Shedding Gorillas

TORONTO (Apr. 27) — It was “get even” time in the Stanley Cup playoffs this week.

The San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues disposed of their prime nemeses — throwing wide open the quest for the 2016 National Hockey League championship. With the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks now on the outside, there will be a different Stanley Cup winner for the first time since 2011, when Boston defeated Vancouver. And, maybe it is time — at last — for my ol’ pal Dan Rusanowsky to call the final round. Dan has been the radio voice of the Sharks since Day 1 in 1991; he survived a dreadful automobile accident in November 2000 (ending his string of 774 consecutive games) and has thrice called the Western Conference final — San Jose losing to Calgary (2004); Chicago (2010) and Vancouver (2011).

Every person has his or her “time.” I’m thinking this might be Dan’s.
   
Why bet against either the Sharks or Blues? Each club shed a gorilla in the opening round of the Stanley Cup tournament. For nearly two calendar years, San Jose lived with the infamy of being just the fourth team in playoff history to lose a best–of–seven series after winning the first three games. Los Angeles provided the humiliation in April 2014. And, St. Louis absolutely had to get out of the first round in order to save jobs and restore some playoff honor. Ken Hitchcock, one of the best all–time coaches in NHL, nearly took the fall for an opening–round loss to Minnesota last spring — even with Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk making like Ken Dryden, Billy Smith and Martin Brodeur. Fairly or otherwise, chances are Hitchcock would not have survived his team coughing up a 3–1 series advantage against the Blackhawks this spring.

It is now a moot point.

In a predictably splendid hour of hockey, the Blues eliminated Chicago Monday night at the Scottrade Center. Vancouver native Troy Brouwer, who won the 2010 Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, backhanded in a rebound off the post for the decisive goal at 8:31 of the third period. The narrow defeat prevents Chicago from chasing a legitimate Stanley Cup dynasty, which — in my view — requires a team to claim consecutive titles at least once along the way. Take nothing away from the Hawks for their wins of 2010, 2013 and 2015, but the Canadiens, Islanders and Oilers–of–yore will agree with the two–in–a–row criterion (others will argue, with reason, that three championships in six years during the salary-cap era is dynastic).

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THE SERIES WINNER: FORMER HAWK TROY BROUWER BACKHANDS A REBOUND PAST COREY CRAWFORD WITH 11:29 LEFT IN THE THIRD PERIOD MONDAY NIGHT. JASEN VINLOVE USA TODAY SPORTS

Now comes the hard part for the Sharks and Blues — gearing up emotionally to take down Round 2 opponents that do not resonate as staunchly. Here in Toronto (with any playoff series a novelty), it would be akin to the Leafs knocking off Montreal in a seven–game series and having to quickly regain fervor against the Islanders or New Jersey. Possibe? Yes. Difficult? Undeniably. San Jose will face either Anaheim or Nashville in the Western Conference semifinals, to be determined by Game 7 of the opening round, later tonight, at the Honda Center (10 p.m., Sportsnet / NBCSN). I suspect Anaheim would be an “easier” opponent — allowing the Sharks to indisputably claim all of California in one playoff year. The Blues will face Dallas in Round 2, knowing the Stars led the West with 109 points during the regular season. That should provide plenty of impetus, but St. Louis finished just two points lower (107) and cannot consider Dallas nearly as troublesome as Chicago (the Stars won their lone Stanley Cup title back in 1999).

So, the Sharks and Blues will need to manufacture some ardor after having it provided for them in buckets by their first–round opposition. I believe it will happen.

San Jose and St. Louis have been perennial bridesmaids.

It is time for each franchise to don the white gown.

BLUES CAN END DISPUTE: A Stanley Cup championship by St. Louis would end the fractious debate here in Toronto over which team has the longest Stanley Cup drought. Maple Leaf fans (and media boosters) claim it’s a draw — neither club prevailing since the 1968 Cup tournament, when both were first eligible to compete. Others, including myself, have long felt the Leafs own the title, outright, given that St. Louis was not yet a part of the NHL in the 1967 playoffs, when Toronto last won. The Blues didn’t play their first NHL game until Oct. 11, 1967 and their first post–season match until Apr. 4, 1968. The Maple Leafs were the defending Cup champions throughout that first expansion season, having been part of the NHL since 1917. As such, Toronto’s famine has to include the time between May 3 and Oct. 11, 1967 — from the day after the Leafs won the Stanley Cup to the night of the first Blues game, at home to the Minnesota North Stars.

But, again, St. Louis can put the argument to rest by winning its first NHL title this spring.

