PITB Chats with Thomas Drance about returning to Vancouver and why he loves Artem Chubarov

The Athletic's new senior Canucks writer joins Daniel Wagner for a Q&A.

Pass it to Bulis

A few years ago, Thomas Drance was everywhere in the Vancouver Canucks media market. He was writing and editing CanucksArmy, eventually moving up to become Editor in Chief of the entire Nation Network. For a while he was an editor at The Score, then a columnist at Sportsnet, and even appeared on Canucks broadcasts at times during intermissions with Dan Murphy.

His freelance work appeared in The Province, The Sporting News, Vice Canada, Canucks.com, and Yahoo! Sports, and he co-wrote a book with Mike Halford called “100 Things Canucks Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.” He was even a guest writer on Pass it to Bulis, with his regular “Drance Numbers” column introducing readers to new concepts in hockey analytics.

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Then, a couple years ago, he moved to Florida to work for the Panthers as their Vice President of Communications and Public Relations. Just like that, an ubiquitous voice in the Vancouver market was suddenly silenced.

Now, Drance is back, joining The Athletic as the Senior Writer covering the Canucks. Before the 2019-20 season kicks off, I wanted to chat with Drance about his journey and reintroduce him to Canucks fans after over two years away from Vancouver.

PITB: First thing I need to ask: are you a Toronto guy?

Drance: No, I was born in Vancouver! I grew up halfway between downtown and the airport, outskirts of Shaughnessy and Kerrisdale.

But you went to the University of Toronto, spent a lot of time out there...

Right, no, totally fair. I left Vancouver in 2005 to go to the University of Toronto, got a variety of odd jobs out of university: bus tour guide, I was watching check discs for Treehouse at one point, which means you watch all of Caillou. And then you watch all of Caillou in French. And then you watch all of Caillou in Spanish to make sure there's no errors on the disc.

That sounds like hell.

It was really bad. And they put you in a comfortable chair in a really hot room and it was very difficult to stay awake.

I ended up clerking at a law firm and that's what where I started an Artem Chubarov parody account to talk about the Canucks online, and everything sort of unfolded from there.

Okay, so just to be clear, you’re not a Toronto guy coming in to Vancouver, because you know Vancouverites don’t like that.

I think that’s true. The fact of the matter is that this is an eccentric sports market, for better or for worse, and mostly for better in my opinion, because it's always active, always lively, and has a weird and very unique sense of humor. I think it does help to be from here. I think that Vancouverites want locals covering the team and that doesn't mean that you can't do it if you're from Toronto. Obviously, my predecessor Jason Botchford is a good example of that, but it means that you do have to really embrace the community and cover the Vancouver team for Vancouverites and Vancouver sports fans.

I do think it's a benefit to me to be familiar with the eccentricities and the unique or distinct cultural rhythms and senses of humor and persecution complexes of Canucks fans.

You and I have a similar history on social media with Twitter accounts named after obscure former Canucks. Why Artem Chubarov?

I actually think my deep appreciation for Chubarov represents the overall view I ended up having of the game. For me, when I think back to those West Coast Express era teams, obviously the high-flying offense of the Morrison, Bertuzzi, Naslund line comes to mind first. But when you think about all of the high-energy young grinders that came through that system, I'm talking your Letowskis, your Chubarovs, your Matt Cookes, your Jarko Ruutus, on and on,, I think that that was a big part of what made that team successful.

They were all fast, they were all young, cost-controlled. I think they brought a level of energy and control to the game. And obviously we didn’t have Behind the Net era stats, but I guarantee you that Chubarov would have been a fancy-stats All Star.

So, as I began to look into the game in a slightly different way, I think Chubarov became a mascot of the underappreciated depth player, who maybe doesn't put up the points, maybe isn't excelling in the NHL in a traditional sense, but as the sort of guy who, under the radar, helps a team win games. That's why I think I was drawn to him.

Are those still the types of players you are drawn towards and the stories you like to tell?

Absolutely. I'd say the players that I always have a soft spot for are the underappreciated winger who helps drive play for a second or third line, especially a Jannik Hansen type, perhaps, or a puck-moving defenseman. Vancouver hasn't really had an elite all-around defenceman. But when you think about guys like Jeff Brown, Jyrki Lumme, on and on, there's a pretty rich history — Doug Lidster — a pretty rich history in Vancouver of quality, puck-moving defencemen.

