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James Duthie: Ottawa’s Favourite Son Heads Home For The Holidays

A proud Gloucester boy, James Duthie has been a prominent face in Canadian sports broadcasting for over 2 decades. In his decorated career history, Duthie has won 8 Canadian Screen Awards and took home the 2009 Excellence in Sports Broadcasting Award from Sports Media Canada for his work as host of TSN’s NHL coverage.

Covering the hockey world for TSN has been an incredible journey for Duthie, and, over his 20+ year career, he’s used his gift for story-telling to transform the Canadian hockey landscape and highlight the impact that hockey can have on Canadians in more ways than one. 

A 4-time published author, Duthie is celebrating the recent release of his book ‘Beauties’, where he shares 57 of hockey’s greatest untold stories from some of the biggest names in the sport. 

In his book, Duthie offers readers the chance to hear and reflect on the table-talk tales of hockey’s greats, the stories of impact and inspiration, and of course, humour. 

We caught up with Duthie to hear his own stories and reflections after publishing a milestone piece in his career. 

Photography by Cole Burston

Tell us about your latest book ‘Beauties’. What was the inspiration behind writing it?

My wife said we needed new coasters. No, I just love great stories. Getting to sit next to countless legendary players, coaches, and insiders on our hockey panel all these years, I’ve heard so many amazing tales that you couldn’t tell on TV.

So I simply asked the game’s greats, its greatest characters, and some unsung heroes, to tell me their favourite hockey story.

And the result is 57 awesome stories, and a book I think people will really enjoy.

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How long did it take you to write this book? What do you enjoy most about writing and do you see yourself writing more books in the future?

The whole process took about a year, the writing itself about six months. This is my fourth book, and definitely the most work, to arrange the interviews, collect the stories, and do them justice.

I have a love-hate relationship with writing. A book takes over your life. I need to apologize to my family for all the times they tried to have conversations with me, and I was off in space, pondering which Sidney Crosby story to use. But what I love most about writing is its permanence. You do a hockey panel during an NHL game, and when it’s done it just disappears….Poufff…gone into space.

I’m not going to be 80, looking back saying “Remember when Bob McKenzie and I had that really great first intermission chat during the Senators game?” But a book is there forever. Maybe my great, great grandkids might read it. From their home on Mars.

Our favourite chapter in the book was on Jonathan Pitre, Ottawa’s courageous young hero who sadly passed away in 2018. One particularly poignant moment in the story was about the email that Kyle Turris sent to Jonathan after being traded to Nashville. The chapter really emphasized the impact Jonathan had on the hockey community and how genuine an admiration so many players had for him. Can you tell us a little about your relationship with Jonathan and the impact he had on you as a person?

No person outside my family has had more of an impact on my life than Jonny has. He changed the way I see the world, and my own setbacks and challenges. They are nothing compared to what he faced. He is the most courageous person I’ve ever met…will ever meet. I had written about Jonny before, in The Guy On The Left, and dedicated that book to him, but in Beauties, I wanted to write specifically about his love for hockey and his unique relationship with hockey players.

A lot of people treated Jonny differently because of the way he looked, his bandages, his wheelchair. Hockey players never did. I think they recognized his toughness, and they took to him. That’s the bond I wanted to explore in his chapter.

You dedicated the book to your mother. What role has your mom played in your life?

My Mom has always been my rock. She was a teacher and has proofread every one of my books. Saved me about a thousand spelling errors. Mom is 88, still lives by herself at her cottage, and is just a strong, amazing woman. Dedicating the book to her was just a small way of telling her how much I love her.

Your book was #1 on the Toronto Star’s Bestseller Non-Fiction List last week, right ahead of Brian Burke’s new book “Burke’s Law: A Life in Hockey”. In our opinion, one of the most important moments in Canadian television history took place when you interviewed Brian and his late son Brendan in late 2009. The interview was about Brendan’s decision to come out and the struggles and challenges that exist for gay athletes. The interview also really spotlighted a great example of unconditional love and support between a father and son. Tragically, Brendan would pass away just a few months later in an automobile accident. Looking back, what does that interview mean to you? What kind of person is Brian Burke underneath his gruff exterior that fans may not know about?

Few interviews mean more to me than that one. That Brendan and Brian would trust me, and TSN, to tell their story means a great deal. Brendan was a wonderful guy and in many ways the perfect person to be one of the first gay voices in hockey. It made his death that much more tragic.

Brian is a really good man. I always tell him I see through his tough-guy-TV-character act. All those years on Tradecentre, we’d do interviews and he’d scowl at me and give one-word answers. And then when the interview was over he would text me and say, “That was great TV! I saved your show again!” Burkie’s a piece of work.

Speaking of father-son relationships, you were particularly close to your dad. Tell us a little about the man that he was and how much he meant to you?

