Ask The MSM: Elliotte Friedman

By TSM @yyzsportsmedia

1. I realize that reporters need to get stories and thus walk a fine line, but why do some markets (Toronto, for example) seem more critical and well-equipped than others (Ottawa, for example) when it comes to taking hard looks at local teams and asking hard questions of their managers?

EF: Yeah, I’m not sure I agree with the premise. In 2005-06, I worked the Ottawa/Tampa playoff series. The Senators were the favourites. They won Game 1, but lost Game 2. Before Game 3 in Florida, the local CBC affiliate asked if I could do a news hit with them. I said, “Sure.” The intro went something like this: “The Senators lost at home and now fans are asking, ‘Is this going to be another choke?” I started laughing and said, “I hope I never get on your bad side.” Bryan Murray was still coaching then. He rolled his eyes when I mentioned it. If I’m not mistaken, the Senators were ripped pretty good for drafting Erik Karlsson, too.

There are always going to be people who feel you are too easy, always going to be people who feel you are too tough. That’s the beauty of sports. Everyone has an opinion. After Canada beat Latvia at the 2014 Olympic Hockey Tournament, I asked Sidney Crosby why it is so hard to find wingers for him. My Twitter feed exploded with complaints. That’s the life we’ve chosen. Like the athletes/executives we cover, people are going to let us know if they think we stink. It’s not for the thin-skinned.

2. If you had to rank the sports you enjoy the most from a fans standpoint, and granted I know it is hard to do when you are in broadcasting, but if you can’t, then think back to before broadcasting, and also rank the sports you likes to cover from a broadcasting perspective. Be honest, Elliotte, hockey does not have to be #1 because of your current role!

EF: Hockey is different now. I still enjoy it, but as I watch games, I’m thinking about storylines and angles. Or, I’m rewinding my PVR/Ipad, wondering, “What just happened there?”

I can relax with other sports. You turn off your brain and it’s awesome. From puck drop to final buzzer on weeknights, I’m watching hockey. Last week, I watched the Raptors late on the West Coast (Golden State) and I don’t get to do that enough. I bought a pair of tickets for the Blue Jays’ playoff run and had a great time. The only bad thing was, due to my schedule, my buddy got all the good home games and I got the terrible ones. My wife likes baseball and basketball. She hates hockey.

I may be a reporter, but I love sports. The drama, the unpredictability, the competition. Just about anything, too. I can be glued to a track meet or a volleyball match as much as a football game.

3 . Any thoughts on one day hosting being the full time host of Prime Time Sports?

EF: I’ve thought about it, but I’m not sure how realistic it is. First of all, Rogers has to want me to do it. Would the company want me to leave the role I’m currently in? And, with Dan Shulman now as part of the Rogers family — if Bob McCown isn’t hosting, I’d want Shulman to.

I love the show, though. If there was ever an opportunity, I’d be interested. But I need some work at it. I haven’t done enough hosting and my game isn’t as sharp as it needs to be. That show deserves to be great.

4. Your work for the most part over your career has centered around the production of features. What are the challenges in getting the interviewee to answer tough questions to make the feature work and how do you work around an interviewee refusing to answer a question?

EF: In this day and age, few athletes/executives are doing an interview with anyone without a general knowledge of the questions/topics. Only a really bad media relations person isn’t asking you for that. So, if there’s heat, the guest knows it’s coming. In some ways, that makes it easier, because they are prepared for it, expect it, and don’t get too nutty about it.

It’s your job to do it in a way that gets them away from prepared statements on phrases. You have to listen for follow-ups, watch for facial reactions. Keeping eye contact with the guest is very important. Some of my interviews waned if I looked down at a paper or something.

I’ve had some edgy interviews over the years. I find that they work out if you ask your questions, no matter how tough, in a fair manner. And, do you let them answer the question, or do you jump right down their throat? In most cases, your tone controls the interview. I always admired David Letterman’s ability to go for the kill without changing the tenor of his voice or the expression on his face.

There’ve been times I cancelled interviews because someone would not answer a certain question. Better not to do it than look stupid for not asking it.

5. From people you’ve worked with over the years whether it be Bob McCown or Spider Jones or Scott Metcalfe or Greg Sansone or Ron MacLean who has had the most impact on how you approach broadcasting in today’s ever changing world?

