A few weeks ago I kicked around the idea to have a chat with the people behind the Montreal Canadiens media so fans could see the driving forces and passion behind their favourite sports journalists. What gives them motivation? How do they view their job?
The first person I wanted to interview was Marc-Antoine Godin of La Presse, who agreed to help me out because he is awesome. So we met at an unnamed, generic cafe to have a chat. After getting to know each other for a bit and talking casually, I turned on the camera and we talked about the man behind the writing. You can follow Marc-Antoine at @magodin.
The interview went awesome aside from me accidentally calling him Marc-Andre Grondin to start, then promptly butchering his name as only a Western Anglo can, so enjoy the video. Hyperlink for those on mobile. Apologies for the background noise, it should be clear enough to hear, and I've also included a text version of the interview if you can't watch/hear the video.
Andrew Berkshire: So I'm here with Marc-Andre...Marc-Antoine Godin from La Presse for Eyes on the Prize, and we're going to get to know him a little bit, and talk about how he covers hockey, and how he came to his career. So Marc, what made you realize that you wanted to be a sportswriter?
Marc-Antoine Godin: Well, it's um... It's two passions that were with me for the longest time, ever since I was a little boy, seven or eight years old. I always loved to write and I always loved sports. So one plus one equals two. I was a little kid going to school, and at the time La Presse had this tabloid sports section that I would take out of the newspaper and bring it with me to school, and I would learn all the statistics. The averages of pitchers in baseball, or the average of goaltenders in the NHL, everything was by heart. I was a little encyclopedia back then when I was a little kid. So it stayed with me, and I was always a sports fan. But I knew that I was also someone that could write fairly well. So I went to university [At McGill] to study literature, and when I finished my Master's thesis in creative writing, I thought; okay, I like to write and I like sports, so I'm going to write about sports. So I knocking at La Presse's door, they didn't give me a job right away, it took awhile before it happened, but eventually I got in. So really, the doors opened magically for me, and it's great because I rarely see myself doing anything else than what I'm doing now. Particularly with my male friends or just aquaintences, and people say "You know you're lucky to have that job", and I know I am because we're so few to have it. And jeez, to cover the Montreal Canadiens for La Presse newspaper, sometimes I have to pinch myself because it's pretty nice.
AB: Yeah, it's got a kind of glory that comes with it in some form or another. It's kind of like... I'm trying to figure out the word to say... It's like a high prestige job in a way, to cover the Canadiens in Montreal.
MAG: There is a prestige factor, there is no doubt. When I started my career, well I had been at La Presse for a few years but when I started being a reporter on a full time basis I was covering the Expos. Which was, you know a big deal. They were not drawing crowds anymore, but it was still a major league sport in town. But not once have I felt that the interest of what I was writing had the impact of the Canadiens. That particular topic really intrigues and interests so many people that it gives you a- you talk about a prestige- or a power that's both very humbling to deal with and also something that you have to be careful with how you use it. Because people will rightfully think that if you've been given that job it's because you're worth it. Because of that, I must make sure that I will honour that job, and not make a disgrace out of it. That I will continue to maintain the credibility of my newspaper, and that over time people will come to esteem what I'm writing in both its form and its content. This is something that I'm crafting little by little, but it's my sixth year covering hockey full time this year. Well I'm covering more lockout than hockey this season, but hey. I've changed a lot since that first year. It's funny because the more experienced you get, the less inclined you are to give your opinion.
MAG: It's like, the more you know the less you know. It's exactly the same in hockey, because you talk with a lot of people, they bring you new ideas, and they put in perspective the stuff that you thought you knew. It has to be kept in check a bit, and you have to ask more questions, then you have to provide more answers.
AB: Absolutely. On your twitter profile it says, "30% English, 70% French" and I think you make a very good effort to engage both communities in Montreal and in Quebec. How difficult is it for you to balance that language divide, and does it also create some different opportunities that maybe other writers that don't speak both languages, from say Toronto, or New York, don't get?
MAG: I don't think twitter has provided any opportunity to me, not yet. But having a bilingual account... Well first I'm very comfortable in English, my wife is Anglophone, and the language of hockey whether we like it or not, is English. That's the language we work in every day. Mainly I thought, Habs nation is a reality, it's like Red Sox nation, there are fans of the Montreal Canadiens everywhere, not just in Montreal. I give our readers in La Presse and on our website plenty of content, and I still do via twitter, but I thought Montreal Canadiens fans from B.C., or from the United States, or from Europe that are English speaking people, do they have only the Gazette to be their source of information for Habs news? I thought, why not try to provide them with some diversity, maybe a different opinion, different angle that's got a French twist. That's why. And sometimes I get French readers running to me saying "Since when is your newspaper bilingual?" and sometimes they're teasing me and sometimes they're upset. And I know that on the other end of the spectrum some Anglophones are not adding me on their twitter list because most of the time I fill my timeline with French stuff. So if they're not interested in that, it might cost me some readers, but it's not a race, it's not a contest. It's about providing enough information, so most of the time I write in French. But the hard news, the news that I think is relevant to be given to everybody, sometimes I'll just translate everything and do it in both languages.