He was just a wonderful guy. I got my love of storytelling from him. Dad loved a great tale. Even in his final days in the hospital, he would have all the nurses around telling them stories of his boxing career or his RCMP adventures.

And my passion for sports was born and fuelled by all those nights in Frank Clair Stadium, watching Rough Rider games with him. When the REDBLACKS won the Grey Cup in 2016, I called him as soon as I got off the stage from presenting the Cup. That’s one of the coolest moments of my career…of my life. He never thought he’d live long enough to see them win. He was so happy and so proud that I was there in the middle of it. Will never forget that call.

What parenting lessons did you learn from your parents? What is the best piece of advice you could give to someone about to be a parent for the first time?

Just unconditional love and support. Mom and Dad supported me and my two sisters, no matter what we wanted to pursue in life.

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It never wavered. We’re striving to do the same with our three kids. Find your passion, chase it, and we have your back no matter what. And just be a good person. Treat other people right. All people. I don’t know if my parents ever said that directly, but you learn through osmosis watching them as you grow up. I’ve hardly been a perfect parent, I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing most of the time. But my kids are kind, big-hearted people. And I’m proud of that.

Have you adjusted to life amid COVID-19? Any lessons you’ve learned or things you’ve rediscovered?

I’ve learned I can be a world champion lazy-ass. I am elite at spending 16 hours on the couch, with crumbs covering most of my body. Beyond that, I loved the extra time with our kids. To go on daily hour-long walks with three teenagers is rare. I think, like everyone, it has just reminded me that health and family are the only things that really matter, and how lucky we are to live in Canada.

How do you feel the NHL pulled off the return-to-play and subsequent playoffs? Are you optimistic that the season will start in January 2021 and do you think there is a chance (as Senators owner Eugene Melnyk stated) that some fans could potentially be able to see games live this season?

Back in April-May, I didn’t think they could pull it off. Just too many hurdles. So they did an amazing job. It wasn’t the same without fans, but the hockey was terrific. As for the start of next season, I am definitely concerned. I think the best-case scenario is a gradual return for fans. Perhaps, none at the beginning, then maybe 10% capacity, then 20% etc. That’s if all goes well. I just can’t see full arenas until after a vaccine is available and a large percentage of the population has been vaccinated. But we’re all guessing right now.

What are your thoughts on the Ottawa Senators off-season moves thus far? Specifically, the return of the original jerseys, the Draft selections of Stuetzle and Sanderson, the Matt Murray acquisition and the Free-Agent signings of Dadonov and Galchenyuk?

The jersey thing I don’t really understand the obsession with. If nothing else, they certainly remind me of my early days at CJOH covering the team. Miss you Ron Tugnutt! I think they’ve had an excellent off-season. And there is true hope for the first time in a while.

They have a ton of really good prospects. I guess my concern would be, do they have a couple who can become truly great? Most Cup winners have a couple of greats. Crosby/Malkin, Kane/Toews, Hedman/Kucherov/Point, not as many have a bunch of “really goods”. Does Chabot become a great? Stuetzle? Branstromm? They certainly have candidates.

What do you feel Eugene Melnyk can do to win back the confidence of the Ottawa fan base?

There is a percentage of the fanbase he likely can’t win back. The relationship is just too toxic. But for the rest, I would just say stay out of the headlines, stay away from the mics, and spend the money you promised you would when the time comes. It’s not that complicated.

You’ve done a lot of great charitable work with the Children Believe organization. What inspired you to get involved with them?

I think it’s important to be a citizen of the planet and help in places that need it, no matter how far away. I love kids, and it breaks my heart to see any child suffer. Children Believe offers me a chance to help in a small way.

And selfishly, I wanted my children to see how lucky they are, and to understand their life in Aurora Ontario is not the way the majority of kids in the world live. I took each of them on a trip with Children Believe when they were 16. They saw kids living in indescribable poverty. It was hard, but I think it impacted all three of them. They saw that they can help. That there is hope.

This interview will be part of our Holiday Issue, so we should ask you a few questions about the Holidays. Tell us your favourite holiday gift you’ve ever received (or least favourite) and why was it so memorable for you. Also, do you have anything on your Christmas wish list this year you want to leak out early so your family can get score some big points with you on December 25th?

I’m a suck, so whenever my wife or kids gives me something to do with family…those Apple photo albums…things like that are the best. But if you want a more embarrassing answer, when I was 17, I asked for this monkey puppet I saw in a mall. I loved the Clemson football team and so I named it Clem and my sister knit the monkey a Clemson sweater. Now the fact that I was 17 and carried a monkey puppet around concerns me greatly. I had issues. I’ll need therapy at some point. But I loved that damn monkey. Miss you Clem.

 

What was Christmas Eve/Christmas Day like for you growing up in Ottawa? Do you have any memories or traditions that you’ve kept alive for your family as years have gone by?

