Cuthbert humbled by support
TORONTO — For the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation it’s all about money. For Chris Cuthbert it was never about money.
It was about the work. It was about sports. It was about being part of a team.
And when he initially began his CBC odyssey 21 years ago, it was about something as simple as a jacket.
“That was my goal in my career, to wear a powder-blue jacket,” said Cuthbert referring to the old Hockey Night In Canada uniforms that were so popular when he broke into the ranks in 1984. Despite looking like something comedian Will Ferrell wore in “Anchorman,” the coat was as much a symbol of sporting excellence for journalists, as the Maple Leaf was for hockey players. “I wasn’t hip and I wasn’t much of a fashion guy, but if I could wear that powder-blue jacket everything was going to be good in my career and that’s why it’s heartbreaking to think that that part of it is over.”
If you haven’t heard, Cuthbert’s contract was terminated this week. After more than two decades of loyal service, the 47-year-old award-winning broadcaster was unceremoniously dumped. He wasn’t even given the courtesy of a phone call. Instead he had to hear of his dismissal from his agent and in a letter, written by boss Nancy Lee, delivered surreptitiously via courier to his Brampton, ON home.
For Cuthbert it was worse than a punch in the gut.
“It was a kick a little lower than the gut,” said the Saskatchewan native, who read that his newly unemployed status was due to the NHL lockout, that has cost the CBC millions in lost revenues. Lee, who was conveniently an ocean away in Italy when Cuthbert was sacked, finally got around to calling her former employee a full day later.
“We obviously disagreed on the merits of her decision,” downplayed Cuthbert, who admitted his head is still swimming. “She insisted it was the most logical financial decision that she could make because of the lockout and what I was trying to point out was that in my contract we had anticipated a lockout and there was a renegotiation clause there that was the answer to that problem. The worst-case scenario was for me to be asked to go away and come back when hockey resumed and I could take a sabatical and it wouldn’t have cost them anything.”
Sounds reasonable, so why didn’t the network see it that way? It’s hard to imagine the CBC risking the mutiny of an entire sports department over a few hundred thousand dollars. Especially after morale was already at an all-time low from the loss of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 30 other layoffs in the department.
It was reported in the Globe and Mail that Cuthbert makes a little more than $300,000. While Cuthbert refutes the Globe’s figure, he admits he was well compensated.
“I do make a great living and part of the reason I do earn a high salary is that I’m technically a contract freelancer for CBC Sports and I’ve had opportunities to do other work and they have denied me access to that work, invoking exclusivity, and so they have actually paid me not to do other things.
“That salary could have been a lot lower, had they allowed me to do work elsewhere. You get what the market gives and they were the ones that actually ramped it up to satisfy their demands of exclusivity.”
Sounds eerily familiar to the NHL situation. And like hockey players, Cuthbert was even willing to give back some of his salary during these economically depressed, hockeyless times. And it’s not as though Cuthbert didn’t make significant sacrifices for the job. You try being on the road for 45 of 52 weekends a year and see if it doesn’t take a toll on your family life. Over the years his wife, Dianne, has basically had to raise their two kids, Jennifer and Justin, by herself.
“There’s been an investment for her too, a trust that has been breached and I think from her perspective that’s something that she has a right to be as angry about as I do. We’re fine, but it certainly resonates hard.”
What seems clear is that his employers don’t care and just wanted to trim some fat and for whatever reason his head was first on the chopping block.
Some have suggested Cuthbert made himself more of a target because he voiced his opposition to the brass’s decision to cancel the popular Hockey Day in Canada segment. Or maybe he just wasn’t hip enough for a public broadcaster desperately trying to appeal to the internet generation.
“If you were telling me George Stroumboulopoulos is replacing me, then yes, George probably could do it,” laughs Cuthbert. “It’s a funny question, because on HNIC I’m one of the younger guys, which maybe is a statement about the show. I hate to speak condescendingly of my teammates at HNIC, but the only guy who may be hip among the whole group is Cherry.”
