TSN anchor Jay Onrait became emotional while hosting his nightly highlight show late on Sunday, his first outing since the cable sports network cut a number of staff last week, including his long-time co-anchor, Dan O’Toole.
It was also Onrait’s first appearance on air since O’Toole had lit up social media on Saturday morning with a series of barbed tweets that mocked TSN’s parent company, BCE Inc. (aka Bell) for positioning itself as a model of corporate compassion.
About 15 minutes into his return show, which went to air at midnight after the Super Bowl, Onrait addressed the awkwardness of being the only man behind the desk he used to share with O’Toole.
“Well, it’s been a tough week here at TSN,” he told viewers. “We lost some great people. We lost KJ [Kristian Jack] we lost Natasha [Staniszewski], we lost three great people here on this show: our head writer, Brendan Halloran; our long-suffering producer, Producer Tim, who I started with at this network back in ’96; and of course my friend and co-anchor for almost two decades, Dan O’Toole.”
Then, Onrait shifted into his trademark twitchy self-effacement, with a dose of heartfelt gratitude.
“Yesterday, Toolsie [a nickname for O’Toole] and I were on his deck drinking White Claws, because – because we’re 46. And we were talking about how, when young people see us now, they tell us they grew up with us. Which makes us feel old! But also so grateful because when we started on this network together, almost two decades ago, we had one priority – to be ourselves, on television. And it only worked because you guys watched us. Because – let’s face it, our show was pretty weird! But you made us a part of your routine, with your families, all across this country at morning and at night, and Dan and I will always appreciate that,” he said, his voice breaking.
“So on behalf of Dan and Tim and myself – and everybody on this amazing crew: Thank you.”
A few hours earlier, O’Toole had posted a photo to Instagram of himself and Onrait, captioned with a plea to viewers: “I love this man. Please welcome his new show with open arms. We are forever brothers.”
The new show, known as SC with Jay Onrait, replaces TSN’s flagship highlights show, SC with Jay and Dan. The pair had been together since 2003, when a network executive thought their irreverent and sometimes loopy sense of humour would appeal to viewers. For 10 years, they co-anchored the nightly show SportsCentre, becoming two of the network’s biggest stars and hosting live events across the country.
In 2013, they were wooed away to Los Angeles to co-anchor a highlights show for the fledgling Fox Sports 1 network. After their U.S. contract expired, they returned to TSN in the fall of 2017 to host a show that bore their names.
O’Toole’s earnest good wishes on Sunday were in sharp contrast to the bitter tone he had struck on Saturday morning, with three tweets excoriating his former employer’s hashtag advocacy. Every year on a designated day at the end of January, Bell donates five cents for each social media post that references the company’s mental-health awareness campaign with a specific hashtag.
He did not mention Bell by name but instead used its familiar terminology – “Let’s Talk” – to needle the company for using the campaign to buff its image. “So I have to mention the company for it to mean anything?” he asked. “But what if I was fired by the company that makes the hashtag about mental health? Do I still include them in the hashtag?”
In another tweet, he added: “And isn’t being fired, I don’t know, kind of bad for mental health?”
By Sunday evening, the three tweets together had amassed more than 40,000 likes.
On Monday, a Bell spokesperson pushed back against O’Toole’s characterization of the company’s advocacy as cynical. “The positive impact of Bell Let’s Talk, and Bell’s acknowledged leadership in workplace mental health, doesn’t change based on necessary business decisions,” said Marc Choma, in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.