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TORONTO WAS AN NHL TEAM IN 1966–67; ST. LOUIS NOT UNTIL 1967–68.

WHY ALL THE GRIEF FOR SPORTSNET?

Under freedom–of–speech guidelines, and with the ubiquity of on–line chat rooms, it is commonplace for there to be profound opinion on just about any topic. As such, I’m not surprised at the cascade of sentiment regarding the NHL presentation on Sportsnet here in Canada. What does surprise me is the overwhelming denunciation of the league’s national rights–holder.

Of course, everything posted on these websites must be considered with a grain of salt. People that are angry and unfulfilled, in particular, take to the Internet under the shroud of anonymity. Were they obliged to unveil their identities, almost all would shy away. Still, there is often some balance between approval and criticism. In the case of Sportsnet, it is difficult to find any–such equity. And, to be honest, that isn’t fair.

When Rogers Communications purchased 12 years of NHL national TV rights for $5.2 billion (beginning in the 2014–15 season), it chose to aim for a younger demographic. From a business perspective, this was sound strategy. Adults in their 20’s and 30’s buy houses, cars, furniture, appliances and computers; they enter into mobile–device contracts more–so than people in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Hockey Night In Canada’s audience had been trending upward and Rogers felt it necessary to alter the viewership profile.

It began with a controversial move — hiring George Stroumboulopoulos to replace Ron MacLean as intermission host. MacLean’s popularity was (and is) monumental, but not in the age–group Rogers sought to attract. Stroumboulopoulos had become one of the most recognizable faces in Canadian television; his glib, jocular visage drawing masses of young people to a nightly show on CBC. If Strombo (so much easier to spell) could do the same for Hockey Night, Rogers would earn more on its gargantuan investment.

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GEORGE STROUMBOULOPOULOS (ABOVE) DRIVES THE INTERMISSION BUS FOR HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA — GETTING PLENTY OF MILEAGE FROM THE LIKES OF (LEFT–TO–RIGHT, BELOW) NICK KYPREOS, ELLIOTTE FRIEDMAN AND KELLY HRUDEY. SPORTSNET IS UNDER SIEGE FROM ON–LINE CRITICS.

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An opulent studio was constructed by the new rights–holder. Rather than sitting around a table, analysts could stand on a replica hockey rink — sticks in hand — while making their points. This was considered rather gimmicky but, again, targeted for a younger audience. Viewers were fed abundant doses of Nick Kypreos, Glenn Healy, Kelly Hrudey, Darren Pang and other ex–NHL players. For news content, Damien Cox and Elliotte Friedman were perfectly cast as “insiders” — co–hosting a rapid–fire stream of second intermission headlines. Dave Randorf (from TSN) and Paul Romanuk (returning from Europe) were hired as play–callers; Mike Johnson and Garry Galley (both superb) as analysts, supporting the No. 1 broadcasting crew of Jim Hughson, Craig Simpson and Healy. Legendary Bob Cole was retained, but used sparingly. MacLean and Don Cherry continued with the immensely–popular Coach’s Corner in the first intermission.

Perhaps most understated and under–appreciated was a larger selection of Saturday NHL games, split between the CBC, Sportsnet and Rogers–owned CITY–TV. On most nights, three matches were available in the 7–10 p.m. (Eastern) slot; often two more between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Sunday nights went back to MacLean for Rogers Hometown Hockey — originating from smaller Canadian cities as part of a cross–country tour. A weekend, community festival led toward the Sunday NHL game, usually in the 7 or 8 p.m. slot. In my view, it was a brilliant concept; perfectly tailored for MacLean — the folksy, nationwide icon.

In crafting its venture, Sportsnet ran up against a pair of viewership staples — the “comfort” of Hockey Night In Canada with MacLean, and rival TSN’s gold standard of studio presentation, founded during its long tenure as NHL cable partner. Featuring the peerless James Duthie and Bob McKenzie; supported by “insiders” Darren Dreger and Pierre LeBrun along with ex–NHL types Aaron Ward, Jeff O’Neill, Martin Biron, Jamie (Noodles) McLennan and referee Kerry Fraser — TSN offered a package of information and strong, balanced opinion. It retained Canada’s best play–callers, Chris Cuthbert and Gord Miller, and cultivated a star in former NHL sniper Ray Ferraro, who followed a tough act at ice level when No. 1 analyst Pierre McGuire went full–time with U.S. rights-holder NBC. Comparisons, for Sportsnet, have been unflattering.

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JAMES DUTHIE (LEFT) AND BOB McKENZIE HAVE LONG BEEN THE GOLD STANDARD ON TV IN CANADA.

