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THE LAST WORD

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This month: CBC host George Stroumboulopoulos

George proudly sporting his 1915-16 Habs jersey.

Don’t let his MuchMusic VJ past fool you: George Stroumboulopoulos - the opinionated host of CBC’s edgy current affairs show, The Hour - isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and the network brass couldn’t be happier about it. As comfortable interviewing world leaders as he is punk rockers and star athletes, few topics get Strombo going quite like his beloved Canadiens. We caught up with the Malton, ON native while he was on assignment for CBC in Montreal to learn more about his lifelong love affair with the bleu-blanc-rouge.    


Did you play hockey as a kid?
George Stroumboulopoulos: I only started skating five years ago but I played street hockey every day as a kid.  In fact, when I used to get in trouble from my mother, she wouldn’t ground me, she would take away my hockey stick.  That was my punishment because I loved hockey so much.

So explain something to us – how does a kid growing up in the greater Toronto area become a diehard Habs fan? 
GS: I think I’ve always been an adversarial kind of person. My uncle was a Bruins fan and my grandfather – my Papous – was a Leafs fan and they played a major role in my life. In my family we didn’t get together on a Saturday night to cheer with each other, we got together to cheer against each other. 

Strombo, is that you?
How does a Canadiens fan even survive in Toronto?
GS: Believe me, it’s not easy. (laughs) I was at some benefit dinner for an event and they were quizzing me at my table about hockey and they all thought I was a Leafs fan. I was like “Man, you might as well have called me Kim Jong Il, calling me a Leafs fan.” Turns out the guy who asked was laughing because he was on the board of directors for the Habs and he ended up sending me a Saku Koivu jersey that I have in my office now.

Are you a big Koivu guy?
GS: I think so much of this franchise is about Saku Koivu.  People who criticize Saku Koivu in this city don’t know anything.  They really don’t and I have no problem calling them out.  You look at what he consistently does on the ice, but moreover what he means to the brand and to this city. In the mid-90s, this team lost its way.  They just didn’t understand.  I think they thought they understood but I think they forgot what it felt like to be a kid that loved this team and I think they lost their way.  They were firing coaches and trading captains and they lost the plot; Koivu was the beginning of the return. 
Strombo will never forget Koivu's return from cancer in 2002.
Everyone talks about the game when he came back from Cancer, but for me it was actually the first body check he threw that really set things off.  The crowd was as loud as you can imagine at the start and the only two times that’s ever happened – unplanned – were for him and for Maurice Richard when the Forum closed.  After Koivu’s first body check, the place got even louder, which didn’t even seem possible. It was because Koivu represented something that was above and beyond him and it was above and beyond the team. It was the combination of the player, the role model, the franchise, the jersey, all of that.  Koivu to me is this team. 

We read your prediction that the Canadiens would rack up 106 points this season, but you were too superstitious to say how they would finish in the playoffs.  What other superstitions do you have? 
GS: In the playoffs, I have a Canadiens flag hanging in my living room – only on game days – I usually have a jersey and a Canadiens tuque on and I sit there, ready.  I’m a relatively easy-going guy, but not when it comes to hockey.  In my house, I don’t watch Hockey Night in Canada with anybody.  I’m by myself, lights turned down, stereo turned loud, standing behind my couch.  I don’t want to over-romanticize the game because I recognize it’s just a game, but I’m 36-years old, so I have 36 years of a relationship with a crest.  I have 36 years of being part of something that is always there and every winter I have the Montreal Canadiens to watch.  I have all this personal, emotional history with this brand and it’s fun. 

You don't strike us as the Air Canada Centre type. How does a game at the ACC stack up to the Bell Centre?
GS: In the actual Air Canada Centre, the energy and the volume aren’t the same as at the Bell Centre because that’s just not Toronto’s personality. When you’re there in Montreal and Coldplay’s “Fix You” plays and the announcer starts, “Mesdames et messieurs, your Montreal CANADIENS!” and the kids come out with the flags and all of that stuff I just have a moment where I’m like, “This is nice. This is where I need to be.” Toronto and Montreal have the best hockey fans in the world, and they’re tied. They love the game, they’re savvy about the game and both Habs and Leafs fans are completely unreasonable about the game: one win, plan the parade; one loss, tie the noose.  It’s super-emotional, it’s completely irrational, but that’s what makes it so glorious. We’re in love with something that’s been there for our parents’ lives and our grandparents’ lives. One hundred years. None of us knows anybody who is 100, so the Habs have been around longer than anybody we know. 

On The Hour, you’ve interviewed politicians, Nobel Prize winners and NHLers like Koivu, Alex Ovechkin, and Sean Avery.  How different are the hockey players from your other guests? 
GS: Hockey players are generally hard to interview because we don’t live in a culture where they’re allowed to say very much. Reporters always criticize them for giving cliché answers, but the moment the player gives a non-cliché answer, everyone pounces on it. Avery was definitely not gun-shy.  We sat down and I said “Man, I really need you to open up,” and wow, did he ever.  

