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TSN’s James Duthie. (Hand-out/TSN)
TSN’s James Duthie. (Hand-out/TSN)

David Shoalts

James Duthie spurns overtures from Rogers to stay with TSN Add to ...

After taking a punch to the gut when Rogers Communications Inc. won the NHL’s Canadian national broadcast and digital rights, TSN earned a morale-boosting victory when James Duthie spurned an aggressive overture from Rogers.

The popular host of the all-sports cable channel’s game-night telecasts elected to stay with TSN, and signed a new, long-term contract even though the future for hockey on the network is uncertain outside of some regional NHL games.

TSN also hung on to two more of its key hockey broadcasters – Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger – when their existing long-term contracts were torn up and both men signed new, more lucrative long-term deals.

The moves were recently announced to staff in the TSN newsroom in an attempt to boost morale at the company, which saw its dominance of NHL broadcasts in Canada end when Rogers agreed to pay the NHL $5.2-billion for the rights over 12 years beginning next season.

TSN is also negotiating new contracts with analyst Pierre LeBrun, who is the most prominent figure on the hockey panels after Dreger and McKenzie, as well as play-by-play broadcaster Chris Cuthbert and analyst Aaron Ward. (LeBrun and Cuthbert have told TSN executives they plan to stay.)

But the important win for BCE Inc.-owned TSN was hanging on to Duthie, 47. He is considered the best host among all of the networks carrying NHL games, and with the number of games TSN will carry next season plunging, none of his colleagues would have blamed him for jumping ship.

Sources close to TSN said Rogers came at Duthie hard, letting him know money would not be a problem.

However, a formal offer was never presented, likely because Rogers was not in position to do so until its new deal with the NHL was approved by the league’s board of directors this week. By then, Duthie had decided to stay at TSN.

Duthie declined to comment, saying in an e-mail message: “All that matters is that I will be staying at TSN.”

Scott Moore, president of broadcast at Rogers Media, said in an e-mail message: “We have not made any offers to talent yet. We’ve made it very clear to anyone who has asked that we don’t plan on making any offers until we have our structure in place.”

The attempted raid should make the next meeting of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. board of directors, scheduled for early in the new year, rather interesting.

Rogers and BCE each hold 37.5 per cent of the parent company of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs – and the tension that already existed between the communications competitors was ratcheted up when Rogers swiped the NHL contract out from under BCE.

Battles on several NHL fronts lie ahead for Rogers and BCE in the wake of the stunning decision by the NHL to go with Rogers.

While Rogers already has regional broadcast contracts with four of the seven Canadian NHL teams – the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers are on long-term deals, while the Maple Leafs will be shared with TSN beginning in 2015-16 – a couple of contracts are up next summer.

The bidding is expected to be fierce for the regional rights to Ottawa Senators games and the French-language rights to Montreal Canadiens games.

Aside from its portion of Leafs games (it will get 26 in 2015-16), TSN has the Canadiens regional English-language rights and the Winnipeg Jets regional package. The network also carries the world junior hockey championship and is expected to challenge Rogers’s hold on the rights to CHL games.

It is no surprise Cuthbert plans to stay with TSN because, in addition to his hockey duties, he is the network’s No. 1 play-by-play man for CFL games. Another TSN broadcaster who is sitting pretty is hockey analyst Ray Ferraro, whose contract is up this summer. He is considered the best game analyst in hockey and is expected to be wooed by Rogers.

One way TSN expects to fill the void in its schedule left by the loss of hockey is with the NFL. It owns the league’s Canadian rights and is planning to make Sunday all-football, with three NFL games (two in the afternoon and one in the evening), plus pre- and postgame shows.

Such a move may force the CFL in turn to change its schedule since it plays some games on Sundays, and TSN is its sole television partner.

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