Linda Cohn on making it to 5,000 Sportscenters, hockey on ESPN, Jagr (Interview)

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Linda Cohn on making it to 5,000 Sportscenters, hockey on ESPN, Jagr (Interview)
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For those of us in the US, when we think of hockey and ESPN ... well, we don't. The relationship has deteriorated over the past decade due in large part to ESPN losing the rights to the NHL. Instead, we think of four people on Sportscenter who are puckheads just like us: Barry Melrose, of course, and three hockey-loving anchors - John Buccigross, Steve Levy, and Linda Cohn.

Cohn anchored her first Sportcenter on July 11, 1992. On February 21 at 8:00am ET on ESPN, Linda anchors her 5,000th Sportscenter. This is remarkable not just for the sheer volume of shows she has been on but for her staying power in an industry that isn't exactly kind to women. 

The legendary anchorwoman chatted with me on Wednesday afternoon. We cover everything from her fight to get more hockey on ESPN to Jaromir Jagr allowing her and a camera crew access to his late night training sessions at BB&T Center to her thoughts on being a woman in the sports industry and of course, her beloved Blueshirts.

Q. Let's start with something easy. What is going on with your beloved New York Rangers?

LINDA COHN: I am a die-hard New York Rangers fan. I love the entire NHL. One thing that is very important to me is the league, and that I’m not type cast as a Ranger fan. But since I also do part-time hosting on the ESPN local New York Radio network, that adds to it. I have to be objective.

So, let me tell you what has been the issue. [Laughs]

Despite the success in the last couple of years under Alain Vigneault, and it has been remarkable, since he got there and where this team has gone, to the finals, the conference finals last year, I had been consistent in saying that the team still needed a number one center. I feel they have gotten away with amazing quality with Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan, but I really truly believe when you look around the teams that have won the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks, the LA Kings, they have true No. 1 centers.

That I felt had a lot to do with, personally, Rick Nash not being able to be Rick Nash in the playoffs. Where you have someone on his line that can really open it up for him. That’s always the failure of the New York Rangers to win a Cup in those two years. The target was always pointed to Rick Nash’s lack of scoring, and I get that because he makes so much money and he’s paid to score, but I thought the No. 1 problem there was not having a No. 1 center. They have the goaltending. 

We’re at the All-Star break, every team has it’s roller coaster and its ups and downs. Anaheim and Montreal would love to be where the Rangers are right now. Everyone is calling for doom and gloom for the Rangers; I think they need to fine tune what they have if they’re serious about making a run for the Cup. They are contenders, but I truly believe they need another top six forward because what they thought was going to happen, they thought Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider were going to raise their games and it has yet to happen this season. I think that’s the big reason why they’re sort of at that lower end of a playoff spot, which they are now even though they are in second place in the Metro. It’s going to be very competitive, down to the wire because the Eastern Conference, I believe, is so much better than it was last year. You have the Capitals running away with it, but it’s all up for grabs still.

Q. Would you be willing to give up a player like Mats Zuccarello to get a No. 1 center?

COHN: No. He’s not available. If the Rangers had a healthy Mats Zuccarello last year, they probably would have beaten the Lightning and been in the finals. Don’t know if they would have beaten the Blackhawks, but I believe he just brings so much to the table on and off the ice, and they really missed that spirit on the ice and in the locker room. 

You have to look at what kind of deals are out there. A lot of talk has been made that the Rangers should trade Keith Yandle. I think Keith Yandle has probably been their most consistent defenseman throughout the season. I know he’s a UFA, but if you’re seriously contending for a Stanley Cup, why would you trade arguably your best defenseman? I know you don’t want him to leave for nothing, but the point is, you’re going to need him to contend ... I think that Dan Boyle is expendable. He’s 38, 39 years old. They got him to help the power play. He really hasn’t helped the power play. He’s looked tired the last two weeks. He’s been a healthy scratch for a few games.

Q. With all that in mind, two questions: one, should the Rangers make the playoffs this year, how far could they go, and two, who is your Cup winner?

COHN: I’ll answer your second question first.

Before the season began, I picked the Washington Capitals because I love Justin Williams. I love that pickup. Just having him in the dressing room because of his pedigree of winning so many Stanley Cups and that team needed a guy like Justin Williams ... Every team needs a guy like that. The Montreal Canadiens need a guy like that ... not only for what he contributes on the ice but his ability to calm everyone down and say nobody panic when things go bad. Capitals didn’t have any moments this year when things went bad, but if they did, Justin Williams is the type of guy that calms it and doesn’t let a small slump escalate into a long losing skid.

