PITB chats with Andrew Walker about not hating the Canucks, sports talk radio, and analytics

Pass it to Bulis

It’s become a tradition in sports that whenever a new player joins a team, fans will go searching through his social media. Sometimes that search unearths an embarrassing comment, like it did for Mike Duco or Jayson Megna.

Earlier this week, an incoming member of the media was placed under the same scrutiny. Canucks fans discovered that the new afternoon drive host for Sportsnet 650, Andrew Walker, said some not-so-flattering things about the Canucks in the past. I wrote about some of those tweets and why Canucks fans care so much about them and it unexpectedly blew up and brought some undue attention to Walker. I spoke with him about the controversy and what he hopes and expects from Vancouver when his show launches.

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It was a conversation that I thoroughly enjoyed and I truly hope that fans in Vancouver give him a chance come September.

[Interview has been edited for length.]

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Daniel Wagner: I guess we’ll start out with, do you hate the Canucks?

Andrew Walker: [laughs] No. Here’s the thing: a lot of media don’t really like any team. But not liking a team or not growing up as a fan doesn’t equate to hatred. I don’t like using the words, “I don’t care,” because of course I care, but no, I don’t hate the Canucks.

DW: You don’t have a rooting interest, but you’re not wishing for their downfall?

AW: I’m not wishing for their downfall. I think in the media, we can be mercenaries sometimes. You make me the right professional offer, I’ll move to Atlanta and do Falcons talk. The one constant is, I want the team in my city to win. It’s good news for me, it’s good news for the city, it’s good news for the economy, it’s good news for ratings. I hope the Canucks make a bunch of good decisions and the city comes alive, that would be awesome.

DW: It’s more enjoyable to talk to fans on the radio when they’re happy, right?

AW: For sure it is. Being in Toronto, Toronto was always this loser sports market, that was the rep, but in my four years here, the Raptors started being awesome, the Blue Jays got back to the playoffs, and the Leafs went through this rebuild and now people are excited. When you go in every day and discuss good things, it’s better than discussing apathy and it’s better than discussing losing, that’s for sure.

DW: You were in Calgary and Toronto for recent rebuilds with the Flames and the Leafs, what was it like going through that with the fans?

AW: It was the same in all three markets in that there was a long process getting in. I think every organization has that moment where people are saying, “Okay, time to rebuild,” but it takes time to even get to that way of thinking. Maybe the Sedins are part of that in Vancouver; in Toronto the fixtures of that were Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel and in Calgary, the fixtures of that were Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. You just can’t snap your fingers and completely turn the page; it’s a process.

DW: Did you experience a lot of impatience from the fans in those markets?

AW: I think Toronto fans are naturally impatient, but this was a dream scenario. You’ve made the statement, we’re going to rebuild, we’re committing to this, and in the span of 11 months, you traded Phil Kessel, you traded Dion Phaneuf, you drafted Auston Matthews, and all of a sudden, you’re good. The Toronto Maple Leafs next year could theoretically compete for a Stanley Cup. That’s stunning. And it took literally no time at all.

I think, while there’s no Auston Matthews in this draft or anything like that, the relative quickness to which Toronto turned it around should give every market hope, because you never know.

DW: Part of the reason there was such a backlash when people saw those tweets is, I think there’s a sense that some of the fans want a homer on the radio. What do you say to fans who want you to be a fan of the local team?

AW: I get it. Media gets jaded, and I’m not jaded. I’m a huge sports fan. I truly believe that there’s nothing better than emotional investment. I could say that I grew up as a Canucks super-fan, but it would just be a lie. They’re a hockey team to me.

I’m not a fan. When they do something bad, I’m not going to rationalize why it’s so good. And I’m not an analyst either, in the sense that I’m not going to watch a game and break down a power play. I’m a talk host.

I have opinions of what I see, I like to engage the listeners; we discuss things. I think there’s two sides to it too: you can be a huge fan of a team and that can cloud your judgement, but I also think, and maybe people are painting me with this brush because of 7-year-old tweets, you can have a bad bias towards a team too. You can be that grumpy contrarian on the air and that’s not me either. I would love the team in the city I’m working in to win.

DW: I guess that gets to the purpose of sports talk radio: what in your mind is the whole purpose of being a sports talk radio host and having a sports talk show?

AW: How I envision a show is a pretty old-hat type of description, but I truly believe that the best sports convos you have are at a bar with a buddy, talking about the game.

