From the National Women's Team to Boldly Go Where No Women Have Gone
Twenty-one medals, including 17 gold, two Olympic gold, and six World gold – the longest serving captain (2001 to 2006) of Canada’s National Women’s Team is making as many headlines now as she did during her playing years.
Cassie Campbell retired from the ice in 2006. It didn’t take long before the television stations snatched her up as an analyst. Her knowledge and authoritative voice soon opened the door to the Mecca of Canadian hockey broadcasting: CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. On October 14, 2006, she was the first woman to color commentate on Hockey Night in Canada.
Brampton, Ontario opened the Cassie Campbell Community Centre on September, 13, 2008, where she was accompanied by Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, and members of Hockey Canada’s board. Her annual street hockey charity raises funds for Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities.
I sat down with Campbell last year to get a taste of her whirlwind life.
When you played for Team Canada, how did you juggle work and training?
I wouldn’t say we were working full-time, but a lot of us always had something else on the go. A lot of the girls were students or had part-time jobs. In my case, it was always a lot of different promotional stuff. I did a lot of speaking, and I have two books on the go – I wrote the shell of that. I always had some projects on the side while I was training. Basically, for those of us on the national team now, it’s a full-time commitment.
What did you sacrifice?
I think some of the normalcy of life. I look at some of my girlfriends that aren’t athletes. They’ve got kids already. They have a house and a mortgage and a savings account. They have some of that normal stuff in life. You sort of put that on the back burner. It’s all about hockey. At the same time, it’s your career; it’s your job. It’s a healthy job. You’re fit. You’re active and it’s fun. I just think you sacrifice the little things. My husband and I are both in hockey and we travel a ton in the winter. You’re playing every weekend, so you don’t have that weekend social life that your friends have. And for him and I, we’re away quite a bit from each other in the winter months. It becomes part of your lifestyle.
There is an underestimated component to maintaining fitness levels for athletes and that is sleep. How did you manage to get enough, considering all the travel?
That was probably the weakest part of my game, making sure that I got rest. I spent a lot of time traveling the country, promoting the game, too. I’d be training in gyms from Newfoundland to Victoria and trying to balance all my extra commitments as a captain with the training and everything else. I was never much of a napper. I was, maybe earlier in my career. As an athlete, you had to make sure you got eight or nine hours of sleep a night. You sort of put that into your schedule as a mandatory thing. We slept on planes. We sleep everywhere. I think I have no problem sleeping anywhere, and I think that was because of the way I was as an athlete. If I needed the rest, I just took it.
Since you’ve retired from playing, your schedule hasn’t really slowed down, has it?
I never thought it could occur, but I’m definitely more busy now than I was when I was playing. I think the reason is, when you’re playing, you can say to people, no, I’ve got to train or we have a game.
With the Hockey Night in Canada stuff, I want to know everything. I’ve been a fan of the game, so right now, I’m studying the game. It takes a lot of research and behind the scenes work. Even though it’s Saturday night, it’s really a full-week commitment. For me, it’s learning my new schedule of having a real job and balancing what I need to get done for the show and what I need to get done for my other commitments. The first year was pretty tough. My husband was very supportive. He helped me organize my schedule. And then I really got the hang of it. I started to have a little bit more of a balance. I still train a lot. I don’t train nearly as hard as I used to. I still work out pretty much every day. I wanted that to be part of my schedule. The first year transition from athlete to professional working woman was definitely an anxiety-filled year. There were a lot of changes going on.
Did you find someone in the organization to help with the transition?
I talked with a lot of people. Kelly Hrudey was really great to me, him being a former athlete. He sort of went through the same type of thing. I bounce things off him a lot. He was really good, especially the first summer after my first year. I didn’t do a lot of broadcasting in the summer. I came back the second year and was a bit rusty. He said, you’ve got to go and do a bunch of breakfast shows and do those things to keep that edge. Ron MacLean has been very helpful. He took over from Dave Hodge and the pressure of that situation. I think him and I have a bit of the same thing. I’m the woman who did color and the pressure of that and the hoopla that surrounds that, which is quite funny. He’s helped me with that. He’s such a very down to earth person. I think you lean on some of your colleagues who have been through it before. My husband used to be a professional hockey player. He had the transition of going into the real world. He helped me a lot that first year. I’ve been lucky to surround myself with some really great people.
How has perception of media changed now that you’ve become the media?
I still don’t like some of the things that the media does – some of the gossipy things. I understand why it’s part of it, but I don’t like that side of it. That’s the interesting thing about Hockey Night in Canada is we’re not really a show that’s about that. It’s about the hockey game. It’s about the hockey story. As much as the Hot Stove is a gossipy section, unless you’re on that segment, you’re not really about that. I still struggle with some of that.
I’m on the Olympic Athletes’ Committee, and when we picked the flag bearer for the Summer Olympics, one of the things we talked about was the media perception of our choice. I said, bottom line, we can’t control what the media is going to write, but we can control on who we pick. We pick the right person for the right reason and stick by that. We won’t be able to control the opinions of people out there.
