The first time Gene Principe set out to woo Karen Poganiatz, things didn’t go so well. It was the summer of ’92, at a bar in Winnipeg where Gene had spotted Karen working as a deejay. As he puts it, she looked hot. But alas. “I tried to pick her up and struck out,” admits the host of Oilers’ hockey games on Rogers Sportsnet, who was then early in his broadcast career. And, no, it wasn’t because he tried out one of his infamous puns on her. “I didn’t do those back then,” he insists.
A second encounter months later at a social (a uniquely Winnipeg outing back in the day described by Karen as a cross between hall party and cabaret) gave Gene another opportunity to impress. This one went better. “He walked over and reminded me that he’d asked me out but I’d politely declined. I didn’t remember him, but he was so nice about it and such a gentleman that we ended up talking all night,” she says.
Evidently, they are still talking. Now married for 25 years, the Principes have three grown children and a rescue dog named Patrick at home in northeast Edmonton. Gene, who since 1998 has been the smiling face that TV viewers first see ahead of an Oilers game, is arguably very near the top of any list of most recognizable people in this city. Karen, a former dental hygienist, is a rookie Edmonton city councillor, elected to represent Ward tastawiyiniwak in the fall of 2021. She may not have the same profile as her husband, but give it some time. “After she got in and was on TV and quoted quite a bit, the kids were joking, ‘whoa, Dad, Mom’s moving in on your territory,’” Gene says with a laugh.
Karen Principe’s previous career might not sound like a natural launch pad to politics, but her biggest fan points out she spent years preparing for it as parent to three active kids and tireless neighbourhood volunteer. “Karen likes to help. She’d done it on a person-by-person, team-by-team, event-by-event basis at the kids’ school stuff and all that,” Gene says. “I remember her telling me she wanted to do it on a bigger scale and help as many people as possible.” Karen concurs. “I felt very connected to my community. I just wanted to represent it, and that’s what led me to decide to run for council.” No surprise, Gene was responsible for her pithy campaign slogan: Karen for you.
While Karen is a Manitoba transplant who grew fond of Edmonton after arriving here, Gene was born and raised in the city. He went to St. Joseph Catholic High School and played a number of sports, describing himself as an average to above-average athlete. “I was never the first one picked or the last one picked. I guess that’s the best way to put it,” he says. As a kid, he aspired to a pro soccer career, but after getting cut from the U-16 provincial team he saw the writing on the ball and decided to pursue sports broadcasting instead. Graduating from the radio and TV program at NAIT, he did stints in smaller markets like Grande Prairie, Kamloops and Lethbridge, then moved to Winnipeg and Toronto before returning to Edmonton in 1998 for a job as host of Oilers games, initially on A-Channel for three seasons and, since 2001, on Sportsnet. “We’re still having fun with it,” he says.
Jennifer Rice, who represents Ward ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi, is another first-termer on city council (one of eight elected last fall). She has worked closely with Karen on weighty issues like the City budget over the past year and admires her colleague. “Karen is a very good councillor for two reasons. The first one is integrity. She follows her values and her promise to her supporters. The second one is she is a really good person, a very kind person. It doesn’t matter if she disagrees with your ideas or opinions, she treats everybody very well.”
On that score, the Principes sound very similar. Gene has long been regarded as one of the genuinely nice people in media. “If my son turns out to be more like Gene Principe than me, I’ll be very happy,” says Jack Michaels, Oilers radio and TV play-by-play announcer. He jokes about an episode of Seinfeld where an intimidated Jerry ends up breaking up with a girl because she’s just too good. “That’s kind of Gene. He’s the type of guy where you’re actually looking for something [negative].” But you won’t find it, Michaels hastens to add. “If you don’t like Gene Principe or he turns you off in some way, it’s time to take a long look in the mirror,” he says.
As it’s almost impossible now to separate Gene from his puns, we have to know about the origin of those signature one-liners. It all started, he reveals, with an offhand quip on camera following strong criticism of Gary Bettman by future Hall of Fame defenceman Chris Chelios during the season-long NHL lockout in ’04-05. “Chris is Greek, and so I said something to the effect that Chris is Feta with the commissioner. It was kind of one of those moments when you went, ‘hmm.’”
Though many Oilers’ TV viewers are more likely to groan than go hmm at some Principe puns (and even Karen says there is a lot of eye rolling around the house-hold), Gene has no regrets about his long-running schtick. “Sometimes I know it’s going to be a groaner, and that kind of gives me an extra shot of energy because I go this is going to be terrible and great at the same time.”
Sports is a big bond for the couple. Karen was inspired by the city’s pitch to FIFA for World Cup games in 2026, even though it ultimately failed, and hopes to use her position on council to push Edmonton as a world destination for other major sporting events. “That’s my vision,” she says, “I think we’re a great hosting city.”
Like Gene, who doesn’t even pretend to neutrality the way some local beat reporters do, she is also an unabashed Oilers fan. As the home team prepares to begin another NHL season, building on the success of last spring’s playoffs, both Principes are bullish. “I do feel there is a Cup and parade to be had in Edmonton in the not-too-distant future,” says Gene. Karen agrees. “Next year will be their year,” she predicts.
This article appears in the October 2022 issue of Edify