The playoffs are underway! That means we've all made it through year one of the massive new Canadian TV hockey deal that put Rogers in charge of almost everything.
Though the initial announcement of the deal took almost everyone by surprise, and drew a fair amount of criticism, the results of the lengthy and reportedly dramatic negotiation process sealed the fate of Canada's national hockey mediascape for the next eleven years. There was a lot of uncertainty in the air, but hockey fans came into this season well prepared for what promised to be a significantly altered viewing reality.
Out went Ron MacLean and James Duthie from national prominence, and in went George Stroumboulopoulos.
Out with a focus on Canadian teams on Saturday nights, and in went multiple game-viewing options.
Out went the old Hockey Night in Canada set, and in went a new massive broadcast studio and technological innovation for game coverage.
There would be (a little) less Don Cherry, and a lot more Damien Cox and Doug MacLean.
It promised to be a revolution.
Over the course of this season, fans and media watchers were given inside accounts of how the Rogers hockey broadcast worked, updated on the deal's expected versus actual financials, and shown poll results describing how viewers were reacting to the changes in on-air personnel. My own Twitter feed hummed with the same kind of of Rogers-directed critique that I'm already seeing this playoffs, but what more can be said about Rogers hockey at the end of its first year? Did we see a vast improvement to the TV coverage of the good old hockey game over the season? Or, did we miss the people and the shows that we had, and that we basically seemed to enjoy, before?
To assess Rogers hockey in its first year, I've gone to three outspoken hockey observers and media contributors for their expert views. Given the reality in which almost everyone in Canadian media works for either Rogers or Bell, and lest one's opinions be influenced by one's professional affiliation, I turned to experts who have some, but maybe not total, distance from these two telecommunications giants.
Ted Bird is the Morning Show host at CHSV Radio, The Jewel, based out of Hudson-St-Lazare, Quebec. Author of a versatile blog, Bird's done loads of hockey media/analysis work in recent years, and he makes occasional appearances on the Montreal Gazette's Hockey Inside/Out Show. With an early start in news, Christopher Curtis has spent this hockey season as a Montreal Canadiens reporter for the Montreal Gazette. Curtis' thought-provoking reporting and analysis of Habs-related affairs has received much favourable attention, and he has also appeared on the Hockey Inside/Out Show. Finally, Marcy Di Michele covers the Edmonton Oilers, and the wider NHL, for The Hockey Writers blog. Di Michele's keen insights have been noticed, and have brought her opportunities to contribute to CTV News.
While all three media experts were surprised by the sheer size, and financial scope, of the Rogers deal, only Di Michele told me she came into this season somewhat concerned about some of the major changes that would come to the Hockey Night in Canada show to which she'd felt attached since she started watching as a kid. Bird and Curtis were ready for the change, and they also expected to see a continuation of the professionalism and quality in hockey broadcasting they were used to from CBC and TSN.
Going beyond their expectations heading into this season, I asked each of the media experts the same set of questions about what they saw during the first year of Rogers hockey. Aside from full agreement on what all the experts described as the annoyance of Rogers' nebulous regional blackout policy, the experts gave varying answers across four different question categories: game broadcast, intermission programming, George Stroumboulopoulos, and Habs coverage.
I present the media experts' analysis of year one of Rogers hockey below.
The Game Broadcast
Even with the blending of staff between Sportsnet and CBC (plus Dave Randorf and Mike Johnson from TSN), there was concern heading into the season that Rogers might not have enough quality talent to properly cover its massive schedule of games. As they watched their favourite teams over the season, the media experts don't totally agree on the level of quality of the Rogers broadcasts.
For Marcy Di Michele, some of the fans' biggest concerns about talent shortage have definitely been realized.
"Every chance I have to watch a broadcast on TSN over Sportsnet, I take it," Di Michele said. "I think Rogers dropped the ball not signing Chris Cuthbert. He's one of the best in the business. The talent is spread pretty thin because of all the national coverage. I know the guys they have are doing the best they can, so I don't want to criticize individuals."
Unlike Michele, veteran media man, Ted Bird, says the quality on Rogers has mostly been fine. And while he thinks it's time for some CBC talent to move on, Bird also appreciates the new-old personalities who have found their way back onto Canadian hockey TV under Rogers.
"I haven't seen a significant different in the quality of the broadcast because it's a lot of the same people doing a lot of the same things, in front of and behind the cameras," Bird said. "[It's] nice to see Paul Romanuk back in the saddle, but Bob Cole should have been put out to pasture long ago, in my opinion."
