Still Number One

Though his broadcasting career has taken him from Edmonton to Toronto to L.A., Jay Onrait is still a favourite with Canadian sports fans.

Photography Curtis Comeau; Styling by Denise Terese Solis, Fox Sports 1 Wardrobe Dept.; Grooming by Gina Maceri, Fox Sports 1 Hair and Makeup Dept.

My brother walks into a bar, goes to the bathroom, and walks out with Jay Onrait. 

Though this sounds like the beginning of a joke, it’s actually the story of how I first met the famed sports anchor. After my brother – who is a lifelong fan of Onrait’s shows – struck up a conversation with him in the bathroom of Mercer Tavern in Edmonton, Onrait joined us at our table and regaled us with a story about golfing in Edmonton.

Given that his new book is titled Number Two: More Short Tales from a Very Tall Man – plenty of the stories contain toilet humour – and that part of this interview and photo shoot took place in a men’s bathroom, I’d say that it was an appropriate beginning. 

The men’s bathroom we’re huddled in for part of this photo shoot is far removed from the one at Mercer Tavern. This bathroom is in Fox Studios in Century City, Calif., down the photo-lined hallway from where Onrait and his co-host Dan O’Toole film their show Fox Sports Live and record The Jay and Dan Podcast for Fox Sports 1.

Onrait is posing for photos and talking with me during what is technically his break between filming two back-to-back segments on U.S. college football. He expects to be at the studio until midnight, but he’s smiling and upbeat the whole time. Onrait figures he’s in the studio for about 40 hours per week, “but it’s not really work when you’re watching sports,” he says. “But that’s why I decided to do [broadcasting].”

“I’ve never worked the 20 years I’ve been in this business. Hopefully I can squeeze 10 more years out of it.”

The “work” he’s doing today is very different from what he set out to do when he enrolled at the University of Alberta after graduating from high school in his hometown of Athabasca, Alta., in 1992. His father, Dale, ran the Value Drug Mart in town. In 1995, the Alberta College of Pharmacists named it the W.L. Boddy Pharmacy of the Year.

“I was studying pre-pharmacy,” says Onrait. “My dad was a pharmacist in Athabasca, so I thought that was a practical thing to do – study pharmacy and then take over the family business. Really, I wanted to do broadcasting right after high school, but I was too chicken and the concept of going into broadcasting just seemed so daunting to me. I thought there was no way I could make a living off that.”

But while Onrait was going to the RATT bar, Earls Campus Towers and Academy Pizza, getting grades “just barely good enough to get into pharmacy” at the U of A, he set up a meeting with Pat Kiernan at the original Earls on Calgary Trail. Now a prominent anchor in New York City on NY1 News, Kiernan was the producer of News at Ten on ITV (now Global Edmonton) at the time.

“Jay reminded me a lot of my own path in broadcasting. He was a U of A student who had suppressed an interest in broadcasting to take the more common path of a degree. So I didn’t really hesitate to meet with him,” says Kiernan, who himself was a business student at the U of A before getting into broadcasting. “He said he wanted to hang around the newsroom and help us out. He seemed smart.”

Kiernan offered Onrait the opportunity to learn “how to write news” and a volunteer position at ITV, which he eagerly accepted.

“He hung around [the ITV studio] so much that we forgot we weren’t paying him,” Kiernan says. “He quickly proved himself as somebody who had a natural curiosity and ability as a journalist.” Kiernan describes Onrait as “funny, curious, and smart” – traits that have contributed to his success.“That [internship] got me into the industry,” says Onrait. “I did that for a year and a half, and Pat taught me everything about the news business. It just piqued my interest in [broadcasting] and taught me that I could actually make a living doing it. So I applied to the broadcasting program at Ryerson [University] and got in, and that kind of changed my life.”

While attending Ryerson in downtown Toronto, Onrait got an internship at TSN that quickly turned into the full-time job that led to his now-iconic anchor role on SportsCentre with O’Toole. In 2013, after 10 years at TSN, the duo was lured away to Los Angeles to join Fox Sports 1. Onrait admits that money was one of the main factors that motivated the move.

