Jennifer Botterill, a familiar face on Hockey Night in Canada, has enjoyed every step of her dynamic career in both sports and sports media. Now a Studio Analyst and Keynote Speaker, Botterill’s hockey career started at 13. Growing up, she watched her brother play for Canada at the World Junior’s. This, she says, was one of the biggest inspirations for her to pursue excellence in hockey.
And she did just that. Botterill is the career leading scorer of US college ice hockey, where she played for Harvard University. She went on to play for Team Canada after school, and is a 3x Olympic Gold Medalist. Her incredible career on the ice had a photo finish at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games, where she assisted Marie-Philip Poulin on the gold medal-winning goal.
Today, Botterill channels her ambition into her broadcasting career and family life, as a mother of three young daughters. We caught up with the Ottawa-born analyst to discuss her career highlights, her transition to broadcasting, and her favourite aspects of the fast-paced industry of sports media.
You were born in Ottawa, but you grew up in Winnipeg. How long did you live in Ottawa?
We moved to Winnipeg when I was just a year old. My parents talk about Ottawa and those early days very often, and I’m fortunate enough to travel to Ottawa quite frequently for speaking events. I’m usually there a few times a year. Every time I visit the city, I love it. And it certainly brings back a lot of good feelings knowing that it’s the city that I was born in.
You come from a very successful and athletic family. What was life like growing up?
I was very fortunate that the people that I was surrounded by, my mom, my dad, my brother, were all very accomplished. What I feel very grateful for was that there wasn’t any pressure on us to do something. We never had to try to make Team Canada. It was just a really supportive environment where both of my parents encouraged my brother and I to be active, to get involved in sports, but to be great students at the same time. To work really hard and to be dedicated to our schoolwork.
From a young age, it was encouraged to pursue excellence in a lot of different ways. And I think both my brother and I look back and feel very thankful that we were in that environment, and to have learnt those lessons. We had positive, unconditional support. My parents really taught us everything about having the right motivations, and doing things for the right reason, and making sure that you were bringing your best, but also making sure that you bring out the best in the people around you as well, in every capacity.
Do you remember the first time you played hockey? What was it about the sport that attracted you to it at a young age?
There’s a photo of my brother and I playing basement hockey. I remember very clearly in our home, we would go down to a little basement and play ball hockey all the time. That’s my first memory.
At the end of our street, there was an outdoor rink. I also played ringette from a young age. So I just played ball hockey and street hockey, and organized ringette. I didn’t switch to hockey until I was 13 years old. My parents said they knew as soon as I started playing the sport that it was something really special because they could see my smile through my cage. They could tell I was beaming when I was playing hockey.
I started because friends of mine were playing. I had a great group of friends. And that’s really how I fell in love with the game. I also had the chance to watch my brother, who continues to be a huge inspiration for me. I remember that shortly after I started playing hockey. I had the chance to watch my brother compete at the World Junior Hockey Championships and represent Canada. It was a huge inspiration for me to see him wearing that Team Canada sweater with our family name on the back. I just thought that was so special, and that I would love to be in a situation similar to that at some point down the road.
You graduated from Harvard University, where you had one of the most successful NCAA careers in history. Was it hard for you to balance academics and hockey?
It was busy. There’s no question about that. But it compared to the environment that I grew up in in that it was still about the pursuit of excellence. I remember going on visits to various universities and calling my parents from Harvard Square to tell them this was the place for me.
To be in an environment, surrounded by so many people who were driven to be their best, was something that I really respected. I wanted to be a part of it in any capacity. It was very demanding, because I set very high standards for myself in school, and for being the best hockey player that I could.
That was always a constant for me. I wanted to be the best hockey player that I could be, but also wanted to make sure that I was more than a hockey player. I think I really had to learn how to balance those demands. The key was to remain in the present, to stay focused, and to make sure that I was efficient with my time and in my pursuit of excellence.
I’d have, what I called, these moments of appreciation. Sometimes I’d walk right from the classes over to the rink and I would often try to take a moment to appreciate the busyness. To think that although it’s demanding, it’s a pretty special place to be.
Looking back on your career, one that included being a 3-time Gold Medalist, a 5-time World Champion, and one of the best NCAA athletes in history, what accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
That’s a tough question. I am so grateful for my journey, but if I did have to pick one, it likely would be my Vancouver 2010 gold medal. It was the Olympic Games in my home country and our team performed so well. It was special on so many levels. To this day, when I see pictures or footage from that game or the moments just before or just after the game, I still get really emotional. I get chills.
I was an athlete who dreamed about being in the Olympics from a young age, watched the Olympics on television, and then had the chance to compete in Canada. A dream come true. We’d worked so hard for that moment. We felt the people, literally from coast to coast, that were following along and watching. We felt like every Canadian really was a part of it.
After your retirement from hockey, you made the transition into broadcasting. When did you first start to consider this as a career? What were some of the challenges you faced when you started?
Shortly after I retired from my competitive career, Hockey Canada reached out to me because of some upcoming broadcasting opportunities with the Women’s World Championships. They asked if I was interested and I said absolutely. So it started slowly, with a few opportunities each year. I realized that I did really enjoy it, that it was a chance to stay involved and to stay connected to the sport, just in a very different capacity. It’s always a challenge when you enter a new phase of your life and you transition.
