By Emily Sadler in Calgary | Photography by Amber Bracken
By Emily Sadler in Calgary | Photography by Amber Bracken
On the ice, it was an NHL game like any other. Behind the scenes, it was anything but.

It’s gameday in Calgary and with puck drop still a few hours away, 29 women gather at centre ice. A freshly-cleaned sheet glistens beneath heels and work boots and sneakers. The soft sounds of careful shuffling and chatter and laughter carry through the empty Scotiabank Saddledome stands that will soon house fans.

Three broadcasters, four members of the production team, and a crew of 18 women in technical roles will bring this game between the Flames and the Vegas Golden Knights to life. Four female students from the nearby Southern Alberta Institute of Technology are also on-hand to earn valuable experience. Eight more women are helping hold down the fort back in Sportsnet’s Rogers Hometown Hockey control room in Toronto.

In many ways, this Sunday matchup is just another hockey game — one of 82 on the regular-season schedule. It’s the third of four divisional matchups between these two clubs, with a crucial two points up for grabs that will ultimately help decide who finishes atop the Pacific. That’s the story on the ice and on the screen. That’s the story these women — and a few men, too — will tell today.

It is, after all, their job. These women make a living bringing live sports into the homes of fans across the nation. It’s just that on this day, International Women’s Day, they’re all in one place, doing it together. This is the first time that an all-female broadcast crew is on Sportsnet’s airwaves for an NHL game, and a unique opportunity to bring a technical and production crew together that’s comprised almost entirely of women. For just 10 minutes at centre ice, everyone is together in one place before dispersing to their various roles in all areas of the arena. It’s enough time for every woman here to take note of the faces around her, and know she’s part of an important day in this industry they all love.

Most of the gear is already set up — many of these women have been here since 7 a.m., warming up the production truck that was driven down from Edmonton last night fresh off an Oilers game, connecting cords, setting up video screens, checking microphones and making sure cameras are assigned and ready. A photo is taken to commemorate the occasion. And then, it’s back to work. There’s a game to be played, after all, and these women have a story to tell.

Working beside her friend and mentor Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Leah Hextall became the first woman to call play-by-play for a nationally televised NHL game in Canada

Are you okay with heights?”

That’s the universal question asked of media at the Saddledome. Walking the catwalk is a rite of passage, and it’s not for the faint of heart. The narrow walkway is level with the rafters and spans the width of the ice (even above the jumbotron at the centre of the rink). The crossing makes you hang on to your belongings — and your stomach — just a little tighter.

The catwalk is the way to the Ed Whalen Broadcast Booth, a small, old-school setup painted a heavy shade of blue that sits high above the “C of Red.” This bare-bones booth was named for the beloved broadcaster whose notably nasally voice was the first associated with Flames calls. There’s history here. And more will very soon be made when Leah Hextall puts on her headset and becomes the first woman to call play-by-play for a nationally televised NHL game in Canada.

For now, she’s busy preparing, head down, notes out, water and orange juice on-hand, her fuchsia jacket draped over her chair. All around Hextall are reminders of how she got here: A stat sheet from mentor Mike “Doc” Emrick; a thin, black binder with sweater numbers and names of both teams’ rosters, like the one Gord Miller, another mentor, uses. The most important reminder is the Hockey Hall of Fame ring on her left index finger. It was first given to her grandfather, Bryan, the late, great New York Ranger and the first to make “Hextall” one of the most recognized names in the game. It was passed down to Hextall by her father, Randy, after his death last July.

Hextall’s path hasn’t been easy. In 2016, she was let go during larger organizational changes at Sportsnet, where she’d worked as a studio host for Flames games, which forced her to think about her career differently. It wasn’t long before she began moving forward on a new way into the game: Play-by-play. “I just thought, ‘Why not?’” she says. “No other females are doing it. So, somebody’s gotta do it … and if you don’t strike at it, somebody else is going to, and you’re going to wish you would have. And that’s really what drove me to do it.”

In search of advice, Hextall reached out to one of the best — Emrick, with whom she had a connection from her time as a reporter in the industry. His advice? “Get into an empty booth at a rink at a junior game, anywhere I could, and just start practising,” says Hextall. “So, that’s exactly what I did.”

