David Amber Q&A, Part I: ‘My job is not to be Ron Jr.’

David Amber and Ron MacLean join Tim and Sid in studio to discuss their new(ish) gig at Hockey Night in Canada.

TORONTO — This is not David Amber’s dream job.

How could it be? Why waste a wish on a position that’s already filled?

As a kid growing up playing left wing in Toronto, the Hockey Night in Canada Amber knew belonged to Dave Hodge, then suddenly — and possibly forever, it felt — to Ron MacLean. National icons in powder-blue jackets with a deep understanding of the game, ingrained on Saturday nights, synonymous with the national network.

Still, Amber knew early he wanted to be involved sports and in broadcasting. As a kid he played hockey and soccer, as a high-schooler baseball and football for Jarvis Collegiate Institute. But his skills rated him “a civilian,” he says, “a normal.”

Amber’s father was an executive producer of news specials at CBC. Once in a while he’d slip into the production truck during a big show, like election nights, and soak in the frenzy. The controlled chaos of a live, mobile newsroom thrilled him. This is the path for me, he thought, knowing then he wanted to be in front of the camera, not behind it.

By his third year of university, around the time the Blue Jays were winning the World Series, Amber got serious about his path. He began writing for the McGill University newspaper while earning a Bachelor of Arts in North American studies, then headed off to Syracuse for a masters in broadcast journalism.

Canadians who attend university in the Untied States get a one-year visa to find a job there, so Amber got on his grind.

Joplin, Missouri. Jackson, Mississippi. Redding, California… the new grad bombarded the country’s tiniest sports markets with UPS deliveries of his demo tapes. You start at the bottom and work up, went his logic. The pile of rejection letters grew like the Afro of his youth.

Thank you for applying for the Bangor, Maine, Weekend Anchor position, David. We received 141 tapes and we’ve chosen someone else.

Amber was 24 years old, living at his parents’ house when a sad realization hit him: I might never get a job. This might not happen for me.

READ MORE: David Amber gives his take on the off-seasons of the Oilers, Canucks, Flames and Jets, as well as the P.K. Subban trade

Striking out in the States, Amber began driving around Canada with his tapes. One of those excursions brought him to Sudbury to meet Mark Oldfield, who headed up a network of independent news stations for MCTV (Mid-Canada Television). Still no job, but he said he’d keep Amber in mind.

Ten months later, a frustrated but undaunted Amber got a call from Sault Ste. Marie. They were looking for a news reporter and would he like to audition. Big yes. He hung up the phone excited.

“Mom, where’s Sault Ste. Marie?”

A 14-hour round trip drive for the job interview paid off. Amber had secured his first on-air gig.

The new guy in the small, hockey-mad Northern Ontario town, Amber was running around covering storms and council meetings and the Joe Thornton–led Greyhounds. Everyone else at the station had been working their jobs for eight years. They welcomed him with open arms, and he learned a ton.

“Oh, you’re gonna meet a nice girl from the Sault, settle down, get married,” they’d say to the city kid.

“Uh… that’s probably not how it’s going to play out,” Amber thought.

More tapes, more stuffed envelopes.

Nine months later, one of his reels got in the hands of broadcast exec Keith Pelley, then of TSN.

An opening had popped up in Calgary, covering the Stampeders and Flames. The pros.

“Brian Sutter was the Flames coach. He was tough as nails. You ask a bad question, and he would chew you up,” Amber recalls. “Everyone was very scared. It was intimidating.”

And he loved it. The path would take him back to Toronto, then off the States. ESPN, TSN, Sportsnet, CBC; NBA Finals, Stanley Cups, World Series, Olympics—he would touch them all over the next two decades.

Sportsnet president Scott Moore actually oversaw a young Amber during his first TV job, off-camera, as a researcher for an outdoor adventure show on the Discovery Channel called Go for It. But even when Moore called Amber into his office last month, the thought of hosting Hockey Night had never crossed his mind.

“I never lobbied for this. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Amber says. “I felt very fortunate and surprised by everything. It all happened very quickly.

“I didn’t feel like that was the path I was going to end up on, but it was exciting when the opportunity arose.”

We sat down at length with the new late-night host of Hockey Night in Canada to talk about his path, his ideas, and the dream job he’d never dreamed of.

Here is Part 1 of our conversation.

SPORTSNET.CA: So, you get the host gig. Do you call Ron or George?

DAVID AMBER: I have not spoken with George. I called Ron after I found out the situation to touch base with him. I’ve known Ron having worked on Hockey Night for five years, and he’s always been a great mentor, not just to me but a lot of us in the business. He’s very thoughtful and kind and always has interesting perspective that can help you with your job. A supportive person professionally for me. So I reached out to him and we had a great conversation. It’s funny. People say, “Oh, are you excited to be working alongside Ron?” But we won’t be beside each other. He’ll hand the baton off, and I’ll run with it at night.

What have you learned from Ron?

