Millard’s career path meant to be

(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun)

Daren Millard still doesn’t quite believe his good fortune.

The 49-year-old broadcaster from Brandon has covered Olympic Games and professional sports in 20 years at Sportsnet and now works for the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights. Once a kid fascinated by the Brandon Sun sports pages, he admits it’s hard to comprehend all the experiences he’s enjoyed.

“Being able to work in Las Vegas and be part of this organization and being able to interact with people like Kelly (McCrimmon) and (head coach) Pete DeBoer or (former head coach) Gerard Gallant or (former Brandon Wheat King and current Vegas player) Mark Stone, it’s still surreal. I’ll never get over how fortunate I am.

“I came from a great place, an incredible, awesome city to grow up in, but when you compare it to the bright lights of Vegas, you still pinch yourself. Every day almost I go ‘Really? I live here? Really, I work for a National Hockey League team. It’s really cool, even after the Sportsnet time.”

Millard grew up in Brandon’s east end with brothers Dean and twin Derek, and parents Jim and Jean. He keeps a picture of the water tower and a painted landscape of the area in his Las Vegas home.

His path into his current career started early.

“I had a passion for sports,” Millard said. “I just loved playing everything, baseball, hockey, badminton in school, I just loved it. I loved sports and watching the highlights and getting the scores.”

He remembers listening to current Wheat Kings director of business operations and sponsorships Rick Dillabough deliver the sports on CKLQ, and watching the guys on CKX-TV and thinking how neat that job would be.

He also delivered the Brandon Sun, and everyone on his route received their paper a little late on Tuesdays because that’s the day extended National Hockey League statistics were published, and he needed to see them first.

In 1984, he remembers the family going camping while the Olympics were on, and they happened to bring a television.

“My parents were mad at me so much because all I did all day was sit in the camper and watch the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles,” Millard said.

He developed an early attraction to handling the microphone when he announced goals at his brother’s hockey games. As a teenager, he played a bit with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Dauphin Kings, and since players either had to be in school or have a job, Millard helped out the radio guy.

He also established Dillabough as a mentor after his mother reached out to him on Daren’s behalf, and the veteran broadcaster shared the benefit of his experience with the youngster.

“That was huge growing up, having someone who would give you the honest facts and advice,” Millard said.

That provided inspiration to Millard that he could one day be in their shoes, as did the success of earlier Brandon broadcasters such as Jim Hughson and Dean Jago.

After graduating from Crocus Plains, Millard attended Western Academy Broadcasting College in Saskatoon.

He achieved one of his early dreams when he was hired at CKLQ in 1990, joining Darren Dreger in the sports department. Dreger served as the play-by-play broadcaster on Wheat Kings games, with Millard doing colour and all of the pre-game, post-game and intermission hosting.

“It was as important to me doing those games as working in the National League,” Millard said. “It was nerve-racking, it was a privilege, it was big-league.”

When the team went on the road, Millard stayed behind to do the morning sports, which gave him a larger role.

The pair spent two seasons together, the 1991-92 campaign when the team won just 11 games and earned 28 points, and the 1992-93 season when Brandon made the largest turnaround in Canadian Hockey League by piling up 90 points as it went 43-25-4.

“The experience you got interviewing players and coaches and managers and people like (head coach) Bobby Lowes or Kelly was a real eye opener,” Millard said. “You were intimidated to talk to some of these people and coaches you’ve heard of forever but you were thrust into it. It was awesome.

Daren Millard gestures to the crowd as master of ceremonies at the Brandon Wheat Kings’ annual Sportsman’s Dinner at the Keystone Centre in 2019.
PERRY BERGSON/THE BRANDON SUN – Daren Millard gestures to the crowd as master of ceremonies at the Brandon Wheat Kings’ annual Sportsman’s Dinner at the Keystone Centre in 2019.

“I still remember standing outside the Wheat Kings dressing room waiting for Trevor Robins or Jeff Hoad and thinking ‘This is the best job in the world.’”

In the 1991-92 season, McCrimmon was a 31-year-old general manager who hadn’t yet tasted the remarkable success to come. But Millard was quickly impressed by the young executive.

“Kelly always had a presence,” Millard said. “I was barely older than the players. That was the other unique thing, I was basically interviewing guys that I already know, certainly the Brandon guys. Even though Kelly was young at the time, he was still old and wise and experienced in my books.”

Millard already knew McCrimmon a bit.

The Millard family billeted a Wheat Kings player after Daren moved away, and when he returned the player was still living there. He wasn’t the most responsible young man, and when Millard was heading out late with his friends, he would see McCrimmon parked across the street.

“I would get into my car on the way out and Kelly would be sitting across the street waiting for the player to come in,” Millard said with a chuckle. “I’d say ‘Hi Crim’ and he would say “Hi Millard’ and off we would go. It’s funny with where we are now that we had those formative years in our relationship.”

After two years at CKLQ, Millard made a fateful decision when a six-month term position opened up at CKX-TV. He jumped on the opportunity, even if it wasn’t a popular decision at home.

“My mom almost shot me because I left a great job at CKLQ with Dreger,” Millard said. “We had a great run and knew exactly what we were doing with the Wheat Kings and all the other sports. It was a really stable, solid job and I left it for a six-month term position to do television.

“I just took a chance. I always wanted to do TV.”