Count Christopher Curtis among those who had hoped that the Rogers broadcast would actually bring some interesting innovation in how they game is showed to the viewers. So far, he's been a bit disappointed.
"You spend billions of dollars getting the hockey rights, you're going to want to tinker with some things, and almost all of the tinkering was in vain because they don't use all those [new] things," Curtis said. "The one technological innovation that really actually does make the game a little bit more of an enjoyable experience is only available in Toronto. I like the Sky Cam. It's the one camera rig that they've built that isn't hokey, and you only [got] to see it in games where literally nothing [was] at stake because Toronto [was] playing."
Along with noting some of their particular disappointments, the media experts give Rogers game broadcasts a satisfactory evaluation.
What did it mean to hockey fans to have no Ron MacLean and less Don Cherry during intermissions on Saturday night games? Was it a loss to say goodbye to Hockey NIght in Canada's panels? Did Rogers hockey new approach to intermission programming draw fans into the games and players in a way that CBC and TSN did not? Regarding intermissions, I asked the media experts to consider three specific areas: hockey analysis, Don Cherry, and the diversity of the Rogers broadcast team. Their responses are mixed.
Ted Bird appreciates Rogers' new 'USS Enterprise' studio, but he argues that the content delivered by the intermission teams fails to meet previously high standards of Canadian hockey broadcasting.
"As a group, the intermission casts are palatable and competent, but still have a long way to go to match Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger, James Duthie, Aaron Ward et al at TSN for broadcasting chops and journalistic credibility."
Marcy Di Michele agrees with Bird that hockey content and analysis are lacking on Rogers hockey, but she sharpens the stylistic and substantive criticism an additional degree or two.
"Intermission shows [have] become more like a gimmick than actual hockey content, however, I much prefer the analysis of guys like Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie as opposed to the talking heads at Rogers," Di Michele said. "I feel as though Sportsnet intermission broadcasts are a bunch of guys who think very highly of themselves, trying to one-up each other rather than actually provide insightful hockey analysis. Or, name dropping all the famous players they know and telling us boring stories of when they were in the NHL."
Taking a bit of a bigger picture approach, Christopher Curtis believes the problem with intermission content in hockey broadcasting has more to do with generically stifling formats than with particular individuals and their talents. Yet, Curtis explains the lack of creativity he saw during Rogers' intermissions this season.
"It's the same basic principle," Curtis said. "It's too safe. It's so formulaic that you would have like to have seen something a bit different. Small documentaries, small segments that look at what's happening outside the lines, issues like domestic violence, sexual violence, which we've seen in hockey this year, PEDs, doping, not only concussions, or the one or two hot button issues. I would have liked to have seen something a little bit different, but you didn't see it."
The media experts were in agreement that hockey substance was lacking during intermissions on Rogers hockey, but they don't see eye to eye on the status and performance of Don Cherry and Coach's Corner. Interestingly, their contrasting views defy expectations that one might expect based on a consideration of gender and age demographics.
Marcy Di Michele views the Don Cherry-Ron MacLean partnership as an institution in Canadian hockey broadcasting that is being unnecessarily phased out by Rogers.
"As for Don Cherry, I know many people don't care for him, but he's good TV," Di Michele said. "He and Ron MacLean are a good duo and it's a real shame they're getting pushed out the door."
While both Bird and Curtis acknowledge and respect Don Cherry's past cultural relevance, they also agree that the Coach's time is done. Curtis expresses his particular aversion to Cherry.
"I feel like there's this fear of being the network that will be remembered as the network that kills Coach's Corner. I have zero problem watching Coach's Corner die at this point," Curtis said. "It just doesn't feel like he's doing his homework any more. He's going back to the same three or four wells. There isn't enough violence in hockey. There needs to be more violence in hockey. Toronto needs to have more players from Ontario. The segment long ago became self-parody. Turn on the camera, point it at Don Cherry, 'Don Cherry, yell something crazy. Excellent! We're done. Let's move on.'"
In light of an increasing public discussion regarding the fact that women want and deserve more prominent places in hockey media, I asked the media experts if they felt Rogers missed an opportunity to build a more diverse on-air team in terms of gender. The differences in responses to this question were split along a generational line.
For Ted Bird, the elder statesman, there was no need for Rogers hockey to alter the gender composition of its on-air team from what's been done before.