AB: Yeah, I think it works out great. You've found a way to draw in people from different communities and give a lot of information that everyone can understand. Do you have a favourite sports story that you've covered in your career?
MAG: Well hockey-wise I think my most thrilling moment was what we would call the Halak playoffs. Those games where Jaroslav Halak stood on his head against Washington and the roof of the building exploded. That was quite impressive, and very thrilling, because I haven't covered a Stanley Cup Finals in Montreal. That's as far as we've got. That was pretty nice, because as the players say, "When we're winning there's no better place to play than Montreal". Well when we're winning, there's no better place to write than in Montreal also.
MAG: And I'm not one of those guys that like to dig in the players' trash and write negative stories all the time. I think that there are good human stories to be found on a winning team too, so it's nice to write about positive stuff. As long as it's inspiring, and as long as it drives people somewhere, whether that's negative or positive, but it draws an interest. And it's an easy subject with the Canadiens because it draws a lot of interest. When it's a good situation like those playoffs in 2010, they [the Habs] give you plenty of opportunity. I've covered other sports, I covered the Ryder Cup. I don't follow golf at all, I covered only one tournament in my life and that was the Ryder Cup in Ireland, I can't remember which year, but that was a great experience too, and I've always kept that with me. A few World Series, Curt Schilling with the Red Sox in 2004, that was pretty nice too. So those are the moments that really stand out for me.
AB: You were saying that you don't like to dig into the players' garbage, do you find that the rising tide of these "insiders" who draw a lot of viewers are a detriment to the industry at all?
MAG: Well, it is, because it depends on if your media is going to race those anonymous sources everywhere. The main problem I've got with those sites, those blogs, those fake twitter accounts, is whenever they're right, because sometimes you know... Well if we go back in the old days before there was internet or before there was twitter, a person that had information would give his information to a reporter, who would verify it and eventually, sometimes, print it. Now the informant and be his own media.
MAG: So you've got someone who comes out of the blue that nobody knows, and he'll provide information. Who am I to say that because he's not part of a legitimate media outlet, he's not credible. He might be, he might have good sources. So I won't condemn those people all together, and sometimes they may be right on certain stories, they may be ahead of the mainstream media, and that's okay. But the day that they're wrong, the day that they try to give an exclusive story and it's a bunch of bull, well they don't have the accountability from the readers that say, "Hey, you were wrong." If we print stuff at La Presse that is plain wrong, announcing "Patrick Roy is coming, he's the next coach of the Canadiens, it's a done deal." If it doesn't happen, we're going to get a serious slap on the hand. And they don't have that sort of accountability. So yeah, we might not always be the first on the news, but as long as we're right, we maintain our credibility. That's why there is a temptation, not to stay away from those new temptations that are coming that seem to be growing more and more every day. And the thing is the less trades there are, the more trade rumours there are, and fans are rabid for trade rumours. So they'll read everything and they'll take everything for cash, and absorb it. So many fans come up to me and say "Have you heard the latest rumour about this, Souray is about to get- not Souray, P.K. Subban is about to get traded to Philadelphia for this guy and that guy", and where did they get that from? It's mind boggling sometimes. But, at the same time I know that sometimes they were right, so kudos to them.
AB: There's something also to be said for hard work, right? It's so easy to create a big following by reporting BS. Lots of people do it, and it takes a lot longer to build a following just sticking to what you know, and writing mostly dispassionately, even though you are passionate. You manage to stay away from a lot of the silliness that happens in Montreal. A lot of media and fans piggy back on running players out of town, things like that. Do you find that [staying out of it] very easy to do, or has it ever been a conflict where you wanted to really jump in and share your opinion on something but you had to hold yourself back, or reign it in?
MSG: Well I haven't been afraid to give my opinion, so I don't hold back really. But, whoever spends enough time in Montreal, whether it's a coach or a player, realizes that there are two types of media. At least two types of media in Montreal. There are those that follow the team, that go to practice, go to the games, and talk to players. And those that stay away on TV shows or on radio. And the people who stir the most trouble are often those that we never see. So my motto is whatever I say in public, I should be able to say face to face with a player. I was talking about accountability before, well same goes with players. If I write something, I need to be able to back it up the following day when I enter the locker room and I go talk to players. A now defunct radio station used to have a lot of those big mouths that were really contributing to the kicking players out of town by stirring trouble and all that. But you would rarely see them talking with players. Saku Koivu once told me, there's almost a mathematical equation to be made between your distance to the locker room and the amount of BS you say or write. My position, my job, asks me to be in constant contact with the players, so the issue resolves itself.
AB: Do you travel with the players on the road?
MAG: Yes I do. The way we work it at La Presse is that we are two guys who are covering the beat, Richard Labbe and I. The both of us cover the 82 games, and we split the 41 games on the road. Before the season starts we look at the calendar, and whatever works best for both of us, we divide the calendar accordingly so we have roughly the same number of road games. But we fly commercial, we're not with the team on their charter. The only members of the media on their charter are the broadcasters and play-by-play, so guys from TSN Radio and 98.5, and the two from RDS.
