When Sportsnet surprised the hockey world with a landscape-altering $5.2 billion deal to acquire the national rights to NHL hockey in Canada in November fans knew changes were coming. National broadcasts will air multiple times a week, on multiple channels, and regional restrictions will no longer exist. Yesterday, Sportsnet announced the network's "top line" talent. The biggest move was the news that long-time CBC personality George Stroumboulopoulos will replace long-time CBC host Ron MacLean at the helm of Hockey Night in Canada. MacLean will still feature on the broadcast, hosting Coach's Corner with long-time pal Don Cherry. MacLean will host the new, Sunday night national broadcast as well the annual Hockey Day in Canada, a program he seems to love. Jeff Marek snagged a seat in this network version of musical chairs; he'll be the face of Friday Night Hockey, and continue his radio work. Darren Millard will continue as the host of Wednesday Night Hockey.
It's hard to judge what Sportsnet's offerings will look like without more knowledge about which hockey personalities will feature as panelists, analysts, reporters, play-by-play voices, and commentators. Knowing where CBC's brightest hockey talent, Elliotte Friedman, figures into this new landscape might alter impressions of Sportsnet's coverage.
But right now it feels very familiar.
Ron and Don have become hockey institutions; their segments long ago developed those conventions - Cherry's mispronunciations, MacLean's puns, the love for good Canadian boys, the constant running out of time - that long ago became cliché. Marek has worked for HNIC before and Millard has been at Sportsnet since its inception. Even Stroumboulopoulos, the riskiest choice of the bunch, is about as safe a choice as you could make when choosing someone outside the hockey establishment. For hockey fans of my generation, Stroumboulopoulos became a familiar name as the serious black t-shirt-wearing VJ, giving serious music industry updates and hosting the The Punk Show and The NewMusic on Much Music. For almost a decade he's interviewed and talked to the nation as the host of The Hour and George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight.
The familiar has been a staple of HNIC for years.
The signature welcome of legendary CBC broadcaster Foster Hewitt plays in my head despite the fact that he retired more than two decades before I was born. Why? Because it has been included in so many HNIC intros and montages over the years. The show's trademark theme operated in much the same way and that's what TSN hoped to cash in on when purchasing the song's rights a few years ago. Similarly, the dynamic of the weekly 7 pm broadcast functions in the same nostalgic fog. Through the Leafs-centric filter of Toronto media, HNIC thrives on the dichotomy between Toronto and Montreal, Leafs-Habs, the original Canadian rivalry. Even the 10 pm slot seems stuck in the past on occasion, nostalgic for the 1980s.
Analysts like Friedman have tried to drag HNIC into the 21st century on issues as diverse as player safety and statistical analysis but the show as a whole remains firmly lodged in the past. Too often Friedman, who embraces social media and hockey's growing online voices, is shouted down by PJ Stock and Glenn Healy, the current embodiments of hockey's archaic "code" culture. Too often the loudest panelist wins on HNIC, regardless of how well his argument has been articulated.
Hockey has never been as homogenous as it looks on HNIC main broadcast. Right now, it seems that Sportsnet is banking on the nostalgic status quo, exemplified by HNIC, to generate the ratings success the network craves with its new programming.
But nostalgia is the problem with HNIC.
HNIC so often tries to define what it means to be Canadian through the lens of hockey and the pulpit of Coach's Corner; it's an increasingly anachronistic program and Sportsnet has doubled-down on flawed nostalgia by retaining Cherry.
With the changes in media since the last national TV deal was negotiated, including the mainstream emergence of the hockey blogosphere and out-of-market viewing packages available for multiple devices, the relevance of the national broadcast is being challenged like never before. Sportsnet has chosen to ground its "cornerstones," its marquee talent, in what is familiar to hockey viewers but increasingly does not reflect hockey fans.