In the fall of 2017, she went to a Manitoba Moose game and, alone in an empty booth, she took out her cellphone, hit record and started talking. “I was horrible,” she says with a laugh, thinking back. “But, I loved it.

“You’re so involved in the game in a way that when you’re a studio host or a rinkside reporter, you’re not,” she continues. “You can’t even blink, because you might miss something.”

Hextall made her play-by-play debut in January 2018 with a four-game set for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. She called more CWHL games the following season before the league shut down, and last March made history when she became the first woman to call play-by-play for a men’s NCAA hockey game.

Getting the call up to the big leagues for this Sunday game brought nerves, but also reunited Hextall with a dear friend and mentor: Cassie Campbell-Pascall.

Hextall wears a Hall of Fame ring originally given to her grandfather, Bryan, and passed down from her father, Randy

Campbell-Pascall blazed the trail as the first and only woman to provide colour commentary on Hockey Night in Canada, and stood beside Hextall for her first game in the CWHL. It’s only fitting that now the two are collaborating here in Calgary. “If she doesn’t step into the booth as the first colour commentator that’s female on Hockey Night in Canada, I don’t believe so many jobs that we’ve held, as women, happen,” Hextall says of Campbell-Pascall. “She’s really set a standard. And I really don’t think me stepping into the booth beside her happens without her really pushing it. She’s a big piece of this puzzle.”

Theirs are the two voices that will go out over the airwaves, but they’re not the only ones in the booth. Floor manager Heather Weatherly and audio technician Caroline Ferris are up here to ensure things run smoothly from a technical standpoint. “If I’m moving fast, then things are going terribly wrong,” says Ferris. “Otherwise, it’s fine.” To Hextall’s right is Michelle Methot, stats and font coordinator for the game. “It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was ordering pizzas and getting people coffee and dealing with a jam in the printer,” says Methot, of her not-too-far-removed days as a production assistant. “You just have to take every opportunity you can and observe as much as you can and learn as much as possible and ask questions and just, sort of, prove that you belong there.”

It’s Methot’s job to always be two steps ahead, listening intently to Hextall and Campbell-Pascall and anticipating what stats they may want confirmed. Methot will be in constant communication with chyron and bug operator Kathy Johnson back in the truck, providing her with updated stats for the graphics and animations (both known as “fonts”) she designs that appear during breaks in play to help Campbell-Pascall highlight a player’s performance or show the updated standings down the stretch.

“She’s really set a standard. And I really don’t think me stepping into the booth beside her happens without her really pushing it.”

Methot deals in numbers, so Hextall can focus on the words.

There’s a reason hockey’s most recognized phrase is, “He shoots, he scores!” The game moves so fast, there’s not much time for anything else. Hextall is always on the lookout for different ways to convey the action without cluttering the airwaves. “How many times can you say, ‘Dump it in’?,” she points out. “’Sends in.’ ‘Fires it ahead.’ ‘Drives in.’”

She’s got a handwritten list of alternative phrases right in front of her, a strategy to help her avoid repetition or leaning too heavily on certain verbal crutches. “When I hear people say things that are different, that I’m not used to, I’ll write it down because I want to make them part of my language,” she explains. “That’s been the hardest part of this, for me, is building that vocabulary of how to describe the [same] play over and over and over again, in an entertaining way but with economy of words.” (Hextall does not, it’s worth noting, include Whalen’s “ring-a-ding-dong dandy” in her prompts. Perhaps that will come, though it’s not exactly economical.)

The warmup clock winds down. A producer’s voice coming through the headset counts Hextall and Campbell-Pascall in. Their mics go live, and Hextall starts her NHL debut with three simple words — the same three emblazoned on the door of Whalen’s old stompin’ grounds:

Hello, hockey fans!

Simpson and Skinner prepare in the truck, where much of the crew has already put in an eight-hour day by puck drop; executive producer Ed Hall holds a door for Skinner and Landis at Scotiabank Saddledome

Every bit of action broadcast from inside the rink passes through a production truck parked just outside of it in Lot C.

