Shawn Mckenzie has lived and breathed hockey his entire life. Growing up as the son of Canadian broadcasting legend Bob McKenzie, he was constantly exposed to the fast world of high-level hockey, the NHL, the World Juniors, and the Olympics: he grew up behind the scenes of it all. When concussions ended his on-ice career at only 14, Shawn found another way to contribute to the world he grew up in: he returned to broadcasting, but this time, on his own. At only 22-years-old, Shawn was reporting on the Ottawa Senators for Sportsnet, a time he will never forget. We caught up with Shawn to discuss his journey to Sportsnet, what Sens fans can expect from the NHL’s upcoming Canadian division, and some advice for aspiring sports broadcasters.
What was life like growing up in Whitby, Ontario? Do you remember the first time you played hockey? Any special memories?
Growing up in a hockey family, I think I was one of those people who probably was on skates at 2. I do remember a lot of backyard rinks and being outdoors on ponds. I think there was a pond out in Ajax near my grandparent’s condo where we – my cousins, brother, and I – would go out and skate on. I also have tons of memories at Iroquois Park playing minor hockey growing up. Like anyone growing up in Ontario or Canada, there was lots of outdoor skating. About a kilometer’s walk from my house in Whitby that I grew up in, was an awesome pond that froze really early, so from elementary school to high school it was the place to be. All my buddies would meet up at and play games and do the whole pond hockey thing.
It’s been written that you retired from playing hockey at age 14 due to concussions. How difficult was that for you?
At the time it was really, really difficult. Anyone who’s gone through concussions can relate to what it’s like. I was always a clumsy kid, and I think I had about 7 concussions at a young age from playing lacrosse and having fun with friends. My last one was from playing hockey, and it triggered what was called and eventually diagnosed as Daily Chronic Headache Syndrome, which was basically a low level headache for around 2 years. So first and foremost, there was the medical annoyances of not knowing exactly what was wrong. Anyone who’s gone through concussions and that type of injury knows that it’s not like a broken arm; you can’t just put a cast on it, and no doctor can tell you “4-6 weeks and you’re good to go”. As a 14-year-old kid who is a AAA hockey player and going into his OHL draft year at the time, that’s the end-all deal, that’s the #1 thing in life. That’s who your friends are, that’s your identity. I remember just saying from a medical side “tell me I’m alright, tell me I can play or clear me” and hearing these doctors say “no, we have no idea what’s wrong and you can’t go back until we do. Even if we do figure it out, you’ve had so many concussions that we don’t think we can clear you.” As a 14-year-old whose identity is playing hockey, and coming from a family where your dad is a well-known person and figure in hockey, and your brother at the time is a junior hockey player committed to play division 1 college hockey… it was difficult. I remember looking up to people around me that were a bit older that were drafted into the OHL, playing junior hockey or committed to college like my brother, and thinking “wow, that’s the dream”. And then all of a sudden, I’m watching that dream being taken away because of something that I didn’t really understand. It was so complex and confusing, as brain injuries are. It’s something I wouldn’t wish for anyone to go through. Looking back, it’s something that made me a better person, but at the time it was extremely difficult. Long story short, it wasn’t easy, but it pushed me in this direction, and brought me to the point where I realized I could still do something with hockey, just not actually on the ice.
When did you first start to get your eye on getting into broadcasting? What aspect of broadcasting/reporting appealed to you most when you first started considering it as a profession?
Growing up, my brother travelled a lot with my dad to places like the World Juniors, Stanley Cup Finals, and I was a little bit more… I guess you could say a homebody. As I got older, I think it really started to appeal to me. I knew I wanted to do something in hockey, especially after going through everything that I just mentioned. I knew that hockey was a passion, and I always thought that maybe I’d be an agent. But I realized very quickly that you have to have a law or business degree, and I do not have the faculties for that (laughs). Math and school weren’t exactly my thing, so that idea went out the window pretty quickly. It wasn’t until the Vancouver World Juniors, the year that Justin Pogge was there, ‘06. My dad said to me “come out to Vancouver for the World Juniors”. I went for the full 2 weeks, and I really got the sense of what went into the business of TV. At the time, the TSN set would take over a private box, so I would sit there from 9am until 11pm and I would just watch my dad and James Duthie and all these people come and go and make TV. I think from a very young age I got to see what went on in the ‘behind the scenes’, and I got to see the life that a lot of these reporters and hosts live on the road: it’s social, it’s fun. Especially if you have a really good team, which we do at Sports Net and I know TSN had at the time I was travelling. Just a great group of guys and girls, and you go and talk hockey and get to be at the rink. It’s long days, but I think that was the moment where I saw everything that went into it and it really, really appealed to me.
You got your start in the NHL covering the Ottawa Senators. Did you live in Ottawa during your time covering the team? If so, what are some of your favourite memories living in this city?
I love Ottawa, I still have a lot of friends there. Covering the Sens was so much different then covering other teams. I was a 22-year-old young TV reporter with my first job, and I’d be walking down the street and people would be like “hey, I love the Sens, great work”. In Toronto, it’s a little different, because there’s so many people and so many walks of life that it’s just a different feel. Ottawa felt like a big city, but very homey. Everyone wanted to stop and talk. It just seemed like a small town feel, and I mean that in the best way possible.
What was it like covering the NHL Playoffs this (past) season?