“I would definitely not have a stylist or a makeup artist following me around like this [at TSN],” Onrait explains as we walk to a makeshift dressing room for a suit change. “There’s just more people, more money, and – you saw the studio. That’s a nicer, bigger studio than we ever had at TSN. Just way more resources.”

Quite simply, Onrait had outgrown what Canadian media could offer him and needed a change.

But he hasn’t outgrown Canada.

Onrait remains an unabashed Canuck. He remains fiercely appreciative of his Canadian fanbase, and acts as a Canadian in California rather than a Canadian trying to be Californian – something that’s evident on the air and off, based on the stories he tells in Number Two and during our interview.

“We have an outdoor skating rink in Santa Monica, if you can believe it, five blocks from the beach. They put it up every single year. I love to go and skate backwards around the little kids, and they all stare at me like I’m Wayne Gretzky or something. It’s really, really fun. My big thrill is going to skate backwards around kids who grew up with nothing but sunshine.”

And when he’s not skating the way only a hockey-loving Albertan would know how, he’s watching hockey.

“I’m excited [about the Oilers], even though it hasn’t started so great. I’m an Alberta boy and I’m excited about [Connor] McDavid. I think we [Edmontonians] should all be really excited. I was watching the home opener against St. Louis and – maybe it’s hard to tell on TV, but it just seemed like the crowd was kind of dead. I’m hoping the crowd encourages these guys. I know it hasn’t been a great product to watch for the last few years, and that’s sort of an unfortunate thing if you’re paying great money for tickets, but I want that building to come alive again. I think that crowd has to get it going and encourage these young guys, because I really think they need it. They need that atmosphere in there. Hopefully it turns around.”

I ask if he thinks that the soon-to-be home of the Oilers, Rogers Place, will provide that atmosphere.

“I think it’s amazing. As someone who grew up around Edmonton, the concept of downtown being a place to go hang out is sort of weird to me, but this is great because that’s the way it should be. I’m very excited to go visit Edmonton when that’s done.”

Onrait recorded a farewell message to Rexall Place that was played during the final NHL game there. In it, he demanded perogies be served at the new Rogers Place.

His loyalty to his Canadian fans shows on-air and in promoting his own endeavours, even though his television audience is now primarily American.

When the Toronto Blue Jays were playing against the Texas Rangers in Game 3 of the American League Division Series this past October, Onrait’s Fox Sports 1 colleague Harold Reynolds made a now-infamous comment about Canadian baseball fans:   “There’s not a lot of people that grew up playing baseball in Canada. They’re not used to catching a lot of balls in the stands.” 

“That night [Dan and I] were getting inundated with tweets from Canadians about what Harold had said,” says Onrait. “We were trying to figure out a way to respond to all those tweets, but not in a mean-spirited way toward Harold, and just kind of make fun of ourselves.”

The response they came up with was a tweet that read: “SORRY CANADA. WE DIDN’T SAY IT. -signed Jay and Dan.” They also posted a video to O’Toole’s Instagram account that showed Onrait throwing a baseball directly over O’Toole’s head, with O’Toole making no effort to catch it. The caption read: “Harold was right.”

Their responses clearly pleased Canadians beyond their fanbase, as they garnered thousands of comments, favourites, likes and shares on social media. Scrolling through their social media feeds, Onrait and O’Toole’s posts typically garner hundreds of comments.

“Fox has been really good about not wanting us to hide our Canadian-ness,” says Onrait. “I think they think that we, as Canadians, are quirky; they generally love us. There’s no animosity there; they’re just curious about us and who we are. We play games with the camera guys and crew like, ‘How many provinces can you name?’ and they love it.”

Onrait recalls a night out in October 2015 when he and a group of Canadian expats went to see the Tragically Hip perform at The Wiltern in Los Angeles. “It was a very Canadian night. We started off with drinks at the Canadian Consulate, which was funny in itself, and then we went to the Hip show, and on our way to the show, we ran into (Ottawa-born actor and comedian) Dan Aykroyd on the street. It was as if we had been transported back to Canada for one night in Los Angeles.”