The Saddledome is one of the few remaining rinks in the NHL with an outdoor area for production trucks — newer arenas have a designated space with a roof above it, like a loading dock. It’s a very short walk from the back entrance of the arena to the Dome Productions rig, but it’s early March in Calgary and temperatures are dropping as the sun does, so it’s best to pick up the pace.

By the time the game starts, most of the crew in the truck has already put in an eight-hour work day. But being well settled in by puck drop, doesn’t necessarily mean the crew has settled down. “Every time I start a hockey game, you still get that adrenaline,” says director Dawn Landis. “Even though you’ve done hundreds of games in your life, every time you do a game it’s exciting. And this one will be super-exciting, because you get to do it with peers that just happen to be female.”

“Every time I start a hockey game, you still get that adrenaline. And this one will be super-exciting, because you get to do it with peers that just happen to be female.”

Landis long ago established her lines of communication to ensure she’s in contact with everyone she needs to be connected with through the headsets they all wear. It’s a group that includes camera operators inside the arena, the audio engineer on the other side of the wall in the truck, the technical director to her right and the video operators in the back (they’re the ones constantly adjusting camera lighting to ensure a clear, focused picture). When it’s time to pick up her own headset, “It’s just on… and I start talking.”

She can’t lose her focus for a second. “Picture yourself sitting at home on the couch, and every time the game you’re watching goes from the wide camera angle to a tight shot of a player, to a tight shot of a coach, back to a wide shot of the game. That’s what I do,” she says. “I’m talking to all the camera operators and deciding what view the person at home on the couch gets to see.”

Landis is the only female live sports director in Canada. "I wish I wasn’t," she says. "It would be so nice to have somebody else."

The five camera operators inside the rink — three of whom are women — are Landis’s eyes. (There are other cameras, too, some operated remotely and others operated by the league.) “It’s a lot to take in, because you’re watching five, six, 10, 20 camera feeds at one time,” she says. “It’s certainly overwhelming [at first] but once you get the flow of the game, you know what cameras will be doing what at what times.

“You know that when a goal is scored, one of the cameras stays with the goalie. One of the cameras stays with the hero that scored the goal. The other camera is going to fan shots, or the other camera is going to the head coach of the team that they scored on.”

Every camera is assigned a number and connected to the big video board before Landis, who sits front-and-centre with a clear view of every angle. “Without amazing camera operators, I couldn’t do what I do. They make the biggest difference in the world, for sure,” she says.

With the game underway, she speaks in numbers: “Ready 1,” means Camera 1’s feed is about to be the main view. “Take 1,” makes it happen. Technical director Caitlind Lusty, who sits before a switchboard with dozens of glowing buttons, executes those commands. “My last line of defence,” Landis calls her. “Caitlind is the technical mind behind making all those things happen.”

Landis and Lusty work together often, so this broadcast has a certain comfort level to it. “Having a TD that you trust and that you enjoy working with is beyond important to a director,” says Landis. “Any TD that works beside me is very important, but there’s always something to be said for it being a female TD.

“With Caitlind … we’re both women, we both do our jobs and we’ve been doing it for a long time, and we know we’re good at what we do,” says Landis. “So, it’s just really comforting to have someone that’s gone through the same stuff I have and I’m sure there are many times when she’s the only female in the truck, like I am a lot of times. So, you know, it’s kind of like an unspoken, ‘Hey, it’s cool to have a female working.’”

Sportsnet borrowed Landis from TSN to bring her here today, a rare collaboration between two traditional rivals that shows how the importance of this broadcast extends beyond the game on which she’s so intently focused. She’s the only female live sports director in the nation. “I wish I wasn’t,” she says. She teaches a class at Ryerson in the fall, and always encourages the women in the room to, “please come up and make sure that I’m not always the only female director … It would be so nice to have somebody else.”

To Landis’s left is Maria Skinner. As the game’s producer, Skinner has worked with the on-air talent to discuss storylines in the days and hours leading up Sunday’s game, and is in constant communication with them throughout the course of play and during stoppages to help cue up graphics and replays. “A producer tells the story,” she explains. “The director executes it.”

