“Some of the names in there are guys that I've idolized over the years”
On a crisp, late-November afternoon, Paul Graham (Radio and Television Arts ’79) steps off the curb into a downtown Edmonton street as if he moves within a bubble. He’s coatless like the cold doesn’t register, and he’s unconcerned about the possibility of traffic. A cell phone at his ear has him deep in decision-making, at once fully engaged and completely distracted.
For the vice-president and executive producer of live events for TSN, a veteran of some 5,000 major events, that state of being seems necessary. The bubble within which Graham works (and, really, lives) changes location with near superhuman frequency, bouncing from city to city across the globe, touching down at major hockey tournaments, Olympics and Grey Cups such as this, the Canadian Football League’s 106th.
But, inside the bubble, the environment remains much the same: hectic, flooded with broadcasting’s bright lights, and almost wholly uninfluenced by external matters, oncoming vehicles included. The movement within is what matters, an intersection of sponsors, cameras and equipment, sports teams execs, and TSN staff of all kinds, including the 200 crew members in town with him for the biggest single-day event in Canadian sports.
That focus is the product of devotion that predates Graham’s rise to TSN’s executive ranks.
Growing up in Edmonton, he and his neighbourhood buddies biked to as many Eskimos games as possible. Later, he’d play a key role in the formation and development of the Canadian Football Network, which televised CFL events in the late 1980s and early ’90s. After that, Graham got an introduction to TSN in 1991, took a break to join Hockey Night in Canada as a senior producer in '98, then in 2009 returned to the national sports broadcaster, where he has since produced several hundred football games (and hundreds of other events), including 10 Grey Cups.
That dedication has been acknowledged with high honours. In 2017, the CFL gave Graham the Hugh Campbell Distinguished Leadership Award. Then, this fall in Edmonton, he was inducted into the reporter wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Two days before that, he stepped out of the bubble for a few minutes to talk to techlifetoday about working under conditions where there are no second chances, to reminisce about flag football at NAIT, and to emphasize the value of humble beginnings.
Techlifetoday: What does your job involve?
Paul Graham: I oversee all of our live-event production. From about 1987, for about 20-odd years, I was physically in the truck producing. Now ... I'm the boss of the guys that are producing. But my job is a bit bigger than that. I spent a lot of time working with the presidents of the teams and the leagues and building those relationships, and doing television deals related to production. It's all encompassing and certainly never boring. And absolutely 24/7.
Is it stressful?
How much hair do I have? [laughs] It's live and it's now and you don't get a second chance. So everything you do, it's got to be right.
Tell me about your time at NAIT. What stands out?
We played [intramural] flag football. We had a very small class and only about 13 guys to choose from [for the team], yet we beat all the big programs. So, two years in a row we won the championship, beating the Marketing guys and the Heavy Equipment guys that had 500 players to choose from.
One of my greatest memories is catching a touchdown pass to win it in the field by the [old City Centre] Airport.
In the classroom, NAIT gave me so much confidence and prepared me for my next step. I've turned that into a rewarding 40-year career with so many incredible experiences.
When you were a student, what did you envision as your career?
I think a lot of people initially want to be on air. I had that [desire] for about a day and realized that I was more of an organizer. That goes back being a kid. I'd always organize the ball hockey game or a football game. In television, they need people to organize. They need producers. So that obviously appealed to me.
How did you get into the industry?
An instructor – Mike Hainey – who used to direct television wanted to go back into [directing, for what was then ITV]. So he quit. I had him as a teacher. Then, in 1979, the Edmonton Oilers moved into the NHL. ITV was going to cover those games. He was in a meeting with guys from Hockey Night in Canada and they asked him, “We need a research, stats-type guy.” He said, “I know a guy.”
So I got a call from Don Wallace, then the executive producer of Hockey Night in Canada, and he said, “We're in town. We heard some good things about you. Do you want to come down to Northlands Coliseum?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” And he goes, “I need you to come right now.” But I'm producing and directing the Ooks [men’s hockey] game that night for [community] TV and I tell him I can't. He said, “What's more important? I'm offering you a job.” And I say, “Well, I gotta stay.”
"I thought that was that. But about five minutes later he called back."
He wasn't actually very nice to me and said, “Well, we'll get back to you.” And I thought that was that. But about five minutes later he called back and said, “When is your meal break?” I said, “I have an hour between five and six.”
Another guy at that meeting, Luther Haave, who later went on to become president of Superchannel, brought Don Wallace and a yellow Volkswagen van to NAIT and picked me up and took me to Northlands. There was this brand new graphics thing that they gave me a quick tutorial on. I had no idea what was going on.
But on the drive down, [Wallace] said to me, “How do you spell Canadien?” And I said, “You mean, -en?” He goes, “Okay, I guess you know your stuff.” So that was it – I had that job.
Now you’ve been inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you?
It's been an interesting 12 months. Winning the Hugh Campbell award last year was a complete surprise for me. I was really honored. And then to get another award a year later is pretty special. It's my peer group recognizing me. Some of the names in [the hall of fame] are guys that I've idolized over the years, like Ernie Afaganis, Al McCann, Terry Jones. It’s so special to be included with that group.
You’re in the middle of your career. What does the future look like for you?
I love my job. I could see doing this for a while longer and then I can see branching off into either an extension of football or hockey. I sit on two committees with the [International Ice Hockey Federation]. You meet a lot of people in this job, form a lot of relationships, so who knows where that will lead.
Did you ever dream things would work out this way?
Nope. I said that to the kids [when I visited] NAIT the other day. You just keep on working hard. I used to work for SCTV and ITV, mop floors, move sets and do a bunch of jobs that I didn't necessarily want to do. But I knew it was part of the process.
Here’s a true story. In my neighbourhood when I was growing up, there was a kid who lived at the end of the block who sort of looked down at [me and my buddies]. So, fast forward and I'm probably 20 or 21, and I run into him and he says, “What are you doing?” I go, “I work in TV.”
All of a sudden he thinks more of me because I have a cool job. He doesn't realize that I'm, like, right at the bottom. [I tell him] I'm working on commercials and Oilers’ games and Eskimos’ games, and this concert series where we bring local bands into the studio.
"My job was to mop the floor and make it shiny and black."
So, my job – and, actually, Neill Fitzpatrick’s (Radio and Television ’80) – was to mop the floor and make it shiny and black [right before] we let the audience in. Then, during the show, we're just off to the side.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, I see that [kid from the neighbourhood] up in row 10 or whatever. The show’s almost ready to go. But then the drummer breaks one of his drumsticks and goes out to his car for more. Meanwhile, it's pouring rain. So he comes back and [tracks] mud across the floor; then the director looks over me and Neill. In front of the full audience, we’ve got to mop again.
When the concert’s over, [the kid] comes over to me and goes, “Oh, so you work in TV, eh?”
I always say that if I ever saw him again, I would say, “Yeah, you know what? I do work in TV.”