EF: Can’t single out one person, but I’ve learned a lot. The best lesson was to be accountable for your mistakes. Scott Feschuk, who now writes occasionally funny columns for Maclean’s, was the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper at Western before me. I was one of those guys who always said, “This isn’t my fault,” “someone else did that,” etc. One day, he blew up. Just tore into me. He said something like, “If you want to be the boss, it is your fault!” (There was a lot more swearing.) That was a huge moment. Stepping up and owning mistakes has saved me a few times. Two weeks ago, I made a mistake of texting a GM about a trade rumour. It’s a guy I get along with, but I forgot his team had just played — and lost. He sent me back some furious texts. He was PISSED. I waited until the next day and called him as soon as I could. I said it was my fault, I made a dumb mistake and ate it. He said, “I appreciate that, not everyone would do it.” Then we went on as if nothing happened. So that’s a good lesson.

I’ve explained before how Bob McCown told me “don’t fuck with happy,” — also some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Dave Perkins once warned me not to pursue a job that was a bad situation. (He was right.) Perkins has been an enormous influence. Scott Metcalfe once played a voice report of mine from the Raptors and said I sounded tired. He said he appreciated how much I worked, but once that microphone goes on, you better sound your best.

Ron MacLean is the master of preparation. No one does more than him. As for reporting, do you remember Brian Linehan? He was one of the best interviewers ever. He once said he’d go parties and then run back to his room to write down everything he was told. He didn’t use everything…didn’t want to break confidences. But he remembered everything. Very valuable advice.

6. On older PTS appearances, you seemed open to advanced stats in baseball and talked about reading Fangraphs. In more recent appearances, you seem almost dismissive of advanced stats. What, if anything, has changed?

EF: Still believe in it. Just pickier about what to believe in. Last year, someone sent me a stat that put Jake Gardiner ahead of Duncan Keith. That was a real “come-to-Jesus” moment for me. Teams can be very secretive, but I made a point of pushing to find out what really matters.

I’m down on Corsi. I’m very into how teams enter and exit the zone. Sportsnet hired a company called Sportlogiq, which really breaks down what teams and players are doing. It took awhile to get used to all the info — it’s a bit of an eyeglazer — but now that I’ve taken the time, there’s a ton of good stuff out there. Entering zones, exiting zones, where they shoot from, do they get pucks to the net, passing ability, etc. When player tracking finally comes, it will be a game-changer.

Losing people like Tyler Dellow and Eric Tulsky to teams diminished what is available.

I still do read FanGraphs. Disavow advanced stats at your peril.

7. How much of you career has been the result of planning and how much of it has been jumping at chances that have been offered?

EF: Very little is planning. My first job out of university was in print, at a free Toronto sports paper called The Sports Pages. That came out of nowhere. I wanted to be a newspaper writer in the worst way, and planned to be, but failed. Could not get a job. The Fan was something I wanted, but it took time. Never thought I’d get into TV. The Score was simply a matter of fortunate timing. Hockey Night didn’t offer me a job right away, but it was clear they wanted me to interview. As for Rogers, no one expected they would get the rights. It was a bombshell. The thing I appreciated about Scott Moore was he called me pretty quickly to say, “You are not going to host for us. But we want you.” I always prefer honesty, even if it isn’t the best news.

I don’t like to campaign for jobs. If people like you, they will find you.

8. Which medium do you enjoy most working on, television, radio or blogging?

EF: Number one: if you are going to be successful in this business, do all of them. Versatility is critical.

Right now, I’d vote for TV because it’s my main job. I love working Saturday nights. Those are great guys, and we are developing better chemistry. George wants to Periscope some of our behind-the-scenes conversations, but I’m against it because we’d probably get fired. It is fun to go into work, and that’s what it’s all about.

For most of my career, radio’s been number one. It’s where you can most be yourself, shoot the breeze, laugh and tell stories. The only bad thing is now it’s on TV. You can’t go without shaving or work in your pajamas. Sansone probably had to trade in all his sweatpants.

I think there’s a question later about my blog.

9. What is the typical day for an insider? We know you don’t sit at home waiting for news to be sent to you, you have to actively seek the story out. How many people on average do you call/text per day, how do you manage different personalities amongst managers/agents/executives. When there is something breaking, how do you generally hear about it? Does a source contact you? Or do you chase the source? How do you establish the validity of your contacts/sources?