I really felt Holtby being another season better would also make a difference, and that’s what we’re seeing. The other thing is taking the pressure off of Alex Ovechkin by making deals for T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and I really like John Carlson a lot. They really have all the elements. The only thing I’m concerned about the Capitals is they cannot play Holtby so many games. Even though Holtby likes to play every game, they have to be the bigger person here. Barry Trotz, who is an incredible coach, has to totally manage Holtby’s minutes. If he gets injured or Ovechkin gets injured, they’re not winning the Cup. 

Now the Rangers, it’s got to depend on what kinds of moves they make. If they stay put with the team they have now and make no moves, they’re not winning the Stanley Cup. They might sneak into a conference final again because of Lundqvist, but they need a little bit more than they’re getting now from that third line. It’s just not happening with what they have Stahlberg, Hayes, all these kind of guys. It’s being glossed over that issue because of the emergence and growth of J.T. Miller. Miller is having a phenomenal season and that’s kind of glossing over right this moment of the Rangers big issue - depth.

Q. What was it like covering the Rangers Cup win in 1994 and having to balance fan-Linda with reporter-Linda?

COHN: That’s always a challenge ... back in 1994, I was two years into my ESPN deal ... I was able to attend many of those [playoff games] as a fan. So when I was in the building, I was a fan ... but when I was hosting Sportscenter during that incredible run in ‘94, it was challenging not to let my feelings flow.

Back in the day, ESPN was very big on not letting your fandom show. That was very important. It’s changed now over the years, but back then I had to be professional. I had to be almost robotic when it came to the Rangers or almost any of the teams I grew up loving. Even though it felt wrong ... when I’m on Sportscenter, who are the viewers? The viewers are people like me, who love their team, unconditionally.

It was challenging at times, but I usually almost went the other way, almost critical of the team to create a balance of objectivity so no one could ever accuse me of being a homer.

Q. You hold the record at ESPN for appearing on the most shows across all sports. Should we expect to see you on the broadcast for the World Cup of Hockey?

COHN: I’m expecting to be. I’m building up some great momentum … Every day I’m pitching NHL feature stories to do. Every day I’m fighting the fight to get more of the NHL on ESPN. It’s been challenging over the years because it’s not ESPN’s property, but to ESPN’s credit, the last couple of years, they’ve been more open to it. Then when they went out and grabbed and paid for the rights to the World Cup of Hockey. Then I knew these pitches I make, like back in October I did the Max Domi and his service dog story for Sportscenter, got rave reviews. I did the American captain in Montreal, Max Pacioretty ... the reaction I got that was positive was all over, from people that were not hockey fans who saw it as a great story and did not even know. 

This weekend I’m very proud of the access I got in the interview will be scheduled to run sitting down and doing a ‘Fountain of Youth’ Jaromir Jagr story. With this momentum I’m doing and finding these great stories, I would be shocked if I’m not part of the World Cup of Hockey coverage for ESPN in some capacity.

Q. Did you and Jagr talk about his not wanting to go to the All-Star game and the fans voting him in anyway?

COHN: No, we didn’t discuss that because I knew deep down he was going. So that was not an issue. I will be seeing him there on Sunday [at the All-Star Game]. ... most NHL players, because the game is so physical and draining and long, they want the break. They want to be in the Bahamas or something, right? ... they’ll never say it, but if you were them, you’d want that too. You want the break. I think the New York Rangers posted a picture yesterday on the beach from some undisclosed location. 

My piece with Jagr, and what I’m most proud of, he gave myself and the camera crew access to his late night workouts where he’s over at the BB&T Center. I watched him get ready for those workouts, and he shared with me why he’s still doing what he’s doing. It was powerful. It was fascinating. He is such a deep thinker. He is such an amazing human. I just loved it.

The Jaromir Jagr interview I did, which will be seen this weekend, might be one of the best interviews I ever did in my 23 years at ESPN.

I was able to talk with him off camera before the interview, like a day or two before, and that made such a difference. He got to know me. He got to know why his story is so amazing and why it should be shared to people out there. There are a lot of good secrets in that piece that are going to come out. Not only where he keeps his fountain of youth, but one of the things he eats that’s a secret to his success. You’d be surprised.

Q. Do you find as a reporter making that pre-interview, off camera connection is important to getting a better story?

COHN: I really do ... for example, Jaromir Jagr doesn’t sit around and watch TV. I still wasn’t sure he knew who I was because he’s busy working out so much [laughs]. Many athletes that I talk to they already know me from the many years hosting Sportscenter and they have a comfort with me. A trust with me because let’s face it, they grew up with me. With that being said, I’m already halfway there in the interview. Then they get to see and hear me just be me around them, and that puts them at ease. 

