Sparring With Charles Oakley, Counting with Chris Childs, and Hockey: an Interview with CBC Sports’ Elliotte Friedman
How better to wrap up the week with an interview? Today’s subject is a Canadian native who dominates the airwaves north of the border. His name is Elliotte Friedman, and he’s a TV star who has covered just about every sport imaginable – badminton, too! – and lived to tell. Hopefully, you’ll like the Charles Oakley confrontation as much as we did. And any man fortunate enough to interview Jamie Sale is somebody we need to speak with.
Q: 2006 Olympics. So is the Olmypic Village all it’s cracked up to be? What’s your best untold story?
We stayed in a hotel in Turin, not the village. I’ve covered three Olympics – Turin, Athens, Salt Lake City – and never stayed in one, but that may change in Beijing.
Salt Lake was my first Olympics, and probably my toughest-ever assignment. If you work in TV, but aren’t the rightsholder, you are treated worse than a sewer rat. You can’t take a camera into any facility. Well, not only were we not a rightsholder, but the Canadian Olympic Committee wouldn’t even give us a media pass. So, we couldn’t even access the Main Press Center. All we had were cell numbers for the various Canadian team contacts. We had to get athletes to meet us in parking lots, IHOPS, anywhere we could. To their credit, most of them were great.
The night that Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were robbed of the gold in figure skating, I had to wait almost two hours after the competition to get my crack at them. Pelletier was just pissed off. We’re at Canada House – home of the Olympic Committee. He walks in and says, â€œThe next person who asks me if I got robbed gets a punch in the mouth!â€ I try to interview Sale and the media person – who was the rudest I’ve ever encountered – says, â€œNo more.€ I went right after her and said, â€œI’ve been waiting two hours and I was told Ms. Sale would be available.€ She wouldn’t budge.
Sale sees this and says, â€œI’ll do it.€ Never forgot that.
I joined CBC – the rightsholder for the last two – and was on the inside. I covered nine different sports in Athens. It was fantastic. Before the Games began, I was told to prepare for tennis, table tennis, badminton and weightlifting. That morphed into cycling, swimming, diving, track & field, and men’s basketball. (I did sideline for the last few U.S. games.)
The two stories I remember most: 1) One day I’m sitting in our broadcast centre and the Executive Producer comes up and says, â€œWe have nothing for the morning show tomorrow. The women’s singles badminton final is live at 2 p.m. (7 a.m. EDT). We’re going to do it, live.€
That was my responsibility. It was just me, with no analyst. I’m not great at play-by-play, but I was prepared and gave a decent performance. This was a challenge and I was proud of the way I handled it.
2) When Perdita Felicien wiped out in the hurdles – a gold medal Canada really expected – she took out a Russian woman racing in the lane next to her. I was sent to find this woman and get her reaction. You had to see it to really understand the craziness of it all: Me, a producer and a cameraman at the athlete’s village trying to talk to anyone wearing a Russian team uniform. We’d just ask them â€œDo you know Irina Shevchenko (the name of the hurdler Felicien took out)?â€ The people would run away from us like we were KGB. After about two hours, we found out this poor woman was so heartbroken that she went home.
In Turin, I did sideline for men’s and women’s hockey. It was busy. There were games every day except one. We did, however, find a great pizza bar and gelato place right near our hotel. We’d get to the bar at midnight and eat a full pizza each with some beer. Then, we’d eat gelato. If I didn’t walk to the rink every day, I’d have gained 50 pounds.
Of course, I know you want some juicier stuff. Okay, here are two. I am pathologically secretive about my personal life. In Italy, I was dating someone who was working for another company there. No one knew about it, but my co-workers caught me giving her a rose on Valentine’s Day. Man, did I get brutalized for that.
In Salt Lake – and I hope I don’t get in trouble for this – I went on-air liquored up for the only time in my life. It was the second-last day of the Games. The men’s hockey team was playing for Gold against the U.S. the next afternoon. The only events that night were in short-track speed skating, and Canada won about six medals. The Tragically Hip were giving a private concert that night, and I had a ticket. The same idiot pr person who tried to block me from interviewing Jamie Sale told me the medalists would not be available that night.
So I had nothing to do but enjoy the concert. Suffice it to say I had a few beers. Who shows up? Of course, the double-gold medalist, a guy by the name of Marc Gagnon. And he starts doing interviews. I can’t avoid this. I have to talk to him, too.