It was amazing, perfect. We were always allowed to open one present before breakfast Christmas morning, and then we’d have to wait. And my older sister Kristy would torment me by eating so slowly. Kristy and my other sister Merydee would also come up with elaborate ways to give me my present. They are 4 and 6 years older, I was the baby. One Christmas, they strung fishing line all over our house, telling me the present was at the end of the line. I’m talking upstairs, downstairs…everywhere. It probably took me an hour to follow the whole line, which of course led back under the tree.

Another year they attached my present to a buoy on the lake at our cottage in the fall, and let the lake freeze over. So Christmas morning I had to take an axe and hack through the ice to find my gift. I love my sisters, but they are evil geniuses.

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What were your favourite places to eat and visit growing up in Ottawa? Do you have any places you always return to when you’re back in the city?

I’m afraid most of my classics are probably gone. Shout out to Young Chow Chinese Food in Blackburn Hamlet! I spent my early twenties at Stoney Mondays on the market and Maxwell’s on Elgin. I had a Maxwell’s card. I thought that made me a pretty big deal. Later, when I lived in The Glebe, I loved Light of India on Bank and The Green Door. Still go there sometimes when I come home. And The Weston breakfast buffet is my go-to whenever I am back for football or hockey games. I am a huge breakfast guy. It would terrify you how much I can eat in the morning.

Did you play any sports growing up in the city? Was there a time in your life that you thought you would be James Duthie the pro athlete instead of James Duthie the broadcaster – or were those dreams ended pretty early on like they are for most of us?

Oh ya. I was fully delusional. I played high school football at Gloucester and was convinced I was going to get a scholarship to Clemson and play for the 49ers.

Then halfway through my final year, I realized I was a 5’10 160 cornerback with mediocre speed and talent. Not sure the Niners were looking for that. I did get recruited by McGill for football, and was going to go there and take Phys Ed but decided journalism at Carleton was a better bet. Before football, I played soccer for the Gloucester Hornets and hockey for the Blackburn Stingers. As I wrote in The Guy On The Left, I wasn’t a great hockey player. Bad skater. Total goal suck. Soft as pudding.

What is the career accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

That a funny looking kid from Gloucester could somehow still be on TV, and there haven’t been protests to remove him.

I don’t know. I just hope that I’ve treated the people I work with right, and have treated all the viewers with respect by being prepared, somewhat professional, and occasionally giving them some ridiculous skit or music video to give them a brief distraction from life.

In the end, when you leave, you hope people you worked with and people who watched you say, “That guy was alright. He wasn’t too much of a jerk.”

What was it like being at the game when the Raptors won the 2019 NBA Championship? Did you have any memorable interactions with Kawhi Leonard or any of the Raptors?

One of the highlights of my career for sure. When we lost the national hockey rights six years ago, my job changed to cover big events in other sports, and the Raptors championship was a true privilege to be a part of. I didn’t get to know Kawhi, I’m not sure anyone really did. During the post-game celebrations, Fred Van Vleet came over for an interview. He was drenched in champagne and sweat, had this huge cut over his eye. He looked like a boxer who had just gone 12 rounds and won the title. And at one quiet moment, before we went on, he just looked around and said, “Is this shit real?” Yup Fred, it was.

Your colleague, Bob McKenzie, recently announced he was semi-retiring. What has it been like for you to work with Bob over the years? Do you ever see yourself ‘semi-retiring’ or do you feel that when you’re done you’ll just ride off into the sunset and enjoy retirement completely?

Much of the respect and trust people have in our panel and hockey coverage is because of Bob. He’s an absolute legend and one of my best friends. He’s taken up golf now too so I’m hoping he’ll be a golf partner for the next 30 years or so.

As for me, I’d like to do this as long as people will put up with me. I love my job. I love the people I work with. You can’t ask for much more.

Finally, tell us about your wife. How did you two meet? Did you have to use some of your Duthie charm to win her over or was she captivated by you at first sight? Where did you go on your first date and what would you say is the secret to a happy relationship and life?

We met in line outside Maxwell’s on the market on a cold winter night. I guess my Maxwell’s card had expired! She asked if she could borrow my gloves. I still don’t know if that was a pick-up line or if her hands were just really freaking cold. That was a Saturday. We went to a movie Sunday night. Super Bowl Sunday. My buddies said, “If he’s missing the Super Bowl, this must be big.” It was. I think in our case, the secret is we are both pretty easy-going and we make each other laugh. She also is not a sports fan. At all. I called her once after the last game of a cup final to tell her I was coming home and she said, “Are you sure there isn’t one more round?” I said, “No, babe, Jonathan Toews is right in front of me holding the Stanley Cup, there are no more rounds.”

I kinda love the fact I don’t ever come home and have to have an extended discussion about the Senators penalty kill. 

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