When I first did color, my dad had a really hard time. I was blasted in part of the media. There was some positive stuff and other that wasn’t so positive. My dad had to hear that. Finally, a month or two later, he came to me: “Cass, are you okay?” I said, “Dad, as much as I’m in the media, think about this. These people who are writing these stories, they never call us at Christmas time. I’ve never called them on their birthday. That’s their opinion. That’s their job to have an opinion. But really, it’s not who I am. It’s not what the situation was. You kind of have to put it into perspective.”
I definitely have more sympathy for the media because you’re in it and you know how difficult it is to get the right quote. I still have that athlete side of me that recognizes that it’s not the be all of my existence. I don’t take the good too seriously. When the bad comes, yes it hurts a little bit. I think my overall perspective of it hasn’t changed.
We can watch the news every night and we can see the negative. We read the newspaper and usually the front page is someone was killed. That’s real life stuff and I understand why it’s in. But I think when it comes to sports, the people who you can always see are negative writers and negative people on the air, they’re always negative. When you see them at the rink and talk to them, they’re negative then, too.
For example, during the playoffs, I had to ask Patrick Marleau about the Cory Sarich hit. I said, “Hey, Patrick, heads up, this is what I’m going to do and this is the way we’re going.” He appreciated that. So I think I kind of have that athlete perspective of the media and use that to my advantage.
Do you ever find extra criticism or pressure because you’re a woman?
That’s a tough one. For example, Hockey Night, when I first did the color, it was difficult for people to hear a woman’s voice. That was the first time on Saturday night they heard a woman’s voice. It’s much higher pitched. There are things I had to work on with my voice as a broadcaster that had been brought to my attention. I’ve never felt I couldn’t do something because I’m a woman. I never had that feeling my whole life.
I remember my dad wanted me to play tennis. He thought I would make more money playing tennis than hockey. It wasn’t that he said I don’t want you to play hockey. I’ve never had a feeling in my life that I couldn’t do something because I’m a woman. It’s never been an option. My parents never made me feel that way. My brothers never made me feel that way. If I get the odd negative comment from somebody or some yahoo you meet somewhere and they make the negative comment, it just motivates me. I don’t look at it that he’s a male chauvinist pig. I look at it – that’s his opinion. It has no reflection on how I’m going to live my life.
Who was your childhood hero?
Definitely, my mom. My parents divorced when I was eight years old. My dad was very supportive, but my mom played professional football in 1969. It was an all-woman’s league. She was an equestrian rider. I remember going to watch her play softball. My mom was a bit before her time. She just did whatever she wanted. She used to drag race cars. She was very much a tomboy. She was just such a strong lady, a great communicator. She instilled trust in both me and my brothers. The rules we had around the house were, you could basically do whatever you want but you better have good grades and you better be active in sports or some other activity. She was why I grew up thinking I could do whatever I want because I watched her do it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever got?
One of the best things I’ve heard since I’ve been in broadcasting was from Ron MacLean. He said, “Cass, just be yourself. If you try to be someone else, people are going to see it and they’re going to see that it’s fake. If you’re yourself and you make a mistake, it’s much easier to deal with.” We had a chance last September to have Dick Irvin speak to us. He said, it’s not us that make Hockey Night in Canada; it’s Hockey Night in Canada that makes us. And he said to me, “Cass, I know you did color and you did a wonderful job, but if you did that on any other network, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.” He’s right.
Some people I’ve seen think they’re bigger than the game. It doesn’t matter how famous Don Cherry is or Ron MacLean, they understand that Hockey Night is bigger than they are and the hockey game itself is bigger than they are.
One of my favorite quotes, I actually have a little plaque at my house with it on it: Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. To me that’s don’t rest on your laurels. Always work hard. Yea, it’s great you accomplished what you did yesterday, but what do I do today? How do I become a better person? How do I become a better broadcaster? How do I become a better athlete? I think that’s a mentality I learned from being an athlete.
How strange is it to have an arena being named after you?
A lot of these things that happen to me, I just kind of laugh. Don’t they know I’m just a little kid from Brampton? Going to the Olympics and being on Hockey Night kind of puts you on that stage. I think you do pinch yourself. Sometimes I feel guilty. Why am I getting all this? I don’t deserve this. I’ve got to do more. All these people are being so nice to me, I’ve got to achieve more. That stuff, though, is not real. It’s not the real part of life. It’s wonderful and it’s great to be honored and recognized. I kind of separate it. My parents used to get mad at me because I never told them anything that was going on. “We hear from all these strangers. How do you think it makes us feel that these strangers know more about you than we do?” But that’s not the real stuff. They’d say, “Tell us; we want to know.”
When it comes to broadcasting, people might think it’s easy. You stand there and speak. It’s an easy job. I think people don’t understand the research that goes in behind it. It’s not a script. It’s a live television show. You’ve got a producer talking in your ear, you’re listening to the interview – it’s the complexity of it. It’s a pretty fun job. People don’t understand the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes. And for me, I just don’t want to make a mistake.