What does that mean "to be me" around them? ... I’m not doing this because I want to win an Emmy or make a guy cry. It’s just a great story, and I’m doing for the athlete. I want to share this incredible story with people that love him, don’t know him, want to know him, or should know him.

That’s the message I like to get out, and it’s about him. It’s not about me. It’s that same philosophy for all these years that I’ve always done when I host Sportscenter. I never made it about me. It’s never about a catch phrase. It was always about the coach or the game or the moment that I was talking about and sharing with the viewer. 

Q. Take me back to your first Sportscenter, July 11, 1992. 2:00 am. What’s going through your head? 

COHN: Well, the first thing that was going through my head was how do I stay awake? [laughs] ... What I was really thinking about then was obviously trying to be positive and keeping it simple, and not trying to put all of it out there all at once because the national audience didn’t know who I was ...  For me to try too hard ... would turn a lot of people off. That was the last thing I wanted to do.

But being a woman and in such a high-profile stage, I felt inside that I have to get the message through to the viewers that I’m not here just because I’m a woman. I’m here because I know what I’m talking about, and I love sports. I had to balance that fine line of not throwing out so much information where I would just stumble over it. I tried to keep it simple and kind of concentrate on just looking comfortable out there and having fun.

Q. What do you take away from being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

COHN: If it wasn’t for me playing hockey with the boys as I was growing up and then making the high school team, the boys team, as a goalie, and getting the looks and hearing the whispers and me assuming that people just didn’t get it, why I was playing hockey with the boys. Being in that atmosphere, that gave me the best experience and education of what I would have to deal with if I chose, and I did choose, this career in sports broadcasting. That really added a foundation for me.

Now, did I walk around and be confident and think that’s all I need and I don’t hear the whispers and the whispers don’t bother me? I’d be lying if I told you that didn’t bother me.

There are many times where I felt like that little girl with low self-esteem again hearing people criticize me, who don’t even know me, and feeling sad and depressed about them trying to keep me smothered and keep me down. I would just kind of find moments or ways to get back up again and keep trying and do it again; not let others, who don’t know me, have a blanket opinion on who should be doing what and who should be covering what, [asking] why are you here, and [saying] you don’t belong here. 

When I came into contact with every new place where I worked in sports where it was male-dominated, I felt I always had to prove myself over and over and over again. I’m not complaining about it. It’s just the way it is.

It’s funny because the women that are in the business now, they’re so protected. That was the last thing I was back when I was working my way up; for other women too, it wasn’t just me. Other women that were in the business ... that were the same as me, the pioneers that are out there today, they were on an island. You just felt alone. You were fighting your own battle, and that’s really how I felt a lot, and you don’t see that now.

That’s one of the things that I’m really glad [about], not only that I can counsel and mentor a lot of young women in the business ... reminding them that they just have to believe in themselves, to focus on themselves, and don’t expect others to protect you.

Even though there are areas in many companies that are built in to protect women now, we can’t assume that.

Q. Back in 2010, you and Hannah Storm handed off Sportscenter to Sage Steele and Chris McKendry. It was the first time a two woman team threw to another two woman team on Sportscenter. It was broadcast history in a way. Did you realize that at the time?

COHN: You know what? I kind of laughed about it. One of the women pointed it out. I don't know which one ... It’s really cool, but I never was the type to think, “Wow, let’s pat ourselves on the back as a great accomplishment" because I never liked separating that I’m a woman and that person is a man ... I never really put major stock in it. I guess big picture now it was a big deal at the time. The women you mentioned have their own journeys and have their own road, and they got to that point as well. I was definitely happy for the other three. 

Q. What advice do you have for all of the burgeoning Linda Cohns out there?

COHN: Not to get down on yourself, and try to remember why you’re on the road to follow what you want to do. You never want to look back and say you did not give your all and try your hardest. You don’t want to make excuses for not being where you want to be.

When I was making my journey, my biggest dream, I wanted to play in the NHL but obviously that couldn’t happen. So I said to myself, “Well I want to be involved in sports because that’s what makes me happy."

I started out in radio because I really wasn’t a great writer but I could speak, and I was conversational ... It didn’t seem like it was enough. If I didn’t try for TV, I would always look back and wonder. I kept trying and sending out my TV tape and creating opportunities to make it in TV and then I did so.

But I didn’t make fans out of everybody. There were still people, people that I worked for, weren’t big fans of me. So I took every opportunity out there to grow.

