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EDMONTON — It was, without question, one of his all-time favourite moments. There was Scott Oake, broadcasting live on Hockey Night in Canada while perched on a platform among the thousands of Whiteout-clad fans — "my people," he called them on-air — who had gathered in the streets around Bell MTS Place as the Winnipeg Jets marched all the way to the Western Conference final in the spring of 2018.
"That was basically my career peak," the 67-year-old Gemini Award-winning sportscaster for CBC Sports, Sportsnet and HNIC told me Wednesday with a chuckle. "It couldn't have worked out any better. That was a special time."
Oh, what Oake wouldn't give to be able to duplicate such a scene these days. Instead, the 2020 Order of Manitoba recipient is coming to your television from inside an otherwise empty Rogers Place in the hockey hub of Edmonton, while living inside the NHL "bubble" across the street at the JW Marriott.
Earlier this week, he hit the ice for a physically distant interview with Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn after they dispatched of the Vegas Golden Knights to advance to the Stanley Cup final. He'll do the same thing, either Thursday or Saturday night, when one of the Tampa Bay Lightning or New York Islanders join them.
For a veteran of 15 Olympics and multiple world championship events who's pretty much seen and done it all, this was an entirely new experience.
"There's no question the NHL is making the best of a bad situation here, but it's antiseptic and that's the way it has to be," Oake said of the environment, in which canned crowd noise is being used to replace the real thing with the global pandemic keeping fans far away.
"You have a lot of time to think, a lot of time for contemplation. I got out of my room sick of myself." – Scott Oake on being quarantined
Oake has been in Edmonton for about seven weeks, first arriving when the NHL's qualifying-round series ended in early August. He spent the initial month or so in a different hotel outside the bubble, just like other accredited media on site. As the playoffs proceeded, Oake transitioned to the secure environment once he had passed three COVID-19 tests over a five-day span. He then had to isolate inside his hotel room for an additional four days.
"You have a lot of time to think, a lot of time for contemplation. I got out of my room sick of myself," he joked. "We knew that we needed someone in the bubble to have better access to the players. If we didn't, we'd be stuck with the system the NHL has got going now for other media."
That involves doing remote Zoom interviews even from within the arena itself, which Oake describes as "very impersonal." And for the national rightsholder with millions of dollars at stake, that's a big problem.
"When you get to the highly emotional part of the Stanley Cup playoffs, you're best advised to have closer contact with the players," he said.
Oake has been impressed with the quality and intensity of the games, which he attributes to the fact teams came into the bubble well-rested, haven't had to worry about travel and have been able to primarily focus on hockey.
"When the puck is dropped the games have not been greatly different than if the rinks were full," he said.
Oake has caught up on his reading, is enjoying the "nicest hotel gym I've ever seen" on a daily basis and has kept in touch with his wife, Anne, and son, Darcy, who are back home in Winnipeg.
"It feels like it's moving quickly. You finish one series and the next one starts with really nothing more than a one-day break. They want to get players out of the bubble as soon as they can. And this is a very expensive proposition for the NHL (reportedly to the tune of $1 million per day)," he said.
"I'm looking at this like an Olympic assignment. Your routine becomes set pretty early in the process. You end up going from the hotel to the venue and wait until you get to the end of it."
It's well known that Oake has a special bond with Winnipegger Ryan Reaves, as the Vegas Golden Knights forward grew up across the street from him. That's resulted in several funny on-air moments whenever the pair come together for an interview.
"To see that little goofball who had size 15 feet at the age of 13 appear almost statesmanlike during the protest, and to lead it, it was special to see him (Ryan Reaves) that way. I'm not surprised. I told him he rose to the occasion." – Scott Oake
But everyone saw another side of Reaves last month when he spoke up about social justice issues such as racism and police brutality, which resulted in NHL players opting out of play for two days. Reaves, with dozens of players behind him in support, took the lead role.
"To see that little goofball who had size 15 feet at the age of 13 appear almost statesmanlike during the protest, and to lead it, it was special to see him that way. I'm not surprised. I told him he rose to the occasion," said Oake.
"It was a marked departure from the buffoonery that usually goes on when I interview him, which is because when I'm talking to him it's like I'm talking to one of my own kids, so any pretense of journalism goes out the window."
Oake also has a personal connection to childhood friend and former elementary school classmate Rick Bowness, the Dallas coach who will be seeking his first-ever Cup victory.
Once the championship is awarded and the seemingly never-ending 2019-20 season is finally put to rest, focus will quickly shift to what the 2020-21 campaign will look like. Oake expects NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will provide some further insight in the coming days.
"That'll be the No. 1 question he's going to be asked. Do they start in December? Do they start in January? What shape will it take? Is it a bubble system? With no fans in the stands there's no fan revenue, so there's so many questions to be asked," said Oake.
"When (the playoffs) started, this whole bubble expedition seemed like a roll of the dice. They've beaten the odds to do this, so we'll see what happens."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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