My Toronto: Exclusive Interview with George Stroumboulopoulos

Words by Laura Weber

There are few people more synonymous with Toronto than George Stroumboulopoulos. And it’s not because of his sneaker obsession or the fact that he was a host on Much Music back when it was still good. It’s not because he played street hockey growing up or because he’s friends with Margaret Atwood. And it’s not because he listens to Slayer and Missy Elliot or that he chooses to live on Richmond Street – or wait, it is. In fact, it’s all the above reasons that make George Stroumboulopoulos ubiquitous with the city of Toronto.

Years of steering Canadian youth to good music weren’t enough. Over 10 seasons of sharp and intimate conversations with some of the world’s biggest stars and original thinkers didn’t do it for him either. Nah, he had to go and grab the bull by the horns by rattling a sacred institution – Hockey Night in Canada. And I don’t think I’m alone when I say, ‘Go Strombo!’. If that’s not a match made in Canadian media heaven, then I don’t know anything. And now that the dust has settled and Strombo has managed to become even more Toronto than he already was, I asked him to give us the dirt on the new job, the man he really is and the city he really loves.

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So, how do you go from music to hockey?

It’s easier than you think because it’s not about music or hockey, sincerely. It’s never about the end result. You have to look at what it is you do for a living. What I’ve always wanted to do is try to be good company. My job is to get people through their day, to help entertain them, to inform them, to connect people to what might interest them and sometimes it’s through records and sometimes it’s through sports. So, the actual subject is important, but it’s actually driven by those undercurrents of humanity. So to me it’s not really different.

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Do you love one more than the other?

No, not necessarily. At 7 years old you make your entertainment choices. At that time, I was into really heavy music, playing hockey, and if you can believe it, engaging in political discussions. If you’re young and you want to get out of your current situation you spend a lot of time with people who are older than you so that you learn. At least that’s what I did.

What do you love most about Toronto? And how does it compete with your second home in California?

It doesn’t compete. There is no competition. There is a reason I live here and it’s that I want to. I remember reading some article by some jackass who said that I’m only at Much Music so that I can eventually do what everybody else does and leave and go to the States. And I remember thinking, ‘you just don’t get it’. Toronto is a great city; I love this city. And the Toronto that I grew up in is not the Toronto it is today. Toronto is far more exciting now than it even was back then.

My favourite thing about it is that it’s a neighborhood town. And for the most part, you identify by your intersection. This city has everything that I need it to have, California just has better weather.

But who has better-looking people?

It’s a tie. Here’s the thing right, Toronto is just learning what its identity is because you have all these people who just moved here who aren’t from here.  So they’re all bringing a new version to it. It hasn’t settled yet, we don’t know what it’s going to be. Toronto is so young.

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What are your thoughts on Toronto becoming a viable “music” city?

Of course. I remember maybe 10-12 years ago everybody was lamenting the loss of all the venues… there was nowhere to play… it was the death of the Toronto music scene, etc. But you can’t kill something like that. I think Broken Social Scene restructured what this scene could be. They made this town musically viable. Obviously now Drake is the biggest of all time. And for me growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in… I fucking love hip hop.

You listen to so many different genres, but wouldn’t you agree that you have a “rock ‘n’ roll” aesthetic?

I have an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ aesthetic. Because I have so many varied interests, I dress differently. I suppose in a way that is “rock ‘n’ roll”…

When did you figure your look out?

I was young. I was very lucky that I had a mother that would come home from work and say, go outside. And so my universe was as big as my bicycle would take me. I was outside all the time and so I got to meet lots of people, identify with lots of looks. And then there is the little boy experience in the way that we would fit in back then.

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The little boy experience?

You walk into a school where you don’t know anybody and you’re kind of angry and not polished at all. The only flag that I carried was the music I listened to, so you walk in wearing x t-shirt and the guys in the back say, come sit with us. I went to a school where there weren’t a lot of guys that were into the devil’s music, as it were, and so there I was with these 5 long hairs. Music was how we connected.

My mother is eastern European right, so you ask them what language they speak and they say Hungarian, but it’s totally different because it’s all dialect. I think your identity evolves that way as well. So I listen to Slayer and the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy and Tom Waits and Rancid and that was my particular dialect and that’s how I dressed.

Did you ever question how becoming the new face of Hockey Night In Canada might change your image?

I am careful and strategic about my choices and how I do things, but I generally just do whatever feels right. And it just felt right. If you’re a broadcaster or a host in this country then there are two shows that are the pinnacle, at least to me. One is Hockey Night in Canada and the other is The National. I think Mansbridge is the fucking king. I look at what he has done and I think that is the most important job in this country. But I’m not going to do that job, that’s not my path. If you’re a music guy, New Music back in the day was the music show and I had that so what else was I gonna do? They came to me and said, you wanna do this and I said, sure. I mean you never apply for a job like that; you would just have to be so arrogant. That’s the kind of thing that’s given to you or lent for a while.