It was a unique experience. There was a time where it was looking like we were getting back to the season starting, so there was a couple weeks there where I was thinking I could be going into the bubble, which is a bit scary. Most players and staff could probably tell you that going to live at a hotel for 3 months away from friends and family and loved ones can be a daunting process, but it’s also really exciting, because you get to be in on it. Obviously that ended up changing, and there wasn’t as much media in the bubble as we expected, but they did an amazing job setting up a system. We would come in through a different door – there was a strict media entrance – and we were allowed on the upper concourse. We had the rights to the playoffs and to do the broadcasting, so we were set up in the upper bowl with the play by play, the colour guy, and the host. It was very different because normally our walk-off interviews – and anyone who’s watched a broadcast knows – are right next to the players. It’s more of a personal interaction. This year we were in a room off to the side in the upper bowl with a speaker, a microphone and a screen. We would see the players on the screen, and they wouldn’t see us, they just had a speaker. Our voice would just almost come like the voice of God over the PA system. The first couple interviews, guys weren’t really used to it, they would come off, be sweaty, out of breath, I’d hit my button and start asking questions and you see them kind of flinch and go “where the hell is that coming from?!”.
What are your thoughts on the Canadian Division?
Do you think the Leafs, as many project, would be the favourites this year? What are your thoughts on the Ottawa Senators off-season and roster heading into 2021? I love the whole idea of the Canadian Division, just because they’re so many rivalries that we get little tastes of. I know a couple of years ago with Vancouver and Toronto, Nazem Kadri seemed to upset the whole Canucks team and every time they played there seemed to be a lot of hate. And every time we watch Matthews and McDavid go head-to-head it’s exciting. Normally, we’d only be able to see them play once or twice a year, and they don’t really develop the same energy or excitement that you’re going to see a lot more of now.
We get to see Calgary and Edmonton go head-to-head a lot more, which is always going to be exciting. I’ve spoken to a lot of people in hockey and, people in Ottawa might not like to hear this, but the Leafs are probably on paper the favourite to come out on top in the division. On paper the Sens would be the bottom section of that. Not only do they always seem to have that pesky Sens attitude that Ottawa fans have come to love, but this year more than ever they have so much young talent. They have a coach who seems to embrace that, and really seems to bring out the best in guys. I cannot say enough good things about DJ Smith, not only as a coach but as a person. He’s one of the most fun guys to talk to, and one of the most interesting guys to talk to. He just seems to have a different way about his approach and about the way he thinks about the game. It’s new school, it’s exciting.
That’s probably the best way to describe the Sens: young, exciting, fast, skilled… it just might take a few years to get to the point where Sens fans can say “we are having real success”. But in this day and age, you see guys stepping into the league and having an impact. So I’m not ruling out the fact that the Sens could surprise a lot of people.
Your dad, Bob McKenzie, recently announced he is heading into semi-retirement. What is the best piece of advice he’s given you?
He’s helped me so much along the way. Media is such a strange business, and from the outside, people don’t exactly understand what goes into it. It’s constantly evolving and changing. So to have someone like him to be able to turn to in moments where I need help has really been great to have along the way. I think the biggest piece of advice that he gave me, and it was early on in my career, was “nothing is as good as you think it is, and nothing is as bad”. That advice should be given to anyone, especially in TV.
Sometimes you nail it: you think you killed it and you’re walking away going “that was perfect!”. And then you watch it back 5 minutes later and you’re going “well that was just average”. And then there’s some moments where you forget a word or slip up on a live hit and you leave wanting to bang your head against the wall saying “I screwed up, I’m going to end up on YouTube… that was so embarrassing. I did an awful job”. But you watch it back and go “oh that didn’t look too bad, it looked natural”. So I think the advice of “nothing is as good as you think it is and nothing is as bad” really helped me to put things out of my mind. It’s like when hockey players say “you can’t ride the lows too low or the highs too high”. Sometimes, you just have to do your job, park it, and move on.
There’s always going to be a next live hit: if you screw one up, do better on the next one. If you killed one and did amazing, don’t think the next one will go as well: you always have to reset.
Tell us a little about your mom and the role she’s played in the success that your family has had over the years?
She’s the cornerstone of the family. It’s funny because there’s 3 of us all involved in hockey, all in the public eye in our own way. And though she’s in the background where she likes to be, if it wasn’t for her, nothing would get done. When my brother was playing college hockey, we would always go to visit and go out to dinner. My dad would start breaking down my brother’s games, and I’d be asking about his dorm and about college life, and my mom would be the one to ask if he was going to class, and how his grades were (laughs). She always focused on the things that actually mattered. Because our heads were always in the clouds of hockey this, and hockey that, and I think she’s the one who always brought us down to earth and made us realize that there’s a lot more to life than talking about hockey.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to any younger person looking to follow in your footsteps?
Be willing to do anything and everything. In a world where media is constantly changing, there will always be people who tell you that it’s “doom and gloom”: that the business sucks and there’s no future in it. To that I always get frustrated, because when I was going to school there were those people who said the same thing. Is it tough? Yes. They are job cuts constantly. But I think more than ever, there’s an avenue for creative people. It may not look the way it used to, and hockey coverage and sports coverage may not be as traditional as it used to be, but in a lot of ways that’s a good thing. I’ll take for example Steve Dangle (Glynn), someone who has done it his own way and who didn’t go the traditional route. He didn’t go to broadcasting school and then work at a small network and then jump over to a big network. I think more and more we are seeing people who don’t have to follow the traditional route, and is it difficult? Yes, but don’t give up: be creative.