they’ll say the Toronto Maple Leafs, to use one team as an example, had four giveaways in the first period. And I’ll look at my partner and say, “are you kidding me? I saw four giveaways on one shift! There was about twenty in the first period, they turned the puck over like crazy!” And so they’re not always completely accurate. I think the advanced stats people use those stats to build theirs on. So, they’re not entirely reliable.

But, you know what, here’s one of the things that I do appreciate, is the fact that people care. That they’re watching the game, and that they’re passionately involved in the stuff. It’s not a bad thing that they want to apply some of these stats to the game. I look at them, I watch them, and I’ll look at somebodies Corsi for a night and I’ll say, you know what, Jake Gardiner had a great night, for example, against Chicago. I’ll look at his stats, and the advanced stats will confirm that. Not a bad thing. I don’t want to completely kybosh them and say they’re a bad thing because they are not. It’s passionate people about the game trying to apply a new wave of statistic and that’s completely ok. It’s like all statistics, whether they’re advanced or whether they’re not advanced, you apply them to the game based on what you see. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to watch the game to determine how they played.

LP: My follow-up to that would be: have you ever tried to implement an advanced stats discussion into a broadcast?

JH: Yes we have. And we do, on occasion, but I don’t like to beat people over the head with it. I don’t even use as many of the statistics that we have readily available to us nearly as much as I used to, because I just think that, you know, for most of us who are watching the game, that are fans of the game, we’re thinking “let’s see the game, don’t overload me with stats. Don’t try to impress me just because you know stats.”

If there are some that are really impressive, yes, we’ll do graphics and we’ll do shot attempts for and against, and we’ll do that quite often. We just don’t call them Corsi. We don’t subtract blocked shots and call it Fenwick. We’ll use some of those, but I think, especially on a night like Saturday night, on Hockey Night in Canada, where we have some of the best die-hard fans in the world, we also have a huge number of fans that are on the periphery that watch HNIC because it’s a Canadian tradition on a Saturday night, and they may not be the most hardcore fans.

They’re watching because their family is watching, they’re watching because everybody else is watching, so I don’t want to beat people over the head with that. You want to make it an entertaining experience, and let the game tell the story, and the pictures tell the story, as opposed to just constantly rattling off stats. I find, in my position, that I want to be very careful that I don’t sort of become too statistical for people, and speaking down to people and talking over their heads.

LP: And in the end, it’s about ratings, so if the large majority of people don’t have an interest in people rattling off topics that they’ve never even heard of, then, that’s completely fine.

JH: And that’s a good point too, for a lot of those people, they’ve never heard of it, it’s not relevant to them, they’re just watching the game. But, you know what, I think you sort of have to meet in the middle. There are a lot of really good, hardcore fans that are watching the game that are real fans of the team that appreciate some of those stats, so you have to try and do a little bit for everybody, but not overdo it for anybody.

LP: With the new TV deal, Rogers has basically taken over creative control of Hockey Night in Canada, so how do you think that’s going to change the overall production of HNIC?

Quite honestly, I just don’t know if I could answer that. I can’t give you an answer because I don’t think anybody knows. There are very competent people at Rogers, they’re people I know very well. I know all the people in the industry because it’s not a huge industry in our country. So I know everybody who’s involved in hockey and hockey production. They have some very good people. But I think what they’re doing right now is probably assessing what they’ve purchased, and trying to figure out the magnitude of it, and how they’re going to deal with it. And I don’t think they’re there yet. So I just don’t know how it’s going to affect it.

I do know this, that in the production world, in terms of technical production and putting a game on the air, there’s no better show in the world than Hockey Night in Canada. Their technical people, cameramen, tape people, producers, directors, are of the highest quality in the entire world. Because we do hockey and do it at a higher level than a lot of people have. That’s not to say that other places don’t have good people, so I would hope that there’s a place in the new hockey world of Rogers for a lot of those people, because they’re really good at what they do.