AB: What are your impressions of the current make up of the team, do you see any glaring weaknesses? If this season actually happens do you think they'll get anywhere, or do you think it's another season where we're hoping for a good draft pick?
MAG: I don't think that that team was as bad as it's draft ranking last year. Obviously they weren't a team good enough to make the playoffs, but it's not a team that was worthy of finishing dead last in the east. It ended up being that for a number of reasons, including injuries. The key players have not changed from last year, so I don't expect dramatically improved results. But what I do expect is under coach Therrien, his methods and the way he asks a lot of his players, he'll get the most out of them. In the short term, there is going to be a Michel Therrien effect on the Canadiens. He's going to be able to take the maximum out of that group of players. How long it's going to last? It might last a year, a year and a half, before it starts fading. And I expect the same thing with Bob Hartley in Calgary. I'm sure, just because it's Therrien, that the team won't finish last for another year. Under the present make up of the team, I don't expect them to... They're not assured to have a spot in the playoffs waiting for them, but they'll battle, they'll work hard. They could finish anywhere from 7-12th, it's so close these days. And this season with a smaller calendar, it's going to be even closer. But honestly, the Montreal Canadiens are a team that could benefit from not having a season at all, because it's a season of in between that could easily be wasted from a management standpoint, and it would not have a serious impact. The real impact is financially for Geoff Molson, but that's a different story. Hockey-wise when you look at the core of this team, what's most important is the prospects need to gain experience. They're doing it, they're learning the hard way in Hamilton. We'll start to see a shift in a couple years from now, and the Canadiens could very rapidly return to respectability and become contenders if two or three of those prospects pan out. I think each have their own style. I think of Alex Galchenyuk and Jarred Tinordi will be locks to become important players on the Canadiens at some point. Tinordi never as an offensive weapon of course, but as a steady guy at the blueline. Nathan Beaulieu we don't know. Bournival I like what I see, I like his grit.
AB: I like him a lot. I think he's very underrated.
MAG: Yeah he could be a good third line centerman. He reminds me a bit hockey-wise of Chris Higgins when he arrived in terms of his intensity. They've got tools. Aside from Galchenyuk no budding superstar, but they've got a franchise goaltender, they've got a young defenseman who might become a star too, but of course up front they'll have to solve their problem. For the longest time we said the problem up front with the Montreal Canadiens were at center, but what we noticed last year is that with Desharnais, Plekanec, and Eller, they have three potential second line centers, but they didn't have enough wingers to complement all those guys. Apart from Gionta, Cole, and Pacioretty, rapidly you get short in terms of wings. So that's a problem that will need to be addressed. But apart from the prospects it's only when a certain amount of money will be free and Marc Bergevin will be able to use it that we'll see how he can compensate, and really strengthen his team.
AB: Which Habs teams, I think you said you were covering since 2007, of those teams which were your favourite make up to cover? Was it the 2010 team just because of the playoffs, or maybe the 2008 team because they were 1st in the conference?
MAG: I think that it doesn't really change from one year to another. You never know what you get into, but apart from the shift from 2009-2010 where the complete roster changed, it's the same faces year after year. So are they nicer to cover one year after another? Well it doesn't really change. The only year that stands out compared to the others is the centennial season. Because for all the effort that management has done to create fireworks and a year of celebration, it was a total meltdown on the ice and in the locker room. It was like one scandal after another, it was endless. That was really something else to cover, that year. Apart from that, I mean, the number of wins or losses, how far they go in the playoffs, it doesn't change anything for my job. I tend to get a bit of distance from their performance, it just gives me a direction on the topics I might write about the day after. But I'm insensitive now to wins and losses.
AB: Outside of the Halak playoffs, was there ever a time where you were genuinely surprised with what was going on with the team on the ice?
MAG: I was surprised how low they could get last year. I think that Pierre Gauthier is the one person that surprised me the most since I started covering hockey. Because of the decisions he made, because of the timing, he left everybody wondering, including his own players. To this day it just baffles me how this guy managed his team. We have to think, of course everybody knows about Cammalleri being traded in between the second and third period, or Spacek not knowing where he was going. Same with Hal Gill. The firing of Perry Pearn an hour and a half before a game. Replacing a coach with a guy who kept pretty much the same system as his predecessor, so the players were left, they thought, "Well how come you got rid of the other coach to replace him with someone who's got exactly the same philosophy?" I always thought, if you decide to make a change it's because you think the option you've got waiting in the wings becomes a better one. In this case there was no way. With all due respect to Randy Cunneyworth, he was a very good guy, and he had a tough hand to play, but he was not a better coach than Jacques Martin. I thought personally, that Gauthier would have waited until the season was over to sack Martin, but he thought; If I wait until the end of the season, it's not only Martin who's going to get fired but me too. In the end he was right.
AB: I think that's all I've got to ask you really, I can't think of anything else. Thanks for doing this Marc! It was really great to meet you.