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ESPN's Emily Kaplan Q&A: on Life Between the Benches and More

From 'Around the Horn' to live in-game reporting, Kaplan has emerged as one of the sport's most prominent voices. What journey did she take to get here?
20211126_JH1R3403 (ESPN Images, Jeff Haynes)

It’s been a whirlwind year for ESPN hockey reporter Emily Kaplan. She’s transitioned from newsbreaker and star Around the Horn panellist to breaking barriers as a between-the-benches reporter on 2021-22 telecasts. How did she get where she is today, and what’s life like between the benches? She recently caught up with The Hockey News to share her story.

THE HOCKEY NEWS: Growing up in New Jersey, did you always know you’d be a sportswriter, or did you consider any alternate-universe career paths?

EMILY KAPLAN:
There was no alternate universe for me. In Grade 5, I said, “I want to be a sportswriter when I grow up and have a golden retriever and a yard with a white fence.” My dad was a Sunday sports editor at The New York Daily News, and I’m the middle child of three girls, and I had a serious middle-child complex, so I always thought my dad hated me (laughs). Inherently, to get close to him, I chose what he did. He was a huge hockey fan, and we bonded by watching Rangers games.

THN: Do any particular memories of watching the sport stick out from your childhood?

KAPLAN: My dad’s hours were crazy, and I remember bonding over Saturdays when we were able to watch together – especially day games, him taking me into New York with my grandpa and getting knishes at Madison Square Garden. I don’t know where the knishes went, but they were awesome, and I think they should come back. I’m from a suburb of the city where it was half Rangers fans and half Devils fans.

THN: Coming up as a writer with Sports Illustrated, you worked closely with the legendary Peter King. Did he pass on any nuggets of wisdom that you carry with you today?

KAPLAN: So many. For one, he’s the ultimate grinder. He always said, “The hard workers get rewarded in the end,” and that’s always been a mantra throughout my entire career. The other really neat thing about working with him was just shadowing him and seeing how he does the job and gets such incredible access to the top players, coaches, GMs in football. For him it’s all about relationships and accountability. He puts his opinion out there, but he can back it up, because he’s put in the work, he’s puts in the time, he makes all the calls. And seeing the way he did the job, I wanted to replicate that work ethic.

THN: What’s the biggest difference between covering the NFL and the NHL?

KAPLAN: The NFL, you can walk into any locker room and stick a microphone in front of a player and say, “Tell me why you’re great,” and he will give you his life story, boast about himself and give colorful, fun anecdotes. In hockey, why we love this sport is because of the culture of humility. A star player only plays about a third of a game. At the same time, it can be frustrating, because you rarely get to understand who these guys are, what really motivates them, what really inspires them and who they are off the ice, because they’re so conditioned not to talk about themselves. So that’s a huge difference.

And just in general, guys never want to make it about themselves, and sometimes that makes storytelling and getting news harder. When it comes to coaching searches or GM searches, people are always, “It didn’t come from me,” or, “Don’t put my name out there.” Whereas in football, people are a little more…boastful (laughs).

THN: Was crossing over from writing to TV always a goal of yours, or is it a relatively new development?

KAPLAN: Definitely a late development. I always thought I would be a sportswriter, and I got a job at Sports Illustrated when I was 22 years old, and that was just the coolest thing. Long-form journalism specifically spoke to me in terms of telling those nuanced stories. Another piece of advice Peter King always gave me is to be versatile. Unfortunately or fortunately, however you want to put it, journalists have to brand themselves. Being public-facing is very important. It helps get you access. You can leverage that to get information.

So when I got the job at ESPN, obviously we’re a TV company, but it was predominantly to write for ESPN.com. My job title is a staff writer at ESPN.com, but once people gave me opportunities to go on TV, I would do it. I realized it was cool and I enjoyed doing it. It’s a huge challenge editing yourself and being economical with words. I think having a writing background is so useful in so many ways, no matter what profession you’re in. But it is strange to me to think my goals were always to write as long as possible, and now I have to condense all the information I know into 20 seconds. It sometimes feels like torture, but it’s all kinda cool (laughs).

THN: You’ve risen to prominence as a skilled debater on the ESPN show Around the Horn. How did you get so good?

