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You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Updated: May 5, 2021

By Mike Toth

Sportsnet hit the Canadian airwaves in October of 1998.


And, to be honest, I didn't think it would last to see 2000.


A few months before Sportsnet's debut, I was living in my parent's basement. Depressed about going through a divorce, I had quit my job as a TSN broadcaster in Toronto and moved back to my little hometown in Bassano, Alberta.


At first, it was just what the doctor ordered.


Playing beer league hockey with my old Bassano buddies and teeing it up with mom and dad at the Sage and Thistle Golf and Country Club (an absolute gem, by the way, if you ever find yourself in Bassano) were the perfect tonics to put a smile back on my face.


But all good things must eventually come to an end - especially when you're a 34-year old man living in his old room with Mike Palmateer posters still taped to the wall.


So, my dear old dad came up with a suggestion.


"Why don't you call this new network that's starting up…..that Sportsnet place. Maybe they've got a job."


"Nah," I said. "They're going on the air in a few weeks. They'll have all their announcers hired by now."


But perhaps with dreams of turning my old room into a den, dad kept pushing me to give Sportsnet a ring.


"Hello? I know you've probably filled all your on-air spots," I meekly said to Sportsnet's head honcho. "But do you have anything open?"


"What would you like to do?," came the surprising reply. "Take your pick!"


Scrambling to get a multi-million dollar enterprise off the ground, a few things had fallen through the cracks - such as who was going to actually announce the NHL games Sportsnet had acquired to help launch the network.


That's how I landed the double-duty gig of doing play-by-play for Calgary Flames telecasts and serving as the host for the Edmonton Oilers TV package.


But I didn't think the fun was going to last very long.


Up against the TSN behemoth, I figured there was no way Sportsnet could put up much of a fight.


'Canada just isn't big enough for two sports networks," I said to myself. "I'll get some good experience for a few years and then move on to something else when Sportsnet shuts down."


It was definitely tough sledding in the early going.


Sure, we had some NHL games to get us started. But, besides that, Sportsnet's programming was pretty slim. TSN also had a huge head start and, to their credit, they were excellent at what they did. Jim Van Horne, Bob McKenzie, Vic Rauter - TSN was loaded with big-name veteran talent.


Sportsnet?


Nobody knew who the heck we were.


So, to carve out some sort of identity for ourselves, the big bosses at Sportsnet came up with a plan.


"Fun and Irreverent" became the Sportsnet catchphrase - a philosophy that would hopefully put us on the map.


In my early television days, I'd been part of a "fun and irreverent" show in Calgary called "Sports at 11". In addition to covering the Flames, Stampeders and the rest of the local sports scene, it also had a huge comedic flavour and the show ended up being a big hit.


"We want "Sports at 11" on Sportsnet," the bosses decreed.


And with that, I left the NHL beat (I wasn't much of a play-by-play guy anyway) and moved back to Toronto to help anchor the nightly sports highlights show. Partnered with my pal Jamie Campbell, we were given the green light to do just about anything we wanted.


Recreating an old Elvis Presley TV special, staging our own internal awards show ("The Nettie's"), mocking the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics (which included a "live" interview with Joey More-man - an American downhiller booted out of the Games by the IOC for skiing in the nude).


You name it and, no matter how off the wall, we tried it.


The audience?


Some of them absolutely loved it…..and some of them absolutely hated it.


Two separate viewer opinion polls, for example, illustrated exactly what I'm talking about.


In the Toronto Sun, readers voted me as the second most popular sportscaster in Toronto, trailing only Citytv legend Kathryn Humphreys. Meanwhile, in a Toronto Star readership survey, yours truly was named as Toronto's "most annoying" sportscaster.


You never, of course, want to be labeled as being annoying.


But it's tough to argue the charge when you're delivering hockey highlights while wearing an Elvis jumpsuit.


In the end, we did achieve our goal. Love us or hate us, at least you knew what channel Sportsnet was on - even if some people were quick to change the channel when some of our escapades kicked in.


As time unfolded, however, Sportsnet became much more than just a "pie in the face" enterprise. Our hijinks may have got us some early attention, but the solid work of Sportsnet's blossoming hockey department really put the network on the map. Darren Dreger played a huge role in establishing Sportsnet as a major player in the hockey business. I often referred to him as "our Mark Messier" - a natural born leader and it was a massive loss to Sportsnet when he crossed over to TSN. Fortunately, solid broadcasters such as Scott Morrison, Christine Simpson, Daren Millard, Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean were still on hand to carry the torch. They formed a fantastic team; covering the major stories, breaking big news and displaying a fun chemistry that honored Sportsnet's early roots.


Me?


I lasted 11 years at Sportsnet before a medical condition popped up. I was sick of one particular boss, and he was sick of me.


But I still have a lot of great memories.


At the top of the list?


Meeting a lovely and talented Sportsnet producer who would eventually become my wife and the fantastic mother of my two boys.


Nowadays, we spend a lot of time together watching Sportsnet down in the family basement - not my parent's basement, by the way, but the one we actually own.


The Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays…..Not only does Sportsnet carry the games; thanks to their affiliation with Rogers, they actually own the teams.


It's a lot different than "the good old days" when we had to pull out all the stops to try and keep a few people watching. (One of my personal favorites? The night Jamie poured a jug of water on me at a commercial break so we could convince people that our air conditioning was busted and I was sweating like a fat lad at a disco. Okay…..You had to be there.)


These days, Sportsnet has grown into a respected and powerful presence with big stars (Elliotte Friedman, Brad Fay, Ken Reid, Dan Shulman and yes, my old partner-in-crime Jamie Campbell who has graduated to his long standing and respected role as Blue Jays host) delivering the biggest events.


And as it turns out?


23 years after launching, Sportsnet is still on the air - which is only about 21 years longer than I originally thought it would last.













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