I always picture two guys driving to work in a car and they’re listening in to your conversation: it’s interesting, entertaining conversation and they feel like they’re a part of it. And when you seamlessly go into a commercial break or throw a tease, they feel that the conversation isn’t over yet and they pick it up where you left off in the car driving to work as sports fans. That’s kind of my dream scenario where I think radio is the best. It’s not always easy to pull off, but that’s the purpose of sports talk radio to me.

DW: When you envision that talk with a buddy at the bar, do you want to have someone that you potentially disagree with?

AW: Potentially. I believe in conversation, not confrontation. I think it’s okay to have disagreements and get passionate and get heated, but number one, it can’t be contrived, and number two, it can’t be all the time.

I think you should have a really good partnership on the air and hopefully that’s what it is with Scotty [Rintoul] and I think that when you get super-heated with each other about a topic, I think it should happen so rarely that when you do, it’s kind of an event and people notice. If it happens too often, then it’s just white noise.

DW: With Rintoul, he is the local guy, where you’re coming from an outside perspective, do you think that will give you some good openings for conversation?

AW: I think so. It’s one of the reasons we really pushed for Scotty to be on the show and he was the guy that Sportsnet decided on, because he’s local, he has a deep understanding, he’s been there, he’s familiar. But also, it’s 2017. I’ve never lived in Vancouver, but I have a TV, I have the internet, I’ve been in the industry for 15 years, I know what’s going on with the Canucks. It’s not like I’m moving to Wales and covering soccer, it’s Vancouver.

I think it’s really good to have Scotty there, because even if you don’t like me, you can trust Scott. You know that he’s been there and he’s one of you guys, and I will be soon! Give it a couple months and you’ll forget all the tweets from 2011, which were designed to pander to a market anyway. When you work in Calgary, Flames fans hate the Canucks, Canucks fans hate the Flames, it’s just how it works!

DW: You’ve been in Toronto for the last four years and I noticed in a couple different interviews, both you and Rintoul were quick to say that you’re not “a Toronto guy.”

AW: I grew up in the west. I’ve lived in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, I’ve worked in these provinces, and I grew up around it: people in the west do not like Toronto. I get it. People in Vancouver especially don’t like Toronto and I think when they were putting together this station, there’s a big reason why it’s not littered with Toronto people, because that can easily piss people off.

When I say I’m not a Toronto guy, I’ve loved my time in Toronto. I think every market in North America has pros and cons: I’m going to miss some things about Toronto and some things I won’t miss at all. One of the reasons that this deal came together for me is that I am a western guy. I know that Vancouver’s a different market where some people don’t think they’re the west, they’re a stand-alone in the Pacific, but I’m from the west, I love the way of life, it’s closer to friends and family. I have more friends in Vancouver than I have in Toronto and I’ve never lived in Vancouver. That says something.

DW: What excites you about starting the show in September?

AW: What’s exciting to me is that it’s from the ground floor. We’re starting fresh. I am such a competitor: I love challenges and I love to compete. I think the competition in the market is good for everybody, but what I like the most about it is there’s no pre-existing culture, there’s no pre-existing notion, I get to come in and help start this thing from scratch.

You look at George McPhee in Vegas, they’re trying to build something and say, “This is the way we do things,” and that’s what I’m most excited about in Vancouver. You don’t have to break down any silos, you don’t have to break down any generalizations or reputations, we can just build a really good entity from the ground floor and I’m just really excited to be a part of that.

DW: I just wanted to loop back to something you said earlier about those 2011 tweets. You said some of that was just pandering to the local market: do you worry that because people see that, they would accuse you now of pandering to the Vancouver market?

AW: Pandering is a tough word and I know I used it, but listen: you assimilate into the culture you’re in. I think a lot of sports is representative of a city.

Put it this way: if somebody from the Avalanche does something s***ty to Bo Horvat, I’m sitting here in Toronto and I can have an opinion about it, but it’s not going to bother me to the core. I don’t live there, I’m not invested in it, it’s not a topic. But if I’m in Vancouver and someone from Colorado does something to one of the Canucks players, you’re going to talk about it, you’re going to tweet about it, you’re going to make a meme about it, you’re going to joke about it, it’s a thing. You assimilate into the culture.

I love sports so much because sports is like religion: you’re cheering for something bigger than yourself. Sports is such a huge part of the culture of any city. I might not fight to the death defending the Canucks honour, but I’ll fight to the death — or social media death anyway — to defend the city that you’ve chosen to call home and raise a family.

DW: But pandering is kind of a loaded word.

