Pierre McGuire's road goes on forever
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PHILADELPHIA – Inside an auxiliary locker room at Wells Fargo Center, tucked along the narrow hallway leading to the ice, an NBC Sports employee hovers over Pierre McGuire, dabbing his bald dome with makeup. “If you are follically impaired,” McGuire says, laughing loudly, “you need all the help you can get.”
It’s an hour or so before the Flyers host the Capitals in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, McGuire’s sixth assignment in six cities since the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs began six days earlier. He has come to Philadelphia by way of St. Louis, Sunrise, Fla., Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Chicago, hopscotching around the country at a dizzying clip. For instance, when the Blackhawks and Blues needed overtime to settle their series opener on April 13, McGuire arrived at his St. Louis hotel at 3 a.m., napped for one hour, flew to Florida, dozed for another hour, worked out in the gym, worked the game at the rink, and finally took a car service some 250-ish miles down Interstate 75 for Panthers-Islanders the next night.
Say what you will about the ubiquitous color commentator, the man who is always stationed between the benches or hovering on them—“NHL Inside the Glass Analyst” is his official title—but McGuire is doing what he loves. “When I leave the rink, if it was a clean show, if guys and girls had fun building the tape packs, if we can tell the right stories, if we can help educate, give them a little shred of information they didn’t know, it was a great night, or it was a great afternoon,” he says. “That’s what really matters.”
Indeed, to spend a day with McGuire is to get swept into his world of unbridled enthusiasm for the sport. Old stories are told with widened eyes and preceded by a tap on the knee, as though signaling that it’s time to listen up. On the production truck, his NBC Sports colleagues will often hear his voice piped through the speakers, offering rah-rah words of encouragement in the middle of broadcasts. Get after it! That was a great package! That’s why NBC is the best! Even his steady drumbeat of players' hometowns and junior teams serves a purpose in McGuire’s mind. “I think it’s the journey, the journey for all these guys,” he says. “That’s what matters to me the most.”
Between calling the Winter Olympics and world junior championships, and tracking prospects for college and pros, McGuire has visited most of those places anyway. “He’s a world traveler,” says legendary play-by-play man Mike "Doc" Emrick, who is a frequent colleague of McGuire’s in the broadcast booth. “He knows an awful lot about players. That’s part of his versatility. He’s very energetic and busy. He’s really a guy that’s constantly wanting to sell the sport of hockey and he goes anywhere to do it.”
A Sports Emmy winner who at last check has worked 21 postseason games in 22 days, pausing only because no NHL teams played on April 26, McGuire, 54, is a former college and NHL coach, scout and assistant GM (and, in the interest of full disclosure, occasional contributor to Sports Illustrated magazine). He wears his love of hockey on his sleeve, his wedding band on one hand and, on the other, one of the two Stanley Cup rings he won as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and '92.
A rink-side reporting pioneer, McGuire is also a polarizing figure. The first page of Google results for his name includes the following: A parody Twitter account; two articles detailing McGuire mistaking Detroit’s bare-scalped assistant for its equally hairless head coach (“I’ll never live that down,” he says); another showing McGuire patting Penguins forward Matt Cullen on the butt earlier this week; a FanSided article bluntly headlined Why nobody likes Pierre McGuire; and the opinion, from his former mentor Scotty Bowman, that McGuire could one day become an NHL GM.
Meanwhile, the man with the egg-shaped glasses sits in the chair as the makeup artist circles and the clock ticks toward another game.
“Are we good?” McGuire asks, laughing again. “How’s the head?”
The road to the NHL
Earlier that day, 12 rows up in the lower bowl and with a cup of Starbucks coffee in his hand, McGuire watched the Flyers take their morning skate. Sitting with him and hearing him talk is much like listening to him on television. The references flow fast. There’s Joe Mullen, the assistant who McGuire coached in Pittsburgh, “the hardest working guy ever when it comes to shooting the puck." There’s forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, “from France, great kid, loves his mother.” And forward Mark Streit, who helped Switzerland shock Canada at the 2006 Winter Olympics, and Wayne Simmonds, an “unlikely selection” for Team Canada at the 2008 world juniors, and …
“I thought I had a pretty good memory bank, but he could pretty much tell you where every single player in the league played college hockey, junior hockey, where they’re from, when they were drafted, what round,” says Kenny Albert, McGuire’s play-by-play partner who is sitting nearby. “It’s crazy. He’ll remember who was the teammate with whom and which year and where the world juniors were, down to the most minute detail. His knowledge is encyclopedic.”
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For years, the thought of entering media never crossed McGuire’s mind. The Englewood, N.J., native grew up in Montreal watching Canadiens games and reading Red Fisher’s afternoon columns in the Montreal Star, but initially envisioned attending law school and entering hockey that way, either as an agent or in upper management. A three-sport athlete at Bergen Catholic High School–McGuire's family moved back to Jersey during his teens—and Hobart College, he spent a season in Europe as a defenseman. Upon returning stateside, he started coaching at his alma mater, making $400 for the year and substitute teaching on the side for $50 a day, he says.
Along the way, McGuire was fortunate enough to meet Bowman, whose daughter attended St. Lawrence University while McGuire was an assistant there from 1988 to '90. One day, on a whim, Bowman stopped by the hockey office to introduce himself. When Pittsburgh later hired him to run its player development efforts in June 1990, Bowman brought McGuire along as an area scout. The legendary coach knew little about him, but McGuire was assigned to the Boston area and seemed to have an endless motor. “He’s always enthusiastic,” Bowman says. “Travel never bothered him. Still doesn’t. Even the job he’s in now. You don’t get a time to do certain things.” When Bowman became head coach of the Penguins in 1991, McGuire was promoted to assistant. During their two years as colleagues, the Pens won two Cups.