When you’re going out to do a Stanley Cup Final, or one of the big Winter Games, those are really complicated shoots, that are hard to produce, that involve dozens and dozens of cameras to make sure that everything looks good and nothing is missed; they’re not easy to do. And there’s a lot of people that have been involved for a long time, at HNIC, that are really experienced at it, so it would be wise to have a lot of those people involved. But, I can’t speak for the people who have purchased all the rights, and its such a recent thing that it’s really hard to tell which direction it’s going.

LP: So now just a general shift to more Canucks related topics, do you still see them as an elite team in the Western Conference, and one that can compete for the Cup?

JH: I see them as getting back there. I didn’t for a while early this season, or for the last couple of years. I think they just took a fall off. It was almost like you could draw a parallel to what happened in the city after the 2011 Stanley Cup Final when they lost, and the riot; it was so disappointing to everyone. There seemed to just be an absolute exhaustion among the fan base, and a bit of an apathy. It was really hard for people to get up off the mat and invest passion in hockey again starting in the 11-12 season. And it looked to me like the team felt the same way. They just never really got back to the level of play that they were at.

And recently, I’ve seen them get back there. And a lot of that has to do with Ryan Kesler. I think that he’s healthy again, I think he’s a player who sets the tempo of their game, dictate the way they play the game largely, and he’s playing at a level that I haven’t seen him play at in a couple of years.

They’ve also showed a little bit of depth recently that they didn’t have. So, I don’t see them right now as being the best team in the West, but at least the best team in the West is within their sight. They’ve won seven in a row right now; they’re playing pretty well. And judging by the way they’ve played their last couple of games, I think they’re back to playing the game the way they did a couple of years ago. If the depth that they’re starting to show holds for them, then they’ve got a chance to be a really good team. They can beat, probably, just about anybody in the West. The goaltending’s great, they’ve got a really good, stout defense, and they’re gaining some depth up front.

So I think they’re getting back to where they were after a couple of years away from it.

LP: And obviously, they’re going to have to add pieces in order to be considered a true contender, so is there any one specific player you’d like them to target at the trade deadline?

JH: You never know. It’s so hard to do right now because the reality of it is as much as you would like to live in a fantasy world where you could pick a player and add any player, the fact of the matter is there are half the teams in the league in a position where they have twelve cents to spend on the cap, and that’s it. There’s no way to add unless you make a deal where you take money off your roster and add the same amount, or you have somebody that goes on the long-term injured reserve list to make space. It’s just really hard to make a deal.

But, you know, I think their defense is pretty good, and who knows what’s going to happen. There’s so much injury around the NHL right now, so many teams are crippled, and that could happen to any team at any time. But they may need a little depth up front, but their fourth line is starting to look like they can play, their third line is getting better. I still think they could use an experienced, gritty, big-bodied forward that could help them on the second or third line, but I’m not sure that they’re going to find him.

And the reality of the NHL is that the player that every team thinks it needs is not available.

LP: My last question for you is a hypothetical: if you were Mike Gillis, and Francesco Aquilini gave you the money to buyout Roberto Luongo at the end of the year, would you do it?

JH: Not the way he’s playing right now. I don’t think you could answer that question definitively, like, right now he’s right back on top of his game. He’s typically a slow starter; he was good in October, he was better in November, and he’s been great in December. I think he’s going back to the Olympics.

So, the variables are, does he want to stay here? Does he want them to trade him? Or, does he want to stay and finish his career as a Vancouver Canuck? That’s a conversation they have to have.

If he wants to stay, I just don’t see a lot of holes in his game right now. I think the biggest mistake they made was changing their mind when they signed him long- term, and had Cory Schneider as his backup, they had an opportunity to trade Cory for more than what they got from New Jersey, which was a first round pick. They probably should be playing with a really good player in their lineup that came from Cory Schneider.

But they changed their mind. They decided that Cory was going to be their number one, and in my opinion they messed everything up. And then they changed their mind back when they realized that they couldn’t move Luongo anyway, made the Schneider deal, and finally Roberto seems comfortable again.

So I don’t think I would entertain that [a buyout]. And then the other variable is, Eddie Lack looks like he’s a really good goaltender. If he emerged over the back half of the season as a terrific goaltender that you wanted to live with for the rest of your life, then you maybe entertain that. But I don’t think he’s going to play enough to really determine that.