What’s better than a competitive NHL 20 tournament played for charity? How about a competitive NHL 20 tournament played by 16 prominent athletes and personalities in the hockey world for charity?
It may sound too good to be true, but that’s exactly what Sportsnet put together with their Sportsnet NHL 20 Bracket Challenge hosted by Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie and Spittin Chiclet’s Paul Bissonnette.
A month-long tournament powered by EA Sports and sponsored by Sony, Midas and Skip the Dishes, the Sportsnet Bracket Challenge has pitted 16 notable names in hockey against each other with the winner of the tournament ultimately taking home $10,000 with the runner-up earning $5,000 and the remaining participants being guaranteed $2,500 just for participating with all of the prizes being designated for a charity of their choice.
So who exactly are the participants for this tournament? A full list of those involved, as well as their charity of choice and linked Twitter handles can be found below:
- Erin Ambrose, Team Canada Defenseman – Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
- Zach Aston-Reese, Pittsburgh Penguins Forward – Hockey Diversity Alliance
- Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues Goaltender – 360 Degree Kids
- James Cybulski, Sportsnet Personality – Delta Hospital Foundation
- Steve Dangle, Sportsnet Personality – Easter Seals
- Mélodie Daoust, Team Canada Forward – Make-A-Wish Foundation
- Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks Forward – The Blackhawks Foundation
- Vince Dunn, St. Louis Blues Defenseman – Smile Zone
- Christian Fischer, Arizona Coyotes Forward – TBD
- Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs Defenseman – Sick Kids Foundation
- Faizal Khamisa, Sportsnet Personality – Sick Kids Foundation
- Roman Josi, Nashville Predators Defenseman – TBD
- Evander Kane, San Jose Sharks Forward – Hockey Diversity Alliance
- Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks Forward – Hockey Diversity Alliance
- Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins Defenseman – NAACP Boston
- Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets Defenseman – CBJ Foundation
A star-studded list with many, many accolades to their names, these competitors have all put themselves out there for the sake of charity, fun and an all-around good time.
In true hockey fashion, these competitors – and even the hosts, have taken part in chirps to escalate things and make things fun.
How the Sportsnet Bracket Challenge Came Together
There was definitely a lot that went into putting such a tournament together and fortunately, both of the tournament co-hosts in McKenzie and Bissonnette, as well as competitors Erin Ambrose and Faizal Khamisa, took the time to talk about their experience thus far with the tournament.
“I think it was something that Sportsnet had once the stoppage came in the league and everything hit, I think we were all, across all platforms at Sportsnet, looking for new, entertaining way to give fans content,” said McKenzie when asked about how he got involved in the tournament. “I think this was one of them. They hopped on it quickly and got a guy like Paul Bissonnette involved which is huge – a guy like that, his ability to create content is huge so I think it was a perfect fit there. I just got a word that they wanted me to be a part of it with Biz, which is obviously a huge honor.”
A tournament like this obviously couldn’t have come together had the NHL playoffs been already underway, not only because so many of the competitors in the tournament would be focused on preparing for postseason play, but because Sportsnet would also be ramping up coverage of the most important time of the year.
That was a big part of what went into making this tournament possible and something that Sportsnet jumped on when they could take advantage of the free time these players had.
“There’s nothing better than playoff hockey, there’s no denying that. It’s intense and amazing to watch but obviously we didn’t have that this year so we had these players who had time on their hands and we have space to fill on Sportsnet and content we want to produce. Would the interest still be there if the playoffs were going on? I’m not sure just because all of our resources would be providing the best coverage of playoff hockey.”
Though Faizal Khamisa was involved as a competitor, he was still able to get excited about something fresh being produced as Sportsnet as well given how there’s been a lack of hockey and sports in general relative to how things usually are.
“It was good to feel a little pressure again. We haven’t been able to do our jobs in their normal stakes for a while but the lights were on, the microphones were on here and it was cool to be part of something that I know is going to air on TV and something that’s a lot of fun again”
This is something that Bissonnette would touch on in a later conversation.
“Given with what happened and the fact that there was a lot of dead air given that there’s no live sports on, [Sportsnet] figured there’s plenty of young athletes who are playing video games, specifically NHL 20,” Bissonnette would mention. “They wanted to get a bunch of guys together to not only entertain the fans, get some banter behind the scenes and let some of these personalities shine, but also do it for a great cause and raise some money for charity.”
Times have definitely changed for professional athletes in recent years and there’s been a significant shift in how players go about spending their time off of their respective ice, court or field.
Although I did play video games when I was coming up through the ranks and playing pro, I think it was more common that guys would go out for dinner and go out for drinks and socialize a bit more.
I feel that with how good the game’s gotten and how much pressure and scrutiny these guys are under, that staying away from alcohol and staying out of the public eye and chilling at home and finding other ways to entertain yourself has led to these guys just playing more and more video games.
Some of them are comfortable streaming and putting themselves out there which a lot of fans seem to enjoy.
