It’s a common lament for the American hockey fan: Turn on the late night sports highlight show, and wait until minutes before the end credits to see the puck highlights.
And by “the late night sports highlight show” we’re of course talking about SportsCenter.
Fox Sports 1 emerged as a competitor to ESPN and NBC Sports Network last year and made a splash by hiring TSN’s SportsCentre anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole to host Fox Sports Live; and they in turn made a splash by giving hockey the time of day on their signature show.
(Seriously: What kind of hockey nuts find time for Mooney and Lozo on their broadcast?)
We spoke with Onrait about his network’s love for hockey as well as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, SoCal NHL fans, “Canada’s team” and his former network losing the NHL rights package. Enjoy!
Q. How does the Mexican food in Los Angeles compare to the Mexican food in Canada?
ONRAIT: The best Mexican food in Canada comes from people who used to live in Los Angeles.
How are you enjoying the playoffs so far?
It’s amazing. This postseason has been so much fun. Like I’m watching a Rangers/Penguins game and thinking the series is over and then the Rangers have more shots in the first period than they had in Game 4.
I’ve been really enjoying watching it from an American perspective too. I’ve been really impressed with the way LA has embraced the playoffs. The fan bases for both the Ducks and the Kings have been really strong, really into hockey. It goes back not to just the Gretzky trade but before that with the Triple Crown line. The foundation was established and subsequent generations have followed it. The sport’s really healthy in Southern California.
What was your impression of California hockey fans before heading there?
I knew the Kings had a good following, but I don’t think I knew how deep the rivalry was between the two fan bases. We’ve got some Ducks and Kings fans working with us at Fox Sports Live, and there’s been some serious tension here.
It’s also been fun – and I won’t make any friends in Canada saying this – to not be inundated. I used to love when you’ve be in the Eastern time zone and people would say “well, nobody stays up to watch Marc-Edouard Vlasic” because he plays on the West Coast. And I’d think, ‘That makes no sense. Nobody watches him?’ So I guess it’s nice to be in the Western time zone and get to watch players that apparently I could never watch before.
So what’s your overall impression of what a Kings fan is and what a Ducks fan is?
Oh, tough question.
It’s a little bit of a Lakers/Clippers situation. For example, the Clippers were so good this year, and yet I’d drive around and listen to talk radio and only hear about how [crappy] the Lakers were. So I think in the minds of Kings fans, they’re the Lakers. They’re the established team. But I have to give credit to the Ducks. They’re might be fewer fans, but no less passionate.
It just guess to show you that how you make hockey work in a non-traditional market is that same old thing – winning.
Do you miss the 24/7, let’s scrutinize everything coverage in Canada of the Leafs or Habs?
Of course I do. Maybe you’re like this too: I don’t always think that I need it, but when I’m up there in it, I’m not exactly turning away from it. Of course I miss 30 minutes of hockey highlights to start the show.
But I give Fox Sports credit: They realized that maybe American fans aren’t being as well-served by ESPN as they used to be, and there’s a niche to fill. And if we can fill that niche, then maybe that can separate us from what they do.
I think it goes into a place of advocacy. Like you and Dan are looking out for hockey fans by bringing the sport into the same spotlight that the NBA and NFL inhabit. Like not only are you doing the sport right, but the people who follow the sport right.
You nailed it. I think they want us to show as many hockey highlights are we possibly can. Maybe if we weren’t hosting it’d be a different story. I don’t know. But I know since the playoffs started, we’ve had hockey highlights in the first 10 minutes of the show.
Back to hockey: Why is Canada sometimes hesitant to embrace the Montreal Canadiens as “Canada’s team?”
It’s not just Montreal. Vancouver and Toronto have the same kind of love/hatred. When Calgary made that run, they were embraced. When Edmonton made the run in the next season, they were too. It was a ‘oh, aren’t they cute’ thing. Montreal, on the other hand, has had so much success. If you talk to a Leafs fan, they’d like to have any other team win rather than have the Habs win another Cup.
Vancouver played a certain style that I feel like if you weren’t a Canucks fan you didn’t like that team.
Canadians are interesting. I think it’s gotten to the point were they’re happier if an American team wins the Cup instead of a Canadian team that isn’t their team.
What did you think of Brendan Shanahan taking over the Leafs?
Just a weird to me. Why he’d want to put that kind of pressure on himself, having never played for the franchise. I know he’s from the area, but 38 percent of the League’s players are from the area.
I just don’t know … why is that guy, in that role, going to be better than a guy like Dave Nonis? He just has the experience that Brendan doesn’t have. It just found the move strange and odd.
I think the move that would have made more sense was to throw a million dollars at Ken Holland (of the Red Wings).
You guys left TSN and then they lost the NHL package. Coincidence?
No, uh-uh. (/Sarcasm)
What did you think of that move to Sportsnet?
I felt terrible … you work in the industry, and you work with both guys on either side of the fence. At my age, I’m past the ‘I’m a TSN guy’ or ‘I’m a Sportsnet guy.’ I’m a ‘I want everyone to have jobs’ guy. My first reaction was that I hoped that no one was going to get laid off.
And instead, it seems like everyone got raises. So we left way too early.
OK, lightning round: Which NHL coach would you most like to most like to have a beer with?
Claude Noel before he was fired. But I’d drink tequila with Mike Babcock.
NHL player you think you can take in a fight?
The next NHL expansion city?
Obviously Seattle and Quebec City are at the front, but my dark horse is Saskatoon. There’s so much money there now. They won’t sell out every night, but the whole province would embrace then. It would be like a Winnipeg situation.
Fox Sports Live is on nightly from 11PM - 2AM ET Live and repeated throughout the next morning.