Fixing Hockey on Sportsnet

By #jontent (@yakovmironov)

After another year of terrible ratings that weren’t saved by the playoffs, and two years into a 12 year deal that promises more of the same, it looks like changes are finally coming with the way that Sportsnet covers hockey.

It’s unfortunate that George Stromboulopoulos could be the first casualty of the poor product as both Dave Feschuk and David Shoalts are reporting that plans are already underway to move Ron MacLean back into the host chair of the program.

First, let’s look at Strombo, a forty year old brought in to make the show hip and youthful. I guess he achieved that by dressing like one of the Butabi brothers from A Night at the Roxbury. George’s strengths are in his one on one interviewing skills, his ability to pose interesting questions, his interest in the human component of the game and the fact that he has no problem coming across as a fan and could of represented the audience well in the program.

Instead of relying on any of these strengths, Sportsnet chose to have him awkwardly lurk behind Nick Kypreos and Kelly Hrudey during their “worlds worst street hockey game” segments and introduce us to the next set of yelling middle aged white men to come on camera. Talent wasted.

In going away from Stromboulopoulos, we are once again stuck with Ron MacLean, who is that “same as it’s always been” comfort food that appeals to a Canadian TV audience that fears change above all else.

MacLean, when not with Cherry, is excellent at maintaining the status quo. His puns are annoying and I think most of us could do without them, but when he interviews he holds his guests feet to the fire, he shows a genuine love and appreciation for the game, and while I may not always agree with his point of view, it’s absolutely insane to question the man’s hockey knowledge. As a replacement host, I can honestly say he’s best option if you are sticking with the same format that every sports panel program is committed to following.

That’s just what we know so far.

Obviously there are many more changes on their way, and it’s terrifying to think of what direction this network will go in.

Keeping Don Cherry, while in my point of view, is the network choosing to allow hate speech in exchange for not losing the xenophobic demographic that goes along with it, is not only short sighted but wrong on a social and financial level.

Cherry’s contract is anything but cheap, and is retaining him likely means that a number of good up and coming and behind the scenes people are about to lose their job, so Cherry can continue to warn the most ignorant of people that Europeans are coming to take jobs away from hard working Canadian boys and so he can sandwich his right wing politics in between clips of high hits and staged fights.

It’s easy to assume that Cherry drives as many people away from the television during his first intermission appearance as he draws in, but since most of us mute him or leave the room, the ratings stay strong.

Anyway, the cost of Cherry is a big problem, but five minutes a week on Saturday is not what makes Sportsnet unwatchable, it’s the program at large.

The Set

I mean, I guess it’s built and the money has been flushed down the toilet already, but what a needlessly stupid design.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I gain very little from having a balcony that is strictly used for introducing other segments, I don’t feel that Kelly Hrudey and Nick Kypreos suddenly make sense because they have an area where they can hold hockey sticks, and everything else just seems like the product of an executive meeting that included buzzwords like “digital, futuristic, youthful, and millennials”.

You know what is a great backdrop for a hockey game? A hockey rink. Hometown Hockey does it right (and actually I’ve come to actually like this Rogers product), Playoff game and other big events have live at the event panels, why not ditch the studio (except for regional broadcasts) because when you give the panels less area to roam, they might actually sit still and come up with decent content.

The Analysts

Let’s take Elliotte Friedman, Chris Johnston, Mike Johnson, and Jeff Marek out of the picture and I’ll ask you to come up with other Sportsnet Analysts that you actually like.

I can’t tell what you said, but what I’ve often heard is that Kypreos is good if he sticks to rumours, Cox isn’t bad when he’s not writing or on twitter, and beyond that I think it’s reaching and realizing that Corey Hirsch is an acceptable goaltending analyst and that Darren Pang seems like a very nice guy.

The ridiculous number of seemingly unlikeable hosts and analysts doesn’t seem overly efficient for a network that is losing money. It’s kind of ridiculous that considering that they’ve figured out how to do a national panel on Saturday night and Sunday for Hockeytown Hockey, that they haven’t done the same with their regional coverage and spare us from trotting out John Shannon and Colby Armstrong, both who have never come close to saying anything remotely interesting.

Pregame and Pregame for the Pregame

Just stop it. When you are struggling to put together decent intermissions, post games, and weekday content, you don’t need a two hour block of John Shannon and PJ Stock saying compete level.

The Actual Product

The most hilarious part of all of the Sportsnet coverage is the game itself. Little effort seems to be invested in the time that the game is actually on. While they are far from my first choice of who I’d want to listen to call a game, I’ve accepted that there’s no escaping Hughson and Simpson as the national broadcast duo. I certainly believe that someone from Sportsnet should be stationed outside of TSN with a bullhorn shouting “Gord Miller, Ryan Ferraro, and Chris Cuthbert, come to Sportsnet and we’ll double your salaries,” but in the absence of that happening, it is what it is, and it’s not great.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason Glen Healy is also part of this package. I don’t need to explain why that’s a bad idea because no person has ever said “I don’t mind Glen Healy” so I know we’re all on the same page here. The fact that they have Mike Johnson, who is arguably the best in-game analyst in hockey at their disposal and they don’t use him is even more insane.

If Sportsnet somehow managed to lose Healy, the weird camera angles, and give Bob Cole more games, the in game product would be as good as it ever was. The reality is that this is what people are tuning in for and the fact that people haven’t been tuning in is largely reasons out of Sportsnet’s control…

  • Internet Streaming
  • The Leafs being terrible
  • Every other Canadian team being almost as bad
  • Concern over bees dying globally at an alarming rate

Since you can’t really cut costs on the in game product, nor would you want to. Wouldn’t it make sense to address the expenses with every other aspect of the coverage instead.