One thing is for sure, Cuthbert’s ouster has severely affected the mood of his colleagues at the CBC, especially in the embattled sports department.
“I think most of us are devastated to be honest with you,” said HNIC analyst Greg Millen, Cuthbert’s partner in the booth. “I’m disappointed, but my hope is that there’s some sort of a window and he can come back on our team, but at the moment that’s not the case.”
Millen, who has been toughened to the business side of sports from his days as an NHL goalie, was still reeling from his friend’s dismissal. He likened it to when former teammate Ron Francis was traded from the Hartford Whalers.
“I’ve played with a lot of players and I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of terrific people, and in terms of character and passion and work ethic and commitment to his job, to his employers, to his fellow workers, he’s right up at the top of the list,” insisted Millen, who travelled constantly with Cuthbert during the NHL season and even without hockey still talks to him two-three times a week. “We’ve shared a lot of different things together over the years, personally, and have been very close in terms of our families. We have kids the same age and we’ve certainly compared notes and it’s been a wonderful experience for me.”
To that end Millen is not surprised by the outcry over Cuthbert, on behalf of the media, players and fans. Millen described Cuthbert as possessing a rare ability – for someone who never played hockey professionally – to understand the sport’s intricacies and nuances. It was that ability and Cuthbert’s trademark humility, that made fans out of players like Millen.
It’s what made prominent sports people like former CFL star Chris Walby, Olympic medallist Adam van Koeverden, Ottawa Senators CEO Roy Mlakar and NHLPA executive chairman Bob Goodenow send their condolences in the days since Cuthbert was let go.
“They say when you give, you often get it back at some point. He’s given an awful lot and people are giving it back,” said Millen, who needed a day to compose himself emotionally before responding to any media requests about Cuthbert. “It’s a tough business right now. It’s not been pretty for anybody and this is just another example of it.”
Cuthbert has been heartened by the outpouring of affection towards him and credits it with helping him get over the hurt. He was especially honoured by CBC major duomo Peter Mansbridge making a terse mention of the termination on Tuesday night’s National newscast.
“For him to think that my story warranted even 15 seconds on the national news, was a real honour. I would have preferred not to have been a news story, but for him to think it was of that significance meant something to me for sure.”
He also has appreciated HNIC pals, in particular Ron MacLean and Scott Russell, vocalizing their displeasure with his firing in a staff meeting. Scott Oake and Kelly Hrudey also called as soon as they heard the news.
Cuthbert described the last 48 hours as “uplifting” and said he has even begun entertaining new employment offers. The broadcaster’s comfortably nasal delivery has become a staple for sports fans across the country and it’s hard to imagine Cuthbert will be out of work for too long. While it’s still a ways away, Cuthbert would be a perfect choice to lead the CTV/Rogers/Bell Globe Media Olympic coverage in Vancouver. The irony would almost be too cruel for the CBC, who suffered a crushing defeat when they were significantly outbid for those Games earlier this month.
“There’s a lot of different stuff that could happen and hopefully I’ll have a little time to digest it all and make the right decision,” said Cuthbert, who has had three job propositions already, one of which he will have further talks next week. “The first hour you get it, you aren’t sure you’re ever going to work again, but by the end of the first day I had enough people step up and reassure me there were going to be opportunities.”
You’d think the CBC would have learned something from the Ron MacLean and Don Cherry fiascoes, but it seems incapable of learning from its mistakes. Hockey broadcasters in Canada have a cherished history among the masses. Generations of Canadians have grown up to the familiar calls of Foster Hewitt, Danny Gallivan, Dick Irvin, Dave Hodge, Bob Cole and Cuthbert. Their voices have become as much a part of the cultural landscape, as the beaver, a grain elevator, a fishing dory or the maple leaf.
To mess with them is to mess with us.
In a year where the Stanley Cup will not be awarded for the first time since 1919, we need reminders that the game is still special and untouchable. We don’t need any more reminders that it’s just a business.
Cuthbert humbled by support