Chris Cuthbert

One of the best-known Canadian sportscasters has changed networks, and he’s returning to one of the properties he was first known for. Chris Cuthbert has been broadcasting nationally since joining the CBC in 1984, first as an anchor and sometime play-by-play voice for Hockey Night in Canada‘s western regional games. He worked at the CBC through 2005, covering hockey, the Olympics, the Canadian Football League and more, but was let go in February 2005 during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, leading to him joining TSN a month later. There, Cuthbert has been the network’s lead CFL announcer and one of their main hockey voices, and he’s also called games for NBC. But now, he’s moving to Rogers Sportsnet, and returning to Hockey Night In Canada (which still airs on the CBC, but is produced by Sportsnet these days). Here are the tweets Cuthbert sent on that move Friday:

Here are some quotes Cuthbert gave to Donna Spencer of The Canadian Press about why he made this move:

“I’m getting old,” the 62-year-old from Brampton, Ont., told The Canadian Press. “The national TV rights have six more years at Sportsnet. I started doing the math during the pandemic while I watched all these old NHL classics of me doing games on Hockey Night in Canada in the nineties.

“I started thinking if I’m going to have the opportunity again, it isn’t guaranteed and it won’t come again until I’m about 70. The opportunity to do more playoff hockey and to do hockey on Saturday nights was just too inviting.”

…He’s worked NHL games for NBC in recent years, but felt the pull to speak to a Canadian audience.

“Something special about following a Canadian team and a Canadian run during the playoffs when you’re covering it in Canada, looking forward to that again,” he said.

…Not calling CFL games will feel strange, he said.

“It’s an excruciating decision. The league has always meant so much to me,” Cuthbert said. “I’ve done over 800 games. I’ve been involved in 25 Grey Cups. When I called Winnipeg’s Grey Cup victory last year, it meant that I’d called every team in the league winning at least one Grey Cup. I started thinking ‘how much more is there?’

As mentioned above, Cuthbert started with the CBC in 1984 as anchor and sometimes play-by-play voice for western games. He rose to even higher national prominence in 1988 thanks to calling remote play-by-play of a Boston-Montreal playoff game from Washington (thanks to a power outage in Montreal that killed the telecast from there), and wound up calling hockey, the Olympics and the CFL for CBC for over a decade. But they decided to move on from him during that 2004-05 lockout, leading to him winding up at TSN.

And from a CFL perspective in particular, Cuthbert’s timing was outstanding. TSN had been broadcasting CFL games since 1987, but they took over exclusive rights to the league (including the playoffs and the Grey Cup) in 2008. Cuthbert called nine Grey Cups with the CBC from 1996-2004, then called 12 with TSN from 2008-2019, and he’s been the primary play-by-play voice of the league week in and week out at TSN. So his move from CBC to TSN certainly bears some similarities (from the Canadian football side, at least) to Al Michaels going from ABC to NBC. (But because the CBC laid Cuthbert off, there were no lucky rabbits required in trade.) And his move back to Sportsnet (which has no CFL rights and hasn’t shown much interest in the league; TSN’s deal with the CFL runs through 2025) means there’s suddenly a giant CFL play-by-play vacancy at TSN.

That’s an interesting vacancy, because there’s no obvious way to fill it. Rod Black, the current play-by-play voice of TSN’s #2 team (with analyst Duane Forde), has been calling CFL games for decades, but a lot of fans of the league are not fans of him (as any glance at Twitter during a CFL game will show). Fellow long-time TSN presence Rod Smith has been doing some CFL play-by-play in the last few years, especially on the CFL version of Thursday Night Football, and many fans are higher on him, but he has plenty of other duties between his SportsCenter work and his work as a studio host on the pre-game/intermission/post-game CFL on TSN panels. So it seems likely that TSN will be bringing in at least one new prominent CFL voice, but it’s unclear if that will be for the #1 play-by-play slot to replace Cuthbert (alongside analyst Glen Suitor), or if they’ll promote Black or Smith from within and then hire a new #2 voice or studio host.

Of course, there’s no immediate decision required on the CFL front. In a normal year, the first regular season CFL game would be in a week or so, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest update from the league (on May 20) is that their earliest possible return date is September. And there’s a whole lot of uncertainty about if any sort of 2020 CFL season will happen (and what it might look like), and even some uncertainty about the league’s future following their requests for government funding. So assigning CFL on TSN broadcast pairings isn’t high on the priority chart. But it is notable to see a shakeup there, as Cuthbert had held the unquestioned #1 CFL spot at TSN for so long.

This is also notable for what it means on the hockey front. In particular, Sportsnet now has yet another top hockey commentator. In addition to his CBC work, Cuthbert has also called Olympic hockey and NHL games for TSN (nationally before Sportsnet too the national rights beginning with the 2014-15 season, regionally since then), as well as NHL games for NBC over the past few years.

And if the NHL is able to resume their season as planned in a couple months, the Sportsnet/CBC coverage of the postseason tournament will feature another prominent voice. This isn’t as big of an immediate impact for TSN there, as they only have regional NHL rights at the moment (and unlike US RSNs, they’re likely not getting much in the way of even early-round postseason rights), so they likely don’t need to make big hockey changes just yet. But it’s perhaps something to keep an eye on down the road.

Overall, it’s understandable why Cuthbert wants to return to a network with a top NHL rights package. The NHL is by far the biggest sports property in Canada (where it’s a far different situation than Max Kellerman’s “Nobody cares” U.S. comments), and Sportsnet has the top rights there. And while calling Olympic hockey moments like Sidney Crosby’s 2010 “Golden Goal” and other NHL action for TSN and NBC has its appeal, doing top-level NHL playoff games on Sportsnet/CBC is hard to pass up. But this is an interesting move, especially for the top CFL vacuum it leaves at TSN. We’ll see how they fill that.

[The Canadian Press at CBC; photo via 3 Down Nation]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.