Hockey Personalities Shining Off the Ice
It’s a trend we’ve seen more of in recent years with athletes pulling back the curtain and showing fans a more in-depth look at their personal lives, rather than just their play on the ice.
“We don’t often get to take a deep dive into the personal lives of [these players] and kind of see where they’re hanging out and talk to them about their families and kids and cars and food and clothes and all this stuff that we don’t normally get to see throughout the season,” said McKenzie of this opportunity for the fans. “We try to take advantage of this time off to maybe learn more about them and open them up a bit.”
For a younger generation of fans, this type of content is appreciated because of how easy it is to consume. McKenzie himself is no exception to this.
“I feel that, at least for me, there’s a huge appetite for that. I know there are younger fans who have a bigger appetite for e-gaming and more web content and more easily digestible content that might not be a full hockey game,” said McKenzie. “Pandemic or not, hopefully, this is something fans like to see and hopefully Sportsnet will do more of stuff like this.”
Bissonnette has been one of the pioneers of breaking that wall down through the Spittin Chiclets podcast and he was the perfect fit to include in a broadcast like this. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by McKenzie in his time working alongside the former NHL player.
“The only thing I’d say about Biz is that he’s in a lot of ways a genius. In this new world that we’re getting into where [about] creating different types of content and being so well-versed in all of these things, I don’t think there’s anyone better than that guy.”
Broadcasting live to an audience isn’t easy and for some, it’s nearly impossible. Someone like Bissonnette has mastered the art, however, and his ability to engage an audience is second to none.
“There was one day that we shot the Bracket Challenge and it was a fun, goofy shoot. We had a lot of fun, talking nonsense, just stupid stuff that makes people laugh and he had the players laughing, he had me laughing and then he went on the 31 Thoughts Podcast with Elliotte [Friedman] and Jeff Marek and he had them cracking up. I don’t think there are many people who can seamlessly create the high-level of content that he does at any moment and not take himself so seriously.”
For Sportsnet, getting Bissonnette to be a part of the process was simply a match made in heaven. Both he and McKenzie have been able to get the best out of the athletes involved in the tournament, making them feel comfortable enough to be themselves and provide quality content for fans so deprived of sports content.
This has definitely been the case for Ambrose who’s made the best of this opportunity so far.
“It’s been a lot of fun. I keep joking with Paul and Shawn that this is the highlight of my summer, something that I don’t usually get to do,” said Ambrose. “Not only getting to talk and meet a bunch of NHL players and media but also getting to raise money for a charity that is important to me and give back to something that means a lot to me at the same time.”
In true competitive nature, though, Ambrose wouldn’t just go into this tournament without the proper preparation.
“When I first knew I was going to [play in the tournament] I would play maybe once, twice a week. I’ve been playing a lot more this week than I’d like to admit just to keep going but my sister’s fiance, I played him online and it’s been fun. I’ve never really been an online gamer by any means and this has been awesome to, one, connect to people that I’ve never really met, but also connect to friends that I didn’t really know played online.”
The ability to play and feel relaxed while also knowing something bigger was on the line was exciting for Khamisa as well.
“It felt just like a random game [of NHL 20]. We all knew what was on the line and [that we had] a chance to contribute to some unbelievably great causes,” said Faizal of how the tournament felt.” [We knew] whoever won that somebody’s going to be taken care of really well because of it so there really aren’t any losers. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself because I got destroyed.”
There’s more to it than just the in-game and on-television aspect, though, and that’s definitely part of what’s made this challenge so important.
Why This Tournament is So Important
Outside of just providing a good program for the fans, this tournament, as mentioned, also has charity at the forefront of the discussion. Bragging rights are always worthwhile, but the ability to earn money for charities that are near and dear to each competitor’s heart definitely shouldn’t be forgotten in the narrative.
As someone who’s battled with depression and anxiety for about 10 years, Ambrose has made a conscious effort to be outspoken about the topic to raise awareness and break the stigma surrounding these topics. Because of this, she’d pick the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health as her charity of choice.
“It’s something that’s really important to me. I was able to get the help that I needed and in doing so, I really think that I turned a lot of corners and have made my life a little bit better. It was a no brainer for me to get involved and choose CAMH.”
Whether it’s hospitals, foundations dealing with diversity in hockey, children’s foundations and more, every competitor in the tournament has chosen a charity that means something to them personally.
The tournament has been tremendously successful thus far, and there was a lot of work that’s gone into it behind closed doors to make it all possible. Bissonnette was sure to mention that because those responsible often don’t get the recognition that those on-screen get.
“Kudos to Sportsnet because there’s so much behind the scenes that went into putting this together that probably won’t get the credit it deserves, as far as like the technology, the tips they had to send out to everybody, organizing it all; they did a tremendous job.”
Bissonnette would also be sure to emphasize his thanks to Sportsnet and Shawn McKenzie for the entire process in a later text message. The appreciation is definitely mutual.