Alumna skates ‘craziest path’ to rinkside success

As something of an accidental journalist, Sportsnet’s Chris Simpson, BA’85, has not only survived but thrived as the doyenne of NHL rinkside reporters in the country. “It has been the craziest path ever,” said the 20-year vet.

After graduating from Western, Simpson bounced from fashion and modelling, to marketing and banking. At one point, she worked as the marketing manager of the Hockey Hall of Fame, then moonlighted as the in-arena voice for the Toronto Maple Leafs, going between the ice and the stands to announce contests and promote sponsors with lines like “The AJ Campbell move of the game.”

As her interests in public relations and sports dovetailed, she began attracting the interest of sports television producers.

Scott Moore, former president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties, hired Simpson in 1998 believing her hockey knowledge would overcome her lack of a TV background. She would have to learn storytelling techniques on the fly.

Since, her career has flourished through work for Sportsnet, ESPN, ABC, Versus, the NHL Network and MSG Network doing New Jersey Devils broadcasts.

“She had an ability to get players to speak more candidly than if they were speaking to some of her colleagues,” Moore said. “She’s a better broadcaster than ever. She’s able to do live, able to do features, and she’s a great rinkside reporter.”

Working with efficiency and speed, she might have only 25 seconds to interview a player and elicit an interesting comment. Even doing in-depth features, she approaches interviews with the informality of a conversation. “You get a good interview when you can put someone at ease,” she said.

The family story begins on Western’s gridiron.

Simpson’s mom, Marion, was a cheerleader for the Mustangs football team and her father, Don, played fullback and guard for the team in the mid-1950s. His teammate was Marion’s brother, Murray Henderson, whose TD catch from future Alberta premier Don Getty, BA’55, sent the Mustangs on to a last-minute victory in the 1953 Yates Cup.

“My family’s history is very much entrenched with Western,” Simpson said.

Her mom was a naturally gifted sprinter. She qualified for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki at the trials in Hamilton in the 100-yard dash, using borrowed spikes and starting blocks for the first time. But she was denied a position because the Canadian selection committee had already predicted the likely outcome and hadn’t counted on Marion. So officials announced that Marion was too young at 16 to go to the Olympics.

“Because she came out of the blue and qualified, they had to find a reason for her not to go,” Simpson said. “There was quite the controversy.”

A good athlete herself, Simpson played baseball, volleyball and competed on the Oakridge High School track team. Her father said focus, confidence, resilience and discipline were her guiding principles, especially when she was getting career advice from friends and family.

“She had a stubborn focus,” Don said. “I told her if you get a chance to broaden your skills, you should. Most networks are going to want to get a 3-in-1 person rather than hire a person to do just one sport. But she just decided, ‘No, it’s hockey that I know. It’s hockey that I love. It’s hockey where I can add the most value.’”

Simpson has an older sister, Jan, and an older brother, Dave, 56, a former New York Islanders draft pick and Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year in 1981-82 with the London Knights. Dave is now executive director of the Business Families Centre at the Ivey School of Business.

Her younger brother, Craig, 51, took a hockey scholarship at Michigan State before moving on to a 10-year NHL career that included two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers. Like his sister, he is a TV personality as a hockey analyst on Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada.

Craig said he believes his sister’s understanding of the game grew from watching her brothers play growing up in London. “She got a greater sense of what questions to ask and what to get out of those moments by being around her two brothers, and listening and being a part of those different stresses with the highs and lows,” Craig said.

Craig, who is married to Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Jamie Sale, has a son, Dillon, 25, who was an Oilers draft pick in 2011.

With his kids on the road so much, Marion looks forward to seeing their faces on TV. During the playoffs, she cuts out the daily listings so she knows where and when her children will be on the broadcasts. “I will stay up until midnight to watch Craig’s games out west,” she said. “He lives in Edmonton, and Chris will phone me to tell me which game she is doing that night.”

Simpson uses the summer to reconnect with friends like CTV National News anchor Lisa LaFlamme and Sportsnet anchor Martine Gaillard, who said Simpson has “the most coveted black book in the entire business. She knows everybody and even when we travel she inevitably runs into somebody she knows or somebody knows her. It’s mind-boggling.”

Years ago, Simpson was friendly and helpful to a young broadcaster named Erin Andrews, who started out as a reporter for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. Simpson had forgotten about the encounter when she bumped into Andrews at LAX earlier this year.

“Hi, Erin,” she said. “It’s Chris Simpson.”

Andrews; face lit up. Chris told her she didn’t know if Andrews would remember her. “Do I remember?” Andrews said. “You were one of the first women who helped me along the way when I started to do hockey.”

Simpson appreciated the kind words from someone who has rocketed to broadcast fame in the United States – and it reminded her how far she herself has come.

“You couldn’t plan for something like this,” Simpson said. “It would have to start with that person being born into a family of two brothers playing hockey.”