- With a magnetic personality that made him one of hockey's most popular social media follows, Paul Bissonnette has found a new home in the broadcast booth.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sipping coffee in the lower bowl at Capital One Arena, tattoos peeking from beneath the sleeves of a dark-blue suit, the most famous color commentator on NHL regional broadcast radio—certainly the lone voice with 1.05 million Twitter followers—digs into a folder of stat sheets. “Paul Bissonnette,” reads the label on the front. “Coyotes Radio Network.” It’s the first Monday in November, an hour before Arizona holds its morning skate. He clicks a pen and starts writing. “So this is it, looking at notepads every day,” Bissonnette says. “Not very exciting.”
Boring was never Biz, of course. He slugged opponents on the ice, held “f--- you matches” with fans in 140 characters, chirped and joked his way toward social media celebrity. Hell, he hired a helicopter to dump glacial water onto his Speedo-covered self for the ALS ice bucket challenge. The Coyotes proffered a long leash when they claimed him off waivers in Oct. 2009, so Bissonnette obliged by sprinting until the chain pulled taut. “Tell me one other organization that would’ve let me have the antics I had,” he says. “I was that goofball who made it.”
And now he’s that analyst in the stands, poring over power play percentages, jotting thoughts about the host Capitals onto papers from the folder, preparing for his 16th regular-season game at the mic. “All these nuggets are his,” Bissonnette says, nodding a few rows up. Play-by-play man Bob Heethuis turns around. “Biz, we’re a team,” he says. “These are yours too.”
They make for a solid sitcom couple. Heethuis, the straight man who sets up Bissonnette’s tongue-and-cheek deadpan humor, is the radio lifer—13 years in the minors, two decades (and counting) with Arizona. He doesn’t know anything about Twitter or Instagram, just that Bissonnette is popular on both. He remembers Bissonnette as a player, how the Coyotes fourth-liner never turned down interviews and actually enjoyed getting in front of the camera for video segments. He teaches terms of the biz to Biz, like “cough button” and “nuggets.”
Maybe looking at notes is more methodical work than Bissonnette’s 202 NHL games—plus scores more in the press box, making him feel right at home these days—but he keeps plenty busy. This morning in Washington alone, he records a web hit analyzing key matchups; films another interview detailing how he accidentally swiped forward Nick Cousins’s car from the airport parking lot because they drive the same Jeep Cherokee; schedules an appearance at a collectible store for his upcoming Star Wars-themed bobblehead; and brainstorms a postgame television segment in which he grills current players, a la Sportsnet’s After Hours.
“Okay, but if we’re going to do it, I want family phone numbers to do research,” Bissonnette says. “I want to get genuine laughs. I want to bring something up and they go, ‘How the f--- did he know that?’”
This was supposed to have been a transition year. Two torn ACLs booted Bissonnette from the ice after three seasons with the Kings’ AHL affiliate (though the 32-year-old’s time was already expiring like most enforcers anyway). He considered coaching, but that meant more bus rides and less free time for creative pursuits. Then Rich Nairn, the Coyotes’ executive VP of communications and broadcasting, called over the summer. Nairn had been trying to hire Bissonnette ever since the latter left Arizona in 2015. So he asked again: What about radio?
Surely someone with seven-digit social followings had options beyond the FM dial, but Bissonnette always figured he would end up in media upon retirement. “I think about that a lot,” he says. “Am I maximizing what I could be doing right now? But I think this is just a stepping stone. I hope it can lead me to other places.” For now, he finds simple thrills in being a rookie again, learning the ropes and living the life. As the Coyotes finish their morning skate, he hustles down the hallway to catch the first bus, back live from Washington D.C. in seven hours.
“Is ass okay on the radio?”
Midway through the first period, behind the door labeled BROADCAST BOOTH C. Before the commercial break, Bissonnette had been waxing poetic about Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom’s puck-protection skills—specifically as they correlated to the firmness of his backside. Evidently he got excited, a little lost in the moment, and...
“Haven’t gotten the FCC come after me yet,” Heethuis replies.
Phew. Always a risk, one supposes. Even so, Bissonette has caught onto the rhythms fast, whether fluidly integrating bits of analysis into Heethuis’s play-by-play or simply knowing when to shut up. “I want to respect the game, not going to be this crazy, over the top Twitter character,” he told Heethuis when they started working together. “I want to break down the game and tell the fans what’s happening.” Early on he found himself stuttering at times but quickly self-diagnosed the reason: With the Coyotes off to a dreadful start, Bissonnette feels conscious about over-criticizing. “One, they’re f------ better than I was,” he says. “Two, you sympathize with what they’re going through.”
On the wall, a muted television returns to the Fox Sports Arizona telecast and color commentator Tyson Nash appears onscreen. Like few else, he sympathizes with what Bissonette is going through. When Nash retired in 2007, a personable and popular 32-year-old ball of fists like Bissonette, he too slid into the booth alongside Heethuis. “We’re a lot the same, our personalities,” Nash says. “I think that’s the hardest part. Now you’ve got to put a filter on, think about what things you say. They probably have a good 10, 15-second delay for Paul.”
It was abrupt and tough transition for Nash. The first year, he couldn’t stop thinking about taking the press elevator to rink level and climbing back onto the ice. He reckons that Bissonette had an easier time because of his extended time in the minors, which included the 2015 Calder Cup with the Manchester Monarchs. This is a spot-on assessment. “There wasn’t a time I got on a plane in Phoenix and said, ‘Holy s--- this is f------ cool,” Bissonette says. “I get my own bucket seat on a private jet and someone’s serving me a steak in five minutes? That would never get old to me. Now I get to do it again. Which is even f------ cooler.”
