The Status Crow: A day spent shadowing hockey broadcaster Jeff Marek
The front entrance of Roger’s NHL on Sportsnet studios. (Hunter Crowther / The Hockey Guys)
By Hunter Crowther
Jeff Marek sits at his corner desk in Sportsnet’s NHL headquarters on the third floor of the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s offices. It’s a little after 4 o’clock. October 22. A wallet-sized photo of legendary hockey broadcaster Bob Cole is pinned to his wall. He tries to eat his late lunch, falafel with rice and what appears to be white yogurt, but is constantly interrupted while his food gets cold.
In a few hours, he’ll be hosting a double-header on Sportsnet’s main networks between Dallas and Pittsburgh, then Vancouver and Washington. Men with pens and smartphones haggle him, tightening broadcast scripts and being sidetracked with conversations on the Blue Jays’ playoff run. NHL on Sportsnet producer Sunil Thakolkaren goes over the evening’s broadcast minute by minute with Marek. Every intricacy is discussed, from the talking points between periods to what cues Marek should take while juggling games.
Throughout the mini-meeting, Marek scrolls through his laptop, scribbling notes and marking the key statistics with asterisks. Thakolkaren mentions that tonight’s studio panel, comprised of Marek, retired NHL goalie Corey Hirsch and former coach and executive Doug MacLean, will do a post-game recap following the Vancouver-Washington game.
No one will be home before 1 a.m. It’s a long night ahead for the folks at Sportsnet.
While shadowing the Hockey Night host, you develop a sense of what’s needed to get where Marek is in the media industry. The 46-year-old describes how an in-depth knowledge of your field, interpersonal skills, and a sprinkle of “who you know rather than what you know” can get you to the heights of broadcasting.
Jeff Marek on-air while recording an episode of NHL Game Day at the SiriusXM studios on October 22, 2015. (Hunter Crowther / The Hockey Guys)
Growing up in Toronto, the hockey broadcaster played youth baseball with Bob Mackowycz — currently a radio host on CHUM TSN Radio 1050 — whose father Bob Sr. was the program director at CJCL FAN 590 throughout the ‘90s. While Marek was working as a gravedigger at Parklawn Cemetery in Toronto — “Best job I ever had”– the elder Mackowycz gave Marek and Bob Jr., along with an unknown Humber College graduate in George Stroumboulopoulos, their own graveyard shift at the station.
Game was an overnight sports talk show the three hosted before being cancelled in under a year. Despite the news, his first taste in the broadcast industry gave Marek the motivation to pursue a career within it. Marek would keep in touch with his Game co-hosts, working with them again at various points.
Today, Stroumboulopoulos has an office beside Marek in the Sportsnet NHL headquarters.
Marek bounced between gigs before finding full-time work at CFYI AM 640, hosting Leafs Lunch and co-hosting The Bill Watters Show with the former NHL general manager. Following CFYI, Marek had stints with Sirius Satellite Radio and CBC before, in 2011, he accepted a role with Sportsnet. Combined with Marek vs Wyshynski, a podcast he co-hosts with Yahoo Sports writer and blogging pioneer Greg Wyshynski, the switch to Sportsnet and a full-time position with Hockey Night in Canada made Marek one of the most well-known media figures in hockey.
The interactive set at Sportsnet’s NHL studios. (Hunter Crowther / The Hockey Guys)
Marek acknowledges the realities faced by sports broadcasters who weren’t involved with professional sports to begin with. While he never made it professionally, Marek played ‘AAA’ level hockey throughout his childhood. At 16, the age most kids enter the amateur ranks like the Ontario Hockey League or Tier-II, his mother died. He quit the game to focus on school, but kept following as a fan and fostered a knowledge of hockey that has aided him in his media career, becoming a staple of his on-air persona.
Earlier in the day at the SiriusXM studios, Marek co-hosts NHL Game Day with Steve Kouleas. At different points throughout the hour-long program, when the music cues to lead into commercial break, Marek will start off by saying “Time for a quick (famous hockey name) story,” followed by a 30-second tale that combines fascinating hockey knowledge with effortless storytelling. His mini-rants are hints of a hockey vocabulary that could rival nearly any player or coach; his narrative style and database of facts, sources and opinion, these attributes have sculpted Marek into one of the most respected sports personalities in North America.
“Authenticity adds to your credence, No matter how much effort and research you put in, you’ll never match a former player in knowledge of the game,” said Marek.
“There’s no former players who can’t find a job in broadcasting.”
Minutes before prime time. Marek and the panel are looking over notes while their makeup is touched up. Thakolkaren goes over what they’ll talk about before the broadcast switches to Penguins-Stars. The set crew negotiate with producers on what camera-walk to use.
From a distance, it never occurs they’re about to broadcast in front of hundreds of thousands of people. The three panelists seem loose; MacLean is working on name pronunciations (KLING-berg), the other two take lighthearted jabs at the former NHL exec. Set crews nonchalantly maneuver cables and cameras behind the scenes. The seconds count down before they go live.
After Marek sends it to Pittsburgh, the three head to the viewing room. With Thakolkaren in the room, Pens and Stars on the main screen, MacLean and Hirsch isolate dozens of highlights mid-game that they can bring up during the intermission. Simultaneously, Thakolkaren works with Marek on how to transfer from highlights to panel-discussion before the second period.
Jeff Marek, right, sends out one last text while the camera crew prepares the set for broadcast. (Hunter Crowther / The Hockey Guys)
The night continues. Dallas spanks Pittsburgh 4-1, but the game ends earlier than anticipated, forcing the panel to stretch time between then and the beginning of Vancouver and Washington. They’re more relaxed, Hirsch and MacLean telling stories from their playing and coaching days, Marek ad-libbing the in-between and recapping other games.
It’s a microcosm of what makes the studio host stand out in sports broadcasting: free flowing conversation weaved into a discussion with seamless transitions between talking points. There’s no hiccup or “um”, rather a stream of words that shouldn’t fit in one sentence, but somehow do. Words are second nature for the man who earned a degree in English from the University of Guelph in 1995.
After puck drop between the Canucks and Capitals, pizza arrives for the crew. Unfortunately for Marek, his vegan diet restricts him from having any. Thakolkaren, Hirsch and MacLean chow down while Marek writes notes for the next intermission. Marek won’t eat until he gets home. He must have been starving, he never finished his falafel.
You can follow Hunter on Twitter @HunterCrowther or email him at email@example.com
This feature was written with notes taken for a college magazine writing assignment. Thanks to Jeff Marek, Sportsnet, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for their cooperation with this project.