With no way of predicting what will happen in a game, Simpson prepares dozens of items, stories and angles ahead of time — many of which never make the broadcast

While Landis lives in live action, Skinner deals primarily in replay, working closely with Campbell-Pascall in the booth and a trio of EVS replay operators located about 10 feet behind her in the truck to give the nation a closer look and more detailed understanding of the game. At any given moment, there can be a dozen voices chiming in over the headset — producer to director, colour analyst to producer, director to technical director, font coordinator to producer, producer to the replay team — Skinner is the crucial point of contact, a hub for so many others throughout the broadcast. “It’s not who I’m talking to the most, it’s who I’m listening to the most,” she says. “And the key is to listen to the on-air announcers. Because you might need to help them with something, you might need to lead them to something, and the last thing you want to do is hang them out to dry … So, I would say the most important thing is listening to the announcers. That’s the story — the story is the game.”

Like many in the business, Skinner’s first studio job, in 1986, was as a runner. The entry-level gig requires the ability to do it all — from delivering coffee and food orders to updating on-air and production teams with goings on around the league — and do it fast. As she rose up the production ranks, Skinner found herself sitting alongside broadcast legends Bob Cole and Harry Neale on Saturday nights, hurriedly writing down crucial in-game information — the assists on a goal, the time of a penalty, an interesting stat. “Bob Cole used to have this system,” Skinner says. “He’d pound on the desk if he wanted me to send over the goal summary. I used to sit in the booth, and it would be me, Harry Neale and Bob, and Harry used to sit in between us. So, you knew, you hear the pounding and Harry would be ready with his hand to grab your summary.”

“I want them to see that they can do and be whatever they want.”

Today’s broadcast is extra special for Skinner, not just because it’s the first time she’s finally able to work alongside Landis in the truck — the two women have worked in the same circles for decades but have never had the opportunity to team up. In 1999, Skinner became the first woman to produce an NHL game in Canada. Twenty-one years later, she’s back in the producer’s chair with a special guest to her left: Her youngest daughter, 13-year-old Elizabeth. Fourteen-year-old Natalie is in attendance, too, watching the game from the stands with Skinner’s husband; everyone’s here to celebrate Mom.

This is the first time Elizabeth and Natalie have seen their trailblazing mother in action. “I really want them to see what I’ve done or what I can do, and I want them to see that International Women’s Day is a big deal and it’s an important event,” she says. “I don’t know that they’re going to be in broadcasting, I don’t know that they’re going to be sports broadcasters, producers, directors, or whatever — and it doesn’t really matter. But I want them to see that … they can do and be whatever they want.”

Saddledome Zamboni driver Joanne Kuzoff cleans the ice between periods in Calgary

Perhaps the quietest part of the rink can be found down a narrow hallway near the teams’ locker rooms. The décor in here is, well… it isn’t much. Cinderblock walls are painted black and the furniture is sparse, but it’s got a television and a table and chairs and, most importantly, it’s a calm reprieve during the game, an enclosed space tucked deep in this old barn, away from the endless buzz of the arena. This is the Flames’ media studio, and it’s where you’ll find Christine Simpson during the game.

Simpson is focused intently on the TV. She needs to closely follow the action on the ice and the words of her colleagues in the broadcast booth, and be ready when the producer decides it’s time to call on her to chime in and bring some of the game’s storylines to life. Tonight, those stories are told from this desk.

In front of her is an open notebook, filled with dozens of items and anecdotes — many of which will never go to air. With no idea what will happen on any given gameday, “you really have to prepare for anything,” Simpson says. What does hit the airwaves must be told swiftly and succinctly — and at that, Simpson is a seasoned pro. Her ability to tell a complete story in a short period of time — a 15-second block to open a period, a short anecdote during a stoppage in play — is the result of 22 years spent honing her craft.

The longtime reporter and in-game host is often tasked with setting the scene on Saturday nights from whichever rink she’s covering during Hockey Night in Canada. Tonight, a special Sunday game called for a special Sunday scene-setter, her inspiring words carefully selected to celebrate this particular broadcast — and hopefully set the stage for more like it.

“These are the trade secrets.”

With Simpson are a pair of audio technicians, Riki Lynn Gale and A.J. Sullivan. They’re Simpson’s connection to the world outside this media room. Gale’s got a headset on, and alerts Simpson when the producer wants her to chime in with another mid-game story, and Sullivan is on hand to make sure all microphones and audio equipment are working well.