EF: From the day after Labour Day until July 2, you are on the clock. Rogers is good about telling us to get lost in the summer, but it’s hard to find two days off a week during the year. No complaints, because I knew what I was getting into, just an idea for you. Like many reporters, there is a core group of sources for me and everything flows from them. I’ll text them almost daily, simply asking what’s up. Or, I’ll read about/see something and follow it up. If there’s a morning skate in Toronto, I go. If there’s a visiting team practising here, I’ll go. And I make sure to go a few Leafs practices a month. Nothing ever beats face time. Go be seen.

If you have a history of being honest, people will trust you.

The different personalities question is a great one. There’s no substitution for talking to people, getting to know them and how they react to things. Some guys will talk off the record, some guys won’t and some guys won’t talk at all. What you look at are inconsistencies. You send a guy a text or a note about something, and they don’t reply. Sometimes that’s a huge tell. What I really appreciate about the people I deal with is the vast majority will ignore you instead of lying to you. In a lot of cases, if you’re on to something and you don’t get a reply, go harder.

You are going to have times when people get angry at you. For the most part, I don’t take it personally. There was one occasion two years ago where I did and got into a confrontation with an executive. But I never wrote about it and never let it affect the way I covered his team. He really appreciated that. There’s a lot to be said for letting things roll off your back.

Teams want to break things now. They really pressure players and agents not to say anything. They’re getting better at keeping quiet. A lot of breaking things is making the call at the right time. There have been occasions where someone says, “You were on this, here you go,” but I find that happens less now.

As for establishing the validity of sources, it’s pretty easy. Is the information from this person generally reliable? Has he/she lied to you? If the answers are a) yes and b) no, you put a lot of stock into what they say.

10. Please discuss the pressures of being first on a story and getting it right and not breaking the story.

EF: No one wants to be wrong. People know who is credible and who isn’t. Some of my co-workers kid me about being too careful. But they understand. I’ve been beaten because I’ve been too cautious. I will take that over the alternative.

There is pressure to break things. People may say it doesn’t matter, but I don’t believe them. Our bosses keep track and fans do too. Last year, at the trade deadline, TSN broke a few early. We got some good ones later. When we got off the air, one co-worker said to me, “We were falling behind, but we caught up.” So, you feel it.

Bob, Darren and Pierre are great guys. But they are competitive. The two companies push each other hard.

11. Discuss how Twitter and social media has impacted the face of media reporting with regards to news breaking (besides the obvious immediacy impact).

EF: Twitter changed everything. It’s the best news service ever created.

I have a protocol I like to keep. If I’m ready to break something, I like to reach out to the team, the player/agent (if it’s a trade or a signing) and give them a heads-up or a chance to comment. With Twitter, you can’t always do that — especially at the deadline or July 1. I don’t like it, but it’s the world we live in.

So many people are now reading what happens to them or their team on Twitter. I try to be respectful of that, but it can’t be avoided sometimes.

12. Given the recent trend towards simulcast radio and television cross-over shows, and diminished sports radio audiences on M radio, where do you see sports radio going ?

EF: There will always be a place for good sports talk. Whether in a podcast format or on radio, there will always be people in their cars or commuting to work. The commute is getting longer, not shorter.

Sports fans are passionate and loyal. If you give them something good to listen to, they will tune in. I don’t worry about talk on radio as much as music

13.Can you discuss the different routes to take to become a play-by-play announcer, a colour commentator, or a studio analyst. How does a young sports journalist advancing in their career today, what is the best role for them? Discuss the fine line between studying hard and catching the big break.

EF: Aspiring sports journalists today have a huge advantage over those from my time or earlier — the internet. Back then, it was so hard to get your name out there. Now, there is no excuse not to. Blogging, YouTube, Vine, etc. It’s an orgy of opportunity. I met Ray Ligaya, who is one of those Vine stars. Totally self-made, and you have to admire it.

You have more of a chance to make breaks for yourself than ever. The Basketball Jones built themselves from ground zero. Twenty-five years ago, that doesn’t happen.

I always advise to volunteer if you can. I did that and it opened doors. You keep your mouth shut, you do what you’re told and if you perform, things happen. You go to events, you work quietly. You listen and watch what happens. Eventually, you become more comfortable. People notice what you are doing. They may not say anything, but they notice.

So, I’d tell you to volunteer. I’d tell you to create an on-line presence. Maybe you can’t get into Blue Jays/Leafs/Raptors games, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things to cover.