Witness the enthusiasm up close: When Coyotes rookie Christian Fischer scores on a first-period redirection, Bissonette stands up and raises one finger in the air while Heethuis handles the call. He slaps his hand on the table at an errant pass spoiling a strong offensive zone possession. He leans forward, locked into the flow … the horn sounds for intermission.
“Have you seen the bobblehead?” Heethuis asks (The giveaway's official name is Obiz-Wan Kenobi, in which Bissonnette wields a lighter and a microphone). “Do you like it?”
“Yeah, you told me it looked like Vlade Divac. You bully. I’m calling HR tomorrow.”
“Okay, I apologize. Do you accept?”
“Maybe. If you take me out for a steak dinner in St. Louis.”
Welcome to Bissonnette’s wheelhouse: relaxed, quick-thinking, back-and-forth tête-à-têtes. It’s why the Coyotes started filming a web series called Road Trippin’ With Biz, in which he tours cities with players and interviews them. (First question to tough guy Zac Rinaldo: “Anything you want to say to me before we get started here? Not even, like, a sorry for beating me up and taunting me in front of Flyers fans a couple years back?”) And why the radio crew scrapped their usual second-intermission analysis in favor of a similar segment, “Storytime With Biz.”
Bissonette doesn’t need to prepare much each night, not like the meticulous Heethuis, but he has several responsibilities: keys to the game, a player to watch, something at stake and a story, typically relating to whatever city they’re in. For Winnipeg, he tells about calling out the team hotel’s $9 bottle of water with an Instagram post that said, "F--- You Fairmount," which prompted threats from the manager to kick out Arizona players. For Montreal, it’s scoring his first career NHL goal against Carey Price. Tonight, he recalls how the Coyotes once had a day off in Washington, which they spent battling college kids in flip cup at a local bar. Heethuis has never heard of flip cup, so Bissonnette explains the rules.
“I think fans are pleasantly surprised when they tune in and hear him break down the action,” Heethuis says, “but they tune into hear the BizNasty character too.”
Headphones on, hands in his pockets, Bissonette leans back. Fischer’s goal was the last that Arizona scored during a 3-2 overtime loss, its 14th setback in 16 games at the time. Still, the show goes on. He highlights positives, like another dazzling goal from rookie Clayton Keller and 37 saves from newly acquired goalie Scott Wedgewood. He doles out sponsored postgame awards, like something called the Gila River Casino Crunch of the Game. He looks ahead to Pittsburgh, the team that drafted him No. 121 in 2003, where the Coyotes are headed next.
“That’s where it all started for you, Biz?” Heethuis says.
“They’re going to play all my highlights on the video screen.”
“Was that plural?”
Bissonette has a theory about his unique sort of fame in hockey—one born not from any meaningful athletic achievement, but a magnetic personality. “I think all these people just see me as a clown,” he says. “It’s not like they’re going, ‘Wow, there’s David Beckham.’ I’m more of a cartoon character. I gave people a look inside the life of your average Joe in the NHL." The goofball who made it.
Now that Bissonette has moved to the booth, he wonders if his relevance will fade but seems unconcerned either way. “I don’t go on Twitter much,” he says. “I look back and I’m like...man, how do I say this...like narcissistic to think that people cared that much about what I said. I don’t really care to go on there as often to give my opinion on s---. I just want to be positive. When I was 26 and I was single and I’d go to practice and come home and sit on the couch, sure, I had time to f--- around online and argue with strangers. Now I don’t really care. Now I have a job.”
He has a lot of jobs, in fact. The Coyotes employ him as a team ambassador, dispatching him to fan functions. At home games he does pre- and postgame TV spots. This summer, Bissonette poured himself into a five-part mockumentary series featuring scenic shots of British Columbia and cameos from NHL stars like Connor McDavid; he describes the final product as “40% tourism, 30% storyline, 30% jokes and celebrities, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life times 20.” The production value—helicopters, boats, race cars, drones—was massive, but Bissonnette wrote and produced everything. Relatedly, it takes all of 74 seconds into the pilot episode for him to appear naked with a comically large black bar shielding his junk.
Heethuis sees limitless options in Bissonnette’s future. Maybe he can host a TV show. Act in movies. Produce viral videos. “I’d be naive to say that Paul will be in radio for several years,” Heethuis says. “He has much bigger things on his horizon.”
Bissonette, for his part, isn’t sure yet. He envisions building a home in Arizona, planting roots and helping promote the Coyotes. He enjoys getting reps on the radio, feeling himself improve, like when the Penguins converted him from defenseman to forward after juniors and he began an alternate path toward the NHL. Maybe he’ll become an intermission analyst, free to expound on thoughts instead of squeezing them in before the puck leaves the neutral zone. Until then? “I don't think people who listen to the radio are my demographic, but I hope they’re enjoying it,” he says. “I think we’ve added some humor to it, especially the dark times.”
The broadcast winds down.
“Great job as always tonight,” Heethuis says.
“Great chatting with ya,” Bissonnette replies. “As always. Thanks for having some fun on the telecast.”
He pauses. “Is it telecast? Broadcast?”
He motions to the back of the booth. “Sound guy’s shaking his head at me like I’m a moron. Like, what’s he talking about?”