Now Or Never

How NHL commissioner Gary Bettman helped me conquer my fear of stuttering

Sports reporter Ryan Cowley started stuttering when he was six years old. He's faced many of his fears, but one remained: to ask a question in a scrum of reporters.

My career forced me to face the fear that I'll be ignored or ridiculed because of my stutter

Despite his stutter, Ryan Cowley has built a career as a sports reporter. (Eric Van / CBC)

My sports journalism career has provided me with some wonderful opportunities — like covering the Stanley Cup finals or scouting Ontario Hockey League prospects in Mississauga. But my career also forced me to face a big personal fear: that I'll be ignored or ridiculed because of my stutter. 

I didn't start stuttering until I was six. I was always a sensitive kid who believed that the faster I spoke, the less I'd stutter. The less I stuttered, the less impatient people would be with me. Or so I thought.

You see, there were times when I just couldn't get the words out. When people answered the phone, they'd often hang up on me. A few even told me to "talk properly," or to "relax."

As an adult, I've managed to build a career I love as a sports reporter. Thanks to some audio apps, classical music and my headphones, I have overcome my fear of conducting phone interviews. But that left another fear I was determined to conquer — asking a question in a scrum of reporters.

Cowley eagerly awaits his chance to interview NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (Eric Van / CBC)

This November, I had the honour of covering the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony. At the event, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was getting inducted.

This was my moment. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the most powerful men in hockey in front of a scrum of reporters. It was my chance to ask him a question while putting aside my own insecurities about how other reporters — or even Bettman himself — might react if I had difficulty speaking.

In preparation for the interview, I spoke with former NHL left winger Kenndal McArdle, who is also a stutterer. McArdle was kind enough to offer me advice on how he'd handle the situation.

"For myself, to be in a scrum asking Gary a question would be something that would be quite stressful," McArdle said.

"And the way I've approached it is that I have not thought too much about it, not to stress myself out, rather than over-practicing, and trying to rehearse over and over again. It's actually been easier to ad-lib things, and let the cards fall where they may."

As I made my way closer toward Bettman, I knew that this was it. And I knew that regardless of the outcome, I would have a wonderful story to tell.

I'm thrilled to say that my experience speaking with Gary Bettman was successful. He was respectful, a consummate professional. One of the biggest highlights of my journalism career had just taken place.

Ryan Cowley interviews NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (Eric Van / CBC)

I have always loved writing as a way to express myself. What I have trouble saying verbally I make up for through the power of the written word. 

Still, I will always have that chip on my shoulder reminding me of everyone who has ever dismissed me or looked down on me. But to those doubters, I urge them to take a good look at what I've done. Because I know that despite my shortcomings, I have achieved what I set my mind to. It wasn't easy, but I did it.

Ryan Cowley at the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony. (Eric Van / CBC)


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