KAPLAN: That was the first TV show at ESPN that gave me regular reps, and I’m so grateful to the producers for sticking with me, because I was definitely not smooth and polished at first. I think why I’m good at it is because I’m so excited to do it, and I bring passion into it, and I make my calls and do my research.

And I just have to put my stake in the ground and have a take. Growing up with a journalism background, that was tough, because you’re always taught to be fair and impartial and look at things objectively. And on this show, you’ve got to pick one way and do it. Once you lean into that, if you feel confident in all the work you did before that, you’ll do well. My tip is: I overprepare. On Around the Horn day, I have to be sitting in the chair at 1:00 central time in Chicago, and when I was starting out I wouldn’t schedule anything on Around the Horn day because I needed the entire morning to prep. I’m better at multitasking now, but I still take it very seriously.

THN: What was your reaction when found out you’d be reporting between the benches for ESPN?

KAPLAN: So cool. When we got the rights deal, I told our big bosses it was something I was really interested in and I would love to do. I had no idea how they would react, if I would be in consideration. I thought maybe if I could get a couple games this year, it would be great experience, but for them to trust me enough to put me on the opening-night broadcast, it honestly gave me chills. It’s a privilege to be down there. You’re somewhere nobody else can be, there’s only one spot there, and to be able to share what you see, your point of view, that vantage point, what I hear – which is obviously pretty funny sometimes – it’s something I don’t take lightly, and it’s my favorite thing that I’m doing currently.

THN: Has anything surprised you about between-the-benches reporting?

KAPLAN: Yes. Firstly, it’s much harder to hear than I thought it would be in a loud arena. I did one pre-season test game in Tampa, and I thought, “Should I look into getting hearing aids? Is there any way I can enhance my hearing down here?” Because I want to hear everything on the ice, and really what you can hear is what’s in the periphery.

You have a new appreciation for the speed, the skill, the physicality. The guys are right up in it, and I always say hockey is the best live-game experience. Being that close, I just appreciate it so much more. Also the sight lines. I hear officials and coaches talk about sight lines, and now I see it . When a goalie gets screened and you can actually see it at ice level, it changes your perspective of the game.

THN: Have you gotten into the classic bench reporter situation where players can hear you talking about them?

KAPLAN: Usually, the two guys at the end of either bench, sometimes they’re even interacting with me. The Blues players (one night) were hilarious. They were all asking me to look at my monitor, like, “What’s my ice time?” Also, Corey Perry got in an altercation with a player and gave him a death glare. He came to the bench, and he was really pissed off, and I’m giving that report, and he was sitting right there, and I think he was listening to every word I said. It kinda felt awkward, but you do what you have to do, and I felt confident that what I was saying was an accurate depiction of what happened, so I could stand behind it after the game if he had issues with it.

THN: Has your life begun to change since you started doing so many broadcasts? Do you get recognized more?

KAPLAN: People may say hi to me a little bit more, but I think I’m a D-list celebrity still (laughs). The way it’s changed the most is, I feel I get a little more respect from guys in the game. GMs now, when they talk to me, they’re like, “Oh, I saw you on the broadcast,” and it’s a little bit more of a respect level that I didn’t get before, just because I’m so visible. I’ve always been putting in the work, and I’ve always cared about the game, and I’ve always been trying to tell more interesting stories, but now that I get to do it on such a big platform, it’s opened a lot more doors in that way.

THN: We’re seeing a lot more women in prominent hockey-broadcasting roles, but the sport remains relatively male-dominated. Is it a source of pride to be a role model for women, or do you hope for a day when it’s not “news” because equality is more commonplace?

KAPLAN: Visibility and representation are so important. Growing up, I never saw a girl who looked like me with the background I had get to do the things I’m doing. And I think of a little girl or boy watching a broadcast saying, “That’s normal. Emily Kaplan does that, so I can do that.” So in that way, I’m honored to be a role model, because the next generation of girls, whatever I’m doing now won’t be novel to them because someone’s done it. At the same time, we’ve made so many strides, we have so many more to go, and I hope one day that I’m not asked about my gender in an interview. I’m happy to talk about it because representation and visibility are important, but that’s the goal.

This is an extended version of an interview that appears in the 2022 Money & Power edition of The Hockey News.

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