It was the call heard ’round the world – it just wasn’t the call Elliotte Friedman wanted to make.
Last month, American swimmer Michael Phelps streaked away from teammate Ryan Lochte and the rest of the competition in the 200-metre individual medley to win his 22nd Olympic gold medal. Behind the mic for the CBC broadcast, as the race came down to its final stretch, Friedman made the call with trademarked passion:
“Phelps doesn’t look like he has this one in him. Ryan Lochte, going for his 13th career medal, saving the best for last. Finally, he’s going to do it. Ryan Lochte is going to beat Michael Phelps in this event in The Games. And Phelps might not even make the podium.”
The race ended. And then, after a beat of silence, Friedman spoke again:
“I apologize. I got my lanes mixed up. Phelps, with the gold.”
News of the error spread quickly; social media sparked with its typical snark. But many raced to show support, as well. His apology tweet posted soon afterward has drawn more than 1,500 retweets and 5,000 likes in less than 12 hours. Below that tweet, hundreds of well-wishers rushed to support the respected veteran announcer and NHL reporter.
The response was a tribute to the professionalism and personality of a man who got his start at Western.
Friedman doesn’t see himself as a TV star, and that’s the secret to his success.
Friedman succeeds by being himself: an understated, thoughtful presence on the NHL broadcasts, conceding the spotlight to former host George Stroumboulopoulos, and former NHL players Nick Kypreos and Kelly Hrudey.
Friedman chose a hockey analogy to explain his role. “On a hockey team, there are your grinders and your elite scorers,” Friedman said in an interview before the games. “I kind of see myself as the grinder, while the other guys are the elite scorers. And there’s room for grinders on TV too.”
Kypreos says Friedman’s “greatest appeal is that he brings a perspective that comes from outside the dressing room looking in. He doesn’t pretend to be hockey player. That’s refreshing for Kelly and me. It’s a great balance. He’s really turned himself into a student of the game.”
Honing a craft first cultivated at The Gazette student newspaper, Friedman makes up for a lack of celebrity flash with dogged research, looking for trends or fresh insights that the others have missed. He also conducts revealing interviews, and provides insightful online commentary with his weekly 30 Thoughts column.
“I try to come across as understated,” he said. “There’s a lot of yelling in this business and we don’t need everybody yelling. The other thing too is that I don’t think phoniness works. Or if it works, you have to be really good at it.”
Although he fell a couple of subjects short of graduating, Friedman was an English major at Western (1989-93), and finds humour in the fact he went years misspelling his own name, leaving out the ‘e’ on the end. He learned about his mistake when he applied for a passport at 16 and checked his birth registration.
Being understated, however, doesn’t mean Friedman won’t voice his objections with his colleagues. A bit of a clown at times, he also doesn’t mind poking fun at himself.
“I wear funky socks every night,” Friedman said. “And sometimes I ask my son (4-year-old Max) to pick them out. I like to do things to see if people are paying attention.”
Friedman’s career took off when Scott Moore hired him away from the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada in 2014, several months after Rogers had won the exclusive NHL broadcast rights.
Moore, who is now President of Sportsnet and NHL Properties for Rogers, said Friedman has developed into one of the “best and most knowledgeable insiders in hockey” and is well-respected by the hockey community – from fans to players, coaches, general managers and NHL executives.
“Elliotte’s versatility and talent is a huge asset to sports fans and Sportsnet,” Moore said.
At 45, Friedman is a star in his own right, but he had help in getting to the top.
At one time, he was a ‘gotcha’ interviewer, taking a hard line all the time in his questioning. Later, veteran broadcaster Bob Mackowycz Sr. told him something that stuck.
“When I was young, I brought the heat all the time,” Friedman said. “And Bob said, ‘You’ve got to be like a pitcher. Sometimes you’ve got to bring the heat, but sometimes you’ve got to bring the other stuff, too.’”
It’s now hard to imagine Friedman drifting through high school lacking confidence in anything.
“There were those who peaked in high school and those who didn’t,” Friedman said. “And I didn’t. I had a lot of bad traits. I made excuses when I didn’t do things well.”
When Friedman enrolled at Western in 1989, he had considered his life a failure. On his 19th birthday, he took a stroll around campus by himself, looking for direction in life. Yet he was inspired by being away from home. He saw this as his chance to reinvent himself.
“At university, you’re away from home, you have to find you way, right? And you find your way. On my walk around campus, I said to myself, from here on in, it’s going to be different.”
That difference would come in sports writing.
There was no family background in journalism to draw upon. The second oldest in the family (he has four sisters), Friedman might have been destined to become an accountant like his father, Harvey, or a travel agent like his stepmom, Jackie (his birth mother passed away).
But building on his passion for sports, he starting writing for The Gazette and immediately impressed Sports Editor Mark Palmer.
“I remember the first piece I handed in; I had attended a soccer match and he told me it needs work, but that I was a good writer,” Friedman recalled. “I was very excited about that and threw myself into that. I think when you realize you have an ability at something, you start to change.”
Along with his affable nature and great laugh, Palmer remembers Friedman for his boundless enthusiasm and his encyclopedic sports knowledge. He also had a “gift” for asking great questions.
“Everyone began to realize pretty quickly that Elliotte was destined for something bigger in the world of sports journalism,” Palmer said.
By his second year, Friedman was the Sports Editor, and by his last year, he was Editor in Chief.
Friedman left Western without a degree and amidst a tight job market as the rejection slips piled up. He landed a job as the editor at a free sports paper in Toronto. That paper lasted only two issues. But Friedman was on his way.
A letter to Dan Shulman, then an emerging star with The Fan 590 who is now with the American network ESPN and Sportsnet, helped open a door.
The Fan had become the first all-sports radio station in Canada and Friedman walked into the station looking for an opportunity. In 1994, Friedman was hired as a volunteer by Scott Metcalfe, now news director at 680 NEWS.
Although he didn’t have a lot of experience in radio, Metcalfe was impressed with Friedman’s deep knowledge of sports. “He also had the ability to analyze the stats and numbers and offer well-informed opinions,” Metcalfe said.
When the Toronto Raptors were born in 1995, Friedman jumped at the chance to report on the NBA team. By 1998, he was reporting on Blue Jays games as well.
From radio, he moved briefly to The Score before catching on with the CBC in 2003, reporting for Hockey Night in Canada.
Long hours come with the job. He’s on the clock from the day after Labour Day until July 1, and that’s when he relieves his wife, Stephanie, a TV producer who’s now a stay-at-home mom, with the household chores.
Life is busy, but Friedman wants to finish his English degree at some point.
“I think I have to take a Shakespearean English and an algebra,” Friedman said, his eyes growing wide. “And Shakespearean English, at least when I went there, was four essays and two exams, so I have to psyche myself up for that.”