By Mark Norman
Two weeks ago, popular, and sometimes controversial, Vancouver Canucks journalist Jason Botchford passed away suddenly from heart failure. Botchford (or Botch, as he was affectionately called in the Vancouver marketplace) was 48 years old, and is survived by his wife and three young children. His untimely death led to an outpouring of emotion, support, and tributes from Canucks fans and hockey media personnel, with the hashtag #RIPBotch trending widely on social media.
Given the focus of this blog, I find that my NHL/Canucks fandom (which, given all the problematic aspects of the NHL, is itself problematic in various ways) rarely directly enters into my writing. Nonetheless, Botchford’s surprising passing has both affected me personally and, as I read the many tributes that were written to him, made me consider the impact he had on hockey media in a broader setting of massive industry upheaval in the past 15-20 years. As such, this post is more personal than normal, but also – I hope – able to explore some significant and complex aspects of (digital) sports media two decades into the 21st Century.
Jason Botchford’s Career in Hockey Media
Jason Botchford was a trained journalist who left a job at the Toronto Sun to move to Vancouver in the mid-2000s. Working on the Canucks’ beat for the Vancouver Province, Botch quickly became a popular and prominent voice in the Vancouver sports media landscape. He also rubbed many people the wrong way for his abrasive style, (self-admitted) tendency to hold grudges against people who he believed had mistreated him, and his willingness to stand up to and criticize powerful media members in the Vancouver market and beyond (something that also endeared him to many).
Botchford pioneered an innovative post-game feature called The Provies, which incorporated game recaps, rants, analysis, pop culture references, inside jokes, GIFs and videos, and readers’ tweets and comments into one gloriously entertaining concoction. When he moved from The Province to The Athletic in 2018, Botchford rebranded The Provies as The Athletties and it became a major attraction for the website’s readership and boost to its subscription rates. For many Canucks fans, reading The Provies/Athletties became a major ritual of their fandom, a way to celebrate an outstanding Canucks performance, an outlet (more often than not, in the past few years) for frustration and a source of gallows humour in the face of pathetic performances, or, more recently, a source of hope as a new generation of NHL stars began to blossom for the Canucks.
Beyond print, Botchford also did regular radio hits for TSN 1040, and recently joined the station as a co-host. But possibly the biggest way in Botchford reached the Canucks fanbase (alongside The Provies/Athletties) was The Patcast, a podcast featuring Botchford and TSN’s Canucks reporter Jeff Patterson. Over many years, the two podcasters and friends developed a great rapport and entertaining personas on the podcast, and The Patcast was mandatory listening for many Canucks fans. Botchford also interacted and engaged with Canucks fans, bloggers, and critics on social media, and regularly encouraged fans to tweet him with entertaining tidbits or ideas, many of which showed up in The Provies/Athletties.
The People’s Champion? Connecting with Canucks Fans
Botch’s death hit me unexpectedly hard, and continues to resonate with me as time passes. As a father of a two year-old, I was particularly devastated to think of a family being stripped of a parent with children at such a young age. While Botch largely kept his personal and family life out of his writing and podcasting, I was aware that he had a family and I cannot imagine what they are going through (the family recently released a thank you message to his supporters). I have been very emotional listening to various media members and bloggers pay their respects to him on the radio, on podcasts, and on various websites since his passing.
An aside: I am always skeptical of the public outpourings of grief for celebrities, which often direct public attention away from other devastating and pressing matters of life and death in our local and global communities. That being said, I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to feel an attachment to public figures, and to celebrate their successes in life and mourn their deaths. But I do think it’s important to be self-aware about why we feel these attachments, to think about which people’s lives we don’t typically see celebrated or mourned in such a public way, and to not let such memorials distract from those living and dying on the margins of society (similar critiques were made in the aftermath of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy).