As much as I like to complain about how bad the pre-pregame is, the pregame is, the intermissions are, and the post game is, I don’t actually watch any of them. They are easy to avoid. I take my dogs for a walk. I grab a beer or a snack, I reintroduce myself to my family. Sorry intermission advertisers, you’re not getting my eyes and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone on this, and I’m pretty sure no matter what you put in those intermission segments I’m still going to skip them. The internet just tweeted out Friedman’s headlines for me any me anyway.

Jon’s Sportsnet Broadcast…

I guess I have a very specific idea of how I’d like things done. It’s never going to be done my way, but hey, here’s what makes sense to me given there is little appetite to move away from panel format, and recognizing that I want to use the fewest people possible in the broadcast. For the purpose of personalities I’ve suggested, I’ve limited myself to existing Sportsnet employees, but I can’t be the only one thinking that some diversity might help grow the game.

Pregame (30 minutes in length, 22 minutes of non-commercial time)

  • Spend 10 minutes with an analytical breakdown of the two teams playing. Go over the lineups, and starting goaltenders. This can be done with a host and a two person panel.
  • Spend 10 minutes on a feature. Either an interview, or a story on a current event in/or connected to hockey. Friedman, Strombo, and MacLean have all shown great ability in this area and it isn’t tapped into nearly enough.
  • 2 minutes of local rinkside reporter. Ideally they’ve talked to a coach or someone and have something actually newsworthy to share.

1st Period

  • I don’t hear Healy at all.
  • Faceoffs aren’t missed because they are busy showing a replay or late coming back from commercial
  • Lineups are shown on the full screen during the first stoppages of play like in the olden days, not just as a crawl at the top of the screen. Shockingly when the play is on I want to watch the game, not try and read the line combos.

1st Intermission

  • Bring back the panel from the pregame and have them assess what we’ve just seen using video. Show what is and isn’t working from a systems perspective
  • I dunno, an out of town scoreboard or some shit, I’m probably pooing.

2nd Period

  • If someone was hurt in the first, provide some updates
  • Do you have numbers on time spent in each zone? Share that. That’s fun.
  • Still, I expect no Healy and to not miss any actual play because you’re busy running a promo

2nd Intermission

  • Alright. I actually like Headlines when I catch it. I hate Damien Cox though. Ideally this is the host (MacLean) chatting with Friedman, and if you need another guy, why not Chris Johnston, who is arguably the best hockey reporter out there at the moment.
  • Profile a junior player or any draft eligible. It promotes your CHL coverage and gives us something new.

3rd Period

  • It’s the third period of a hockey game, if it’s close, do your best to not fuck up a good thing. If it’s out of hand, who cares.
  • You can just tell us the goaltender is leaving the net if he gets pulled, you don’t need to break away from a developing play to show the goaltender skating to the bench.

Post Game

  • Most people have probably shut this off by now, but you know what would be great? The post-game scrum with the coaches. Since you’ll have to wait about for them, fill the time with more systems analysis, not interviews with exhausted players who can speak only in cliches.

Basically with this outline, you’re using

  • a host (MacLean for Saturday/Sunday, and presumably you employ two others to cover weeknights)
  • two in studio analysts (let’s assume you employ six total. Picking the six best in-studio Sportsnet analysts is a challenge, but if you aren’t using Mike Johnson as in game analyst, he needs to be attached to every intermission possible.
  • As far as insiders/reporters go, it’s pretty much just Friedman or Johnston or you can skip the segment.
  • Until Sportsnet rightfully offers a small fortune to TSN’s play by play crews, the best option remains Bob Cole and Mike Johnson. Hughson and Simpson is manageable if Healy is dumped, but it wouldn’t be horrible to see Quinn/Remenda stolen away from Edmonton and made a national option either.
In Short…

Hockey on Sportsnet has been an absolute disgrace. They have more unnecessary characters than Too Many Cooks, and the product suffers because someone at Sportsnet believes that absurd opinions are what people look for in a hockey broadcast.

As much as I’d love to see system analysis become a staple of broadcasts, that’s unlikely to happen, nor is it likely that Sportsnet will cater to my love of junior hockey or ditch every personality I can’t stand.

What I will hope for is that they will learn that the game itself is why people are tuning in, and focus their effort on that being done right, and they’ll realize losing expensive ex-player on air analysts makes more sense than cutting a ridiculous number of behind the scenes jobs in order to pay for retaining Doug MacLean.

The nice thing is that there are plenty of great people in hockey broadcasting that most of us have never heard of, and are likely capable of doing a great job for a lot less than John Shannon or Damien Cox. Perhaps that’s the smart way to go at this point.

Reality is, Canadian teams aren’t going get better overnight simply because Sportsnet is willing it. People will continue to stream games, do something else during intermissions, and most pregames are at best a rehashing of old news that people have already read on the internet. A stripped down version makes sense. If you want to go all the way great with it, maybe you can give us an option for arena sounds only and skip play by play all together. There’s an innovation that people actually want.


1 Comment

  1. A few years ago, Habs playoff games were broadcast on the local French network in Toronto with just arena sounds. It was glorious. With the multitude of stations that Sportsnet owns (Sportsnet East, Ontario, West, One…, heck they put games on CityTV), I imagine it would be very easy to simultaneously broadcast a feed without the play-by-play on an alternative channel. I’d crank the Healy-less arena sounds and make it feel like I was actually there.

    Liked by 1 person

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