As for role, most analyst jobs go to former players. But studio hosts, play-by-play and reporters are wide open. It’s seriously ridiculous I’m part of the studio show at HNIC. But I’m not there because I targeted this role. No freaking way did I think I would get here. I’m here because I concentrated on doing good work and improved.

Oh and one other thing. Listen to constructive criticism. Don’t be one of those people that get mad when others critique their stuff. Ignore the idiots who just rip you. Don’t empower them. But, when someone legit comes up and says, “I saw this and wanted to say a few things,” listen.

It’s an old line about Bob Knight: When he calls you an asshole, don’t listen. When he explains why you are an asshole, you listen.

14: Of all the games, of all the events what’s the biggest and best you have covered today, and why?

If I had to pick one, Usain Bolt at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Mega-personality. Great interview. Showman. Most importantly: what an incredible performance on the track. He kept telling us he wouldn’t go for the World Record in the 200, so when the 91,000 people recognized he was going for it, the buzz just grew and grew and grew. We all waited for the clock to make it official, and when “WR” came up the audience exploded in bedlam. Then they all sang Happy Birthday to him.

Awesome moment.

Others: I was in attendance (although not working on the live broadcast) for the 2002 and 2010 Men’s Hockey Golds. Did work 2014. The 2001 World Series between Arizona and the Yankees. Michael Phelps in Beijing.

15. If you had to do one story or one interview over again, what would it be and why?

EF: I’m saving this one for my book. You have to be like a goalie who gives up a bad one or a QB forgetting a bad interception. Usually I move on. But there’s one I can’t let go of. Not ready to talk about it yet.

16. Most challenging sports personality you have had to cover and why

EF: Great question. One of the best things that happened to me was covering the Raptors as a 25-year-old during their inaugural season. I’m a middle-class Jewish kid from Toronto, who, to that point, hadn’t done much world travelling.

Suffice it to say, none of the Raptors had similar backgrounds. This was an excuse to be “challenging.”

I was there for every home game and practice, so they got used to my face. What you learned was no matter the background, if two people were willing to have a professional relationship, it didn’t matter where you were from. No sports journalism class could ever teach me as much as that one season did. It was a wild year. Those guys were great to deal with.

There were times prior to that — the 1994 Blue Jays, for example — where I was nervous around a team. Never again after the 1995-96 Raptors.

I get along with most people, but there are some who I could not click with. Jacques Martin was one guy who made it pretty clear he had no use for me. Can’t explain why, but it happens and you deal with it. Darrell Walker and I had zero use for each other.

Pat Quinn and Brian Burke were challenging because, if you got on their bad side, it could be long-lasting. Quinn and I went a year without talking to each other when he was coach of the Leafs. But we sorted it out and had a strong relationship when he died. He was great to talk to.

Burke and I had a big blowup and went a long time without talking. But that thawed out, too. He and Quinn are challenging because they are good people, but they liked the whole us vs. them mentality and sometimes I was “them.”

To me, “challenging” is not necessarily a bad thing, because I don’t mind guys who do that. If you don’t like a question, say it. If you have a problem with me, tell me. We’ll sort it out. Mike Babcock is like that. He’s ripped some of my questions before, but it’s honest and makes for good TV. Bob Clarke, Bob Gainey and Steve Yzerman are others who’ve made it clear they haven’t always enjoyed some of the stuff I’ve done. That can be intimidating if you let it, because they are three giants of the game. But you deal with it and move on.

Non-hockey division: Jim Fregosi. Not afraid to tell you exactly what he thought. I did one interview with former IOC boss Jacques Rogge. Loved it, because he openly disagreed with some of my questions but in an intelligent way.

17. What’s the one thing people would be most surprised to know about you?

EF: I have an awful temper. But I’ve worked very hard to control it.

18. If you were not doing what you do today, what would you be doing?

EF: I’ve said this before, but I’d be a lawyer. And I’d be miserable.

19. How long does it take you to write one of your columns?

EF: You’re probably talking 30 Thoughts.

I collect info during the week. I try to write a couple of the “thoughts” in advance, but I usually end up changing them. I would say, when I really get down to doing it, it takes 8 hours. I’m spent when it’s done.

If people didn’t read it, I’d have quit a long time ago. But they seem to like it, so it’s worth it.

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