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White Rock broadcaster reflects on Sports Page tenure

Chris Hebb has had many jobs in the media business over the last 30 years, from producing news and documentaries to serving in broadcast executive roles with two major sports organizations – Orca Bay, which owned the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks and the NBA’s Grizzlies, and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, one of the world’s biggest sports entities on the planet.

He was an early-adapter on the Internet – helping launch the Canucks’ first website, and even selling the Maple Leafs their domain name (for the whopping sum of $1) after scooping it up on the cheap in the early ’90s – and was a pioneer in the online-streaming business.

But all that success aside, it’s a little local, late-night sports show he hosted in the mid-1980s that he’s perhaps best associated with: Sports Page.

Hebb, a White Rock resident and former University of Victoria basketball player – hosted the show, alongside the late Paul Carson from 1983 until ’88. The show itself – remembered fondly by local sports fans for its quirkiness, attention to local teams and slew of young broadcasters who went on to become household names in the industry – ran first in the late ’70s before, after brief hiatus, being reborn in ’83 and running until 2001.

And though it’s been off air for years, Hebb said he’s always amazed at how fondly people remember the show – which in its heyday was a half-hour broadcast every night at 11:30 p.m. on CKVU.

Last week, the show – and its bevy of former employees – was thrust back into the spotlight when the BC Sports Hall of Fame opened its Sports Page exhibit, which is scheduled to be on display for at least the next 12 months.

“I’ve been stunned by it, honestly,” he told Peace Arch News earlier this month, a few days after the exhibit opened.

“When I started, I was 25, so I wasn’t doing anything but having fun. But having gone back through this (Hall of Fame exhibit) process, I’ve found pictures and tape and stuff like that again… and then to see the exhibit? It’s amazing – I’m just so humbled by it.”

Aside from Hebb – who now runs his own sports-media consulting business – the history of Sports Page anchors is a who’s who of Canadian sports media: Don Taylor, Barry MacDonald, Scott Rintoul, Dave Randorf, Dan Murphy and Craig MacEwan all went on to high-profile careers in Vancouver sports radio and television, while another former host, John Shorthouse, moved from Sports Page to become the Canucks’ play-by-play broadcaster.

And Hebb is quick to point out it’s not just on-camera talent that cut their teeth on the show, naming former Page producer Mike Hall (now the Canucks’ director of game presentation), Randy Stephens (now executive director of Atlanta-based Fox Sports Southeast) and Larry Isaac (Hockey Night in Canada producer) as alums of the long-running broadcast.

During the ’80s and into the ’90s, Sports Page, Hebb explained, was up against the “old guard” of established Vancouver sports media members, but the show succeeded by having a fun, light-hearted vibe that made viewers think they were just talking sports with a friend over a couple beers.

“We felt like the peons – there were still guys like (John) McKeachie, Bernie Pascall over at BCTV making the big money… then J. Paul McConnell and Steve Armitage were over at CBC,” Hebb explained.

“We operated out of the smallest little corner of our studio, and were doing it with no much in the way of a budget… we were just so happy to be there. We weren’t announcers who happened to take the easy way out and cover sports – we loved it. We were fans.

“We were young, and energetic – you could feel it. Dan Rather wrote a book called The Camera Never Blinks – if you watch someone on television long enough, you know who they are. And we were who we were… people knew we loved the teams as much as they did.”

The show was also successful, Hebb said, because they made a conscious effort to report on local stories none of the other major networks usually touched – local university sports and high-school basketball, among them.

“That was one of the secrets – seeing your (high school) or your junior ‘A’ hockey team, or your swim meet on TV,” he said. “The way they do it now, is that the host never leaves the studio. But back then, we reported all day. We’d be at your high-school basketball game, and you’d see me, and if they meet you, they’re watching you that night, and then they see it on TV and they’re a fan for life. That’s how audiences are built.”

Two weeks ago, on a Friday night before the exhibit opened to the public, the hall-of-fame held a gathering for Sports Page alums, which included a panel hosted by Tom Mayenknecht, a sports-business expert, radio host and former co-worker of Hebb’s with Orca Bay.

The exercise quickly devolved from an organized discussion into “story time.”

“Tom kept asking questions that nobody answered,” Hebb laughed.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Part of the BC Sports Hall of Fame’s Sports Page exhibit features a living room set up to mimic the show’s heyday during the 1980s and ‘90s; former host Craig MacEwan signs his photo at the exhibit; Part of the exhibit includes a replica of the show’s studio. (BC Sports Hall of Fame photos)

And while the stories told that night “were the tame ones” the longtime broadcaster and executive has a few favourites himself – from watching Pavel Bure’s first game with the Canucks, to Wayne Gretzky’s kindness, to the time, during a 1983 informal meet-and-greet with new BC Lions’ head coach Don Matthews that two Vancouver radio legends, Neil MacRae and Tom Larscheid, nearly came to blows in a Holiday Inn hotel suite.

“It was just supposed to be a casual get-together with the media, and as soon as Matthews walks in, MacRae takes him out on the balcony, closes the sliding door, and does like 40 minutes with him – a taped show. And let me tell you, people were not impressed… They come back in, and Tommy goes after MacRae. He grabs him by the lapels – he’s steaming – and says, ‘You ever do that again MacRae and I’ll throw you right off that balcony and don’t think I won’t,” Hebb explained, with a laugh.

“Matthews is there staring at this – that was his introduction, and my introduction, to the Vancouver media.”

With sports television today dominated by the two major Toronto-based networks – TSN and Sportsnet – Hebb isn’t sure a show like Sports Page would be able to survive from a business perspective, but he does think there’d be an appetite for it from sports fans, especially those who miss the old show’s local touch.

“It’s just not the way things work anymore,” he said. “I think there would be an audience today for something hyper-local… that stuff doesn’t get covered anymore, and I think that’s a shame, but it’s just changed so much.”

Nick Greenizan

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