And then, because I'm a Vancouverite, I always love the backup goalie.

You have to love the backup goalie. It's a rule.

Absolutely. It's like wearing dri-fit in public, it's just something that you're expected to do.

Do you have an issue with dri-fit in public?

No, but it feels uniquely Vancouver and that and that's coming from a snobbish Torontoite perspective. [laughs]

So you moved your way up in the hockey writing world, in the media landscape…

I love it, landscape. The media landscape, which is rubble, but sure.

You were a big piece of rubble, shall we say?

[laughs] Okay!

But then you left it all behind and you went to work on the other side of the aisle. What made you make that jump to working PR and communications?

I'd never considered it until the offer was presented to me. I never thought of it as something I wanted to do. I always thought of myself as a hockey writer and obviously that persisted even while I was on the other side of the aisle. But, you know, when the opportunity presented itself, it seemed like something that would be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and a unique experience. I felt a certain level of hunger to test my hand at something new and take on a new challenge.

It was extremely gratifying professionally to have the opportunity to do it, and to work with a great group of athletes and some great people down in South Florida. From that perspective, it worked out. The fact of the matter is, is that telling stories directly was my first passion and what got me interested in in the industry in the first place, and I'm excited to have a chance to do that again for the Athletic Vancouver.

Nice plug at the end, very well done.

Old PR habits die hard.

So you ended up being one of the CanucksArmy success stories, one of the many former writers from CanucksArmy who went on to work in the NHL, just not in the same way as many of those other people.

I think I was always a pretty distinct type of CanucksArmy writer. You know, CanucksArmy was the one place that I didn't really leave. My tenure there persisted from 2010 through 2017, so for seven years, even while I was also working for Sportsnet, or The Score, or whatever, CanucksArmy was kind of my home, or my baby, or the thing that I cared the most about, on some level.

I was pretty deeply involved in the succession there over the years, and maintaining that site, making sure that there was a programmer in the fold, and making sure that it was a destination for like-minded hockey writers or hockey brains interested in analytics and exploring the game in a different way. I'm really proud of that, I'm really proud of the pipeline that came out of there.

But I really think that I was a very distinct type in that I wasn't a pure analyst ever, and I never thought of myself that way. I was the guy writing five, six posts to give it the editorial spine. I'm excited by the success that all of my CanucksArmy colleagues have had, and I think that it's cool. I get some indirect credit for it, for some reason, just because I kind of helped build the platform.

It was just groups of like-minded people finding other people to bounce ideas off of, building out ideas, exploring their hypothesis. For example, my Panthers colleagues like Rhys [Jessop], Cam Lawrence, and Josh Weissbock, and what they've managed to accomplish. Cam Charron's one of my older friends, and just a great guy, and I'm so excited for his success. And on and on, continuing through Ryan Biech, who is currently, I'm sure, wearing a Fanatics team-issue Canucks half-zip in Rogers Arena. It's pretty amazing to see and something I take a lot of pride in, and I'm excited for all those guys. They all worked hard, and they've earned it.

I remember some people were surprised when you got hired by the Panthers that you weren’t getting an analytics job, but that was never you, you used analytics to tell a story.

I’m a media guy, I was a storyteller first. That's why the media side [with the Panthers] interested me, because it was strategy. There was a platform to help the club grow in the digital space and on social media, and those were things that I was more interested in. I worked professionally in social media marketing, as well, so those were challenges that interested me. I think the idea of being part of a player evaluation process was less interesting to me, because again, I'm a media guy, first and foremost.

It seems like the CanucksArmy guys that are now in Florida are a continuation of the ongoing series of trades between Vancouver and Florida, but the Panthers didn’t send any analysts back to the Canucks. What’s with that?

[laughs] No comment.

So now that you’ve worked as an insider, more closely with the players and coaches, how does that change your perspective, since you were previously coming from more of an outsider perspective?

