James Duthie (TSN/Bell Media)
TSN’s James Duthie provides, in his own words, a behind-the-scenes look at the craziness of the NHL’s deadline day at Canada’s most-watched sports network.By Jamie Duthie The phone rings at 3:45 a.m. Sorry pings, not rings (it is March 9, 2004, and I have an old-school Blackberry). You know those sudden jolting wake-ups that interrupt the sweetest, deepest of dreams? One second you’re rubbing sunscreen on Eva Mendes’ back while she lies in the sand…of the bunker beside 18 at Augusta where you just won your third Green Jacket…wearing a mask and flippers for the entire final round (I have no idea)…and PING! PING! PING! Suddenly Eva’s gone and you jump up in your bed and have no idea where you are or why it sounds like there are five fire trucks in your room. I finally grasp that it is my phone and not Ladders 65-68 driving under the bed. PING! PING! PING! “Wha…Uhh…Helloooo? “James, it’s Mark.” Mark? Mark who? Mark Ward or Mark Tadiello, my two best friends from high school? Mark Messier? Mark’s Work Warehouse saying my polar fleece socks are in? Mark Wahlberg? (I’m still groggy.) “Wha…what time is it?” “It’s 3:45. You need to get in right now.” (Oh. Mark Milliere. My boss.) “It’s been a crazy night. Todd Bertuzzi badly injured Steve Moore. We’re going on early.” “How early?” “As soon as you get here.”
I shower and make the half-hour drive to TSN. Our producer and director are there, but no one else. The studio is dark. They are determined to go live at right away, and so at 5:27 I am sitting at my desk, with one cameraman pointing a single light at me (the lighting guy also hasn’t arrived). Tradecentre is known for breaking records for number of commentators. But this show will apparently begin with one.We end up holding off for another half hour. Glenn Healy shows up and the two of us begin the show alone. The moment anyone shows up, they join us. By 7:30, it’s a full house, and one of the longest Tradecentre’s ever is in full swing. At least we had something to talk about that day, as awful as it was. There have been other Tradecentres where it’s so slow you can see the tumbleweeds roll across our set. The mornings are always the worst. Even on busy years, trades don’t start until around noon, sometimes later. Until then, we are a telethon of speculation. Except no one calls in to donate. In 2013, we do four and a half hours of Network Time Killers (as Letterman used to call them) until the first trade, a blockbuster seeing Chicago send minor leaguer Rob Flick to Boston for minor leaguer Maxime Sauve. “And the balance of power in the NHL has shifted dramatically!” Flick later joins us for a phone interview, where I have to resist from opening with, “So, Rob…who the hell are you?” All the big news had happened early that year. The last-minute lockout settlement to save a half-season, Brian Burke being fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Iginla trade. During the show, someone from a number I don’t recognize sends me an endless stream of texts, ripping our coverage. 10:33 a.m. This show is brutal. 11:10 a.m. ZZZZZZZZZZ. 11:45 a.m. Somebody kill me now. 12:37 p.m. What a gutless interview. Ask some hard questions. 1:52 p.m. Couldn’t they get Gino to host? I figure it is one of my buddies and am amused for a while. But after the 13th text or so, I’ve had enough. 2:35 p.m. Okay, uncle. I don’t have your contact in my phone. Who is this? 2:36 p.m. It’s Burkie! Miss me? Actually, I do. One of our annual rituals on Tradecentre is interviewing Brian Burke, with his shirt open and tie off, draped around his neck like he’s been working for six straight days trying to save the planet from a meteor about to hit it. He inevitably shoots down all my questions with one-word answers and a menacing stare. It’s endless fun. I’m sadistic like that. At around 5 p.m. that same day, one of the slowest ever, after nine hours on the air, producer Geoff Macht says in my earpiece, “Need you to fill a couple more minutes here.” I turn to the panel and have…zero. And so I say, for the first time ever (though I have thought it often): “So do you think…Is there a trade that…Has any team…(pause). Who am I kidding…I literally have nothing left to ask you guys.” Which doesn’t bode well for the hour we still have to fill. Then there are years when the deals never stop. In 2008, we have Wade Belak (R.I.P.) on the phone early