The very first standup of her broadcast career was a dream. The backdrop: a hit between periods on “Hockey Night in Canada,” the country’s legendary broadcast.
It was live in Toronto, and yes, on a Saturday night. She wore a dress for the occasion. Her hair was in pigtails. She scribbled out the script herself.
Zenon, her father, captured it all with his camcorder.
This kid was going places.
“Hello, everyone,” said 5-year-old Sophia Jurksztowicz, “welcome to ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ … I’m Sophia … These are your hockey highlights …”
And, well, it went off the rails pretty quickly from there. Little Sophia, standing in the family room that night with the “HNIC” broadcast glowing on the 15-inch TV behind her, stared into the camera and said Eric Lindros played for the Oilers. Umm, no. Doug Gilmour and Steve Yzerman did something for someone. Right? Maybe.
Preschoolers with big broadcast dreams don’t get caught up in annoying details.
“I just made up all the names I’d heard,” a laughing Jurksztowicz recalled the other day, some 30 years after first feeling the embrace of the bright lights.
Jurksztowicz arrived here in the Hub of Hockey three years ago this September as NESN’s bright and sprightly host/reporter for Bruins broadcasts. Born in Toronto to Polish emigrants (Zenon, 82, and Anna, 76), she is fluent in Polish, French, English, and most important for her job, all hockey dialects.
“Learned hockey, and all sports, from my dad, really,” she said, recalling that Zenon, an avid tennis and soccer fan as a kid in Poland, watched TV sports as a means to learn English after arriving in Canada in the early 1970s. “I kind of grew up watching the Blue Jays and the Toronto Maple Leafs on his lap, all the time. Dad, me, and my sister Lilli.”
Few in the media business, even those proficient from the age of pigtails, enjoy a direct path to their lifetime goal. Jurksztowicz (yurk-shto-vitch) is a classic example, her dream interrupted her senior year in high school, just when she had her heart set on going to college, majoring in journalism, and finding her way to a broadcast set somewhere other than the family living room.
“I’d forgotten all about that tape, to be honest,” she recalled. “So when I told my parents early on in high school that I wanted to go into broadcasting — like this was some revelation, right? — they said, ‘Well, yeah, we’ve always known that.’ Then they showed me the tape, and wow, it hit me, oh my gosh … I‘d wanted this forever.”
Jurksztowicz’s slightly circuitous path to success may be particularly poignant now for graduating high school seniors, some of whom, for any number of reasons, already find themselves angst-ridden over where their career path is or isn’t headed.
Maybe they don’t have the money to go to college. Or maybe, as is often the case, they didn’t get into the college that was their first or second choice. At age 18, not getting into the “right” school can feel like getting hit by a knockout punch before the fight starts.
The message from Jurksztowicz: Relax.
The morning it all began to go sideways for Jurksztowicz started with a stop at the Coffee Tree around the corner from home. It was her mother’s request. Sophia knew something wasn’t right.
“Polish immigrants don’t go out for coffee,” recalled Jurksztowicz, thinking back to the fall of her senior year. “You have coffee at home, so you don’t need to go pay for it. I was freaked out, thinking, like, ‘Why the hell is Mom taking me out for coffee?’ ”
A highly motivated student with solid grades at Bishop Allen Academy, Jurksztowicz was in the thick of applying to Ryerson University in Toronto. Most of her pals were applying at other Toronto schools or elsewhere in Canada.
“ ‘I know you are applying for universities … I know you are very career-driven … and you want to do well … all your friends are going and you want to be in the same place and time with them,’ ” Jurksztowicz said, recalling her mother’s words that morning, “ ‘but your father and I think you shouldn’t go to school for a few years.’ ”
A typical teenager, Jurksztowicz responded, “Uhhh … what?!”
Mom and Dad, said Jurksztowicz, firmly believed life was a better teacher at that stage and school could wait. She already was fluent in Polish. When she was 10, her parents had put her alone on a flight to Poland to spend the summer with relatives and immerse further in the language.
“That was something,” she recalled. “Get off a plane, age 10, and look for someone you don’t know, holding your name on a card.”
So go back to Europe, her mother told her that day at the coffee shop, and become fluent in another language. Go to France. Go to Italy. Go wherever you like for at least two years and then think about school.
Really, two years? It was presented as nonnegotiable. But Jurksztowicz, in a bit of crisis negotiation, talked her mother and father down to a year.
Just weeks after high school graduation, she was on her way to France, hired by a couple in Saint-Tropez to be a live-in nanny for their 2-year-old son.
“They wanted Noé out of the house all day on Sundays, mainly so they could recover from their parties the night before,” noted Jurksztowicz. “Saint-Tropez is yacht-friendly, but really not so kid-friendly, not a lot of parks and such. It was hard to find things to do on a Sunday morning.”
The local Catholic church provided safe harbor and respite for an hour or two each Sunday. Jurksztowicz and Noé would sit in the pew for Mass, the boy transfixed by the choir and the music. It really resonated with him. Jurksztowicz returned recently and found out that Noé, now 20, often plays the organ for services in that same Saint-Tropez church.
In only a matter of weeks, Jurksztowicz said, she was fluent in her new language, to the point of dreaming in it. By the following fall, slightly less than a year later, she was back home in Toronto, enrolled at Ryerson, where she earned her degree in the school of radio and TV arts.
Roughly a dozen years after returning from France, and after myriad broadcast jobs that included a brief run appearing on the real “Hockey Night in Canada,” she landed here in Boston with NESN.
She heads out the door each day for work delighted to fulfill a dream she began to conjure while watching Leafs games on Saturday night propped on her father’s lap.
“Mom and Dad were right — our life doesn’t start and end, necessarily, with high school if you don’t get into where you want to go and all that,” Jurksztowicz said, recounting the message long ago imparted by Zenon and Anna. “They trusted I’d come back and apply myself, but with a whole different perspective on how I wanted to do things, what I wanted to do.”
School’s out and life is just beginning for so many kids. The journey, even sometimes with its unexpected turns, is what makes the destination.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.