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For TSN’s Sara Orlesky, coming back to Winnipeg was definitely a good thing

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WHEN Sara Orlesky suspected her bosses at The Sports Network (TSN) were considering opening a Winnipeg bureau, she didn’t wait for them to call. Nor did she expect them to.

Instead, Orlesky, whom the Globe and Mail once described as one of "the top young female sports broadcasters in Canada," interrupted her maternity leave to tell her superiors she wanted "first dibs" on the bureau job.

As someone who was born in Winnipeg and grew up in Charleswood, the 31-year-old broadcaster had a pretty good idea what the return of the National Hockey League might mean to her hometown, and she knew that she wanted to be a part of it. She knew it even if some of those bright-light, big-city slickers from Vancouver and Toronto thought it meant, as she puts it, "falling off the map."

Between sips of a large caffe latte infused with sugar-free vanilla at a local bookstore-restaurant, Orlesky did her best impression of the response her move elicited from many in larger media markets.

"Oh, you’re in Winnipeg now," she said in a tone that managed to blend both pity and bewilderment with perhaps an ever-so-slight hint of restrained condescension.

"They don’t know how to take (the move). They ask again and again: ‘Is this a good thing?’ " In reply, she challenged them to name a better sports city today in Canada than Winnipeg.

"I would argue that you can’t find one," Orlesky said. "Coming home from the last Jets home game, I had people stopping at red lights and telling me, yelling to me, to roll down my window. They wanted to talk Jets. Between that and the way the city is embracing the Bombers — you don’t find that in any other Canadian city right now.

"There are tons of great NHL cities. There are some really great CFL cities. It’s that\ combination of both that I don’t find exists in the other cities. Not the passion to the same degree."

So did the move damage her career? Did choosing not to be based in either of Canada’s two major media centres, Toronto or Vancouver, diminish her chances at advancement?

Orlesky insisted it did not. She said she had no interest in anchoring and still enjoyed working the sidelines.

"I can largely do my job from anywhere," she said.

"I travel a lot. And for the CFL sidelines it doesn’t matter, in theory, where you’re based."

Orlesky’s move to Manitoba was about more than just her work, however. It’s about belonging to a community. It’s about the Shaftesbury High School graduate and her husband raising their two-year-old daughter, Avery. It’s about family (both Orlesky’s and her husband’s parents live in Winnipeg). Finally, and probably most importantly, it’s about trying to find that elusive sense of balance in life without "falling off the map."

"I didn’t want to raise a family in a highrise in a downtown metropolis," Orlesky said. "It wasn’t for me. Both my husband and I grew up in houses with backyards. That’s important to us. I also didn’t want Avery playing her Timbits soccer and it was just my husband and I there, if the opportunity was there for us to have other family around."

When the idea of balancing personal and professional life came up, she couldn’t quite stop herself from laughing.

"Balance is something I find incredibly difficult to achieve," she said. "This job has a schedule that is all over the place. It’s dictated by events you have absolutely no control over. When you’re a workaholic at heart, as I am, trying to find time to have a life, trying to find time to see family, to go to the gym, to have outside interests, as well as be prepared to do the job is a challenge. It’s a challenge that I’m not sure will ever get easier."

Beyond all this, Orlesky’s chosen profession, broadcast sports journalism, adds another level of complexity to achieving the modern fairy tale called balance.

The professional sports/media complex is a field that is predominantly "owned" and defined by men.

This was illustrated neatly at a recent Jets practice.

Mark Chipman, True North chairman and Jets governor, waved to Orlesky before taking a centre-ice seat in the lower bowl. Meanwhile, nearer the goal, Orlesky sat with the local sports media, basically a gaggle of middle-aged men in business casual. Nothing was subtle about this contrast.

If the Sesame Street song One of These Things suddenly got piped into the MTS Centre, there’s a good chance any children in attendance would be pointing at Orlesky. She’s not oblivious to the impression of tokenism that such a tableau screams. Nor does she deny that the dominant roles available to those entering her profession — hyper-feminine bimbo or frigid, androgynous tomboy — are part of the larger male sports fantasy. Instead, Orlesky, a communications graduate of Simon Fraser University, quietly confronts and, in her own way, subverts these noxious stereotypes.

"The idea that men are inherently better at sports or able to understand it better is absolutely ludicrous. But there is no doubt that this perception, for some, persists," she said.

Her response to this has been to work harder than the rest, to dress in a way that signals she’s "put together," and to do all this in a respectful, charming and down-to-earth manner

"When I first came into the business I made a conscious effort to make sure people knew from the getgo that I wasn’t here because I wanted to be around the players," she said. "And I think that dynamic can change and become even clearer when you have a family. In fact, when players know you have a family, they may let down their guard a little bit and it can result in better stories."

Perhaps then, above all, it’s been her compassionate and disciplined focus on developing stories, good "human interest" stories, that allows her to make the world she’s entered more a league of her own.

"There are great stories in sport. Athletes can show you so much about overcoming obstacles, reaching your goals, and fulfilling your dreams," she said.

"Ultimately, that’s what I want to convey... Sport is a beautiful thing."

No wonder Orlesky appears not overly concerned about "falling off the map." She’s too busy redrawing it.

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