AW: Pandering is a loaded word. How would I describe it? Do I hate Vancouver? No, I love Vancouver. It’s a beautiful city. Do I hate the Canucks? No. But if I’m in Calgary and you can make people laugh with a tweet about the Canucks, which they eat up, yeah, that’s part of your repertoire. It might be pandering, but pandering is okay.

I’m not going to say, “This is an amazing move by the Canucks, because it’ll make Canucks fans happy,” because that’s pretty lowbrow. But you find out what works and what people want to hear in your market and you try to give it to them sometimes. That’s part of the job.

DW: One of those tweets that made me laugh was when you took a shot at analytics with a “mathletes” comment. What are your thoughts on analytics, because that is a big debate in this market: you’re going to get a lot of people calling in hating or loving analytics in sports.

AW: I can only be myself. I’m not going to change everything I am in a certain market, but I am staunchly, if you have to pick one side or the other, I’m an eye test guy over the numbers side.

I realize that every NHL team has their own sets of analytics that they use and I certainly — obviously, you’d be dumb if you thought otherwise — think they can help, but I will never be the guy that allows numbers to make me think that a good player is bad or a bad player is good. But I can also tell listeners that I will never be the guy that doesn’t watch the game. I watch every game, I’ll re-watch every game, and I’ll come up with my own opinions.

To me, it’s never been a numbers issue, it’s always been a people issue. For the life of me, I don’t know why that community can be so toxic. They annoy me, quite frankly. I’m respecting it more and more, but I’ll always be on the other side of the analytics crowd, for sure.

But I’ve got to be better, personally, and I have been better. All those tweets are from years ago. I’ve been better at not picking fights, because sometimes that’s all they want. They don’t want to change your mind about a player, they just want to pick a fight and be validated when you lose your mind.

The thing that bothers me the most about the analytics crowd is the hills they will die on. If you want to look at Justin Williams and tell me his possession stats, that this player is better than he looks, I’ll listen to that. Justin Williams, there’s a reason he’s clutch, he’s a better player than we would think, because maybe he drives any line that he plays on, but if you’re going to die on the Frankie Corrado hill, if you’re going to die on the Martin Marincin hill, because, “Look at these numbers!” You know, “Shea Weber is a bad defenceman, look at these numbers,” then you need new numbers.

DW: That will make a certain segment of the Vancouver audience very happy, some of them not quite as much, but that’s okay. It’s okay to have differing opinions. But I’ll give you a chance to pander here: what are your thoughts on Mark Messier?

AW: [laughs] What are my thoughts on Mark Messier?

I adore Mark Messier, like I adore Michael Jordan, but I do not remember Michael Jordan as a Wizard and I do not remember Mark Messier as a Canuck. Put it this way, I forget that he played for the Canucks and I forget that he was/is hated in Vancouver, but I guess I’m going to have to learn.

DW: You don’t even picture those seasons as happening?

AW: No, I really don’t. I don’t picture Jerry Rice as a Seahawk, I don’t picture Mark Messier as a Canuck. Unfortunately, that’s what you get when you live in the market, because you’ll never forget it. I like to picture that Brett Favre was never a Viking, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

DW: I think there is a fair amount of the Canucks fanbase that wishes those years didn’t happen either, so you might be in good company. In any case, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me after I made your day terrible.

AW: You know what, it’s fine. I probably wouldn’t reverse it if I could. I had about 7000 Twitter interactions over the last 48 hours and that’s good. It’s not a bad thing. I just think stuff like that has to be in the context of, “This was 7 years ago from, at the time, a 26-year-old kid halfway through his career.” Put it this way, if you search my Twitter handle and put in any hockey team, I’m sure you could find a tweet of me slandering any organization in the NHL, right?

That 2011 team, no one was cheering for them. That’s not me hating on the Canucks, but you know how it was, it was them against everybody. But, in 1994, I’m 10 years old, I was all-in on that Canucks team. I loved that team, of course I cheered for them against the Rangers, what kid didn’t? I was in Saskatoon and I loved those teams with Linden and Bure, but Twitter wasn’t around.

People can’t judge just because the 2011 team was unlikeable and the ‘94 team was likeable. You go through phases as a sports fan and teams go through phases too. I don’t believe in hating organizations. I think different teams can be unlikeable. This Canucks group is more likeable, what are you going to do?

That was a very unique team in 2011. I am not alone in that I wanted Boston to win, but also that whole thing of, “Oh, he’s a Bruins fan.” [laughs] I am not a Bruins fan.
 

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