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‘We know that we may only have one shot to introduce the women’s game to an audience’: Leah Hextall talks about broadcasting the CWHL

Hextall talks about the challenges she, and Sportsnet face covering women’s hockey.

Shanna Martin / CWHL

Two weeks ago, Leah Hextall was getting ready to broadcast two games in two cities with four different teams as a part of Sportsnet’s CWHL weekend. It was the first time that Sportsnet devoted a weekend to regular-season women’s hockey. The broadcaster will also show the All-Star Game and the Clarkson Cup championship.

The weekend was a new experience for Hextall.

“Sadly, we only do four games,” she said. “So on a weekend like this, I’m doing 50% of my games in two days so that’s a lot of work for me and I’m travelling, so that’s a new challenge for me. I’ve never done back-to-back games, I’ve never done travel. So I think ‘OK, what if I was ever doing the NHL one day?’ If it was a playoff series I’d have to do stuff like this. It’s a great challenge.”

Hextall became the national voice of the CWHL last year. She and Cassie Campbell-Pascall, a two-time gold medallist and three-time Olympic medallist, became the first all-women broadcast crew to nationally televise the Clarkson Cup. She also works with Jennifer Botterill, who did the second of the two games on Sportsnet.

The CWHL emphasizes putting women in leadership positions both within the game and outside of it.

“If you watch sports, [an all-women broadcast crew] doesn’t happen a lot at any level so the fact that the CWHL and Sportsnet are open to that is great,” Hextall said. “[Rob Corte, the Vice President of Sportsnet & NHL production] is a male ally. He’s giving me an opportunity as is the league to broadcast their product and present that female front.

“If you look at Sami Jo Small. She’s now a general manager [of the Toronto Furies]. You can’t learn to do those jobs in the NHL. You’re not going to get a job in the NHL doing that type of work. But here she is in the CWHL which can be a breeding ground to her learning management that one day could lead to a job in the National Hockey League. It’s lifting women and developing them so they do get those jobs that have not always had a female presence in them.

“I’ve been a sports broadcaster for 17 years and when I started I was often the only female in the room no matter what I was covering. That has changed. There are women everywhere. But women are still in those roles, traditionally as hosts, rinkside reporters. You see Cassie in a colour role, she’s one of not even a handful of women doing colour in hockey in the professional game but you don’t see women breaking in some of those roles such as play-by-play.”

Hextall understands that a lot of people tuning in to the CWHL will be new to the league, which presents a challenge, but also an opportunity.

“When we broadcast the game, we understand that for a lot of people it may be the first time they ever turn on the TV to the game. So we are introducing these women all the time to the audience. So we really focus on that. Even your stars like Marie-Philip Poulin. You should know who this woman is. She is the best female hockey player to ever play the game. You should know who she is but you don’t always. So you use the stars to drive, then we bring in the young players. [Toronto had] seven rookies on the ice. So we bring in those storylines to talk about the young players as well because eventually they are going to be your stars.

“We know that we may only have one shot to introduce the women’s game to an audience if someone is flipping through the TV so we put all we can behind it at Sportsnet to make sure we create the best product we can.”

Hextall has been around hockey. Her family is littered with NHL experience and she knows the game through her work with ESPN, Hockey Night in Canada, and NESN, among others. But play-by-play presented a new experience.

“First and foremost it’s hard. It’s really hard. When I asked Sportsnet for the opportunity I was very humble in my ask because as much as I am a broadcaster I knew that this was something that I may never be able to do. Because the people who do it make it look easy, but it is not easy. But they gave me the opportunity and that’s what it’s all about. Getting your foot in the door and starting. Because you can’t get good without repetition.

“I think it’s great to have two women calling the women’s game. I think it’s time. I think everyone’s ready for it, especially on the network level, but it’s not something where you can just go find someone off the street to do it. You have to know broadcast and you have to know the game. And when I talk about knowing the game, I’ve grown up around the game, I’ve covered the game, but do you really know the game? And at the speed that it’s happening [...] I’m puck watching and I miss a penalty and that’s where Cassie comes in and she’s so amazing [...] There’s such a learning curve. But it’s about women getting that opportunity and their supporters to give them confidence because you’re not going to be great. I’m not great. But I’m getting better.”

“I had someone once ask me, ‘Why don’t you try doing colour?’, and I just looked at them and said, ‘are you crazy?’ I don’t think people understand how much these players see. When I was in studio when I was at Sportsnet and I’m sitting there with analysts the way they watch the games, the intricacies that they pick up on — forget it. You watch the game as a person, you think you know. No. They know. When you play, especially at that level — Olympians multiple times over, gold medallists — their vision of the game and what they see.... I learn something every time I talk to them and it’s such a gift.”

Preparing to broadcast the CWHL isn’t easy. When you’re the only broadcaster doing games on TV, it’s hard to watch film to learn. The league streams some games which are available, but it means that Hextall and her broadcast team have to do their own legwork.

“A lot of it is picking up the phone and calling people,” Hextall said. “Prior to the weekend, I spoke to every GM and coach of each team that we’re doing. They’re really the ones that see the team on a daily basis, and can give you the insight into the players. Give you the little nuggets that you want to drop into a broadcast. Knowing that Megan Quinn never wipes a smile off her face that’s a fantastic little nugget for a rookie defenceman on Toronto.

“It is difficult. You do an NHL game and everything is there for you. As you get higher, things get easier in the broadcast world. Stat tracking, shots on goal, we’re doing that all on our own. So it’s a lot of extra work that does affect the product. When you have to spend a week just to learn about these girls because you can’t find the information you’re trying to dig out yourself, it does affect your performance, but at the same time it also makes me better because I feel like I have a strong understanding of every single player on that ice.”

You can catch Hextall and Campbell-Pascall on the call of the fourth CWHL All-Star Game on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on Sportsnet.

Seven members of Les Canadiennes will take part: Erin Ambrose, Ann-Sophie Bettez, Hilary Knight, Emerance Maschmeyer, Marie-Philip Poulin, Lauriane Rougeau, and Jill Saulnier.

Former Canadiennes goaltender Charline Labonté will be one of the guest coaches.