Gale, who’s been in the industry since 2003, also has another job: She’s the keeper of the coveted Hockey Night in Canada towel. Whenever the Saturday night show comes to town, she accompanies the home network’s host to the post-game interview and artfully drapes the towel over the shoulders of that night’s subject.

It’s an art, really. “Oh, these are secrets. These are the trade secrets,” says Gale with a laugh before demonstrating the perfect towel technique. It’s all in the fold. First, tuck the left third behind the logo – in tonight’s case, the Hometown Hockey crest – then follow it with the right, and be sure to hide any edges. “You can tell the experienced [players], when they wipe away sweat with the towel … some of them actually look down to make sure the logo’s still out,” Gale says.

“But it changes from towel to towel,” she jokes “Now you know the secrets.”

With dozens of voices chiming in over the team's headsets, Skinner is indispensable in directing traffic; a tangle of wires connects the truck to the arena and the outside world

There are three minutes to go in the third period. The crew is on the home stretch, and the truck has gotten word from Gale that she and Simpson (and that carefully folded towel) are headed towards the visitors’ hallway in preparation for the post-game interview. With the score 3–2 Vegas, the production team is betting on the Golden Knights taking this one. The player requested at this point is “Nick Holden, if everything stays,” Skinner advises over the headset. Luckily, Simpson’s extensive prep means she’s ready for even the unlikeliest of stars, including a stay-at-home defenceman like Holden, whose two-point night came as a surprise to just about everyone in the booth and the truck.

Only, this is hockey, and things can change in a hurry. A game-tying goal from Matthew Tkachuk suddenly puts the plan in flux and has everyone in the truck thinking overtime. Just when a plan is put in place for the extra frame, Shea Theodore roofs it for a late Vegas game-winner — a shot Campbell-Pascall describes as “almost too good to be true.” The crew in the truck quickly shifts back to its original route to wrap up the game. An empty-netter from Jonathan Marchessault secures the win for Vegas — and a crucial two points to claim the lead in the Pacific.

“Nick Holden, confirmed,” Skinner tells Gale and Simpson, who restart their walk to the winner’s hallway.

Campbell-Pascall's daughter, Brooke, and her friend, Grace, take a turn in the booth

With the game in the books, one more live hit from Campbell-Pascall and Hextall in the booth provides the final act in this historic performance, and brings a touching moment between friends: “Your late father, Randy Hextall, is so proud of you, my friend,” Campbell-Pascall tells Hextall, who, after calling a flawless game, doesn’t need to say another word to portray how she’s feeling.

In the truck, the women watch in awed silence. Their home for what has been a truly special broadcast will soon be packed up and driven away, another cold overnight haul to another Alberta hockey game, where another crew will bring it — and the stories we love — to life. Some of these women will be there, too.

One-by-one cameras close. Feeds are cleared. Crew members remove their headsets. Hot mics are cooled. Dinner plans are made. A game puck, from referee Wes McCauley, is handed from Simpson to Skinner for a job well done.

Cheers erupt as Hextall steps into the truck, where she’s immediately embraced by Landis. “By the third period, it was like you’ve been doing this your whole life,” the director tells her. Everyone agrees, this is only just the beginning.

Congratulations and thank-yous all around. There are handshakes and hugs, high fives and fist bumps. And the firm belief that someday soon, they’ll do it all again.

The women who made history:

Back row, left to right: Amrita Rai, Stephanie Dunthorne, A.J. Sullivan, Heather Weatherly, Frances Kootnekoff, Riki Lynn Gale, Kianna Klauck, Caroline Ferris, Kristyn Taras, Rachel Morrison, Cathy Loyek, Myriam Dickner, Kathy Johnson, Sheron Cooke, Caitlind Lusty, Jessica Fontaine, Lynnsay Kerrivan, Nicole Thompson.

Front row, left to right: Krima Trivedi, Ashley Reycraft, Stephanie Crosby, Michelle Methot, Leah Hextall, Maria Skinner, Dawn Landis, Christine Simpson, Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Sarah Boteler, Jessica Myers.

Photo Credits

Amber Bracken