As far back as Grade 5, Jets on TSN host Sara Orlesky knew what she wanted to be when she grew up; she just didn’t know what the job was called, exactly.
"Sometimes I’d watch football or hockey with my dad and see these people reporting from field level or the event itself and think to myself, wow, is that ever cool," says Orlesky, 39, a married mother of one who has been the lead reporter for TSN’s Winnipeg bureau ever since the National Hockey League returned to these parts in 2011.
"Back then there weren’t a lot of women sports reporters I could look up to as role models — Michele Tafoya and Hannah Storm are the only ones that immediately come to mind — but I never let that dissuade me. Instead it was more a case of hey, somebody has to do it. Why can’t it be me?"
Well, how’s this for coming full circle? Not only does Orlesky, also a familiar face at Blue Bombers home games where she regularly reports from the sidelines, now serve as an inspiration for girls and young women interested in a sports journalism career, she’s also been responsible for a Halloween costume or two, as well.
Five years ago, a blonde-haired 10-year-old named Maizie went trick or treating posing as her favourite game-day personality. Her get-up, which consisted of an outfit similar to one Orlesky wore on TV along with a pretend microphone affixed with an official-looking TSN insignia, was all her own doing, her father Mike Wolanski says.
"At the time, Maizie loved watching Jets games and really looked up to Sara as a female host," he explains.
"Her main focus these days is school and softball, with an end goal of getting a softball scholarship to a U.S. college. And while a future in sports broadcasting hasn’t been ruled out, Sara continues to be a role model for Maizie; not only as a female broadcaster but as a woman involved with sports in general."
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Orlesky graduated from Shaftesbury High School, where she played on the soccer, basketball and volleyball teams.
She spent two semesters at the University of Manitoba before taking a year off, during which she applied to various academies that offered a degree program in communications.
After enrolling at Simon Fraser University, she began volunteering in the Burnaby campus’s athletic department, penning press releases, writing for an in-house magazine — anything she could do, pretty much, to gain experience in her chosen field.
Her perseverance paid off. During her second year of studies, she caught on with Vancouver’s Citytv, first as producer of that station’s weekend sports package and later as the on-air sports anchor. Not that she remembers too many details.
"It’s funny," she says, leaning back in her chair. "You always hear people talking about their first time in front of a camera, discussing how they were nervous or what they were thinking. Except that wasn’t my experience at all. I don’t recall a thing. I presume it’s because I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t properly digest the moment, but I must have done something right because they kept me around."
After graduating from SFU, Orlesky left Citytv for The Score, where she reported primarily on the B.C. Lions and Vancouver Canucks. In the spring of 2008 she learned TSN was interested in her services.
She moved east a few weeks later, in time to assume the host duties on the Toronto-based network’s Friday Night Football telecasts. She also began covering national and international figure skating meets, including the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a duty she continues to perform to this day.
In early 2011, Orlesky began hearing the same rumours Winnipeg hockey fans were privy to: that True North Sports & Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman was actively trying to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers, with the intent of moving the struggling club north.
She approached her bosses, letting them know if they planned to establish a Winnipeg desk if and when the NHL returned to the Manitoba capital, then she was the one.
Of course, everybody in her inner circle told her what a great idea that was, and what a terrific career move it would be, right? Wrong.
"My colleagues thought I was crazy for wanting to leave Toronto. But aside from the fact not many people get the opportunity to cover a team in their hometown — never mind a new team from the ground up — we also wanted to raise our daughter, who was one at the time, around both sets of grandparents," says Orlesky, noting her husband, whom she met in her early 20s when the two of them worked at the same restaurant, is also a native Winnipegger.
"Growing up I used to tell myself there was nothing I wanted more than to get out (of Winnipeg), which is probably a common sentiment among young people, no matter what city they live in. But as I got older and felt the need to settle down a bit more, coming home just made a lot of sense. There’s a lot to be said for Winnipeg."
Like everyone else, Orlesky has seen and read reports about female journalists being accosted while they’re simply trying to do their job but so far — "knock on wood" — she’s been treated with nothing but respect by sports fans in Winnipeg and across the country.
Sure there’s a section at IG Field that chants "Sara, Sara…" whenever she walks past on her way to interview a coach or player, but that’s about it when it comes to distractions. Shopping for groceries is another story, she says with a laugh.