Who has been your most difficult interview?
GS: It’s always challenging to interview a band of 22-year-olds – young men who are still caught up in the B.S.  There’s a difference between interviewing a boy and a man.  It’s all been relatively smooth these days, though, because I don’t really care.  I want a good conversation but I don’t need it to end well and I don’t need them to like me. I just like people who mean it.

George Stroumboulopoulos and Eugene Levy on the set of The Hour.
Of everyone you’ve met on the show or elsewhere, in whose presence have you been most in awe?
GS: Eugene Levy.  Any SNL guy, but I wanted to be Eugene Levy when I was a kid and I loved SCTV.  SCTV was the first time I saw people who were Canadian on TV be better than the Americans.  The only thing we were better at before that in my mind was hockey.

How wise was the CBC to give up the old Hockey Night in Canada theme?
GS: I don’t care about that. I mean, I would’ve preferred them to keep it because that song means a lot to me, but also as a practical tax payer, I don’t want them spending three million dollars on a song. Give the new song 10 years and it will become part of our collective consciousness, too.

How often do you get into debates with Don Cherry over the Leafs-Canadiens rivalry?
GS: Well, Ron MacLean and I will talk more about the game when I’m there, but every now and then Don and I will talk. I try not to fight Don Cherry about hockey though, we’ll usually just stick to talking history. He’s a Bruin, so it’s kind of rocky – we can only be friends-ish. (laughs)

Any closet Habs fans at the CBC? How about Peter Mansbridge?
GS: (laughs) No I’m pretty sure he’s a Leafs fan.  We bust each other about it all the time.  There are a lot of Habs fans there, but the CBC is National, so there are fans of every team in there.

How do you follow the Habs in T.O., did you add RDS to your cable package?
GS: I have the hockey package so I watch every night – even brutal teams from the States or from the south that I don’t care about because I just want to watch the games. It’s hard for me to watch a team like Florida, though, because I don’t think they should have a team.  They give away so many free tickets in Florida and nobody goes to those games.  I look at hockey as if it’s a privilege and to have an NHL franchise in your city is special because the impact it can have on the youth goes above and beyond any other sport in my opinion. I don’t think cities should have teams unless the city wants to embrace them.  Minnesota deserves a team.  Minnesota fans love the game of hockey.  Even in Texas, Dallas deserves a team.  But Nashville, Atlanta, Florida, those individual markets, they haven’t really earned that privilege as far as I’m concerned. 

So if you were going to add another franchise to the NHL, what city do you think deserves one the most?
GS: I would put at least two more teams back in Canada in either Winnipeg, Quebec City or Hamilton. You need another team in the Toronto area – you absolutely do. I believe that hockey is truly a northern game, and for the most part it’s a northeastern game. I’m fine with teams in the west, though – they belong there. I would put a team in Seattle if they would support it.

"My name is ridiculous, anyway. On a hockey jersey, it goes from one elbow to the other."
Be honest, when the University of Calgary gave you an honorary Doctorate degree in 2007, how long did you go around making people refer to you as “Dr. Stroumboulopoulos”?
GS: Only when I’m trying to get a date (laughs). When they called me to tell me about it, I thought they were kidding – I thought it was a buddy playing a joke on me. I didn’t even go to university – I didn’t even apply to university! I did make people call me doctor for a little while, just for fun. 

Do you ever find women apprehensive about becoming Mrs. Stroumboulopoulos?

GS: You know, I’ve never asked. I’m single but if I were ever to be married, I would never ask the woman to take my name. Keep your name; you have your own legacy, you don’t need to adopt my legacy. My name is ridiculous, anyway. On a hockey jersey, it goes from one elbow to the other.  


Speaking of which, did you know that the scrabble score for your name is 23 – without the triple word score?

GS: Really? Does my name actually count in Scrabble?  23 points. Wow.  I don’t really play Scrabble that much, but I should lobby for that to count.  

Have you ever met our resident Greek player, Tom Kostopoulos?
GS: I love Kostopoulos! I met him this season for the first time. I really like him because he’s so gritty and fun to watch – him and Josh Gorges. 

Give us your three favorite former Canadiens who are NOT in the Hall of Fame.
GS: Mats Naslund, number one.  Saku Koivu, does he count?  He’s definitely the heart and soul of this team.  If not, then Carbo [Guy Carbonneau] and Kirk Muller – they’re tied. [Doug] Jarvis is in the Hall, isn’t he?  If he’s not, that’s a crime.  He’s the Iron Man; he should be there, for sure.

 
Check out The Hour’s official Web site at cbc.ca/thehour, and learn more about George on his official Web site at strombo.com. Catch Strombo in action on The Hour weeknights at 11:00 p.m. on CBC.


This article, written by Shauna Denis, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 23, No. 5.  See table of contents