I come from a hockey family, but my path to the NHL was never going to be on ice.
My playing career pretty much peaked at the McIsaac schoolyard rink in Flin Flon, Man., where I did my best to keep up with my older sister, Lindsay, while my pink headband tried to contain my version of Jack Eichel’s curls. Let’s just say that the scouting reports for little Leah were not flattering. I clearly didn’t inherit my grandfather Bryan’s scoring touch. But I did inherit that Hextall tenacity, and I used it to forge a different route to the NHL.
This weekend, I reach a career milestone: my first NHL play-by-play assignment. I’ll be calling Sunday’s Vegas-Calgary game for Sportsnet, making history as part of the first all-female lineup — including the broadcast team and the production crew — to present an NHL game. I can’t even say it’s a dream come true because growing up, I didn’t know this was possible. Many of us didn’t see women occupying the space that we’ll hold during this landmark broadcast. I’m proud to join these talented women as we push for progress for women and girls. Representation matters because if you can see it, you start to believe that you can be it.
Some people will see Sunday’s broadcast as a gimmick, but every woman involved has earned the right to be here. Each of us has persevered in a world where we weren’t always welcomed. My broadcasting career began 17 years ago in Brandon, and I’ve been fortunate to work with Sportsnet, TSN, ESPN and New England Sports Network. However, my career hit a humbling wall in 2016 when I was let go as part of the Hockey Night in Canada cutbacks. I knew I had to reinvent myself if I wanted to stay in the game. I decided that play-by-play would be that angle, so I went to work learning how to do it.
I’ve had some fantastic mentors, including NBC’s Doc Emrick and the ultimate trailblazer, Cassie Campbell-Pascall. But their guidance, as incredible as it has been, didn’t save me from having to put in the work. The path here hasn’t been glamorous. I started by calling Manitoba Moose games in a booth by myself, talking to a non-existent audience. You could say that I’ve lived the expression, “Work hard in silence. Let success be your noise.”
I eventually earned the opportunity to do some live reps on Sportsnet for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and this year, the MJHL. Dave Anthony, the voice of the MJHL’s Steinbach Pistons, generously supported my journey by letting me call games online.
Sunday, I make my big-league debut.
You might think that growing up a Hextall involved a lot of tough love. Don’t get me wrong — we got plenty of that. But whenever my sister and I wanted to try something new, there was never a moment when either of our parents said, “No, you can’t do that.” Thanks to Liz and Randy, my sister and I have never been afraid to take chances and go after something we might fail at.
We’ve got plans for #IWD2020! Looking forward to calling @GoldenKnights vs @NHLFlames with this talented group of women. #UnitedBySport https://t.co/9NwOOoUBqL
— Leah Hextall (@leahhextall) February 27, 2020
In December, when I found out that I’d be calling an NHL game, there was no one I wanted to call more than my dad. Randy Hextall was my superhero. He taught me the game through countless diagrams at the kitchen table. We’d break down breakouts and debate defensive strategies. Once I got into the business, he always texted me the day before a game to wish me luck, and then again the day after to get the details. (He never wanted to bother me on game days.)
Unfortunately, I lost my first hockey mentor and my biggest fan last July. My dad’s passing was sudden, and coming to terms with it has made this the most difficult year of my life.
There’s no one who would enjoy this moment more than my father.
When I step into the booth Sunday, I’ll be wearing my grandfather’s Hockey Hall of Fame ring. He left it to my dad, and my dad left it to me. That ring connects three generations of Hextalls, and it helps me feel like my dad is with me. As the anthem winds down, I’ll close my eyes and take a deep breath. Then, with my dad on my left and Cassie on my right, we’ll settle in to make some history.