If there was a moment in the early days of Nick Kypreos’s 21-year run as a Sportsnet hockey broadcaster that illustrated the minefield-laden existence of an ex-NHLer paid to critique NHLers, it came in the form of an intermission phone call.
On the occasion in question Kypreos, who had only recently retired as a Maple Leaf in 1997, was providing between-periods analysis of a Toronto game. No sooner had he finished a segment in which he criticized Leafs enforcer Wade Belak for taking a couple of ill-advised penalties than his cellphone buzzed. Kypreos answered it.
“What are you s—-ing all over Wade Belak for?” said the caller.
Kypreos recognized the voice on the other end. It was Tie Domi who, when he wasn’t diligently policing the content of Leaf broadcasts, also happened to be playing for the team that night. Kypreos said he was taken aback. But the Toronto-born son of hard-working Greek immigrants didn’t carve out an eight-year career as an undrafted NHL enforcer by cowering to bullies. So Kypreos, as you’d expect, pushed back.
“Should you really be calling me from the trainers’ room right now?” Kypreos asked Domi, before advising his old friend to “focus on the third period.” But the call didn’t end without a not-so-subtle hint about the direction Kypreos ought to take his commentary.
“You better start saying some nice things about (Belak),” Domi said before he hung up.
The scene is pulled from Kypreos’s recently released memoir, “Undrafted: Hockey, Family, and What it Takes to Be a Pro.” For ex-players breaking into the TV business, and for fans intrigued by the behind-the-scenes machinations of the NHL product, the book is a storehouse of anecdotes documenting Kypreos’s rise from wobbly skating kid in North York to winning a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994. If Kypreos comes off as a guy who’s enjoyed the ride — sprinkling in mentions of wild nights at the Big Apple’s famed China Club and a years-ago tabloid-fodder dalliance with Joan Lunden, the “Good Morning America” star — he’s also a guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
As an NHL rookie, for instance, he took unabashed delight in being chirped by Mario Lemieux.
“Hey, Kypreos, why don’t you go back to the minors?” said Lemieux.
Said Kypreos to his teammates: “Did you hear that? Mario knows my name!”
His career wasn’t all laughs, of course. As a middleweight enforcer who partook in 80-some NHL fights, he paid a considerable price for his treasure trove of exploits. In one grim trip to the dentist after an errant stick to his face, he writes of weathering five root canals in a sitting. And his career ended in ugliness, his forehead slamming onto the ice at Madison Square Garden at the horrifying conclusion of a pre-season fight with Rangers tough guy Ryan VandenBussche that left Kypreos with the brain injury that led to his retirement.
“The unfortunate part for enforcers is if you lose a fight, then you didn’t do what you were supposed to. And if losing becomes a trend, you’re done,” Kypreos writes. “The team would find someone else. Nobody wants a guy that just gets beaten up for his team. There is no pride in being a punching bag.”
The just-completed hockey season, of course, came and went without Kypreos as a TV fixture for the first time in decades. Last summer he parted ways with Sportsnet after playing a leading role in the network’s rise from plucky underdog to TSN to national rights holder, part of a paring that also saw colleagues Doug MacLean and John Shannon make exits.
Kypreos has been busy since. He and his wife, Anne-Marie, recently helped launch a beverage line, Little Buddha Cocktail Co., so far selling an estimated 20,000 cases of a signature pineapple-and-rosemary vodka drink at the LCBO. Because when you think of Kypreos, you can’t help but think of herb-infused pineapple.
“That’s grilled pineapple and rosemary — all organic, no sugar,” he said. “Nothing sweet about Nick Kypreos. That’s why there’s no sugar in my drink.”
He’s also back in front of a microphone, presiding over “Real Kyper at Noon,” a live YouTube show and podcast on the Line Movement sports gambling site where he’s been regularly joined by MacLean. And now he’s an author — or co-author, at least, alongside collaborator Perry Lefko — in an endeavour that he said made him “take a good look in the mirror” as he plotted his next chapter, literally and otherwise.
What did he see in his reflection?
“Some things you like. Some things you’d probably like to revisit. Some things you hate,” he said. “Probably a good mixture of all those emotions.”
Speaking to family members as research for the book, he said he learned of an early-life quirk that may help explain how he came to earn a part of his living as a bare-knuckle brawler.
“Apparently I had this need to bite people when I was younger,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Come on, mom. It wasn’t that bad.’ And my mom goes, ‘Oh no. It was really bad.’ She wouldn’t let anybody come near me. My defence mechanism was to bite them. Can you imagine that? Being bitten by a three-year-old?”
He was an enforcer from birth, apparently.
“I was tough on the babysitters, that’s for sure,” he said.
As a broadcaster, as an analyst and an insider, there were moments when he was at least semi-tough on former teammates and longtime friends, too. It was one part of the gig, he said, he doesn’t particularly miss.
“That’s the toughest challenge of being an ex-player and being in that scenario,” he said. “You don’t know if you’re going to last 20 minutes or 20 years in the business, and you still hang out with these (players). But now their guards are all of a sudden up around you … You always want to treat people the right way. But now you’re also asked to give an honest judgment on guys you were just on the ice with battling, or going out for beers with.”
Kypreos said producers warned him about how walking the tightrope between objective journalism and real-life friendship could be tricky. But nothing, he said, could have possibly prepared him for picking up his phone after a second-intermission segment and absorbing an earful from an irate Tie Domi.
“With Tie, it’s always said and done and it’s over with. One second he could be thanking you from the bottom of his heart and the next second he wants to put you in a headlock and hit you with about three uppercuts,” Kypreos said. “That one, I kind of held my ground a little bit. Tie’s all about protecting his teammates, so I knew where he was coming from. And I also knew deep down I wasn’t saying anything to hurt Wade or saying anything with venom. I was just trying to do what I was asked to do by Sportsnet, and that’s make fair and objective comments.
“But there’s no way you could ever prepare for that. It was a constant challenge. Every year you got through a broadcasting season, and every day your friends were one step closer to retirement, it did get easier. But it’s a real gradual process until everybody’s out of the league. Then there is no personal dilemma.”