Well this fucking sucks.
As I’m sure by now you’re aware, long-time Canucks beat-writer Jason Botchford passed away this week from apparent heart failure. He was 48 years old, and is survived by his wife Kathryn and three young children, Sienna, Keira, and Hudson. The real tragedy here, and this can not be stated enough, is that a young family lost a loving and dedicated husband and father. But it is clear in the tributes and outpouring of love for him — on Twitter, on radio airwaves, in newspaper columns — that this was a man who meant so much to so many.
As a writer and broadcaster, he was an innovator. He was divisive. He was aggressive. He was unapologetic. He was authentic. And more than anything, he wanted to be respected. Though he could seem almost constantly aggrieved over perceived slights and felt at times unappreciated by his peers, I think he always knew his day would come — that the next generation of rising talents in the Vancouver hockey media looked up to him the way he had looked up to Tony Gallagher when he arrived in the city in 2005. Deep down Jason knew he would someday years down the line be toasted the way Tony is now — and if he didn’t, I did my best to tell him whenever I got the chance. Because this is not a case of a man being lionized in death, made to be larger than he was. Botch was always a living legend. And he was also my friend.
I had long been a fan of his work both in print and on the radio, and in the past few years I felt truly blessed to see a longstanding mutual respect blossom into full blown friendship. I can tell you exactly when it started, too. As I am not the only traveler who has not repaid his debt, I’ll take you back to the night we met.
In the fall of 2017, the Canucks invited me to be a part of an ‘influencer’ program, where I was offered a package of tickets to select games over the course of the season in exchange for social media promotion of the team’s charitable initiatives throughout the year. At the same time I was hired by Sportsnet 650 to be the studio producer for Canucks radio broadcasts, finally getting a foot in the door to The Big Time after spending years trying to make my name in the city on Twitter and through podcasting. Or, I hoped so anyway. I’d been on the job for roughly three weeks but didn’t officially have it yet, and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the dream gig from becoming reality.
So I felt more than a little apprehensive about what I was walking into when I decided to attend the team’s launch party event for its collection of influencers, and was mortified to discover this same event was also a start-of-the-year gathering for the city’s hockey media as well. Here I am in a wrestling T and a ball cap suddenly side by side with my new coworkers (all wearing suits) in a room I was not invited to be in as media. I felt a bit like Blade, the vampire from Marvel Comics — a daywalker cursed to live in both worlds while belonging to neither. My anxiety kicked in to high gear as the few people in the room I knew and felt comfortable with all slowly tilted away from me, their schmoozing satellite orbits taking them to different corners of the bar, leaving me standing at a center table alone with a plate full of chicken wings.
Suddenly, as if he knew exactly how awful and awkward I felt in that precise moment, in swooped Jason Botchford, who seemed truly delighted to finally be meeting me in person after years of back-and-forths on Twitter. It was not idle small talk, either. He was full of questions about me, my life, my new job, my old jobs, my podcast. In the middle of a crippling anxiety attack in a room full of important people, here was the person I most admired subtextually telling me, “Relax. You belong here.” I tried to play it cool and act like I wasn’t having a minor freakout or that talking to him was no big deal to me. But he settled me down, and the rest of the night went perfectly.
Months later, as our friendship grew from there, I told him how much that little chat had meant to me and what was really going on in my head in those moments (you’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool). “Oh fuck,” he said. “I wish you’d told me this at the time, so we could just… interact as humans lol. I remember asking you if you thought it was super weird and you were tellin me ‘nah’. I felt super awkward too, FYI. I was trying to relate with someone who felt that way too.”
In the two years that followed, we talked often. He became a constant source of advice, someone I trusted 100%, who I could always rely on to help navigate my doubts, share in my triumphs, or vent my frustrations. I like to think I got the real Botch, because he always got the real me. Because of our jobs, we would often talk late at night on game nights after he had filed The Provies and I wrapped up my post-post-game duties. Our conversations would go on all hours of the night, as an infant son made his sleep schedule as erratic as closing bartending shifts made mine. He was always encouraging, a fountain of strength to draw on when I felt things might never go my way, and quick to tell me life moves fast, change is constant, keep grinding and good things will happen. Never give up. When I felt too old, like my time to catch a break had already came and went, he could relate. He told me his career was one disappointment after another before he came to Vancouver. It’s not too late.