The next day, a friend of mine from work – good friend – calls me up. â€œYou’re not in any trouble here,â€ he says,â€ â€œbut were you drinking last night before the interview?â€ I confessed and asked how he knew. I had checked the tape before I sent it. There was no slurring, nothing that would indicate any kind of inebriation. â€œYou perma-smiled all the way through it. You never smile on-camera.€
Q: You’re our first TV interview, and seeing as we not talking to TV people nearly as frequently as we should … how do TV anchors/producers view sports blogs? Disdain? You can be honest. We can take it.
Not every one of us is like Colin Cowherd.
For me, there are five or six blogs that are daily must-reads. (That doesn’t include hockey-specific blogs. I check out 20 or so of those a day.) Yours is one. Others are Deadspin, Can’t Stop the Bleeding, Sports Media Guide, Sports Media Watch, BlogMaverick, Steroid Nation and the D.C. Sports Blog.
I spend a ridiculous amount of time reading. I’m a learning junkie. One of my best friends laughs at how I hate to answer â€œI don’t knowâ€ to any question. (I’m a lot better about it now than I was in my 20s.) Months ago, you could send links to others from blogs that no one had ever seen. Now, more and more people are replying, â€œHey, genius, you think you’re the only guy who reads this stuff?â€
You do have to be careful though: If you’re going to use one as the basis for a story or an idea, you’d better check your facts.
In TV, we’re a lot more accepting of non-traditional media. I started in print. All I ever wanted to be was a sportswriter. But I came out of university in 1993, during a difficult economic time. Canadian newspapers cancelled their internships as hiring freezes made it impossible to find work. I still have all of the rejection letters I received, using them as a reminder when I feel I get too comfortable.
As I moved into sports radio, I was shocked at how some print reporters looked down at me simply because I held a microphone. (I admit that I’m still stunned at how many broadcast media people come out of school without being taught proper reporting skills, but I was surprised by the attitude.) The same thing is happening with bloggers. Newspapers seem a lot more threatened by them than broadcast outlets do.
I don’t understand that attitude, because newspapers – with all of their news-gathering ability – could be great at them. It’s starting to happen. I look at what The Globe and Mail has done with blogs and its website. It’s fantastic. I must check that site five times a day. That’s what the L.A. Times is trying to do. More should follow.
Q: You’re bio says sideline reporter. Have the Melissa Starks and Suzy Kolbers of the world help or hurt the sideline reporting profession? How?
It’s not good-looking women who’ve hurt sideline reporting. Unimaginative reporting and questioning does much more damage. Besides, the worst I’ve ever seen has come from men, including one who said â€œGo Blueâ€ and then â€œHook ‘em Hornsâ€ after separate interviews with Lloyd Carr and Mack Brown before an NCAA bowl game a couple of years back.
I love sideline reporting. I can’t do it enough. Last summer, I moved from the sidelines on CBC’s Canadian Football League coverage to the host spot. Now, don’t get me wrong, hosting our football coverage, including the playoffs and the Grey Cup – our Super Bowl – was one of the highlights of my career. But I missed being on the sidelines.
One of the things that motivates me most is people saying that sideline reporters are useless. That’s not true, or, rather: It shouldn’t be true. There are plenty of things happening down there that can add so much to a broadcast. For example, I was on the sidelines of a CFL game in the summer of 2005. Twenty feet from me, the punter is throwing passes. I’m sitting there, looking at the guy, wondering, â€œWhat’s with this?â€ Seconds later, one of the coaches runs over to the player and says, â€œWhat are you doing? There’s a reporter right there, fans right behind you and who knows what their guys up in the booth are watching?â€ (This is minus all of the expletives.) The coach says to me, â€œYou know what’s coming. Can you keep it off the air until after we do it?â€
I agreed, but after the fake worked, all of this provided a terrific story for the broadcast. And it took zero skill on my part. Small things like this happen almost every game.
Sideline reporting is something I think about a lot. I’m always watching broadcasts and wondering what I’d do if I was there. What would I ask? What could be added?