I felt ready for new adventures and to have the time and the energy to focus on new things. But it was still an adjustment. I was used to being an athlete, my focus had been on being a hockey player. So there was a learning curve, a shift in focus to now trying to be the best in that situation as a broadcaster. To make the games more intriguing, more interesting for viewers and for fans. It’s been an evolution.
Do you find any similarities between playing hockey and broadcasting?
That’s a great question, because I do find a lot of parallels. I was surprised at how many connections I could draw from all of my years playing. I was now instead a performer in the broadcasting world. There was similar adrenalin, preparation, and game time. There were the same moments and opportunities to showcase the game and people closer to the action and closer to the athletes. I think I’ve drawn on my past experiences as an athlete many times and very often in terms of preparing myself and trusting myself to do well. As an athlete, you talk about your ideal performance state and what it feels like to perform at your best. And I feel like I draw on that now in the same capacity.
What was your experience like entering into broadcasting, a very male-dominated industry, as a woman? Do you feel there are still barriers for women in this industry?
I think we’re taking strides, and my focus is to try to do my very best in this role and with these opportunities so that it helps others have choices down the road. That’s something that many females in hockey, whether it’s broadcasting or journalism or production or coaching roles or executive roles, take pride in. I think we want to do a great job so that it opens the door for others. And that’s how I see hockey, too. Not every girl in North America has to play hockey, but I really love that in many communities it’s now a choice for girls. I would hope it is the same for all of those roles that I mentioned, broadcasting, executive roles, coaching, player development… these roles should be an option regardless of gender.
Your discussion with Kevin Bieska over the Tom Wilson incident got a lot of attention on Twitter. What are your thoughts on the response it received?
This is very much connected to the last question you asked, in that everybody I have worked with has been amazing and super supportive. I had the chance this season to work with the New York Islanders and it was the same. The network there, my colleagues, the people I was on the air with, all were amazing to work with. It was never a gender issue, it was just people supporting people to help them do well. And so it’s just very much the same for me with these opportunities with Rogers, SportsNet and CBC, they’re all great. I feel super thankful that they’ve been incredibly professional and supportive and encouraging in terms of my role and my involvement in the discussion. Yes, it did create quite a lot of feedback from people. What I appreciated about that discussion that we had on Hockey Night in Canada on the segment that they call ‘In Conversation’, was that it gave us each a chance to share our perspective. And I know that each of us respects each other. And it was a platform for each of us to provide some insight into what we believe and why we believe that. And so, again, I just want to reiterate that I have the utmost respect for everyone on the panel. And I think it’s an important topic of conversation. It allowed us the chance to voice our opinions and to share those perspectives.
This issue will be out in July, when the Stanley Cup finals will be taking place. Do you have any bold predictions as to who will be in that cup final?
Well, I did have to submit my prediction to SportsNet. I picked Colorado to make it to the final. If you look at their offensive talent, their top line, including Mackinnon, Rantanen, Landeskog, and then their defenseman Cale Makar, one of the best defenceman in the league right now. They’re going to be tough to beat.
What is a typical game night like for you?
Are you able to enjoy the games at all? Are you told to watch certain players? How do you choose what topics to talk about in the intermission?
Yes, we’re watching the game. So we go to a different studio, that is very spacious right now due to COVID. We enjoy the game, but we’re very focused. We pick our own topics. Each panelist is there watching the game and we work with the production team to mark segments and to mark clips and put them together. And so often that evolves as each period goes along. But we’re the ones that are communicating with the production team so that we each come prepared for the intermissions with the clips and the plays and the segments that we want to break down and bring to the intermission show.
What are your thoughts on the Ottawa Senators this season? Do you feel that the playoffs are a realistic possibility for them next year?
Yes, absolutely. Great story, right? I mean, they had a rough start to the season. But if you look at their record after those first 12 or 13 games, they were great. And if you think about the young talent, I mean, there is a lot of reasons for Sens fans to feel optimistic and to feel excited with the level of talent that we saw from them. So when you’ve got Stützle and Tkachuk, Batherson and Norris, and Chabot, I feel like these are guys that are going to be really cornerstone players for your franchise and they are still so young. So yes, my summary is absolutely, Senators fans, you should be excited. No question, they have the potential to be competitive and to make the playoffs very, very soon.
You have 3 young daughters. How has your life changed since becoming a mom and what’s something that motherhood has taught you?
It’s been the best gift that I feel the ultimate gratitude for. It’s taught me what is most important. I think that’s the ultimate source of inspiration for me to be the best person that I can. It’s very busy and they’re high energy and happy, but I think that’s really my source of motivation every day.
I’ve always loved and respected my mom. I think she’s the ultimate inspiration for me, how she continues to be as a person and as a mom and how she raised my brother and I. She’s someone that I look to often, and she provides the same love and support and the same positive environment and encouragement for my kids. They are young and energetic, but it’s the ultimate joy. I am highly thankful.
One would be to believe in yourself. I think that is just so important, to have self-confidence, and the belief that you can do it. It does take a lot of hard work, but be determined along the way. You may need to make different choices than your friends if you are dedicated to what you want to do to reach your dreams.
I think the ultimate advice I would give is to to believe in yourself. I know I received that advice from my parents when I was 15 and they said, well, why not you? When we talked about the Olympics, they said, well, somebody else will do that, why can’t it be you? And that shifted my perspective and my internal belief system and my self-confidence. So for all of those girls with big dreams and those fun choices that lie ahead of them, that’s what I would say. Why not you?
It’s important to believe in yourself.