From there McGuire spent a season as an assistant with Hartford and another helming the Whalers, stepping into the head job at the age of 32. The infamous circumstances of his exit with a 23-37-7 record have been well-chronicled. After that he became an assistant GM and later an assistant in Ottawa, then spent 70 games coaching the ECHL’s Baton Rouge Kingfish, an expansion club at the time. He hasn’t worked for a hockey team since, because next came a phone call from Ted Blackman, the legendary Montreal broadcaster for CJAD. McGuire, of course, also remembers this:
“He said, ‘We’re doing some changes with our broadcast in Montreal and we know you’re out of the league now, you’re in the minors, would you be interested in doing it?’ I said, ‘I don’t even know if I can do it.’ I met with him in Montreal, he offered me the job after about 30 minutes. I had to think about it and he said, 'Look, I know it’s not the same kind of money.' It wasn’t great financially. 'But I’m willing to bet that within two to three years you’ll be on national TV.'
“A bunch of friends who were GMs, people I knew, said do this, stay relevant, do this, but not for too long, because then you’ll be perceived as a media person.”
Inside the glass
Nineteen years later, McGuire is lounging in his locker room during the second intermission, after a chippy half-hour of hockey between the Capitals and Flyers. By then, Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik had needed assistance to leave the ice after getting hit against the boards, and his teammate Dmitry Orlov was sent careening neck-first into the dashers by Bellemare. Earlier, after the first period ended, McGuire had feared that an injury might occur, citing the verbal barbs he'd heard flung between the two benches. “Mean, mean stuff,” he said.
McGuire's trademark perch during games is the result of an effort by NBC executive producer Sam Flood, who was in charge of hockey coverage for the network when he met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and others before the 2005-06 lockout ended. No one was doing what Flood pitched: “I want to put a person between benches,” he told Bettman. He would call it Inside the Glass, aiming to, as he puts it today, “hear the conversations on the bench, but understanding the code of hockey. We’d protect the sanctity of the bench.”
After getting the O.K., Flood approached McGuire, who had transitioned into media full-time as a TSN analyst and radio regular, about becoming the idea’s guinea pig. McGuire had concerns. He was worried that players and coaches wouldn’t welcome an outsider, particularly a media person, into their space during the heat of battle when anything was likely to be said or done. “In the beginning, the guys were pooping in their pants,” McGuire says, adding that a feeling-out period was needed before all parties became comfortable with the arrangement.
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The practice spread. Today, local and national broadcasts alike regularly feature analysts making observations from little boxes situated at the red line. When McGuire worked his third Winter Olympics, in Sochi two years ago, the Bolshoy Ice Dome had been outfitted to include three inside-the-glass stations, Flood says. Sure, the job comes with some dangers—McGuire once needed surgical glue to close a bleeding wound after a stick struck his head in Buffalo—but it’s hockey, right? Pain comes with the product.
Flood’s idea raises an interesting question about the role that McGuire and others like him play: What to do when something newsworthy happens and they are best positioned to see it? In McGuire’s mind, the calculus is simple. “One of the great things about my job is you basically have unfettered access to all 30 teams,” he says. “Some are more protective than others, but the one thing you can’t protect is when you’re between the benches. You can see the guys who are coachable, the guys who care about their teammates, you can hear what guys say to teammates, positive or negative, so you can evolve.
“I say exactly what’s going on, as much as I can. I would never explain an injured part of a player. I can say he’s hurt, but I’m not going to say where. It’s not my job to say who’s dropping F-bombs. It’s not a very sanitary place. My job’s not to document it word for word. You don’t want to be the person that ruins that trust factor.”
On this night, McGuire delivered the early report on Orpik’s injury. “He has a glassy-eyed look,” he told NBC Sports’ audience, looking at the monitor in his box because Orpik was still keeled over on the ice in Washington’s zone. When a team trainer and Caps blueliner John Carlson finally escorted Orpik off the ice, McGuire followed up. “Look at his eyes. You can see. He’s had concussion issues before too. It’s not a knee … He’s not responding. Kenny, he’s not responding to any commands right now as he skated by me.”
The biggest change in McGuire’s job over time hasn’t been in the kind of information he reports—relaying observations like the one about Orpik's injury was always part of the deal—but how. Initially, play-by-play broadcasters like Emrick would receive word that McGuire was ready to chime in. Now, his microphone is always hot and a “talkback” button allows him to mute himself to the television audience before he radios the producers on the loading dock. This is how he pumps everyone up in the truck, to the point where one producer in Philadelphia calls him “our cheerleader.”
During the second intermission, McGuire’s phone pings with a text message from Emrick, who was watching the telecast at home. “Way to go Pierre,” it reads. Just a message of support between teammates.
To others, McGuire is an easy target for criticism, always coming through the television, always offering his take. “I think anyone who’s out there on a regular basis draws heat,” Flood says. “And you accept it. If you’re going to be in the public eye, it’s going to happen. Pierre is a passionate guy and his passion isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is for the majority of the audience. I love what he brings to the show every night.”
Even Flood, though, admits he isn’t the biggest fan of the world junior championship references, “so Pierre and I have some fun with how many mentions there can be.”
With the third period approaching, McGuire stuffs his sweaty gym clothes, which were drying in a stall because he didn’t have any time to do otherwise with them, and his folder of handwritten game notes into his carry-on bag. The car service will drop him at his Connecticut home around 2:30 a.m. He’ll be awake by 7:30, first for radio and then for the rare occasion of taking his children to school. He’ll work that night, of course, at Madison Square Garden for Penguins vs. Rangers.
“Could these guy try to grab me a slice of pizza for the car,” he asks, before checking the clock, rapping twice on the table and skipping down the tunnel toward his endless road.