The producer is key. Too often, it’s obvious that the reporter is being thrown on-air to justify his/her existence. The producers should be telling the talent that they aren’t getting any face time unless they can come up with something worthwhile. Before games, I’ll chat with my producers about some storylines I’m working on. They’ll tell me if they like them, or not. I might fight for something they don’t like, but if I can’t convince them, it’s not getting on. That’s the way it should be. I should be able to give them at least five ideas that the guys in the booth can’t come up with.
Also, a producer has to know the right moment and when to fight for you. There are games when I get on six times and games when I get on once. It’s all dictated by flow, by what’s happening on the field/ice/court. There was one game when I didn’t get on at all – except for between periods interviews – and I couldn’t be upset. The action was incredible. It would have been stupid to use me. Don’t annoy the audience by putting someone on in the middle of a terrific game with some useless story.
For big games, we have two producers in the truck. One is running the show, and the other is what we call the â€œback-decker.€ He’s helping co-ordinate traffic. I’m letting him know about injury updates, things I see, etc. He then tells the other guy, â€œElliotte’s got something important.€
During the 2005 Grey Cup, a head coach freaked on his kicker during the game. The kicker kept on putting punts/kickoffs in the wrong spot, and the opposition returned one for a TD. Finally, the player got upset and snapped back. The cameras didn’t see it, but I was lucky – happened to be right there. The â€œback-deckerâ€ that game was a guy named Joe Scarcelli. I told him what happened, really pushed for the story. There really wasn’t time – until the last play of regulation. That team was down three and this guy was coming on to send the game to overtime. Now, you almost never go to sidelines at that moment. But, Joe fought for me. (After the game, the play-by-play guy says to me, â€œWhen I was told to throw down to you, I thought, ‘What the hell are we doing?’â€) We got the story in about the verbal confrontation, and then the guy nailed the kick.
We all felt great because it was how a broadcast team should properly use and co-ordinate a sideline person.
As for the reporters, the best advice I give when asked is, ‘Use your analysts.’ It’s the best advice ever given to me. I’m always listening to the guys in the booth and formulating my questions based on their commentary. One football game, our analyst said he thought a back was running hurt for several carries after a big hit. I asked the coach, and it turned out to be true.
The audience likes that too, because it makes it look like we’re all paying attention to each other. Plus, as big a sports fan as I am, I’ve learned that former athletes see things we just don’t see. Listening to the good ones break down games gives a sideline reporter no excuse not to come up with good questions.
Halftime/between periods interviews: I feel bad for the men/women who have to do some of these. It’s obvious some of these coaches would rather have herpes than answer one question. But, you have to treat it like it’s the biggest interview of your life.
If you don’t take it seriously, no one else will.
Q: You’ve covered the Raptors and the Blue Jays. Which was more fun to cover? How did the athletes in each sport stack up?
The greatest thing that ever happened to my career was the Raptors. When I started at The Fan all-sports radio (Toronto) in April 1994, the Raptors were in the embryonic stage. There weren’t a ton of people who liked and knew basketball in the city’s media. I was lucky. I came along at the right time.
It was a terrific experience. I come from a middle-class, white, Jewish upbringing. Many NBA players came from a background many Canadians do not understand. That gap is still the major reason the league is struggling in Canada. It does reasonably well in Toronto (especially as this particular team impresses), but 11 years after the team’s arrival, cross-country television ratings are below hopes and expectations.
But, to be exposed to such different lifestyles at age 25 was incredible for me. It wasn’t only that I learned how to be a reporter and how to handle a beat. And it’s not that I was a naive, sheltered person. I learned a lot about life, about different experiences and that even if you don’t have much in common, you can still find common ground.
My background was positively blue-blooded compared to Damon Stoudamire, Carlos Rogers, Alvin Robertson, and Willie Anderson (one of the nicest people I’ve ever known), but if you worked hard, showed up every day, asked good questions and treated them respectfully, it didn’t matter.
The difference between NBA players and other athletes is honesty. There is no another sport I’ve ever covered where players speak their mind more freely than these guys. (Disclosure: I haven’t covered a ton of NFL.) In these days of sanitized quotes in so many places, the NBA was a godsend.
So were the Raptors. The franchise was a gong show in its early years – great training for a young reporter eager to learn. Robertson appeared in court on assault charges on the day of the team’s first-ever game. The GM and head coach stopped talking during the first season. Isiah Thomas walked out early in the third year, and Stoudamire was gone shortly thereafter. Then came Charles Oakley, Antonio Davis, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.