The point of me bringing up my journey is the fact that even if that didn’t happen for me and I didn’t end up on TV, there was always a plan B for me ... if I wasn’t in TV or radio doing sports, you know what, then I’d be in PR because I would be around a team and that would be such a cool experience. If I didn’t make it in PR, then I would find something else, like sports photography. It’s always having a backup plan to the back up plan, but that doesn’t mean to not go for your No. 1 dream and follow your passion. I never ever want to look back and say that I didn’t give it my all. 

Q. Did you ever think you’d make it to 5,000 Sportscenters?

COHN: It’s one of those things where when they gave me that number, I was like, “WOW!” I never had a running clock on it or a calculator on it. It’s such a big number.

It sort of sounds like when athletes when they talk about how many years they’ve played, how many goals they’ve scored, or points they’ve totaled, they don’t think about it until they’ve hung up their skates. For me, I never thought about it until the day I call it quits and walk away from the camera then I’ll really realize, “Wow, that really did happen.”

Courtesy of ESPN
Courtesy of ESPN

I’m thankful for the opportunity. It’s really the combination of me creating the opportunity, not giving up my dream and also those at ESPN that always saw something in me that they knew the best place for me was to be hosting Sportscenter because me, someone that puts the fan first because that’s what I am, is something that was very valuable to their product. That’s why I’m very grateful as well. 

Q. You played hockey in high school on the boys team; you tried out to be the Panthers goaltender for a day, have you seen either of women’s pro leagues?

I have seen little highlights of [the NWHL]. I think it’s great. I’d love to be commissioner of that league; I’ll tell you that, I know there is already a commissioner, though. It’s a great step in the right direction. Obviously, they don’t get paid a lot, but it creates an avenue where players, who are such standouts and superstars in college and during the Olympics, have a stage to play and do what the guys do. I think it’s a step in the right direction.

If I didn’t have this full-time job I have right now, I would definitely try out and see if I could make it. Even at my age, to be a part of a team, and I have two choices, one in Connecticut where I live now and in New York where I grew up loving of course. Perhaps they’ll give me a look. Who knows how long I’ll be on TV! I know I can’t do another 5,000 shows, but when the day comes, when I do my last show, maybe one of these teams will give me a look to be their netminder. That would be sensational.

Q. When you did the Panthers thing, how quickly did the reflexes come back for you?

COHN: I was nervous for that, really nervous. It helped that there were a few other people, it helped that there were a few other, I felt like I wasn’t the worst out there ... That calmed my nerves a little bit. I’m not the worst out here - good. So then I was able to relax.

The funny part of it is, when it was my turn to take the net after a few skating exercises and different things, the goaltending coach, Robb Tallas,  ran us through, and I felt comfortable in my skates. I took the net and then Shawn Thornton of the Panthers whistled a shot, my first shot, by my head and it went right under the crossbar. Obviously, I didn’t cut down my angle enough, but that was the only goal I let in. I stopped like 10 of 11 shots after that.

Q. How sore were you the next day?

COHN: Actually, not as sore as I thought. That was because, like anything, you’ve got to be prepared. I made sure I was at the gym a lot before, kind of getting me ready. That was a big win, too. Plus, I met so many great goalies. They were so great and so nice. It just proved goalies are something special. They’re so different and in a fun way. We love challenges, and we’re just fun people. We’re a little nutty.

Q. What makes goaltenders just so quirky?

COHN: That’s a great question. We have to be different, right? We’re throwing our bodies into blazing pucks.

I can only speak for me, and I’ve talked about this before. I think it’s important. I wanted to be a goalie because, first, believe it or not; I had skills to stop a puck. Also, because I wanted to be that center of attention. Growing up, I had tremendously low self-esteem, and no one looked at me. When I was a little girl, I had thick glasses before I got contacts when I was 14 and that’s when I started to play hockey.

Being a goaltender, I embrace the challenge of perhaps being the goat, being the bad guy, letting in the bad goal, for the love of, for the chance to be the heroine. To be the game saver. To be the one that does stand out and help your teammates win a game. I was willing to take that risk because it was such a high. I wasn’t getting a lot of ‘highs’ growing up, and that’s what hockey and being a goaltender gave me early on. It really helped me give me confidence in having an ability and giving me something to look forward to.

I thank my dad for that. My mother was the one that transported me, schlepped me back and forth to the rink 45 minutes away, each way. My dad was the one that was the big Ranger fan and we watched hockey every night. I would sit and watch with him, and that always gave me something to look forward to.

When you’re a young girl, and you’re not feeling good about yourself, you needed something to look forward to, and that’s what hockey did for me.

Follow Linda on Twtter @LindaCohn or on her website LindaCohn.net

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Jen Neale is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow her on Twitter! Follow @MsJenNeale_PD.

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