While he’s fond of his Canadian roots, trading life in Edmonton and Toronto for life in Los Angeles has been an easy transition.

“It’s all about the weather. As someone who grew up in a town where it had to be 40 below for the buses to not run, it’s not bad. The city has been surprisingly wonderful to live in – other than the traffic, which is such a clich. The people are just so friendly, and everyone loves living here. And you wonder, ‘Why is everyone so friendly here?’ It’s because it’s warm 340 days a year. How could you not be happy?”

Onrait’s time in L.A. garnered him even more stories for his second book.

“I owe Carly [Watters, his agent] everything. When Carly approached me, it was right after I had done a TV show [2011’s The Week That Was] on MuchMoreMusic and it was just a miserable disaster. She said, ‘I really liked your TV show,’ and I said, ‘You’re the only one who watched it. She said, ‘I really think you should write a book.’ I’d always wanted to write a book – I just didn’t think I would do it at this stage of my life. But then, as I got to writing it, I found I did have enough stories and interesting experiences to make a book happen.”

The reception to his first book, Anchorboy – not just in sales but also the positive reaction from readers – motivated him to write a second book.

“I was in Edmonton at Chapters and the lineup – I couldn’t believe it. People I had grown up with in Athabasca had come down to see me there and it was just so surreal. Every stop on the book tour lasted a couple of hours. It’s just a surreal experience to show up at a bookstore that you shopped at for years to find that, oh my God, there are people waiting here to have me sign their book.”

While Anchorboy focused on his experiences in the broadcasting industry, Onrait describes Number Two as a book about “growing up prairies.”

“The original title of the book was Dancing with Ukrainian Girls, because in Athabasca, like in many Albertan communities, the town was about 50 per cent Ukrainian descent. So I was going to high school dances and I wanted to dance with all these girls, but I was already awkwardly tall” – Onrait is now six-foot-six – “and all the girls were short. I had to kind of lean down to try to, you know, cop a feel, so I looked like a real weirdo learning over like that at a school dance. But those stories didn’t actually make it into the book in the end, so that’s why we had to change the title.”

What did make it into Number Two is a collection of humorous and personal short stories from all stages of Onrait’s life. His “favourite and easiest” story to write for the new collection is one about dining at The Spotted Pig, a restaurant in New York City that’s co-owned by rapper Jay Z.

“[My wife and I] ended up getting the best table in the restaurant but, at the end of our dinner, Jay Z showed up with an entourage and wanted our table – so much that he just sat down with us. And bought us shots of Patrn.”

Though he wrote the entirety of Number Two at a cafe in Santa Monica, he clearly did not find it difficult to recall the drastically different climates and landscapes of his hometown and of Edmonton, which get numerous references in the book. “As I sat down and started to write [Number Two], suddenly I found I had too many stories, so I guess I’ll have to write a third one.”

Before he puts pen to paper again, Onrait will return to Edmonton for another book signing, some family time, and to visit some of his favourite places. “My wife loves the Quon family; she loves their TV shows and we love going to The Lingnan. I love Tres Carnales downtown for Mexican. I like to go to the U of A and just walk around campus. It brings back memories of hanging out.”

When Rogers Place opens, he’ll have to check that out, too. Hopefully Daryl Katz has put some snazzy bathrooms in the place (and perogies in the concessions, too).

We wrap up the interview and photo shoot in the lobby at the studio of Fox Sports 1, where a rendering of Greek gods passing the remote to a football fan is painted on the wall. Onrait is running in front of a giant neon “1,” holding a Canadian flag from his office behind him. It’s a perfect visual; his Canadian identity at the forefront, along with a symbol of his current career “home,” which has allowed him to grow bigger and brighter in the industry he loves so much. Most of all, it’s a reminder that, despite his new book being called Number Two, to his Canadian fans, Onrait is still number one. 

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