For those that don’t know, TSN hockey insider Darren Dreger has some Brandon roots, having spent some time as a sports reporter with both CKLQ radio and CKX-TV long before joining TSN. Born in Red Deer, Alta. and raised in Saskatchewan, Dreger spent some time recently with Journal editor Lanny Stewart discussing his time in the Wheat City, his friend Kelly McCrimmon, as well as his current involvement with a new awareness campaign, which was launched recently for Alzheimer awareness month.
Rewind the clock. Take me back to your days in Brandon. Several years ago, you spent time with CKLQ radio and CKX-TV. What do you remember about those days?
I often say my time in Brandon is the foundation of my career. I was surrounded by great people both at CKLQ and then CKX. We made a lot of mistakes in those early days (laughing) but we learned from those mistakes. We had a really good work ethic and weren’t afraid to work seven days a week in-season whether it was the Brandon Wheat Kings or following senior baseball and obviously the many curling events that Brandon and Manitoba had hosted over the years. I was always happy to be a part of that as well. It introduced me to a number of different levels of the industry, and without my experience in radio there and without doing what I did at CKX, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to move to then CKY television in Winnipeg and then I wouldn’t have moved to Edmonton in 1997 to host the Edmonton Oilers games and I wouldn’t have been hired by Sportsnet as a national host for their NHL package in 1998. I look back fondly on my time in Brandon. We still have many friends there. I’m proud to call Kelly McCrimmon, the owner of the Brandon Wheat Kings, one of those friends. Brandon will always be, both personally and professionally, near and dear to me.
Speaking of McCrimmon, I know you were among the media members who played a role in breaking the news of McCrimmon accepting the assistant GM role with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. What are your thoughts on McCrimmon as a hockey executive and did you foresee at some point, given the success he’s had with the Wheat Kings, that he’d eventually be moving up the hockey ladder so-to-speak?
I was a little surprised that Kelly didn’t accept the opportunity to jump on board with the Toronto Maple Leafs shortly after Mike Babcock was brought on board as head coach. But there’s a bit of a back story there too. Kelly expected that last season was going to be a good one for the Brandon Wheat Kings. Being the honourable person that he is, he felt a deep connection and an attachment to not only the players on that team but to their families. A part of recruiting is making promises – making sure that the families, the parents of these boys, understand that these kids are in good hands and they’re going to get great opportunity. So he wanted to fulfill those promises. In doing so, he pushed the Toronto Maple Leafs away and probably wasn’t overly confident that there was going to be another great opportunity. But I knew that there would be because I know how highly respected Kelly is in the hockey world. Not in junior hockey, I’m talking across the globe. This fit with the Vegas Golden Knights is terrific because this entire season Kelly has immersed himself in the world of professional hockey, and to some degree, I think he’s scouting some college teams as well.
What’s it like working with Bob McKenzie? I know many of his peers refer to him as ‘The Godfather’ when it comes to the craft of being a ‘hockey insider’. How much have you learned from him?
A great amount. I probably wouldn’t be at TSN if it were not for Bob McKenzie. Maybe I’d be doing something entirely different. He’s the pioneer of the ‘hockey insider’ in television. He really truly is. I think Bob and the platform he presented initially at TSN opened the eyes of everyone in network television. You have to have the analysis and the ex players are always going to take you to a place of analysis where those of us who didn’t play the game maybe can’t get quite as deep into – not to say we can’t and don’t and won’t analyze the game because of course we do and we will and we’re educated enough and we know the game well enough to do that without any problems. The insider on these panels brings a viewer into another world of speculation. If it were not for Bob, I might not be where I’m at.
Take me through days like the trade deadline or the start of free agency in the NHL. Just how hectic are those days for you and Bob?
It’s goofy. Who’s kidding who. I’ll say that it takes me 11 months to repair the damage in one month around the trade deadline. Free agency is similar but free agency is a broader web because you’re involving player agents as well who are involved in that process. You have a number of different areas you can attack a tip or a story. With the NHL trade deadline, it’s gotten more and more difficult because so many people have access to the information now. You’ve got to continue to work your sources and our sources are predominantly those inside the organizations at varying levels. Sometimes a tip can be as simple as a player whom you have a good connection who drops you a note or sends you a direct message on Twitter saying ‘so and so’ just got moved. Then you quickly get on the phone and you confirm it and you report it. It’s a very hectic couple of weeks I would say leading up to the trade deadline and I have a real deep sense of relief when the deadline passes and our coverage is done for another year.
Working in a huge hockey market in Toronto, how ‘Auston Matthews crazy’ is it right now especially with the way he’s been playing as of late…
As crazy as it is in Toronto and it is and he’s earned accolades and the recognition and the buzz that he’s created around the NHL based on his play, the National Hockey League is in great hands right now with the young players who are playing around the league. You look at the stir that Patrik Laine created not just in Winnipeg but around the NHL. Every game the Winnipeg Jets play, if you don’t have time to sit and watch the game, you’re quickly scrolling through on your devices to see if Laine has scored because chances are it’s going to be a highlight type of goal. Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers and the buzz that he’s created to go along with the new building in Edmonton. I just look at the stories around the game. It’s not just rhetoric to hear commissioner Gary Bettman talk about how good of place the NHL is in right now. I believe that to be true.
You’re currently involved with a new awareness campaign that was launched recently for Alzheimer awareness month in Canada. The Alzheimer Society is currently asking Manitobans via social media to be #initforalz in January and to take action to support people living with dementia. Take me through your decision to jump on board and support the new campaign…
It’s selfishly motivated obviously. I’m working, along with my family, through a difficult process with my stepfather (Ervin) who was diagnosed with dementia/Alzheimer’s last May. That was a conclusion of something that I think our close family knew was inevitable just based on the size of change that we’ve seen and my mom who had watched closely, see develop over the last two to two and a half years. You feel like you should be saying more, doing more – anything you can do to help lend a voice or create more awareness. So for me, the first thing I thought of was social media and Twitter because now I’m approaching one million Twitter followers and I was paying attention to both Dementia Friends and the Alzheimer’s Society and the work that they do on social media. I reached out to both via Twitter and basically just said I’m here if you need me. Both were pretty quick to reach out in return and say look, we’d like to bring you on board and use vehicles you can use to help spread the word.
Right now, there are more than 22,000 Manitobans who are living with dementia. For more on the #initforalz campaign and to learn more about the disease and get access to programs, support, and many other services, go to www.alzheimer.mb.ca.