There was a time (around the age of seven) when I believed I could be a professional athlete. Once it became evident that my extreme physical laziness would render that dream moot (around the age of ten) I set my sights much, much lower: to become a sports commentator on TV or radio. My rationale was simple: I liked sports, I liked talking, and I had opinions. At the time, I thought this was a unique combination.
For a while, I tucked my ambitions into an Al Gore lock box. The only real preparation I had, if you could call it preparation, was “broadcasting” a few Canuck hockey games in grade 8 with my friend—we’ll call him “Ralph.” This would typically consist of going to his house, turning on the hockey game, putting it on mute, and, for the next three hours, pretending we were Jim Hughson (Ralph), and…well, I’m not quite sure who I was pretending to be, other than “annoying commentator who speaks in clichÃ©s and occasionally makes fun of the play-by-play guy.”
But when CiTR told me that they would like me to do some on-air reporting and analysis on the Thunderbirds, I leapt at the chance to transmit my dream across the airwaves to the millions of people that would surely be hanging on my every word. I figured they would break me in slowly—maybe a half-time analysis of a basketball game, or a post-game interview with the football coach—which made it somewhat surprising when I was asked to be the colour commentator for a Thunderbirds women’s hockey game with two days notice.
I immediately said yes. A minute later, I had a mild panic attack. My knowledge of CIS women’s hockey was somewhere between that of international cricket and the demographics of Nigeria. The best colour men have years of playing, coaching and broadcasting experience, and combine a keen eye for detail with plenty of background information on key players. I had sarcasm and statistics. Madden, McGuire, McCarver…McElroy?
Fortunately, when I got to the Winter Sports Centre for the game, my play-by-play partner, Wilson Wong, put me at ease. “You’ll be fine. Just give your basic thoughts on the game whenever there’s a stoppage. If you don’t have anything to say, I’ll keep going.”
Wilson also told me that he was a bit nervous as well, having never done hockey before. I told him that it meant we would both be doing our best impersonation of Bob Cole, the legendary CBC broadcaster who can go entire periods without naming a player (“The Ottawa forward blows by the defencemen…great save by the goalie!”). We both laughed. Sadly, it meant my best quip of the night happened off-air.
The pre-game show provided a practice run for how the actual game would go. Wilson would talk for a good while about UBC’s matchup against Alberta, talking about how young and inexperienced the T-Birds were, and how good Alberta was. Whenever he would stop talking, I would immediately be forced to launch into a crisp, clear, and concise opinion on the game, lest there be dead air. You’re forced to state something that sounds insightful, even if you have nothing to say. Fortunately, I have experience in both debate and column writing.
Once the game began, I settled on a strategy for getting by. Much like Sarah Palin, I was enthusiastic, but ultimately under-qualified, with no information about the other team (ie: foreign policy). So, like Palin, I would stick to careful, 15 second statements, making basic observations, mixed in with folksy sayings. And, given the setting, it almost would have made sense for me to start talking about hockey moms.
However, as the action went on, I loosened up a bit. I interjected while the game was going on from time to time. With UBC breaking out to a shocking 3–0 lead, only to eventually lose 4–3 in overtime, I was given plenty of material to work with. I even developed an effective go-to crutch, in case I had to deliver insta-analysis (“If I’m Player X or Coach Y right now, I need to focus on Z”).
So, all in all, much like Palin in the VP debate, I succeeded by surpassing my own low expectations. I asked my old play-by-play partner Ralph what he thought. “You were okay,” he said grudgingly. First game: Success! Now, just need to work on a catchphrase…