David Amber does not have to dress himself, at least not at work.
As a host at “Hockey Night in Canada,” the veteran broadcaster has access to a stylist, Debra Berman, who gently guides him through his wardrobe choices before going on air. She is also there to assist his co-workers, such as intermission panelist Elliotte Friedman.
“She certainly wouldn’t trust us to do it ourselves,” said Amber. “Imagine if Elliotte was picking out her own clothes from her. What do you think would happen? I don’t think Canada is ready for that.”
As Canada prepares for the start of the NHL playoffs next week, Sportsnet’s hockey hosts, analysts and play-by-play voices are preparing to punch in for a shift that will last for two months. The job does not involve any hard physical labor — they are not saving lives — but they still have to perform on a national nightly stage for a demanding audience.
The wardrobe department, production team and late-night pizza delivery service will be on high alert as the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs each start their respective series. As the Canadian rightsholder, Sportsnet and its people will carry through until the Stanley Cup is presented.
“Essentially,” said Amber, “it’s a marathon.”
Friedman, one of the marathoners, highlighted sleep as a key to survival. It is not just the duration, but also the timing. He has a 10-year-old son, and if he decides to sleep in after getting home in the middle of the night following an overtime game, he misses the school drop off.
During the playoffs, production meetings can start as early as 3:30 pm, meaning Friedman would also miss his son at the end of the school day. “It’s just not a good thing not to see your kid for that long,” he said.
So he might get up early, then retreat for a nap before work. It is part of a lesson he learned early in his career, as a reporter following the Raptors for The FAN 590. Friedman would cover the morning shoot-around, appear on the station during the game, then head to the game and back to the station at the end of the night to prepare stories for the following morning.
Late in that season, his manager told him he sounded tired during his reports.
“I think everybody understands you can have a bad show or a bad intermission, but you have to be ‘on’ enough that you don’t have too many of those,” Friedman said. “Because if you do, then Sportsnet will go out and they’ll find somebody else.”
That would be the same at any network, he said.
“And to be honest, if I have a terrible intermission, (Kevin) Bieksa’s going to let me know about it,” he said with a laugh. “So I can’t have too many.”
Friedman also avoids playoff pizza. He will eat it during the regular season, when it lands between the first and second game of a doubleheader. With so many doubleheaders in the playoffs, it becomes a nightly temptation: “I don’t eat the pizza, because if I did, I’d be 600 pounds.”
Sportsnet host Caroline Cameron is known to bring prepared meals from home into the studio. Jennifer Botterill, the Canadian Olympic hockey champion who has become a fixture at Hockey Night, said she also tries to bring her own healthy snacks into work.
“There’s times you need the pizza — you need the extra boost,” Botterill said with a chuckle. “I also do tend to bring stuff, too, for sustainability, whether it’s some fruit or some veggies.”
Amber, who was talking while out for a walk with his dog on Friday morning, said he also tries to get to the gym or ride a bike on most days before heading into work.
“It’s a bit of a war of attrition, getting through it,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not going to complain. It’s mostly all fun, but you’ve got to be mindful of making sure your body doesn’t get away from you too badly over these next two months.”
During the games, he said the Sportsnet personalities generally watch inside a designated space filled with television screens. They monitor the games, communicate with a producer and discuss what they will cover during the next segment.
“We want it to be organic, which it is,” Amber said, “but you also want it to be organized.”
Friedman said they also tease each other: “You’re not really going to say that on air, are you?”
“I can tell you, by the late games, Kevin and Elliotte are giggling like little schoolkids by the second intermission,” said Amber. “The guys do get a little giddy at times.”
“Everybody just sort of embraces it and recognizes that, yeah, it’s a lot of time and it’s a big commitment, but I think it’s all part of the experience,” Botterill said.
The experience does come with a cost, though.
“When it’s the demands of doing something every day for two months, the idea of being able to make a spontaneous decision is gone, because your whole day is planned,” said host Jeff Marek. “And it has to be planned.”
Chris Cuthbert had a cough. It was mild but persistent during a telephone conversation on Friday and was the kind of light hack that would be an annoyance for most, but a potentially serious issue for the main play-by-play voice of Sportsnet’s playoff coverage.
His allergies have been tormenting him, and he can usually mask his cough by hitting a button that briefly mutes his microphone on the air. He chuckled: “I’ve been over-working it now for a couple of weeks.”
Cuthbert moved to Sportsnet from his long-time home at TSN two years ago for the chance to call a Stanley Cup Final. He got to call the final game last year and follows a few basic rules to make it all the way to the end.
“You’ve just got to be smart,” he said. “There’s not as many late nights as when we were younger. I’ve got an older guy’s schedule now.”
Part of that is making sure he eats before the game, rather than waiting to go out for dinner afterward, because the playoffs add an uncomfortable uncertainty about mealtime. A game that drives into triple overtime does not care if you are hungry.
“The fourth round, you know, your energy levels start to go down a bit,” said Cuthbert. “But this still beats working for a living.”
(File photo: Sergei Belski / USA Today Sports)