SUN Hockey Pool

Campbell knows her hockey

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

It's not as if they asked a pre-med student to perform a heart transplant. They didn't put a fledgling pilot in the cockpit of the space shuttle and say 'Let 'er rip.'

All they did was ask a Canadian hockey hero to sit in Harry Neale's seat beside Bob Cole and, you know, talk a little puck. What's the big deal?

But four days later, Cassie Campbell's surprise debut as a colour analyst on Hockey Night in Canada's featured game between Calgary and Toronto still has chins wagging and bloggers blogging.

Campbell's performance has been reviewed from coast-to-coast and back again, in French and in English. She was good. She was bad. She was a victim. She was an opportunist. She was out of her league. She was right in her element. Take your pick.

"I think that all the attention is what you might expect because of what Hockey Night in Canada is," observes Hockey Night's executive director, Joel Darling. "When you throw out something different, it sparks a lot of conversation."

To be fair, a lot of people found Campbell's performance, filling in for snowed-in Neale, to be full of insight. She didn't belabour the obvious and made plenty of points only someone with perspective and knowledge gained by doing her own spadework could have provided.

Others, however, can't seem to get past the fact she's a woman commenting on Canada's ultimate man-game.

"Last week, as a sideline reporter, she asked two or three questions and was criticized (in another newspaper) for the way the questions were posed," said Darling. "Of course, if a guy was asking those questions, it would have passed without comment.

"Being a woman, she was always going to be under the microscope."

If that's the case, though, Campbell has no plans to be anyone's laboratory specimen.

"I really haven't paid too much attention to what's being said or written," she said yesterday. "I've been too busy.

"To be honest, the only people whose opinions I worry about are my mom and dad, my family and friends and, of course, my producers. For me, everybody who matters thought it was OK."

Did CBC jump the gun on Campbell's apprenticeship? Yeah, probably. The only chair bigger than the one she sat in last weekend is the one occupied by Don Cherry. That might be a little much for someone so new to the show. But she's hardly the first hockey player to step right off the ice and into the broadcast booth. Just the first woman hockey player.

The world championship and Olympic accomplishments of our top female hockey players have made them household names. To a lot of us, they are rock stars. Let's be honest: we Canadians fall in love with all our Olympic medallists. And, in case you are counting, Cassie Campbell's two Olympic hockey gold medals are one more than belong to any living Canadian male.

On the practical side of the issue, Campbell is a natural for this kind of work.

"She played hockey at a very high level and knows the game very well and is able to talk about it in an engaging way," said Darling. "She watches a lot of NHL hockey. She lives and breathes a hockey lifestyle."

Fact is, at this early stage of her TV career, she's more poised and polished than most ex-athletes. She's been working with the Calgary Flames broadcast team as a sometimes radio colour analyst and has spent a lot of time picking GM Darryl Sutter's fertile brain.

She's already an accomplished public speaker which puts her ahead of a lot of ex-NHLers who come out of the pro-sport bubble they've been living in all their lives, thinking that locker-room one-liners constitute sophisticated conversation.

Makeup artists in TV studios all over the country are tasked on a daily basis to make presentable the mugs of some truly ugly ex-jocks. Just having a mouthful of her own teeth puts Campbell at the front of that line.

For now, she's heading back to being a rinkside reporter, but Darling has plans to get her back in the booth soon enough.

See, the institution might be Hockey Night in Canada but in the end, it's just about talkin' puck.


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