Oakley and I had a huge screaming match once, and arena security had to pull us apart. McGrady and Davis were stunned watching it, with the former – one of the best I’ve ever dealt with – saying the next day, â€œI’m surprised you’re still alive.€ (For the record, no apologies were ever made, and it says a lot about Oakley’s professionalism that we continued on as nothing had happened.)
I really haven’t covered much NBA since 2002. That year, Detroit beat the Raptors 3-2 in the opening playoff round. The final score of the deciding game was 85-81, as Chris Childs threw up a wild three-pointer late when the team had time to go for two and then foul. After the game, he and I argued about the score. He claimed the Raptors trailed by only three, not four, as disbelieving teammates monitored our conversation.
As for baseball, I covered a little of it during the lead-up to the 1994 strike. At that time, the players were unapproachable and covering the Blue Jays was not fun. There was a difference after 1994. The veterans – Joe Carter – were still brutal, but the young players improved.
The baseball team was a power – two-time defending World Series champions. The joke was that the team’s sales staff only had to wait for the phone to ring to beat monthly quotas. The Raptors were new in a city that didn’t have a huge basketball pedigree. As I started out, I could ask a dumb question and the Raptors would be patient. The Blue Jays wouldn’t, although Cito Gaston always treated me very well. He didn’t have a great relationship with some in the Toronto media.
Eventually, I developed some good relationships – one of the best being Carlos Delgado, who gave me one of the biggest interviews of my career. And boy do I miss covering Spring Training.
But the NBA will always be special to me because covering it solidified my career.
Q: We rarely write about hockey, so indulge us – what’s the deal with fighting? It’s embraced by the sport. And it’s also about the only thing that seems to get talked about.
I don’t mind fighting, as long as it’s done properly. First of all, it should be done by guys who can actually play, not cement-headed stiffs. Second, it should be done to avenge dirty play. Too often now, a player gets hit hard – but cleanly – and someone has to go after the hitter for retribution.
A few years ago, someone claimed that U.S. fans would never tune into hockey because of the fighting. That’s a ridiculous theory. When Ottawa and Philadelphia set records for penalty minutes in one game during the 2003-04 season, the replay broadcast on Philly television made ratings history and outdrew the live show. When Atlanta and Washington had a brawl earlier this season, the Thrashers’ TV station put it all over its ads before their next meeting, with a slogan of ‘what will happen next?’ (or something like that). When Ottawa and Buffalo had back-to-back fight-fests in February, the enthusiasm in both buildings was overwhelming. Highlights from the first of those two games (in Buffalo) led that night’s ESPN SportsCenter. The NHL doesn’t usually get that kind of star treatment.
People like fighting when it’s done right. There can’t be too many of them, because it dilutes the â€œHey, Martha!â€ factor. And, it can’t cause serious injuries. That’s one of the problems the NHL is facing now. More than ever before, guys are getting seriously injured in fights. Kris Newbury of the Toronto Maple Leafs took a punch and went down so hard that he smashed his head on the ice. Newbury went out on a stretcher. Atlanta’s Jon Sim broke an orbital bone. Florida’s Steve Montador was brutalized by a bigger, stronger, more experienced fighter. All of a sudden, league executives were wondering if fighting needed to be eliminated because players were too big, too strong and too dangerous to one another.
I don’t think that will ever happen. But any workplace safety issue must be investigated.
On a radio show I hosted, The Los Angeles Times’ sports editor called hockey â€œa niche sportâ€ last year when explaining why he would no longer send a Kings or Ducks beat writer on the road. Hardcore fans really care, but the general public does not. There is always this hand-wringing over building an American television audience, but that’s been tried for 40 years.
Yes, we’re seeing more ice rinks in places like Texas. Yes, the first kid from Carolina ever to be drafted was taken in 2006. Yes, the NHL has done real good things with its diversity program. But most of the stars are Canadians or Europeans. The game is 99 per cent white and it costs a ton to play. That’s a tough sell in the USA.
Plus, the schedule – which doesn’t have every team facing everyone else at least once a season – is a joke. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins go to Phoenix and the Coyotes have their first-ever sellout in their new arena. Crosby’s next trip to Arizona? In three years. That’s intelligent.
What draws attention? The fighting, or worse. Todd Bertuzzi clobbers Steve Moore and it’s all over CNN.
