Jay Onrait talks for a living, but he’s been unusually quiet for the past couple of years. Since February, 2021, when he lost his long-time co-conspirator Dan O’Toole to a round of Bell Media budget cuts, the late-night TSN highlights show host has held off speaking with the media. But this week, as Onrait, 49, kicks off another season of what is now known as SC with Jay Onrait, the wiry live-wire hopped on a call as he was driving from his home in the west end of Toronto, where he lives with his wife and their eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, to TSN’s studios in Scarborough, in the northeast part of Toronto.
Why was he finally ready to break his silence? “I think I’m just at the point that enough time has passed, that I feel like I won’t say anything too stupid,” he replied with a laugh.
Barbie or Oppenheimer?
There’s a part in Barbie where the Kens have taken over and they’re explaining to the Barbies about all the things that make up man culture – one is talking about The Godfather, and how important Robert Evans was to the studio system in the seventies, the kind of thing that guys say to girls and they just roll their eyes. And then someone mentioned Stephen Malkmus and his lyrical style, and Pavement – and Stephen Malkmus and Pavement are my favourite. You know, I just saw them at Massey Hall on their reunion tour, and they’re probably in my top five bands of all time. And it was like hearing yourself on screen be ripped apart for your own ideologies, and actually agreeing with the takedown. It was a sobering moment for me. So yeah, I’m less inclined now to inundate my wife with talk about why she should be listening to Pavement and Destroyer and all these bands that I force her to listen to.
What is your idea of joy?
It was this summer. And it’s such a cliché, but I feel like I’m lucky because I had kids at the right time for someone like me to have kids. Which is to mean that I was not mature enough to have them any sooner than I did, and I really appreciate everything about them now.
I was out in Kelowna, [B.C.,] with my parents and my sister and her family, and each day I said to myself, This is great, it doesn’t get any better than this. I think I read a Kurt Vonnegut quote … but it was just like, ‘If I’m not going to be happy now, then when am I going to be happy?’ Now I’m back at work, so who knows? Maybe it’ll be snatched away for me!
What is your idea of misery?
The stuff in Ukraine really bothers me. I grew up in [Athabasca], a very prominently Ukrainian community in Alberta. And when you grow up, you don’t realize how interesting the place you grew up in is, right? It’s just where you grew up. So I thought every community in the country had perogies and cabbage rolls at every community supper. And in fact, no, that wasn’t the case. It was just the Prairies. And so it just absolutely devastates me to see this war going on. I’m amazed how much it bothers me on a day-to-day basis.
Who are your favourite writers?
This summer I became a massive fan of Haruki Murakami. I love the dreamlike state that I go into as I read his books. It’s almost like being on drugs. I also read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. It made me feel like I was back in first year at University of Alberta, English, trying to read Not Wanted on the Voyage, and having a hard time just deciphering it. Like, I loved it and hated it at the same time. And I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer in 2011, and I just thought that was absolutely terrific. I admire great writers more than almost any artists.
What is your best quality?
It’s probably an overall desire to please people. And I mean that in the context of almost everyone I’m around – in my family and even at work. I think it stems from the fact that I grew up in such a small town. When you grow up in that kind of environment and you’re used to knowing everybody, there’s a little bit of that sense of, I’ve got to get along with everybody.
What is your worst quality?
I’m a little short-tempered. I know I’m a good guy, but I still need to work on that – and that goes with my personal life and it goes at work. I wish I wasn’t that way. Growing up, I was the kind of kid – and I’m the kind of adult – who was in his own head all the time. And I remember thinking to myself, I wish I was happy-go-lucky. Because I think people think that’s who I am, because that’s what I project on TV. But that’s not truly what my personality is. So, yeah, finding my chill – to borrow a millennial/Gen-Z term – has definitely been something I’ve been working on really hard for the last 15 years.
That’s widespread in your industry, because it’s tough to let go of the hard-driving elements that you believe helped get you where you are.
You nailed it. It’s that feeling where – if I lose this edge, I will lose everything. I will lose all aspects of my personality that have made me successful. As you said, in my industry there are a lot of people with this type of personality, where you’re a perfectionist, and be damned to anyone who gets in your way. But there’s nothing more excruciating for me than feeling like I’ve said something or done something, while we’re doing a show, that’s made someone uncomfortable. And as I’m making that drive home from Scarborough to downtown Toronto, just being filled with tons of regret, and lamenting my decisions very quickly after. It’s the worst feeling in the world.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
It’s a cliché, but it’s probably the fact that I have a very happy marriage now and a family, after not doing so well in my first round of marriage. Career-wise, I would say it’s got to be the original run that Dan and I had at TSN [2003-13, before decamping to Los Angeles for a four-year stint at Fox Sports 1], because I’m reminded by people every single day how much we meant to them and how different it was back then.
What is your greatest extravagance?
One thing my ex-wife got me into was modern furniture. She always said, ‘The cheap man pays twice’, and she was absolutely right about that. And so I’m a big fan of Danish midcentury modern furniture. And I’m also a big fan of the modern furniture of the day now. So I will frequently stop in at Mjolk in [the Toronto neighbourhood of] the Junction, and anyone who’s ever been in that store will understand my addiction completely.
The other is – my mom is an artist, and so I grew up around art all the time, and I loved art, and now that I can afford to invest, I do. I try to invest in Canadian art. So I have a couple of Marcel Dzama drawings that are just super precious to me. And if the house burns, I’ll definitely grab them. I’ve got a Robert Genn, I’ve got a Chloe Wise. I’m trying to get artists that are Canadian, and I love contemporary art mixed with a classic old house like we have.
Is there a historical figure you would most like to meet?
Miles Davis. He did lots of bad things – there’s no question. He wasn’t a perfect human being, but he was a great artist. Maybe the greatest artist – it’s either him or Picasso, in my opinion – maybe the greatest artist of the 20th century. You just cannot believe this man’s body of work and his adaptability and just his natural gift. No matter how deep into his catalogue I go, I’m just barely scratching the surface. But he was not an easygoing guy. So maybe part of it is me not always being an easygoing guy, wondering if maybe I could pick his brain a little bit about why he is who he is. But the truth is, he probably wouldn’t have much time for me. And that’s okay.
I’m thinking we headline this ‘Jay Onrait: the Miles Davis of late-night/early morning sports broadcasting.’
I love that idea.