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Do you feel like the audience has been receptive to you?

Yah. I mean I think there are some people who don’t like change, some people who do. You just don’t think about it. And at the end of the day, who fucking cares. There is a reason I was asked to do the job, they said they want to do a certain kind of show and I said I want to make that kind of show. And I recognize people, in general, are resistant to change, Canadians in particular and hockey fans even more so. Canadian hockey fans are very protective of their sport and I get it because I’m one of them. There are guys who know more about hockey than me, but there is nobody who can out hockey me as a fan. So when guys come after me, I’m like bro my hockey fan credentials are tight. I mean that’s where being a bit of an asshole helps. You want people to respect what you do, but you have to realize they’re not just gonna. I remember when Dave Hodge left Hockey Night in Canada, Ron Maclean got crushed – and he’s amazing.

But I’m not naïve when they called me about this job, I thought are you out of your mind? Like are you sure you want to do this. Because I knew they were going to get smoked for it. Not only am I not like Ron, I also look the way I look, act the way I act. I’m not from Prairie Canada – I’ve been there, I like it, but my relationship with hockey is not 15 good Canadian boys skating on a pond. Nobody had a pond where I grew up in Rexdale. Who has a fucking pond? My hockey is playing street hockey with guys with kirpans – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangalores, Italians, Jamaicans, Haitians, Trinis, so my hockey is different. We all love hockey just as much, but it’s not the kind of hockey that’s been presented in the past. I think this country is diverse and the hockey fans are diverse and I want to represent that.

And they haven’t asked you to change in any way?

No. They are very cognizant of the old school fans. I get that. So they’re like let’s ease everyone into where we’re going with this show. I’m historically not an ease into anything kind of guy. I’m like you want to change this? Let’s just blow it up and do something else. That’s not the right way to do this. The way they are doing this is the right way. Introducing new technology slowly, new segments slowly. It’s a shock enough not to see Ron Maclean and see a guy with earrings

Let’s go back to playing street hockey with Jamaicans…

Yeah, but to me they were all just Torontonians. We were all poor and living in the same neighborhood. It wasn’t about race; it was about class. It’s more about where you sit on the social economic spectrum and that’s who you identify with and I learned that early because none of us were actually different. Then you’re like there are those guys over there and they keep all the money and get all the tax breaks. So multiculturalism is important, but so is understanding class.

Amen to that. In a past interview you said Toronto ethnic is more ethnic than ethnic. What did you mean by that?

There is a whole generation of immigrants who came here and they have a view of the place they came from. The countries they came from have changed dramatically. So they are time-locked, they remember a time that doesn’t exist anymore right. Not just a time, but a country that’s not the same anymore. So you are connected to your families history then you’re connected to your young relationship with immigration and then all you’re doing is cross-pollinating with other countries. So my mother would make food that was connected to what my neighbor would make. So it was all very ethnic but through a real prism of Toronto – I’m fascinated by it.

It’s all so true. Especially if you look at Toronto and say Vancouver and you compare the food that’s available to the general public.

Toronto has world-class food. I was in Thunder Bay shooting a Much Music thing with Rick Campanelli and we were craving Indian food and a couple guys kind of joked, where are we going to find Indian food in Thunder Bay. We looked in the phone book and there was an Indian restaurant that we found in the back of a convenient store where the guys wife was cooking authentic, clean Indian food. We were lucky, but this city does that really well. I went from Rexdale to Malton and the Indian and Pakistani food there was so good. (note: George properly pronounces “Pakistani” – a testament to knowing his shit)

What is Toronto doing wrong?

The city is a bit wild now because they built all these condos. Which I think is good because you want, or I want high density. The more you create space for people to move downtown, the cooler this joint gets. The cities around North America that don’t have people living downtown are not that fun. And our suburbs are Californialike – we have the sprawl here. But we also have so many people that live downtown that everything you need is here, everything but space. The city councils over the years have really short shifted us on public space. This city kind of let the developers take over (and I don’t know these people) but for a city this big to have this whack transit system and very few parks… Trinity Bellwoods is an ant farm on a sunny day. There’s not enough space. I hear the guys that are developing in the East are being more cognizant of that.   

Do you drive downtown is the question?

I do. I drive, I ride a bicycle, I ride a motorcycle, I crash on segways…

Photo / Location Credits:

10am at Town Moto (132 Ossington Ave.) to pick up some last minute items for George’s great escape – an epic motorcycle trip from Toronto to his home in California.    

12:30pm at The Golden Turtle Restaurant (125 Ossington Ave.) the owners are happy to see George again for the 3rd time this week and bring him his usual dish (the best spicy noodle soup I’ve ever had).

3pm tucked away behind a gate, down a hidden path at George’s Home/ Studio /Sanctuary (secret location) in the middle of downtown, Toronto jealousy ensues.