Making it in the big leagues

TSN broadcaster Chris Cuthbert

TSN broadcaster Chris Cuthbert covered the football Gaels of the late 1970s for CFRC and the Journal.
TSN broadcaster Chris Cuthbert covered the football Gaels of the late 1970s for CFRC and the Journal.
Journal file photo

Chris Cuthbert is living proof that grades aren’t everything. At a presentation sponsored by the Queen’s Student Alumni Association Saturday, he said academics weren’t what defined his time at Queen’s.

“I’m the oldest of the three [presenters] here­—and also the worst student from Queen’s who has gone on to other things,” he said.

Cuthbert, ArtSci ’79, is one of the most recognizable faces and voices on the Canadian sports landscape. He spent over 20 years calling hockey, football and Olympic sports for the CBC before moving to TSN in 2005 to call hockey and football.

Cuthbert said he launched his career in sports media by covering Queen’s football for Queen’s media.

“What opened my doors was CFRC and the Queen’s Journal,” he said. “They gave me the opportunities at CFRC and the Queen’s Journal to not just dabble but really immerse myself in what I had always wanted to do. Even as a youngster, I’d go to bed listening to faraway voices from under the pillow and I felt very strongly, ‘I want to be that guy.’ I was never talented enough to play pro sports but I wanted to be around it.”

Cuthbert said his time at Queen’s gave him the chance to try and accomplish his goal, even though he went to school for a very different career.

“When I got to university, I developed for the first time the challenge to chase the dream,” he said. “I started out wanting to be a teacher. I thought maybe history, maybe English, and dabbled a bit for a couple of years. There weren’t any teaching jobs, and I’m not sure looking back that I was fully immersed in the thought of being a teacher. I hadn’t really embraced the whole concept of being a teacher, and that’s probably why I wasn’t a very good student.”

Although Cuthbert addresses millions of viewers regularly these days, he said it was tough for him to start broadcasting.

“I was shy and still I am,” he said. “I knew one of the things I’d have to get over to be successful in my work was the shyness and the fear of public speaking, so one of the first things I did was go to a Queen’s psychology lab on public speaking anxiety and I actually walked by the door three or four times before I got the nerve to go in.”

Cuthbert said he partially overcame those fears once he started covering Queen’s sports.

“Even the first quarter of the first game, I knew this was for me,” he said.

Cuthbert said his big break came when Toronto radio station CFRB started playing his game summaries.

“I grew up with CFRB on in the house every day throughout my public school and high school life,” he said. “I called the sportscaster at CFRB and said ‘If I sent you a report on the Queen’s Golden Gaels who are going to win the national championship this year, would you run it?’ He said, ‘If it’s airable, if it’s professional enough,’ and I thought, ‘Well, there’s a challenge.’”

Cuthbert said sending in his first report was one of the scariest experiences he had.

“I wrote my 45-second report out and picked up the phone and went to call in my taped report on the game,” he said. “I must have dialed that number seven or eight times before I got to the final number and let the phone actually ring.”

Cuthbert said he listened to the radio with his friends during the 6:40 p.m. evening sports broadcast that day and was crushed when his report didn’t air.

“The other guys in the house were all over me,” he said. “That was the end of my career before it started. I can tell you right now I was shattered, because he’d said if it was airable, he’d run it. … My career choice had already gone down the toilet.”

It was only a momentary depression for Cuthbert, though, as he hung around to catch the late broadcast at 11:20 while his friends went out to the bars.

“[The sportscaster] got to the university scoreboard [and said] Toronto wins, York loses, and the Queen’s Golden Gaels were victorious,” he said. “I still get emotional about this; he said ‘And with more, here’s Chris Cuthbert,’ and I will tell you that that’s when the lightbulb went on. That’s when, for whatever reason, I thought I had a spot in sports broadcasting.”

Cuthbert went on from there to a wide variety of obscure gigs before hitting it big with CBC, including working at CKWS in Kingston, covering junior hockey for a Saskatchewan radio station and broadcasting for the Montreal Manic of the old North American Soccer League. Most of his professional work has been on radio or television, but he said his print journalism experience at Queen’s also proved vital for developing his skills.

“The print media experience was absolutely helpful,” he said. “You hone your reporter’s skills and your skills writing for sports media.”

Cuthbert said he loves his job and his decision to pursue broadcasting instead of a safer or more financially rewarding career.

“The highlight of my work is it doesn’t feel like work,” he said. “The reward is so much more fulfilling than the paycheck.”

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