Chris Johnston is one of the NHL’s top insiders who has just celebrated 21 years in the industry. It has given him time to reflect on his early years growing up in Coburg, Ontario, where he was more of an outsider to the world of hockey, reading or watching only from a distance the work of people who would become his colleagues. These people would include Ron McLean, who a young Johnston would watch on Hockey Night in Canada, like every other Canadian hockey fan growing up. And Bob McKenzie, someone Chris always especially admired, who he now works with at TSN.
If it feels sentimental to you, that’s because it very much is. After 9 years with Sportsnet, Chris recently announced a pivotal change in his career to become an NHL insider with TSN. He’s also taken a leadership role with Nordstar’s new gaming venture, as a Senior NHL Insider, which will have his work regularly featured in the Toronto Star.
The Toronto Star was the paper of choice for his late Mother, who would read it every morning with a black coffee. She would share the sports section with Chris while he ate his cereal before school. In his own words, this daily ritual ‘kept the peace and fed a dream’.
While Chris’ 21-year career seems to be coming full circle in interesting ways, he believes it’s also a product of the changing media landscape. As that landscape begins to include more in-person reporting as a return to a norm post-COVID, Chris is excited to get back into the arenas and bring the human side of hockey to Canadians and Leafs fans everywhere. We sat down with Chris to discuss his journey to journalism, his transition to TSN, and his thoughts on the season ahead.
Tell us about life for you growing up in Cobourg, Ontario. Did you have dreams of playing professional hockey when you were young?
I was a hockey nut for as long as I can remember. I was a kid who watched games on TV, used to collect NHL stickers and trading cards, and played minor hockey my entire life, from three years old until I moved away to university. I grew up playing a lot of road hockey. There wasn’t a ton to do in a small town, so that really accounted for a lot of my time as a child.
Strangely, my journey to doing what I do now is also connected back to that time. When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I started saying that I wanted to be a hockey journalist. No one in my family is quite sure where that came from. I can’t really say why either, we were a family that grew up reading the newspaper a lot at the breakfast table each morning, and my mom in particular was a real newshound. I started telling her I was going to be a hockey journalist and I never really lost that idea… and obviously ended up pursuing it as my profession.
Was there anyone in the industry that really gave you your first big break or gave you a piece of advice that you’ve never forgotten?
Anytime you have any success in your life, there are always people along the way that have helped get you there, it’s impossible without it. My mom, Linda, was a big influence on my life. She was more studious. My dad, who was an immigrant from Scotland, didn’t have much of an education. My mom encouraged me to pursue things like writing. She gave me the confidence to believe that I could succeed in a career like this.
Once I attended Ryerson University, which was my first move away from Coburg, I ended up getting a job at a company called The Canadian Press. I was 18, and within 3 weeks of moving to Toronto, the Editor there, Neil Davidson, was very kind in hiring me. It also initially linked me up with Pierre Lebrun, who at the time was the company’s main hockey writer. Pierre has been a pretty steady influence throughout my life, and has helped to introduce me to people in the industry. He’s also now my close friend and confidant, especially since I’ve taken a job at TSN and am working alongside him again. He is just one of those people who has been a guardian angel throughout my life, and really helped to motivate, encourage, and support me when I was still finding my way.
What are your memories of your first night working on Hockey Night in Canada? Did you have a chance to enjoy the moment, or was it too nerve-wracking?
I was a nervous wreck. I am not going to sugarcoat it, or try to twist the truth on that one (laughs). You know, as much as I told you that I wanted to be a hockey writer, and managed to do that even through the initial stages of my career, that was a place that I never really planned on getting to. I never would have imaging that I would be on that stage, sitting beside Ron McLean. He was in that seat when I was a kid, watching on Saturday nights. I remember the pit in my stomach that I had on that day. You know, I did 4 seasons at Hockey Night, and I would say that there was a healthy level of anxiety that went with every Saturday that I worked. Starting Thursday, I would feel it in my shoulders if I didn’t have ideas or any info, and I would be making a lot of calls Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I always felt like that was a spot to be lived up to I suppose.
I never really felt like I made it. I was actually told the first Saturday, that I was only promised one. Part of the reason that I’m sure I was nervous the first week was because there was no promise that there’d be a second (laughs).
To get a little sentimental, I remember going home after the first or second Saturday for thanksgiving. My family had bought me a small painting of the Hockey Night logo, and they all signed the back. That’s still hanging up in my apartment. It was a big thrill for my whole family, and for me, to get that chance. The fact that I did over 100 shows in 4 years is honestly still a bit surreal.
How long does it take for a reporter to build up the contacts and network to become ‘an insider’ in the game? Was it hard getting agents or players or teams to trust you at first?