"I can’t get out of Costco if the Jets are doing poorly, so many people want to talk to me about it. Same thing when they’re on a winning streak. I always say if I can make it home without all my frozen goods thawing out, it’s a good day."
“I can’t get out of Costco if the Jets are doing poorly, so many people want to talk to me about it. Same thing when they’re on a winning streak." -Sara Orlesky
About her day: when the Jets are at home, and TSN is broadcasting that evening’s contest, she’s generally downtown by 10 a.m. at the latest, to take in the home team’s morning skate.
The moment the Jets leave the ice, she and the rest of the broadcast crew have a quick meeting before she snags Paul Maurice for a coach’s interview that will air during the pre-game show. Absolutely, she says when asked if the Jets bench boss is as cordial off-camera as he is on.
"The people who cover the Jets have been so fortunate, first with Claude Noel and now with Paul," she says.
"When I walk away from our interviews I almost always feel like I’ve learned something. Plus he’s incredibly down-to-earth. He’s a voracious reader and knows I read a lot, too, so we often discuss books we’ve enjoyed lately, or we’ll talk about how our respective families are doing. It’s a professional relationship, of course, but there’s a personal level to it, as well."
Following their tete-a-tete, Orlesky will either file a story for Sportscentre if news such as last week’s status on defenceman Dustin Byfuglien is breaking, or begin working on her two-minute intro for that night’s show, which she’ll deliver at ice level in the southwest corner of the arena — the Zamboni corner, she calls it.
She leaves the rink briefly around 3 p.m. to grab a coffee from a nearby Starbucks, after which she gets going on her hair and makeup.
"Ha, wouldn’t that be nice?" she says when asked if she has a handler. No, she’s on her own in that regard, she continues, pointing to her so-called dressing room, which consists of a full-length mirror propped up against a wall in one corner of the well-traveled media room.
(Not wanting to come off as a homer, Orlesky does her best to avoid wearing Jets colours on-air, though it doesn’t always work the other way around. Earlier this season she donned a red-and-white ensemble only to realize — oopsie daisy - that it perfectly matched the uniform being sported by the visiting squad.)
"People always say I’m so lucky, that I get to go all these games in person, but the truth of the matter is I spend most of the night underneath the stands, watching the action on a tiny, 13-inch monitor," she says, mentioning while she always hopes the Jets do well – between-period player interviews tend go more smoothly when that’s the case, she says with a wink – the only team she cheers for unapologetically is the Green Bay Packers.
As for almost always being the only woman in post-game media scrums, that took some getting used to, she allows; not so much because of her gender but more due to her experience, or lack thereof.
"When I was first starting out in Vancouver we would send in a camera guy without a reporter but at a certain point I said, let me go in, I want to be around it and soak it all in," she says, figuring she arrives home just before 11 p.m. – that’s close to a 13-hour day if you’re counting – if a game started at 7 p.m.
"I paid strict attention to everything that was going on around me, the sort of dynamics they can’t teach in a classroom, and gradually my comfort level grew to the point I now feel like one of the guys, for lack of a better word."
Orlesky hears it all the time: how fortunate her husband is to be married to someone he can enjoy watching sports with, morning, noon and night. One problem: he’d much rather sit back and view a movie or favourite TV series than a Jets or Bombers tilt, she says.
"He’s incredibly supportive but no, he’s definitely not a big sports fan. And because my job involves knowing what’s going on around the rest of the league — be it the NHL or CFL — at all times, there aren’t really any set days off," she says, noting in a perfect world she’d be asleep by 10 p.m., but if the Jets are playing on the west coast, she’ll often lie in bed, headphones on, listening to the radio play-by-play until she dozes off.
"Lately I’ve tried to work a little bit more on life-balance, especially with a busy 10-year-old who has her own activities seemingly five nights a week, but it can be a challenge, for sure."
Finally, while it’s commonplace for men to continue covering sports seemingly forever — cases in point, hockey insiders Ron Maclean, 59 and Bob McKenzie, 63, and recently deposed analyst Don Cherry, 86 — there is a noticeable dearth of women sports reporters in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Does that ever give Orlesky pause, wondering what the future holds?
"In this business you never know what the next step is going to be.
"But whenever I get that question I answer the same way I did when I was a kid wanting to get into this business in the first place: why not me? Why can’t I be that person?"
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Saturday, February 15, 2020 at 4:25 PM CST: Corrects spelling of Bob McKenzie.