Co-workers were angry, athletes were dismayed and Canadian sports fans were quick to vent their displeasure yesterday after learning that Chris Cuthbert, one of the country's most respected broadcasters, had been fired by CBC Sports.
Former National Hockey League goaltender Kelly Hrudey, who worked Hockey Night in Canada games with Cuthbert, said he was hurt and saddened over Cuthbert's ousting.
"I feel very much like when I was a player and a good friend was traded from the team," Hrudey said.
Chris Walby, the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive lineman who spent nine seasons covering the Canadian Football League with Cuthbert, went one step further, calling the CBC's decision a mistake.
"It's a sad day," Walby added, "and I wouldn't be surprised if there was an uprising."
There was an indeed an uprising among many in the Canadian sports scene who viewed the CBC's decision to fire Cuthbert as both ridiculous and ill-founded.
Nancy Lee, the head of CBC Sports, terminated Cuthbert's contract on Tuesday, citing budget cuts caused by the cancellation of the NHL season. She described her decision to let Cuthbert go as one of the most difficult she's had to make, but the question asked by those who admired the 47-year-old broadcaster and his work was simply: why him?
Cuthbert had earned universal praise for his NHL play-by-play efforts and won a 1999 Gemini award for his calling of the 1998 Grey Cup game. He handled the rowing and canoe and kayak events at the Athens Summer Olympics and was selected the 2004 broadcaster of the year by Sports Media Canada.
He also had a freelance contract with the CBC that allowed for renegotiation if the NHL cancelled its season. According to the terms of the contract, Cuthbert could have taken a sabbatical until the NHL returned, or his salary, believed to be about $350,000, could have been renegotiated, depending on what he was assigned to cover.
The fact he was fired only weeks before the world figure skating championships (Mark Lee will take over) and three months before the start of the CFL season, which Cuthbert was scheduled to call, is a matter the Canadian Media Guild will be looking into.
"This decision doesn't makes sense," an industry source insisted. "Nancy Lee creates a position [manager of program acquisitions for CBC television sports]in order to hire her friend Sue Prestedge last year, then gets rid of Chris Cuthbert. I know Chris makes more money, but why hire Prestedge when the threat of a lengthy [NHL]lockout was so real?"
Several sources requesting anonymity believed Cuthbert's strong opinions may have rubbed Lee the wrong way. When the CBC chose to drop its popular Hockey Day in Canada broadcast this winter, it is believed Cuthbert disagreed and voiced his concern. The CBC was widely criticized for its decision, then it watched as rival network TSN staged a Hockey Day of its own.
Lee was out of the country and could not be reached for comment yesterday.
News of Cuthbert's firing had been relayed to him by his agent, Elliott Kerr.
"I find it hard to believe [that the cancellation of the NHL season was the reason for his dismissal]" Cuthbert told The Fan 590, a Toronto radio station. "But I have to take her [Lee]at her word. I asked her every other question -- was there some hidden agenda, was it just a personality conflict? This was, for her, the best decision the department could make to solve a financial problem, which I pointed out was curious [because]there was an option of me going away until hockey started and me not costing her a cent."
Cuthbert wasn't the only one left scratching his head as to why the CBC terminated him.
"[Cuthbert's]their No. 1 play-by-play guy on football and their No. 2 guy on hockey," one insider said. "There has to be more to it. You don't do that to your stars. Even with there being no hockey, for your top guys, you find things."
Cuthbert, who had spent 20 years at the CBC, was respected for his passion and versatility. He called the controversial figure skating events involving David Pelletier and Jamie Salé at the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002 and covered the races in which kayaker Adam Van Koeverden won gold and bronze medals as Canada's outstanding performer at the Athens Olympics.
"I always enjoyed working with Chris," said Van Koeverden, who presented Cuthbert with the 2004 award for broadcaster of the year. "He's been respectful of amateur athletes and makes a sport -- one that sometimes can seem boring -- seem more exciting with his energy."
Rower Barney Williams, who won a silver medal in the men's four in Athens, said he was struck by the fact Cuthbert never played the celebrity when dealing with athletes.
"He came in low, saying, 'I want to learn about it,' " Williams said. "When he did his performances, you listened to him and you'd think he knew the sport inside and out and he's probably never been in a boat before. To hear [that he was let go]is really frustrating. He was a really big asset for our sport."
CFL commissioner Tom Wright said he wasn't aware of the CBC's economics, but was certain that losing Cuthbert "from the CFL's perspective, it's a blow. I've always had the highest regard for Chris and his work on the Grey Cups, the playoffs and the regular-season games he does. His credibility brings a lot of credibility to our game.
"Those kinds of credible voices are few and far between."
Canadian sports fans also expressed their disapproval over Cuthbert's ousting. Calls, e-mail messages and faxes were sent to the CBC as well as The Globe and Mail. One fan asked how he could organize "a mass protest against Nancy Lee."
Another wrote that he will never again watch the CBC, even when the NHL returns.