CKX producer Trevor Pilling, who went on to become one of the top sports producers in Canada, took a chance on Millard, who had never done any television.

He had also become friends with CKND sports announcer Gene Principe, who was well known in Manitoba’s sports community for the sometimes irreverent nightly 30-minute sports show he did with Joe Pascucci called Sportsline.

It turned out Millard was a natural in front of the camera, and just two months into his CKX television career, he was hired by CKND’s Brian Swain in 1994.

Millard hosted sports on CKND’s show at 6 p.m., but also helped out on Sportsline.

“We got to do whatever we wanted on that show,” Millard said. “It was the best.”

They stretched the envelope with stories you probably wouldn’t get away with now, including an April Fool’s joke that the San Jose Sharks used an illegal player and the Winnipeg Jets were now in the playoff hunt.

“That one didn’t go over very well,” Millard said with a chuckle.

After four years in Winnipeg, he headed to Edmonton in 1998 and a couple of months later, a new network called Sportsnet came calling on the urging of his friend Dreger, who had already been hired.

That meant a quick move to Toronto and a new chapter that would last two decades, making him a well-known national broadcaster. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.

“I was a total fish out of water,” Millard said of the move. “It’s big, I don’t have any friends, we’re starting this up.”

On top of that, the new venture was widely expected to fail in the industry. Millard said his time at CKND provided experience that proved useful as Sportsnet tried to present unique content and forge its own identity.

He was able to cover professional sports and also the Salt Lake, Vancouver and London Olympic Games. More importantly, he met his wife Jennifer in the press box at the Air Canada Centre at a Toronto Maple Leafs game.

On Aug. 1, 2018, however, the network announced that Millard was leaving after they declined to extend his contract.

Daren Millard grew up in Brandon’s east end.
Daren Millard grew up in Brandon’s east end.

“I struggled with it,” Millard said. “I was disappointed and angry because I didn’t see it coming at the time. The contract was up and I thought we had preliminary discussions on a new contract. Two years later, I’m absolutely in a great place and living out an opportunity to work for a team, which I always wanted to do but probably never would have done.”

Millard said he didn’t think he was stale or needing a change but it came anyway.

A year later, Millard was hired by the Golden Knights. But during the break, he started a podcast called The Chirp With Daren Millard. In the first 41 episodes, which vary in length from 19 to 78 minutes, he has spoken to a wide range of hockey and media personalities.

“Of all the things that you miss when you’re not in the loop anymore, and you’re watching the world go on around without you, I missed performing,” Millard said. “That rush of being behind a desk or microphone, interviewing people or calling games so I invented The Chirp.”

Millard said it has become one of the things he’s proudest of in his career.

“I’ve performed for people, for bosses, for audiences, you’re always doing it for the masses,” Millard said. “The Chirp is purely, selfishly for me. I love doing it.”

The opportunity in Las Vegas has also been a godsend.

He had gotten to know Golden Knights staff since hosting the 2017 expansion draft, and last August was offered a job.

“I jumped at it, having watched the organization and knowing how professional they are,” Millard said. “Having the chance to work with Kelly I was looking forward to, even though I knew that I wouldn’t see him or be around him a lot. You just have that trust factor when you know there is someone you’re close with and respect there. It was perfect timing.”

After completing the immigration paperwork, Millard moved to Las Vegas. His wife Jennifer and their two adopted daughters, aged 15 and 10, arrived later and have embraced the experience.

His family is currently enjoying their cabin in Prince Edward Island, while Millard remains at work in Las Vegas.

“It’s the biggest small town I’ve ever been a part of,” Millard said. “There are two million-plus people here and it’s just so small and easy to get around. It’s nothing what you think with the strip. You can live a very suburban life here.”

His job involves hosting Vegas games on AT&T Sportsnet, a network that offers regional sports channels in the U.S. He also goes to the rink every day for practice to get content for the web.

“It’s different,” Millard said. “You definitely have to manage your time a little bit more. There’s more to it than me just showing up in the studio and doing the game for two teams I might not see again for two weeks. It’s the same team every night so you have to find creative ways to talk about your team and tell different stories.”

Prior to going to Vegas, Millard was offered a unique opportunity at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

At the Olympics, there is a host broadcaster, plus national rights holders from around the globe. At the ground level, the International Olympic Committee runs Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), which provides material to other outlets that might not have the resources to cover the Games as closely as a large broadcaster like NBC.

Millard would have been a neutral media member doing interviews and stories for a single sport, which hadn’t been assigned to him yet when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the starting date of the Games to 2021.

He received the opportunity because Pilling, who gave him his start in television at CKX, was doing the hiring for OBS.

“I still plan to go do it next year,” Millard said. “Hopefully it works out. I’m really excited, I love the Olympic Games. I’ve covered both summer and winter Games and it’s a fascinating event.”

He can only hope he enjoys is as much as an appearance he made on Feb. 6, 2019.

His last public appearance in Brandon came at the Sportsman’s Dinner when he served as emcee. With his father in the crowd, Millard had a terrific time.

“It was a thrill,” Millard said. “When I worked in Brandon at CKLQ, I would go to those events and watch the celebrities come through, and the high profile emcees, whether it was Ron MacLean or people of that ilk, and I would sit in the crowd.

“For me, to be able to host that event and stand beside Kelly, who I consider a really good friend now all these years later and come full circle, was amazing.”

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