You have to play to your strengths. Be true to who you are. Ron is incredibly well-read and his memory and hockey intellect is second to none. If I go and try to emulate that, or try to make puns, that’s not my best approach. I got this opportunity based on what I bring to the table. I need to be that person. My job is not to be Ron Jr. I need to go in there and ask probing questions. Have fun. Be insightful when I can be. Make our analysts shine. Put them in a position to educate and entertain our viewers. If I can do that, then I’m doing what I’ve been brought in to do.

You’re a hockey guy but not strictly a hockey guy. Will that help you in your new role?

Hockey’s bit of an insular sport. Either you’re with us or you’re against us. People don’t always embrace the fact you have other outside interests. I love a lot of sports. I’ve covered a number of World Series, a number of Olympics, a ton of basketball. When I worked at ESPN, I covered a few NBA Finals. I used to be the host at NBA TV Canada for the Raptors, so I have a lot of diverse interests, to be honest with you. You want to have someone with a well-rounded perspective. You don’t want to be so insular, you maybe can’t see outside of it. I think to come from a diverse background is a good thing and will only make the shows I’m a part of better.

“I know it’s the absolute no-no, but I said, ‘Screw it. It’s Hank frickin’ Aaron.’ “

Twenty years of sports broadcasting. Who’s your favourite interview?

Roger Federer is as classy a superstar athlete as I’ve ever dealt with. He’s an incredibly thoughtful and smart and human guy. It’s not just about him. For a superstar who could have all the ego in the world, he doesn’t at all. Just very classy. He’s always stood out to me as someone impressive. A great role model for kids and people in general.

I met Hank Aaron when I was covering the Blue Jays. He held a press conference and after the press conference—I’ve never done this—I went up and said, “Mr. Aaron, I’m a big fan of yours for everything you’ve done, how you’ve transcended sport and for all the suffering you went through to get to where you are. Can I take a picture with you?’ Which I know is the absolute no-no, but I said, “Screw it. It’s Hank frickin’ Aaron. When am I going to get a picture with him?” That’s the only time I’ve ever asked anyone for an autograph or photo.

The first hockey star you covered was Joe Thornton in the Sault during his draft year. What was he like back then?

A really nice kid. Amazing hands. At 17 years old, he was making these incredible plays. You knew he was going to be a superstar from that moment. A very modest, down-to-earth kid. Nice to deal with. Didn’t have an ego. There were a few other guys on that team I’ll leave nameless who had more bravado, but he was Nice Joe. They had future NHLers on that team: Marc Moro, Nathan Perrott, Ric Jackman—played on the world junior team and ended up with the Dallas stars. But Joe was certainly the up-and-coming star. They got knocked out of the playoffs by Manny Malhotra and the Guelph Storm that year. It was really disappointing for the city.

Tell me about your ESPN experience south of the border.

When I was at ESPN for eight years, the landscape was different. They’ve gone through some tough times and cutbacks in the last year or so, but when I was there, they had all the resources in the world. What I loved about ESPN was, they were very innovative. We went all-digital before ABC, which was our parent company. They wanted to be on the cutting edge of everything. They really took an attitude of, even though we’re the No. 1 cable network in the world, we can’t just rest on our laurels and pat ourselves on the back. We have to keep pushing the envelope. I liked the innovation, and I worked with some incredible people. I learned a lot. It was incredibly demanding.

“Being in a newsroom when big sports news is breaking, there’s nothing that gives you a better adrenaline rush.”

They brought in people to help you with your presentation, your writing, your look. Constant consultations. Constant meetings. They were always aiming to say, “We need to hold up a certain standard.” I liked being part of a network that took itself so seriously. The scale and the resources were incredible. It was all about making the product the best it can be.

Give me an example.

I was an anchor for ESPN News and college basketball halftimes, then came back to Toronto as a reporter. We were doing feature work for Outside the Lines. We pitched a story about a 15-year-old girl, Jessica Watson, who’s going to solo circumnavigate the world in a sailboat. The youngest person ever. So we flew down to Australia to interview her and her parents. They didn’t say no to good stories if the scope was too demanding or if it would take too much time. I like a company that runs on that philosophy. If it’s quality television, then we need to pursue this.

Which is better: running a live desk or in-the-field reporting?

Both. That’s the greatest luxury. I’ve enjoyed being at some amazing events and being onsite when something incredible happens. I’ve witnessed Canada winning two gold medals in hockey. I was there when Luis Gonzalez’ bat snapped in half and [the Diamondbacks] beat the Yankees in 2001. I was there for Shaq’s first NBA title. But I also enjoying doing the studio. I tell you, being in a newsroom when big sports news is breaking, there’s nothing that gives you a better adrenaline rush. Being in the studio with Kelly Hrudey and Elliotte Friedman and Nick Kypreos and producer Brian Spear and something big happens in hockey, it’s going to be very exciting. We’re going to be able to sink our teeth into it in the intermissions.