In my opinion, hockey viewers should look at Sportsnet for what it is… and what it’s meant to be: a fresh approach geared toward a younger audience. We don’t know, of course, the average age of the on–line belly–achers, but I suspect they are older and more traditionally–inclined than the demographic Rogers is seeking. Stroumboulopoulos wasn’t hired to be another MacLean and the modern Hockey Night studio wasn’t built to resemble the old CBC set. Sportsnet viewers are very–well served for analysis, information and opinion by Kypreos, Hrudey, Johnson, Cox and particularly Friedman, who ranks close to McKenzie among trusted TV voices in our country. Daren Millard, Doug MacLean, Jeff Marek and Scott Morrison are also long–established pros. They should be considered on their own merit, not by comparison.

The widespread antipathy toward Sportsnet, in my view, is imbalanced and unwarranted.

SECOND–ROUND PLAYOFF PICKS

EASTERN CONFERENCE

  
PITTSBURGH IN 7

  
TAMPA BAY IN 6

WESTERN CONFERENCE

  
ST. LOUIS IN 6

ALL LOGOS COURTESY SPORTSLOGOS.NET

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

6 comments on “Shedding Gorillas

  1. The problem as I see it is simple. I recall attempting to stream the Babcock presser last May. And my experience sums up my hatred for the coverage.

    I was watching TSN’s feed and it was full of thoughtful analysis, questions, and interesting facts. The TSN feed then had a problem, and was no longer available.

    I jumped over to the Sportsnet feed to be met with 4 people sitting around a table, SHOUTING their opinions at each other. It was terribly difficult to tell what if any points were being made.

    I find the desecration of Hockey Night in Canada disrespectful. The Americanized theme song (Yes I am aware Bell owns the original, but what was wrong with the replacement?), the elimination of the wondrous video packages put together by Tim Thomson, and the replacement was a voice over trying ever so hard to tell me what I already know.

    I feel as though Sportsnet talks down to the viewer. Which is unnecessary.

    HNIC stood out from the crowd. It was different. The graphics, the music, the personalities. It was a (as you are obviously aware) Canadian tradition. Now it’s no different looking or feeling than Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey.

    The commentating is a total mess. There is no continuity. You never know from night to night who is calling the play. Seems like a small thing, but this country produced Foster Hewitt, and Bob Cole. So it matters to die hards. Which is who Rogers has turned their back on in these two years.

    I believe a more pragmatic approach would have been to SLOWLY transition, or groom Strombo (Who I haven’t, and wont get started on in this post) slowly through the “lesser” shows, and transition him into Ron’s roll over time. This would have been a much easier to swallow approach.

    The notion that the older generation are the people loudly voicing displeasure is hooey. The people signing those cell phone contracts are the people tweeting their disdain. Not a 50-60 year old die hard who remembers the glory days of HNIC.

    The product is dead in the water. It is one of the MAIN reasons I am not watching this years playoffs. I tried voicing my concern and read that Scott Moore chalked my opinion up as “a few dozen people on twitter”. So what alternative do I have? I don’t watch. And I won’t. And frankly I’m getting on just fine without it.

    I’m the EXACT type of hockey fan Rogers should be terrified they’ve done this too. I fit exactly in the demographic you’ve laid out in this column. Not only do I fit the demographic. I would have happily, and excitedly watched a Stanley Cup Final between the Carolina Hurricanes and say The Minnesota Wild.

    Now? Now I just don’t care. Because Rogers has shown a resistance to acknowledge what is a very obvious sentiment amongst their viewers.

  2. Boy ! The one Jays Game I pick to go see is a total rout !
    The only good thing about the evening was my beautiful wife chose to accompany me…AND I got to meet Shane who was with Howard a couple of rows behind me and behind the visiting dugout…
    Thanks for stopping me, HB…it later occurred to me we might have grabbed a lift to our car with you as we parked it at the Finch subway…the tube was a madhouse…Oh. Why did we park there…because there were 2 sporting events and parking downtown would have been nuts…it just occurred to me that you did the same…

  3. Hi Howard, what about play by play? It’s getting worse and worse. Please bring Joe Bowen back to add some excitement!

    1. I too believe Joe should be back on Leaf TV broadcasts. Why is it Blue Jay announcer’s are allowed to cheer for their team but heaven forbid if someone cheers for the Leafs on air. Get rid of Hughson and Simpson.

      1. Hughson and Simpson almost never broadcast Leafs regional games – the lone slot where Bowen previously worked. They are Sportsnet’s No. 1 national duo.

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