It's fair to say that, as successful as they were, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver did not start off on the right foot. The first big story of the 2010 Games was the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a sliding accident. For James Duthie, playing host at his first Olympics for CTV and TSN with Lisa LaFlamme, it was a jolt of reality.
"Lisa and I were the first ones coming on the air after the accident," Duthie said before embarking for the Olympics in London. "And I had to take a deep breath and go back to all I learned in the days at journalism school and hosting the local news in Ottawa. As terrible as the news was, I enjoyed that responsibility of being live with the story. I loved the juice of doing my job."
For TV viewers who associate the 46-year-old with panels for NHL on TSN, discussing no-touch icing and salary cap ceilings, anchoring an event as big as the Vancouver Olympics was a bracing moment. Could the jock pull off the serious story, especially when seated next to a pro such as LaFlamme? In the end, Duthie was just fine, helping to put the tragic story in context. His training doing news in Ottawa kicked in.
It also put his seeming popularity at TSN in perspective. "We sometimes forget we're not the centre of the universe in sports. Over 60 per cent of the population never watches TSN. I know this because I used to do local TV in Ottawa, and people still come up to my parents and say, 'What happened to your son? He was so good doing the local news in Ottawa.'
"So I guess my training helped. It was fun to do something else. Hockey can be a tunnel. It was important to me that I not just be the guy who talks about whose power play is the best? That's why I treasured the experience to cover other stories in Vancouver."
Anchoring the CTV-TSN afternoon (in Canada) coverage is a bonus for the Ottawa native. "I was an Olympic geek when I was younger," he laughs. "I was 10 years old in 1976, and I was at the cottage for Greg Joy [high] jumping in the Montreal Games. I was so nervous I hid in the cottage bathroom so I couldn't see it. I think that's when my parents knew I had a problem when it came to sports."
The challenge for CTV and TSN doing the Summer Games will be managing Canadian fans' expectations, which are sky-high after the national euphoria in Vancouver.
"The high of Vancouver is going to come back, I think, when the Olympics start. I'm not trying to be the CTV hype guy here. There's going to be an adjustment when fans realize Canada's not going to win everything like they seemed to do in Vancouver. A few days in, some people will be going, 'Where are all the golds?'
"But the story-telling is going to be different. The [Michael] Phelps story and the [Usain] Bolt story will tell themselves. It'll be an adjustment, but there will be a positive buzz. The homework is 10 times that of the Winter Olympics, and that's been the tough part. I started last fall doing a couple hours of research a week to get ahead, but then April came [the NHL playoffs], and that was it. I shut the books. Now I'm cramming."
For Duthie, who has won three Gemini Awards for his work on TSN, the personal point of reference will be in the pool. "My 10-year-old daughter Darian is a competitive swimmer, and the fact that she's really going to be into that will be fun. I took her to the national swimming awards, so she's pumped to see the guys compete. (I'm getting into the whole swimming thing. Every week, 'What's your time?' For a hockey guy it's very different, the waits between the heats.)"
"Plus Rod Smith's calling the swimming for us, and he's got the best lungs. I think I'll be on the air for the finals of a lot of these events, so I don't know if I'll see anything live. But I'll be watching closely."
The payoff, Duthie says, will come in those random encounters with fans after the Games. "I hope I can get grandmothers in grocery stores who've never seen trade deadline day saying you did a great job."
Onrait's Magical Misery Tour: Can someone please please anesthetize Duthie's TSN colleague Jay Onrait? His performance so far from England has plumbed new depths, even for him. Typically, Onrait is on mugging and preening in the middle of the night when he can easily be avoided. But it appears he will be thrust into time slots during the Olympics when people seeking sports news cannot avoid his Rowan-Atkinson-on-ludes routine. Tuesday it was shaking hands outside parliament with people wearing cardboard cutout faces. We would say his manic self absorption is community access calibre but community access supporters would be upset.
Paterno Apologists: We should all get the benefit of the doubt from sports media that disgraced Penn State head coach Joe Paterno is still receiving after his look-the-other-way performance on the sexual abuse of children by his defensive co-ordinator Jerry Sandusky. Typical was reporter Bonnie Bernstein on The Dan Patrick Show this week, evoking Paterno's graduation rates of Penn State football and his impact on young men as mitigating factors. This would be the sports version of "Mussolini made the trains run on time" argument in which a dim witted sports type cannot understand that allowing sexual predators to roam your football team versus performing his job (getting kids into classrooms) operate on entirely different moral planes.
Ditto the Penn State apologists suggesting Paterno's statue should remain on public view as a "teaching point." "Hey son, here's the Graham James statue to remind us not to sexually abuse young men." Please.