He’s been a MuchMusic VJ, helmed a CBC talk show for a decade, and this fall, Strombo (or, as he might say, “your boyfriend George”) will become the frontman for the venerable Hockey Night in Canada at its new home on Rogers. As his beloved Montreal Canadiens were cleaning up in the play-offs, we spoke to him about shifting gears, his bad-boy reputation, and finding his Zen place.
You were tasked with bringing a new energy, vibe, and demographic to the CBC. Is that your role with Hockey Night in Canada?
I’m the last generation before the internet and of the internet. So that puts me in an interesting position to steward in a newer energy, while still respecting the previous generation.
Does hockey need that right now?
I don’t think anything needs anything. Rogers and the NHL realized that this was an opportunity to change it up. My hockey experience is an immigrant hockey experience. I was born in Canada, to immigrants. [He is of Ukrainian and Greek descent.] I didn’t strap on skates until I was in my 30s. I knew street hockey from playing with kids in my neighborhood who were Italian, Portuguese, Maltese, Jamaican, Indian, Trini, Pakistani, and, also, bikers. There wasn’t any, “Let’s go play hockey in the backyard rink.” So I don’t have that traditional old-school experience. But I’m just as much a hockey fan asDon Cherry is.
Did Grapes give you any tips on dressing the part?
He certainly did not. Over the years, he’s made fun of my earrings, so maybe he’ll encourage me to take them out. Don’s always been good to me.
There is a debate going on across the nation about your ability—or inability—to pull off this HNIC gig.
Canadians are resistant to change, and they are incredibly protective of their hockey experience. So you’re adding a lot of new things into the mix.
And lots of Canadians aren’t sure about Strombo—
And that’s fine with me. The good news is that it’s hockey. The game’s the star. The other thing that people don’t like is that I’m such a public Habs fan. That drives people crazy.
You spent a decade at the CBC. What did you learn?
(Laughs). I’m not leaving. I’m still doing things with CBC. I just need to add another layer to my daily existence. My experience has largely been, “Let’s make cool stuff with cool people, and make it of public value.” I really appreciate that and want to continue to do that.
Things that didn’t go as planned. There was the CNN gig [last summer, he hosted the dismally rated Stroumboulopoulos on the U.S. cable news network]—
Most of the press in this country had no idea what was going on [there], and printed a bunch of crap that wasn’t true. The CNN experience was a complete success. Did I want a million viewers? Sure. But who gets a million viewers? It was a network in transition. This business is about accumulating as many interesting experiences as you can. You’ve gotta be Zen about this, or you will go crazy.
Where does your Zen lie?
My Zen lies somewhere in Quito, Mississippi, on my bike, making a semi-regular pilgrimage to Robert Johnson’s grave. His death day is my birthday and I just go there and say hello. And then I ride. I’m on my motorcycle, I’m by myself. It’s quiet. It’s hot.
How much does all this work stuff come with you on the ride?
None of it. Helmet on. Headphones in my ear. Crack that throttle.
So that’s the place?
And when I play hockey.
What position do you play?
Right wing, and I’m the worst. The worst. But there is a moment when you’re sitting on the bench and someone calls “Right wing!” and you have to jump over the boards, and you only think of the play. Cover my man, get the puck out, crash, bang, make the play. Simple.
Everyone thinks they know your story. What is the most bizarre “fact” that you’ve heard about yourself?
I’m always fascinated when I meet people who say I’ve dated their friend. The fact is, I don’t even know your friend. And I have a pretty good memory. One of the benefits of not drinking or doing drugs is that I haven’t really earned my [Casanova] reputation. My reputation is awesome—if that was my real life. But it’s not.
You know what I mean? Girl, you need to set your dreams higher, because this is not it. I’m just a regular dude. I am no victory.
There’s alway talk of the rivalry between you and Jian Ghomeshi, the two golden boys of Canadian media.
No. No. No. We’re pals. We’ve always been pals. People—and I have much love for people—people often project what their reality is, or would be, onto you.
Puck drops in October. Are you scared?
There are so many things to be afraid of in this world and none of them are on this side of the camera.