I think it’s a few things. One is that I think that seeing NHL coaches work every day, and seeing their attention to detail, and how much they pick up watching film, versus your average fan or your average analyst, is pretty mind blowing. And I think I have a much deeper appreciation for the high level of professionalism and hard work that they put in.

I was always a little soft on coaches, as anyone who followed my lengthy defenses of Alain Vigneault would know, but the fact of the matter is, is that there’s a level of hockey knowledge among those people who are then taken to the woodshed on Twitter, because people don't think they're optimizing their third pair. Having seen the level of expertise and dedication that those people put into those decisions, I think that I'll be even more conservative in my coverage of how a team is coached going forward.

In terms of the player side, I think it’s just an appreciation for the ridiculous level of skill that all NHL players have. When you're on a bench, for example, and you're looking at the action through your iPhone screen, because you're taking boomerangs and a variety of other things to put on different social media platforms. With NHL players, there's a level of safety that you just know a puck’s not coming onto the bench, unless unless you've really done something to piss someone off, which no, of course, that would never happen. [laughs]

The high level of skill that NHL players have, even relative to their AHL and college peers — who are still unbelievable — it's just astounding, and to see the dedication and the work that goes into that, in the gym, in warm ups, the anaerobic stuff prior to warm ups, and on and on, was a pretty exceptional experience, because they're really tremendous, world class athletes.

Do you worry that maybe it might take a little bit of the edge off that you're not going to be as hard on a coach or player knowing know how much effort went into all what they do?

I don't worry about that at all. I think I've always been pretty balanced and pretty fair. And that's always been my approach to covering things. I cared a lot about being honest, and being fair to media when I was on the other side as well. I think that's what you really owe to yourself and to your audience.

I'm not going to be pulling any punches, I just think that once you've seen behind the curtain, there's a level of respect that is maybe hardened, just because of how dedicated they all are as professionals. It's a hard league to win in. It’s a hard league to stay in, if you're a player. And it's certainly a hard league to keep your job in, if you're a coach, and those pressures are felt and those pressures are met by a level of hard work that I think, wouldn't surprise people, but when you see it every day is is pretty remarkable.

Now that you've been kind of two years out of Vancouver, have you had to kind of catch yourself up on what happened over the past two seasons with the Canucks?

No, I followed things pretty closely, especially things like The Change Up and a variety of other fun notes that occurred while I was in Florida.

Look, this team means a lot to a lot of the people I grew up with, obviously, I didn't just sort of tune out. When I went down to South Florida, I continued to follow the league very closely, professionally. And I continue to follow the Canucks in particular, just out of a nascent sense of professional interest, and because I have a lot of relationships with people in the media pool here, and the organization, and the city. I don't think I needed to do a ton of study. I watched some video over the summer, made some phone calls. But for the most part, this was a pretty natural transition for me.

Finally, what are you most excited about for the coming Canucks season and for The Athletic as well?

For The Athletic, we've got a tall task ahead of us in terms of carrying the torch and living up to the legacy that Jason Botchford built there, and especially for the subscriber base, the people who signed up to read him. While I think there's a tall task there, I think we've built a really great team to do it. We’ve got a new editor, Naoko Asano, who comes through Sportsnet, Sportsnet Magazine, she has been at Chatelaine for the last few years, I think she's going to bring some really fresh ideas, and some excellent leadership to our group.

Obviously, Harman [Dayal] has as much raw talent as anyone we've seen on in the Vancouver media scene in a long time, and I'm really excited to get a chance to work with him and collaborate. And then we'll continue to flesh out that team. But we'll have a great group of freelancers, including Wyatt [Arndt] and a variety of other people. I'm really excited to debut a variety of things to the Vancouver audience in the months ahead.

From a Canucks side, I think the the return of stakes is going to be good. I think that it's good for everybody to have some meaning, some heft to the games, and not just be prospect-watching from early in the season. I also think that there's beginning to be the formation of a young core.

For the first time in a long time talking to fans around the city, it seems like there is a feeling that this is a group worthy of investment: watching the season, whether the team makes the playoffs or not, maybe you're in on the ground floor of seeing what could be an elite core congeal and come together.

Telling those stories, it's going to be a lot of fun and it's going to be a big challenge. It’s better to write for an engaged fan base, and I'm looking forward to it this season.
 

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