The diversity of this five-man, all-white team has been questioned, and rightly so. Yes, Sportsnet's full line-up hasn't been announced yet and the on-screen talent will be rounded out with more analysts, commentators, and interviewers. But we do know these are the men the network has handed the reins to, these are the faces that will launch Sportsnet's new, national coverage next fall. Other notables will surely be announced, but the additions of Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean don't even challenge the intellectual diversity of the five announced yesterday. Stroumboulopoulos was hired to appeal to a younger demographic and that's good. Perhaps a group of talent that better reflects the diversity of younger hockey fans would work too.
People of colour. Members of the LGBT community. Girls and women. All hockey fans.
The résumés of Sportsnet's chosen five are impressive. Currently in hockey, there aren't people of colour or women with comparable experience. But that's also the point. Sportsnet has been hosting regional hockey broadcasts - a stepping stone for many hockey personalities - for years and have chosen to develop little in-house diverse talent. The same can be said of TSN's weekly national broadcasts. Diversity needs to improve on junior and regional broadcasts and it's within the power of these broadcasters to improve it. While Sportsnet made a significant announcement yesterday in terms of on-air talent, with the exception of Cherry, these are media personalities celebrated primarily for their hosting abilities. We don't know yet which analytical direction Sportsnet's broadcasts with take, but with Cherry in the fold and homegrown personalities such as Nick Kypreos waiting in the wings, characteristics emerge.
It's easy to point to the résumé of the only hockey expert (Cherry) among Sportsnet's chosen five and lament that no people of colour and no women measure up until you realize that these networks have maintained and reinforced the longstanding criteria of what it takes to be an NHL expert.
That's still the main criteria potential analysts are required to have if they want to build a body of work that will one day be recognized as excellent. Yes, there are outliers like Bob McKenzie and Elliotte Friedman who have built an impressive body of work and garnered respect from fans and industry insiders alike but they are still the exception to the rule.
This is certainly not a convention limited to the NHL and the same pattern emerges in MLB, NFL, and Premier League broadcasts. There is certainly a place for the insider perspective in hockey analysis; former players-turned-analysts like Ray Ferraro prove this. Former players, coaches, and general managers have something to offer the viewing audience because of their experience.
The problem lies with the fact that too often this appeal to authority is just an extension of the "old boys' network" that still dominates much of NHL behavior. The quality of many former pros who become analysts should be questioned. Many simply do not perform at the level of their peers. Minorities still face opposition and numerous challenges when pursuing a playing career, even more so when competing for roles in hockey operations. Both remain firmly out of reach for women.
Overvaluing NHL experience is an easy and convenient way for CBC, Sportsnet, and TSN to do precious little about diversity.
CBC has done the most to encourage diversity. Kevin Weekes is a regular analyst and is a fixture of intermission panels. Cassie Campbell-Pascall, the first woman to provide colour-commentary on HNIC, has been with the network for seven years. Though she is listed as an analyst, her opinions are only included with those of the other "experts" on panel discussions when a regular is missing and even then, sparingly so. Andi Petrillo has been a part of HNIC for three seasons and hosts the iDesk segment of the weekly broadcast. Many have noticed that Petrillo hosts the iDesk without an actual desk (a departure from when Jeff Marek and Scott Morrison were hosts of the segment); little comment on how this separates her from her colleagues. Undoubtedly, the decision was made to capitalize on her good looks. Stuck behind a desk, CBC couldn't utilize shots of her figure to full advantage. But on hockey intermission panels a seat at a desk gives a panelist authority, it cements the personality's stature as an expert. Standing off to the side from HNIC's main event, Petrillo's analysis and insight remain marginalized.
It's long forgotten at this point, but almost three decades ago CBC broke with the conventional and the familiar and hired Ron MacLean, then a TV personality with just three years of on-air hockey experience, to host HNIC full-time. Stroumboulopoulos's hire seems unconventional to many, but has garnered a lot of acceptance. Hockey fans can adapt. If Stroumboulopoulos's hire can be accepted, so too can that of a person of colour or woman who didn't take the standard route to the top.
Sportsnet's replication of the familiar trappings of HNIC is so disappointing because the CBC's nostalgia-fueled broadcasts leave so many hockey fans on the outside looking in.