For me (and, I think, many others who were hit hard by Botchford’s passing), a major reason I felt so attached to him is that, through digital media (most notably The Patcast) I felt, in a small way, that I knew him and was emotionally invested in him as a person. In other words, digital media, in a strange way, facilitated an (admittedly, entirely one-way) relationship with a hockey journalist who I had never met or interacted with, online or offline. Judging from the GoFundMe campaign, which has raised over $100,000 to support the Botchford family, I am not the only who felt this way about Botch or who mourns for his family. Objectively, it feels silly to claim some kind of connection with someone I only know through his media persona; yet emotionally, his death still resonates strongly and I feel like I miss him, despite never knowing him.
Furthermore, I cannot think of a hockey journalist who has inspired such an intense following among fans – aside, possibly, from Don Cherry, who inspired a very different following using a very different medium. Botchford’s podcast persona, while outlandish at times, could be very endearing. He cultivated an image as “the people’s champion”, standing up for the average Canucks fan against unfavourable coverage by Eastern media, years of poor on-ice success stemming from meddling ownership and mediocre management, and players who mailed it in on the ice. In doing so, he gave fans a feeling that their voices were heard and represented by the relentless journalist.
On the flipside, Botchford was the loudest and proudest supporter of engaging and entertaining young players – most notably rookie Elias Pettersson – and very clearly wanted to see the Canucks succeed, not just so he could stop watching boring hockey from the press box, but so the passionate and long-suffering fans of Vancouver could savour that success. The idea that Botch “got” a significant portion of the Canucks fanbase, and that he came to represent their hopes and frustrations in a way no other media figure did, features prominently in the narratives that have emerged in the days and weeks following his passing.
Situating Botchford’s Career and Legacy in the Digital Sport Media Landscape
It is impossible to understand the professional output and popularity of Botchford without considering the tremendous changes that the sports media industry and hockey have undergone since the advent of new media. This is an area of professional interest for me, as I have done some research on this topic and regularly teach Sociology of Sport students about the changes and continuities that new media have created in the broader context of the “sports-media complex.”
Botchford recognized that the impact of traditional print media was waning and that there was tremendous opportunity for new approaches to hockey coverage. The creativity and uniqueness of The Provies/Athletties is something that numerous journalists have noted in recent tributes to Botchford. Furthermore, his willingness to embrace digital media such as Twitter and podcasts—not simply to promote his work (though that was certainly part of his digital media engagement, as it is for most journalists today), but also to interact and engage directly with fans—helped him attract such a loyal following.
Botchford’s jump from the The Province to The Athletic was also part of a radical development in sports media, as The Athletic, backed by venture capitalists, sought to bring the new wave of subscription-based media content (Netflix, Spotify, etc.) to sports journalism. This trend has both capitalized on and exacerbated the rapid decline of print media sports writing and, as noted in a 2018 New York Times article, raised several problematic critiques about the website’s business model, content, and representation:
The Athletic has received heavy criticism from the industry it hopes to dominate. In several markets, The Athletic has hired multiple writers away from the same newspaper, decimating the sports staffs at papers….
The Athletic’s initial practice of hiring mostly veteran writers without posting jobs publicly also has perpetuated homogeneity in an industry that is overwhelmingly white and male, leading to criticism. Since then, The Athletic has begun hiring more women and people of color….
At the same time, with the news industry under stress and as some have come to view supporting local journalism as a moral imperative, one of the founders of The Athletic, Alex Mather, told The Times last fall that his company would “wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.” (Mather later apologized for his tone.)
Working entirely in digital space for The Athletic opened up new avenues for reporting. When James Mirtle, the site’s Canadian editor-in-chief, met Botchford to explore the possibility of him joining the website, he thought he thought “was perfect for our platform.” Interestingly, Botchford claimed he did not want to leave the print journalism world behind, but that he was eventually pushed out by higher-ups who failed to grasp that the expectations of popular sport writing were being rapidly reshaped in the digital landscape. Writing in his introductory piece for The Athletic, he stated:
You’ve already heard the stories. Writers have chronicled the soul-crushing deadlines at newspapers. You know of that medium’s unending pursuit of clicks which has helped drive the quantity-over-quality climate threatening the industry. Arrivals to The Athletic have celebrated here like it’s a new world. Apparently freed, they have promised, and delivered, their best work with engrossing deep dives featuring layers and subtlety….