in the day after he is traded from Toronto to Florida. A minute into the interview another trade breaks. I ask Belak to stay on the line, saying, “We’ll get right back to you.” But then it’s trade after trade after trade for the rest of the day. About seven hours later I get a text from the always darkly funny Marc Crawford: “Is Wade Belak still on hold?” One trade deadline just before I started hosting, we get Ron Tugnutt on the phone and ask him how he learned he’d been dealt. “I was in the bathroom and heard it on TSN.” We don’t press for more details. The Tradebreakers (usually known as the Insiders – everyone gets new names just for Tradecentre) have it tougher than the rest of us. They must relentlessly harass all their sources, to the point where they often spend the next few months mending fences. In 1999, Bob breaks Vinnie Damphousse being traded from Montreal to San Jose within seconds of the deal being agreed to. Imagine hanging up the phone with the other GM and TSN already has it fonted on the TV screen in front of you. “What the…?!?” The Canadiens are flying that day and a reporter on the plane uses an airphone to call his desk. He hears about the deal and lets everyone on the plane know. The plane lands, everyone gets off except Vinnie, who heads back to Montreal to pack. In 2014, Darren Dreger is talking to an Islanders source, trying to find out where Thomas Vanek is going. At about the same time, Ray Ferraro is on the panel, ripping the Islanders organization for, oh, just about everything they’d done that year. Dregs’ source is watching the show while they talk. Now Dregs is getting yelled at for what Ray is saying 20 feet away. While the Insiders worry about breaking news and getting every detail right, my single greatest challenge on Tradecentre is looking out for No. 1. In other words, peeing. Our commercial breaks are typically two minutes. The bathroom is maybe a 30-second walk or 15-second sprint from my seat. That includes getting my microphone off. Don’t want to have a Leslie Nielsen/Naked Gun scene where the entire studio and control home get to hear my…err…live streaming. But to get to the stall, I have to go full Russell Wilson; deking out cameras, crewmembers, food tables and Pierre Lebrun groupies just to get there. If it’s occupied, I’m screwed. Thankfully my floor director most years, Ellen, is a pit bull. She makes sure the stall is free, then clears a path like an All-Pro pulling guard, screaming “COMING THROUGH!” the entire time. Ellen is always my MVP on Tradecentre. But if I don’t make it in time, it’s no biggie. We break a lot of traditional TV rules on Tradecentre. People get up and leave the desk in the middle of a conversation if an important call comes in. We take the trades and analysis seriously, just not the show. It has really become a parody of itself – a bizarre piece of Canadiana. Twenty-five hockey commentators stuffed in a room for 12 hours, talking about Rob Flick. That’s why we used to have Jay Onrait (before he was deported to America) doing live reports from his apartment in a bathrobe. Once he spent several minutes naming his plants: Bob Mckenztree, Jennifer Hedge-r. That’s quality Canadian television right there. In 2013, I ask for a soundboard to amuse myself during low points of the show. It has crickets for the quiet times (the crickets get used often), canned laughter for the corny jokes and a loon call, just because I find the call of the loon soothing. We do one better in 2014, bringing in Lester Maclean, a TSN staffer and talented singer/musician who I have collaborated with on several silly pieces in the past (The delay of game penalty ballad Puck Over Glass being the most well known). Lester and I write a handful of Tradecentre related songs that he performs throughout the show, including Burkie Interview, surely to be covered someday by Lady Gaga. Chorus: We need a Burkie interview We need a Burkie interview He’s gonna yell at Duthie His tie’s gonna be loose Yes, Tradecentre is slowly morphing into a Broadway Musical. Sometimes it’s a comedy, sometimes a tragedy. Either way, we’ll keeping singing and dancing our asses off…all day long. This is an excerpt from James Duthie’s forthcoming book, The Guy On The Left, from Penguin Books. It’s scheduled to be in bookstores this fall. This is feature appears in the March 9 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.