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Podcasting the love

by Archives January 15, 2008

It’s 10:40 p.m. on a Thursday night. The Boston Bruins have just lost to the Canadiens 5-2. In the basement of a Hampstead house, Benjamin Wenger and David Gross are about to record their 75th HabsCast episode. The co-hosts of the popular podcast slouch on opposite sides of a grey couch – the type that belongs in a basement.
Wegner breaks flawlessly into the show’s intro. “Welcome to HabsCast,” Wenger announces in a polished, authoritative voice, just before he trips over his own name.
OK, almost flawlessly.
“Let’s do that again. Just let it flatline,” says Wenger, referring to the bouncing audio wave on the computer screen in front of them.
The other three in the room rag on him for a minute for the slip. Then the four fall silent and Wenger successfully starts the show on the second take. He and Gross move easily into what they do best: talking hockey while disagreeing passionately on its finest points as only old friends can. Gilad Bendor offers to do the intro for him, but Wenger doesn’t take it. Working the controls is the fourth member of the HabsCast, Daniel Naimer, who is mostly quiet, but he remembers to spit his gum out this time around so he’s not chewing ‘on air’.
The four Habs-fans are all 21 or 22 years old. When they’re not studying at Concordia University, they offer up an amateur hockey podcast that has garnered almost a cult-like following. From the tiny studio in Naimer’s basement, their hockey talk show regularly reaches an audience from Hong Kong to South America. Listeners, many of them expatriate Montrealer fans, send them e-mails from every country in Europe and almost every major hockey city in North America. Their show has been downloaded over 50,000 times since they started in October 2006.
Wenger, Gross, Naimer and Bendor attribute their popular appeal to the fact that their show is … well, unique. The talk may be casual, but they are intense about every detail and often argue just to see who can make the better case. Topics revolve around the doings of the Canadiens – les Habitants – and every show yields rich information about the team.
“People across Canada get Toronto-based [sports] coverage,” explains Wenger. “We’re really lucky to have Habs-crazy media [in Montreal].”
Their on-air personalities could be what gets listeners hooked. The originator of the project, Dave “Horse-tooth” Gross, takes accounting at Concordia. It’s his vision and quirky personality that drives the show. Gross listens to Team 990 all day, every day, and his current book of choice is The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments by Bob McCown. He considers himself a “hockey ambassador,” driven by the love of the game to proselytize the nation.
Gross got the idea for a Habs podcast when, sitting up late one night after a game, he searched online for a sports podcast and couldn’t find one. As an entrepreneur, he had already tried to make a go of two companies, one designing websites and the other T-shirts, but neither satisfied him financially or personally. Podcasting about his beloved sport turned out be the best decision he’d ever made; he doesn’t make any money at it, but he doesn’t care.
Gross sold the idea to Naimer over breakfast one morning, but they didn’t hit their stride until a few weeks later when they convinced Wenger to join in. He reportedly “wasn’t so enthusiastic” at the beginning. But the two soon found a growing niche audience and Wenger got hooked. He has since taken over most of the production and editing of the show.
Ben “Big Wangs” Wenger, a history student, takes a seat opposite Gross on the couch and disagrees with him on principle in most hockey matters, if not in actuality. Gilad “the Mooch” Bendor, tall and lanky, has an uncanny ability to seek out food. He’s switching majors from philanthropy to commerce this year. Daniel “McNaimer-chuck” Naimer seems to be the most straight-laced of the group, but since he’s a political science major, you can’t really tell – he could go either way.
And the chemistry helps. Wegner provides the needed radio presence and brings them back on track if they stray too far off topic. Gross gets in the digs and argues uproariously. All, however, possess an amazing compendium of hockey knowledge that can only be attributed to constant study.
After Wegner’s intro, they start off the Thursday episode with a discussion about the game the Habs had played two nights earlier.
“The Chicago Blackhawks, first time they’ve been in the city for awhile,” says Wenger. “I think it always conjures up good feelings to see an Original Six team in the Bell Centre.”
The pair talk about the injuries in the Blackhawks’ club before breaking into their first argument, this one over the merits of goaltender Patrick Lalime. “To be blunt,” says Wenger, “he’s terrible.”
“Whoah, whoah,” Gross breaks in. “Last night he played very well.”
Wenger disagrees, “He doesn’t have any wins this season . . . ,” before Gross interrupts again, “That doesn’t matter. Last night he stole a point for the Hawks.”
Then Gross goes on a tangent, a frequent occurrence on this show. “There’s something weird happening this season. You get all these back-up goaltenders coming into Montreal having these outstanding games.”
Wenger challenges him on it. “Name me one.”
“Mark Denis,” says Gross, instantly.
“Jocelyn Thibault,” adds Bendor, who has kept quiet till now. He normally takes care of the streeter segment of the show, called “The G-report” when he asks random people downtown Montreal their opinions on Habs issues of the day.
“Interesting how they’re all French-Canadians, eh?” says Wenger. “They all come back to Montreal [and] want to impress their parents.”
Gross and Wenger, with the occasional contribution from Bendor and Naimer, move on to topics ranging from the latest news (Carey Price being sent to Hamilton to play in the American Hockey League, the record-breaking contract Alex Ovechkin signed with the Washington Capitals), to players’ quirks (“Have you seen Bertuzzi recently in interviews? He talks with his mouth closed because he’s lost all of his teeth,” comments Gross), play style (“As soon as [Cristobel] Huet leaves the crease, bad things happen,” says Wenger), and ability (“Latendresse can’t skate for sh*&” says Gross.”)
The real start of their popular appeal can be traced to a single podcast in November 2006. After their seventh show, “Vote Latendresse for President” the content manager at iTunes Canada, Lane Dunlop, contacted them. “I’d love to feature you on the front page of iTunes. If you ever change your logo so there isn’t a cigarette on it, let me know and I’ll put you on the main page. Go Habs!”
Their logo – minus the dangling cigarette – and a button linked to their site was put on the front page of iTunes. Five days later they were the number four podcast in Canada. The number of downloads skyrocketed.
Dunlop said this week that what originally caught his attention about
HabsCast was “the passion and knowledge they brought to each podcast. It’s an enjoyable listen.”
For the remainder of the season, they were the second most downloaded podcast in all of Canada, surpassed only by National Geographic, and the number-one sports podcast in Canada. Since then, they’ve come down a bit, but are still rated 15th among sports and recreation podcasts in Canada. “We owe everything to that guy from Apple,” says Wenger.
They’ve since been mentioned on La Presse’s online site, linked to the Sports Illustrated online edition and Wenger has been interviewed by the CBC. They are also affiliated with Habsworld.net, a major source of amateur writers on the Habs. But, sadly, they can’t report receiving any negative feedback.
“No hate mail,” says Gross, ruefully. “We beg people to send us hate mail, even set up an address called ihatedonaldfaimer@gmail.com [Naimer’s other pseudonym], but nothing.” He still holds out hope.
Although faithful-to-the-death Habs fans (rumour has it that when Gross was young enough not to know better he rooted for the Leafs), they respect the game enough to admit when things are going badly.
In one posting following a Leafs-Habs game, they had to admit the following about their beloved team, “The Habs were out-skated, out-hit, out-shot, out-everything-ed. It’s always embarrassing to lose to the Maple Leafs, but to lose to them without their Captain and starting goalie makes it even more painful . . . Tears are rolling down my face . . . Seriously.”
You can catch the drama after nearly every Montreal Canadiens game at www.habscast.com where Concordia’s most devoted Habs-fans will keep you entertained and informed. Hopefully, you’ll even be enraged enough to send in some hate mail.

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