But honestly, I loved working at newspapers. The higher-ups gave me the flexibility and inspiration required to create a media space which was organic, colourful, roomy, relevant and utterly, uniquely Vancouver.
However, later in the same article, he added the following anecdote about his decision to leave The Province:
I’m in a meeting urging the higher-ups to cut some responsibilities so I have more post-game minutes for The Provies, the most read item we had and it was that by miles. One higher-up is having none of it. He is pressing me to wedge mundane blockquotes into newspaper stories in what are known as “quoters,” historically poor performers online. I tell him I should be able to out-write anything Daniel Sedin says after a game anyway. I advise them all to let me skip these “quoter” obligations. This is what was volleyed back: “Thing is. I see people asking for Daniel Sedin’s autograph. They care about what he says. I don’t see anyone asking for yours.” Damn. I couldn’t even argue it. I just hope The Athletic subscribers aren’t expecting many Daniel Sedin quotes. Or his autograph.
Whether this story happened as written, or was exaggerated after the fact, there is no question that Botchford was one of hundreds of sports journalists who chafed at the conservative approaches of sports media companies and pushed, or were pushed, into new digital environs – with The Athletic being one of the most prominent (and, as the New York Times article highlighted, potentially most problematic) venues for these journalistic nomads.
A consequence of writing for The Athletic is that Botchford became his own biggest promoter, constantly trying to attract new readers, teasing upcoming stories, and cultivating and promoting the idea of Athletic subscribers as “VIPs” – the implication being that those who were not VIPs were missing out, but that access to this inner circle could be gained simply by subscribing to the website. Again, this is not a unique trend, as countless journalists must now relentlessly pursue clicks and reads in order to justify their professional existence. However, sites such as The Athletic arguably exacerbate this trend, as the company can presumably track which writers are performing the best and which are attracting new subscribers. Furthermore, the enthusiasm and relentlessness with which Botchford courted new “VIPs”, and with which many of them embraced this label, was, to my observations at least, quite unique.
Conclusion: Botchford’s Legacy
Perhaps Jason Botchford’s biggest impact in hockey media was his mentorship and unwavering support of a new wave of young Canucks writers who were decidedly outside the mainstream of traditional sports journalism. As hockey blogs gained popularity and traction in the late-2000s, many hockey powerbrokers derided these newcomers. Yet, in countless stories that have poured out since Botchford’s death, young or new writers have noted how supportive the journalist was of their work and how he encouraged people to try different things, to put their writing out there, and to push the boundaries of what hockey journalism is and could be. You can find many of these stories, but I particularly recommend tributes by Cat Silverman, Harman Dayal, Kent Basky, Justin Morissette, Cory Hergott, and Ryan Biech to get a taste of how much Botchford meant to the careers of young professionals (mostly, but not exclusively, writers) trying to break into the industry.
The number and diversity of voices in hockey media has increased significantly in recent years, slowly in the mainstream hockey media and much more prominently through independent outlets working in online spaces. While this has led to the emergence and amplification of many voices writing from or about those on the margins of hockey culture, the ongoing power of the corporate sports media limits the reach of such critical perspectives. As far as I know, Botchford kept his journalistic focus narrowly focused on Canucks-related topics, rather than grappling with social and political issues in hockey, and this is reflected in the writing focus of the cohort of writers he helped to mentor. Nonetheless, it is hard to question the passion and selflessness with which he supported aspiring media professionals, particularly those who were willing to look at the sport differently and challenge conventional wisdom and traditions. We can only hope that others with positions of privilege and power in the hockey media show a similar passion toward building relationships with, and nurturing the careers of, people outside the traditional power structures of the hockey media – and that, in doing so, they help enact wider and progressive changes to the way in which hockey media operates.