Who was your broadcasting hero coming up?

Mike Tirico is incredible. What I like about Mike is, he’s a very versatile guy. He does golf, he does tennis, he does soccer’s World Cup, football. He’s now leaving ESPN to go to NBC. He does everything at a great level, and he’s a real pro in the business. The way he treated people as well. Because there were guys at ESPN—I’ll leave them nameless—who weren’t the easiest to deal with. They had pretty big egos. We have to understand it’s a collaboration to entertain people.

Dan Shulman is so good, so versatile and so smart. I’ve called to him a few times over the years, and he’s been incredibly helpful. I watch a lot of news as well. Peter Jennings was the consummate pro. Always in control of the show. Engaged the viewer. I appreciate what he was able to do in his career before he passed away. These are people I look up to and say, “If I could achieve any level of what they’ve done, I’ll have a great career.”

Are you feeling the weight and pressure of the Hockey Night in Canada brand, or will you treat this like any other job?

It’s not just another job. I didn’t realize the weight of the brand until I was given this position. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me that I haven’t talked to in a long time. It really made me take pause and go, “Wow. This is important. People care about this product more than any television brand in this country.” There’s gonna be some responsibility that comes with that, but show is not about me. I have to go in there and do what I’ve done over the last 20 years, and the show will be successful. It’s not riding on how I present it; I’m a very small cog in the big picture. Will there be pressure to do a good job? Absolutely. As there always should be. I felt pressure in Sault Ste. Marie as well. People are watching and calling on you to do a good job. You’re in the public eye. It’s more excitement than nervousness. The Canadian teams will do much better.

I’m interested in the two-question athlete intermission interview. You’ve done a lot of ’em. Some fans think they’re pointless and cliche. How do you approach those, because it can be a challenge to get something compelling out of 10 minutes with an athlete, let alone 10 seconds?

It’s a tough environment because the guys are in game mode. You’ve got to keep it relevant to what’s happening in the game. You can’t go off on too crazy a tangent. Before the camera starts rolling, I’ll talk to the guy, warm him up a bit, get a sense for how he’s feeling. Try to get him into a comfortable zone. My rule is open, lean and neutral. Open questions, neutral questions. Questions that don’t show bias: Wow, your power play is horrible. You want to get a sense of what they’re thinking, what the game plan is. If they can give you a bit of strategy or a bit of the emotion they felt, that’s all you can glean in two questions.

For those people who say those interviews are unnecessary, a lot of people want to see the players without their helmet on. Hear their voices. This is different from basketball, where you see them constantly and can tell how they feel. The players are hidden behind masks zooming up and down the ice. You don’t see what they look like. That’s a great opportunity to feel a closeness to them. Especially for a brand like Hockey Night in Canada. If you have an opportunity to interview a Canadian player, his hometown is excited to see him. Especially in a post-game interview, he might give a shoutout to his junior hockey coach or his parents or a friend. It’s a grassroots moment in our broadcast, and it’s part of the fabric that makes the brand so strong.

Will longer sit-down interviews be incorporated into your hosting duties?

I really hope to. One of the first conversations I had with Rob Corte [VP of Sportsnet and NHL production], I said, “As excited as I am to be a studio host, I’d like to do more and go out in the field and do sit-down interviews when appropriate.” Longer-form interviews—that’s something I really enjoy doing, and there’s always stories to be told. The essence of what we do is storytelling. Bringing fans in and giving them a behind-the-velvet-rope look at athletes and their situations, what makes them tick.

Before hockey, you’re off to Rio. Which Canadian stories excite you?

We’re on the upswing in swimming and athletics. People talk about [sprinter Andre] De Grasse, which is a great story, but there’s also Damian Warner. He’s a decathlete. We have Derek Drouin, world champion high jumper. It’s one of the few times we put on our Canada hats and show our nationalistic pride. It’s going to be exciting. The goal set out by the COC is top-12 medal finish. They finished 13th in London, so there’s room to climb, but we’ll see amazing performances in track and in the pool. We have world-class divers.

How concerned are you about going to Rio?

I was there for the World Cup two years ago. I’m not concerned. They have a lot of political and social problems now, but every time the Olympics is held in a non-first-world country, you hear the same: “Oh, my God. The venues won’t be ready. There’s crime.” Then you get to Sochi and you’re in an Olympic bubble and you could be anywhere.

I believe within the Olympic corridor in Rio it’ll be incredibly safe. I have zero hesitation. I think the fear is unfortunate because these athletes work so hard. This should be their 15 minutes, and a lot of that gets taken away by the doom and gloom that surrounds the lead-up. Then you get there and as soon as a medal is won, the conversation shifts. Two years ago when I went to Rio for the World Cup, the talk was all about protests. Then as soon as the opening match started, all that was forgotten. Everything became about the games.

Read Part II of our David Amber Q&A here for more hockey talk.

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