A Ugandan’s journey through CBC ranks

WILLIAM HOUSTON

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

TORONTO — Thirty-five years ago, about the time Paul Henderson was scoring his famous goal for Canada, an edict by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin set in motion events that would bring to this country a refugee who today has more to say than anyone else about how we watch hockey on television.

Sherali Najak cites the hockey gods as being responsible for his relocation to Canada and rise to the top job at CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.

Mr. Najak was among 6,000 Ismaili refugees to arrive in Canada in the fall of 1972, when millions were watching Mr. Henderson and Team Canada play the Soviet Union in the Summit Series.

In fact, Mr. Henderson’s goal and events that surrounded it played a role in the Najak family’s acceptance into the country.

Globe and Mail

Sherali Najak, shown earlier this week, now has the top job at Hockey Night in Canada, giving him more say in how Canadians watch hockey than anyone else in the country.

Sherali Najak, shown earlier this week, now has the top job at Hockey Night in Canada, giving him more say in how Canadians watch hockey than anyone else in the country. (Fred Lum/Globe and Mail)

The story began when Mr. Najak was 3. While Canada’s NHL players were trying to defeat the Soviet Union, Mr. Najak and his family were in a life-and-death situation in Uganda, where Mr. Amin decreed the expulsion of 80,000 Asians, among them Ismaili Muslims.

Aga Khan IV, spiritual leader of the Ismailis, sought help from his friend, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Canada began processing the refugees almost immediately.

The Liberal government was concerned about an anti-immigration lobby stalling the first major resettlement of non-whites into the country, but, with the Summit Series in full swing, hockey was getting most of the public’s attention.

“The Summit Series was probably our good-luck charm,” Mr. Najak said. “The hockey gods were listening.”

In Uganda, Ramzanali Najak, Sherali’s father, had owned a chain of bicycle shops. But he arrived in Montreal with his wife, Kulsum, and eight children, and nothing but the money he carried with him.

They moved to Port Colborne, Ont., and settled in Hamilton, where Ramzanali was a labourer at Eddy Paper Co. until his retirement. Mr. Najak says his father still talks about the kindness and generosity of Canadians.

Another gift from Canada was the national game.

Ramzanali enjoyed sports, and every Saturday, the family watched Hockey Night in Canada. Mr. Najak became a Montreal Canadiens fan because of the team’s success in the 1970s and its roster of stars, including Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, Ken Dryden and Serge Savard.

Smallish and a weak skater, Mr. Najak didn’t play organized hockey, but spent his winters outside with a hockey stick and ball.

“I wasn’t unlike any other Canadian kid, out late playing road hockey,” he said. “I remember skipping school during the week to go to the library to read books by [ Hockey Night commentator] Dick Irvin on the Habs. When I was older, I went to Buffalo to watch the Sabres when Montreal visited.”

At 14, Mr. Najak decided he wanted a career in television. He was watching a CFL show on Hamilton’s community channel when he thought: “That’s something I can do.”

While studying broadcasting at Hamilton’s Mohawk College, he landed a job at CBC Newsworld as a camera technician. A year later, at 19, he was directing overnight shows. When he graduated, he joined the network full-time in the news department.

But he requested a move to sports, accepting a lesser job as director of promotional commercials.

“I had no second thoughts about leaving news,” he said. “It was like a dream come true to be in the sports department.”

Mr. Najak arrived in sports in 1994, just as John Shannon was taking over as head of Hockey Night.

Years earlier, Mr. Shannon, a gifted and sometimes controversial broadcaster, had been one of the show’s leading producers. He was fired in 1986 over conflicts with upper management, and moved to the CFL to run the now-defunct Canadian Football Network.

“I remember the buzz about Shannon returning to the CBC,” Mr. Najak said. “I saw him in his office setting up, so I walked in. I said, ‘I know the building, I love hockey and I want to do some stuff.’ ”

In 1995, Mr. Shannon made Mr. Najak an isolation director, meaning he was responsible for replays. Over six years, he moved to game director, to lead director of the Eastern telecast, to producer, to senior producer. He was appointed executive producer this summer.

As the head of Hockey Night, Mr. Najak is responsible for the content of the show, including which games receive national distribution on Saturday nights.

On Saturday nights, he oversees the telecast. On Sunday, the postmortem takes place.

“And then you’re right back at it on Monday,” he said. “It’s like that for everybody. Not just me.”

Mr. Najak takes over the 55-year-old show as Bob Cole and Harry Neale are nearing the end of their run as the lead play-by-play team. Announcer Jim Hughson, and Craig Simpson, an Edmonton Oilers assistant coach who was hired during the summer, will call many of the big games this season.

The pregame show will have two new features: Inside Hockey, with profiles of people and events, and Viewpoint, with updates, news and information.

Mr. Najak says he wants to broaden the appeal of Canada’s NHL teams beyond their regions. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Canadiens have a significant national fan base.

Hockey Night‘s audiences will increase if viewers in the West, for example, get interested in the Ottawa Senators. What’s more, Hockey Night will lose three telecasts involving its biggest draw, the Maple Leafs, beginning in 2008-09.

“I hope to make the show really national and focus on getting back to the game itself,” he said.

Mr. Shannon, now a broadcasting executive with the NHL, has no doubts he will succeed. Brian Williams, a CFL and Olympic anchor for TSN and CTV, worked with Mr. Najak at the CBC for 10 years. He describes him as bright, with “technological skills that are second to none.”

Mr. Shannon calls him a sponge.

“He was one of those guys who would sit and ask questions. ‘How do you do things? Why do you do things?’ When you get into a leadership role, particularly one with so many personalities involved, it’s really important to be able to say, ‘I don’t understand that. How do we fix it? Or give me your best advice on how to fix it.’ ”

Another talent is an ability to motivate and lead.

“People will go through walls for him,” Mr. Shannon said.

Ron MacLean, the host of Hockey Night, says Mr. Najak’s people skills are rooted in his tolerance of others. Mr. MacLean remembers when the CBC took over production of the annual NHL awards show with Mr. Najak as producer.

“I recall we were 30 minutes to air. The set wasn’t complete. There were still drills and saws going like crazy. [Singer] Russell Watson was singing Funiculi Funicula. There must have been 50 people surrounding Sherali, screaming with their individual needs. I remember how cool he was under that baptism by fire.”

Mr. Najak says he loves being a leader. Helping him prepare for that role were his life experiences, being uprooted, then growing up a child of colour in a new country.

“I think anybody who has been in a bit of a struggle, had some misery, can appreciate things and people a little more,” he said. “I’m accepting of everybody. Acceptance and tolerance is a big part of who I am. I think people relate to that.”

Globe and Mail

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