Q: Do Canadians take umbrage to the fact that the country is so closely related to hockey? Should they?
No, we don’t. You are talking about the only country to host an Olympic Games and not win a Gold Medal. (We’ve done that twice – Montreal 1976 & Calgary 1988.) When it comes to best-on-best hockey, we take a ton of pride in being number one.
People of a certain age in this country – not me, I was 2 – know exactly where they were when Paul Henderson scored with 34 seconds left to beat Russia 6-5 in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series. (Team Canada won 4-3-1.) Everybody remembers where they were, what they were doing. Hockey is now covered in-depth 12 months a year, just like the NFL in the U.S. It’s crazy, but fans want it. Playing hockey in a Canadian city is suffocating.
When Canada lost 5-2 to Sweden in the opening game of the 2002 Olympic hockey tournament, one sports radio station did 10 straight hours of phone calls. I call that insane, but there’s a demand for it. When Canada beat the United States for the Gold, there were estimated to be more than 10 million viewers. Not bad for a country of 30 million.
We’re also the only country in the world that cares about the World Junior hockey championships. It starts Boxing Day, ends in the first week of January, and involves the best players under 20. If Canada doesn’t win this tournament, it’s a fiasco. If anyone else wins it, it’s a brief on page 16 of the sports section.
Canada’s other winter athletes had a superb season this year. This country is poised to be among the best overall in Vancouver/Whistler 2010 — alongside Germany, Russia and the U.S. But for a lot of Canadians, there’s just one medal that counts: men’s hockey. People here will be proud of their speed skaters, snowboarders and skiers, but nuts over hockey. This will also 1) be the final time the NHL players go, 2) on home ice and 3) after Canada lost in the 2006 quarterfinals. The expectations will be enormous.
Q: Something we write about even less than hockey – the CFL. What’s going on Ricky Williams? Does the CFL want him? Does it need him?
Ricky Williams recently applied for re-instatement to the NFL. Don’t be surprised if he eventually comes back. In some places, the CFL really matters. In some places, it doesn’t. Toronto is one of those places that the CFL doesn’t really matter. I love it, but none of my friends do. A crowd of 30,000 in the 50,000-seat-plus SkyDome is an excellent turnout.
(The CFL used to be strong in Toronto. But the late Jim Hunt, a long-time sportswriter and sportscaster, claimed the worst thing that ever happened to the Argonauts was the 1977 arrival of the Blue Jays. Hunt claimed once Torontonians were in the same league as New York and Boston, they were no longer interested in Saskatchewan and Winnipeg. It didn’t help that the CFL stupidly blacked out games in the home team’s markets, allowing the NFL an enormous foothold.)
Anyway, a more relaxed atmosphere was perfect for Williams, who clearly loved his year here. He reminds me a lot of Vince Carter, a guy with incredible talent who just isn’t comfortable in the spotlight. Williams is more willing to do the dirty work than Carter – he is an excellent blocking back and played some special teams – but neither man likes facing the media and neither is comfortable in any kind of leadership role. They’d rather be one of the guys, and it’s hard for that to happen when you are a star making big money.
Williams tried, though. He was a model teammate and worked hard to come back after breaking his forearm early in the season. Hearing Calgary was a big cowboy town, he basically dressed as one for the team flight out there. (All he was missing were the chaps.)
There was controversy, as some teams complained that Williams should not have been allowed in the CFL because he was suspended by the NFL. The league recently implemented a new rule honouring others’ suspensions, but I suspect most of the teams were just embarrassed they didn’t think of signing Williams first.
On-field? He didn’t have a big impact. I remember one GM predicting he’d run for 3,000 yards in the CFL’s 18-game season. He had 97 in his first game and looked good, but the three-down setup means this isn’t a running league and the Argonauts weren’t built to rush the football. Injuries limited him to just 109 carries. He had 526 yards and two touchdowns. Only one other team’s top rusher had an average as low as Williams 4.8.
Williams’ best CFL moment came here.. I know the reporter in question, Greg Ross. He’s a good guy, but he lost his mind here.
Q: Be honest – have you ever sat behind the desk and done the news in your boxers?
I haven’t but I know one guy who did. The station manager hated him so much that he changed the set to make the anchor’s legs visible. That forced the guy to wear pants.
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