This business is unusual in some ways, but it’s also just like any other. You work so hard for so long in hopes someone you admire will notice you, nurture you, bring you under their wing and make you feel like you matter. Jason was that person for me, the one relationship in my professional life where no matter what was going wrong, I could at least feel like that guy had my back, that he would catch me if I fell and set a place for me at the table. It is unbelievably devastating to lose that person, someone I thought I would be confiding in (and would confide in me) for decades to come. It’s torture. For as much as people are mourning the loss of his work — that we have to go through Canucks seasons going forward without his defining coverage — it is true that he is a singular talent whose creative output can not be replaced. But even more importantly, as a man, this is a truly irreplaceable person — a tear that will hang inside my soul forever.
I think the most remarkable thing about our relationship is that it was actually not remarkable at all. I am not special. I am not an exception. The list of young writers and broadcasters in this city who viewed him as a mentor, as a professional father figure, who sought his help and approval, might run a hundred names deep. And he made time for all of us in between a demanding work schedule and a family life that was hugely important to him. The great irony of his death is that here is a man whose heart never failed, who gave so much of himself to so many — and who didn’t have to do any of this, but did it anyway because he wanted to, and because he truly believed in us. He didn’t need an army. He had one. We’re it.
When he joined us last year on a Real Good Show bonus episode (what was to be our first annual meeting of the minds, and he was eager to return once a year for as many years as I would have him), I asked him how he had come to understand this city and its fans so well. As an Ontario boy in a market often painted by Toronto-based media as unruly and impossible, what was it about him (or us) that made him fit like a glove? He immediately spoke not of the fans or what makes this city particularly peculiar, but how he fit (or didn’t) in the Vancouver sports media landscape:
“It helped early on that I became friends with Tony. And we spent a lot of time together, hanging out, talking about old stories, and he’s just an encyclopedia of everything that has happened with the team — all of the stuff that’s on the record, that’s out there, that’s been written about. And then there’s all these other layers, things that he opened my eyes to over the years to how the league was fucking the Canucks, all the ways that things happen behind the scenes and off the record. Our friendship played a role in that. But there’s another element to it. I think that when I started, the Old Media Guard, the old white guy mainstream media in Canada, that whole group of them… I felt bullied by those guys. When I first started they would call me out for stupid things, they would call me ‘The Temp’, they would give me a really hard time and try to box me out of certain stories. And I remember thinking at the time, ‘Okay. I’m going to take this right now. I’m not in a position to really fight back. But when I am in a position to fight back, I’m gonna fucking kill you guys. I’m coming out swinging and I’m not gonna stop.’ I think that that is an added element of it, that I will push back against whoever it is.”
Amid the chaos of that day, when all we could hear were your infinite catchphrases and nicknames, and all we could sense was an unspeakable tragedy, I look back and am amazed that my thoughts were so clear and true. That these words went through my mind endlessly, repeating themselves like a broken record. Because this answer… this is truly what defines Jason Botchford the media figure, and what his lasting media legacy will be. There are two ways to read this. If you were unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of his scorn, it probably confirms everything you disliked about him: that he could be mean, he could be ruthless, and he was fuelled by long-held grudges. But the truth, I think, is much more nuanced than that. Because there is an unspoken other side of that coin, that to make explicit would betray his gruff exterior and reveal the secret sweetie beneath the surface. A stealth softie. A true romantic.
In talking with my friends and family on Wednesday about our relationship and how important he was to me, a recurring theme came up again and again from everyone offering condolences: “His heart lives on in you.” “He taught you how to be a mentor.” “His legacy will live on through you as one day you do for others as he did for you.” And that’s true, not just for me but for all those he took the time to help.
It’s a beautiful thing, really. You can hear it in the way he talks about Tony. Here was a guy who came to Vancouver to start a new life at 34, who felt hard done by in Toronto and mistreated when he arrived here to start fresh. And just as much as he went after those he felt had done him wrong, he also internalized the way Gallagher treated him. He entered a culture he didn’t think was right, and he effected generational change within it in the way he treated those who came after him, showing them that it didn’t have to be the way it was for him. That young, new faces don’t have to be seen as emerging professional threats — that there can and should be room for a vast, diverse array of voices within a thriving new media landscape. That if you’re willing to be kind, we can all cut the bullshit and just… interact as humans.
That can still happen even without him here to see it through. If anything, it has to now. You wanna be the one to let him down?