I don’t think there is any way to speed it up, honestly. One thing that I have to remind myself, even now, is that stamina is a skill in this industry. The longer that you can hang around and keep doing it, and continue to be relevant and have a platform, the more people you’re going to know.
Sometimes it takes going out and physically meeting people, and spending time with them, to gain their trust. Your reputation also takes a while to build, you have to get to a point where people are returning you texts, calls and emails, and for them to actually stop and have a chat with you if they see you at an arena. It’s hard to say the exact amount of time, but it felt like a long time. There were certainly lots of days where I wondered if I would get there.
Let’s talk about your life away from hockey. What are some of your favourite holiday memories or traditions your family has that you really look forward to every year?
The big one is just spending time together, and often that means going back to Coburg because my dad still lives there. I actually have a sister who lives in Ottawa with her family. Usually we all converge in Coburg on or around Christmas Day, depending on what everyone else’s in-law situation is. We just hang out together, watch the kids open presents, and reminisce a little bit. We talk about my mom, who died a few years ago. A lot of those years, we’ve rented ice and gone skating at an arena. Hockey is part of our holiday traditions, too, including watching the World Junior Tournament on TV.
What is your favourite holiday movie if you had to choose just one?
What is the most memorable Christmas gift you have ever received and why?
Probably when I got an Easton aluminum hockey stick. I don’t know what age I would have been, but it was the same model that
Wayne Gretzky would have used after he went to the Kings, so somewhere in the early 90’s. That was a huge thrill… I wasn’t getting those types of things too much at that age (laughs).
Tell me about your decision to run every day last year since the start of COVID? What inspired that? What did that teach you about yourself?
Well, it really came from the fact that I used to be a pretty committed runner for a number of years and that stopped about 10 years ago. It was always kind of in my mind that I would like to get back to it, but I never made the time… it was just one of those things that I kept putting off. When COVID hit, I found myself with a lot more time. I also found myself in a hard place around then. I was worried about what was going on in the world, I was worried about my family, health… I didn’t know what was happening with my job at that point or what the company would do, and so as a way of giving myself a little bit of purpose, I told myself I was going to run every day. This was at the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, when there was truly nothing to do. So I told myself that even if I didn’t accomplish anything else that day, I would have still done something positive for myself.
What I have learned from it is the power of small actions repeated. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s changed my life.
I feel a lot better physically, I have a lot more clarity of thought, and a lot more conviction in my decision making. It’s been really positive for me, and I am still doing it today. I think I am at around 530 days. I started April 29th, 2020. I don’t know that it would be for everyone, but certainly for me, it was just nice to have that become part of my routine and I find that it is almost meditative for me.
Speaking about decision making, tell me about your decision to move to TSN. Was it hard to leave Sportsnet? What’s it like working on the panel? You have said before that you were always a big fan of Bob McKenzie. What is it like working with his son, Shawn?
Shawn is a good friend of mine, and he was one of many reasons it was difficult for me to leave Sportsnet. You know Elliotte Friedman, David Amber, Caroline Cameron… I really did become close with all of the people I worked with at Sportsnet. I was there for almost 9 years, and owe a lot to them.
But, I think that change can be healthy in your life. I got to the point this summer where my contract was expiring, and I had 5 other places calling me about potential jobs. I had to go through that process, and ultimately what I landed on here just felt right. I think it’s good to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and I would say quite candidly that’s where I am talking to you from today. It’s been a huge change and upheaval. It’s just a new rhythm to the life that I am living. I won’t be travelling nearly as much in these new roles as I was in my previous one. It’s pretty cool to be back working with Pierre, and to even be working with Bob. Bob’s in the group chat now on my phone, which is pretty neat for me, as someone who grew up wanting to follow his path in this industry. So there were definitely mixed emotions in the summer, as I was working through my decision. I left behind some people that I think will be lifelong friends, but I am going to hopefully make more friends here at the new shop.
What are your thoughts on the Ottawa Senators?
Well, I think that the Senators are deserving of their hype. I look at the foundation that they have built with the young players, and I see lots of reasons for optimism for the team.
What’s your best advice for any young journalists looking to follow in your footsteps?
Be a little more patient, because when you want something really bad, it’s natural that you reach points where you think it’s not happening for you, or to wonder if you’re on the right path. Certainly in my 20’s I had those feelings at various points. If you are able to stay in the industry long enough, it is amazing how someone who you might have met 10 years ago all of a sudden is a GM, or a more prominent agent… I think there is no substitute for time when it comes to building up your contact base and trust in the industry.
Photography by Cole Burston