"A hockey broadcast crew with an overwhelming male presence is no different than the all-female panel on The View or predominantly Black hosts on BET," Bird said. "It caters to the target demographic. I don't have a problem with that. Broadcasting hockey games is a business, not a sociology experiment."
Di Michele and Curtis, both from a younger generation than Bird, see the question of gender in hockey broadcasting in a completely different manner, and they both expressed frustration with the standard situation in which women on-air talent are featured in supporting roles rather than as primary contributors of hockey content. Christopher Curtis describes his disappointment that Rogers has thus far failed to innovate in this area.
"The roles women can have are limited," Curtis said. "Women can never be weighing in. It's like, 'I can introduce it, because I speak well, and I'm on television, but I won't weigh in.' It's not these people themselves. It's just the roles that they're given. I would love to have seen Cassie Campbell have the chance to either do the colour commentary or the play-by-play, and that's just not going to happen. It's just this reliance on these old formulas. Come on, guys, tweak it a bit."
From intermission hockey analysis to Don Cherry to the question of gender representation on Rogers hockey, the media experts present diverging responses. In terms of an evaluation of Rogers' intermission programming, there are definitely indicators of dissatisfaction.
Arguably, one of the biggest questions heading in to year one of Rogers hockey pertained to the decision to bring George Stroumboulopoulos in to replace Ron MacLean. Viewed as the key for Rogers to appeal to a young and emerging generation of hockey viewers, the media experts' assessment of Strombo in his first year on the job is both mixed and in defiance of demographic expectations yet again.
Ted Bird endorses Strombo after his first year, and he sees him as a welcome change from Ron MacLean.
"I give Strombo credit," Bird said. "The decision to hire him was too hip by a half when Elliotte Friedman was the obvious heir apparent to MacLean. But, Strombo himself has done a good job of deferring to the 'experts' and not trying to make it about him, unlike MacLean, who was always too clever by a half and overtly insecure about his job."
Both Curtis and Di Michele acknowledge Strombo's skills, but fail to give him the resounding youth vote that Rogers was counting on capturing.
"I look at George Stroumboulopoulos and I remember him from the New Music," Curtis said. "I always pigeonhole him in that role, and I think maybe a lot of people do. Look, he's done more than a satisfactory job, and it does take a little bit of time to develop chemistry with the people you're on a panel with. So, I would say give Strombo a pass for this year. Let's not be too harsh on the guy, and let's see what he can bring us in the future."
Whereas Curtis looks ahead optimistically, Di Michele hits Strombo's performance in his first season where it might hurt the most.
"Strombo is a good interviewer, but he knows very little about hockey. I never understood why he's there, and I still don't. He can't fill Ron MacLean's shoes," Di Michele said. "Strombo is fine to do lengthy interviews a la Barbara Walters, but keep him away from intermission reports and actual hockey opinion."
Strombo may not have hit it out of the park in his first full season as host of Rogers hockey, but, in a split decision, the media experts say they'll give him more time.
There was one last question I wanted the media experts to mull over, and that was how the new Rogers hockey broadcast handled our very own Montreal Canadiens. As Habs fans, we're used to Toronto-centric coverage, and we've often felt that our team neither gets the airtime nor the appreciation that it deserves. Knowing that Strombo's a fan of the blue-blanc-rouge, hopes were a little higher heading into the season. What did the media experts think?
Whereas both Marcy Di Michele and Christopher Curtis say they'll often tune in to RDS to watch the Habs, Ted Bird appreciates most of what he's seen this year when it comes to coverage of the Canadiens.
"I like that we're getting a lot more Habs games in English. Pierre Houde is the best, but I still prefer watching in my first language when possible," Bird said. "John Bartlett is a premium play-by-play talent who deserves national exposure. Colour commentary and intermission elements of the regional broadcasts could definitely be better."
As a local Habs reporter, Curtis says he likes hearing the analysis that comes from reporters outside the Montreal media bubble, but he also feels that Rogers hockey has not delivered an upgraded commitment fro Habs coverage than what we've seen before.
"When the Habs get national attention, they've been treated as this regional curiosity," Curtis said. "The regional games, you can tell that they're saving a few bucks here and there. [Rogers] puts together a fine show, but, as any Montrealer, I have that inferiority complex. I would like to see the team, and the city, get more national recognition. But, it is what it is. The media centre of our country is Toronto, and we have to accept that, because, 'shut up Montreal, you'll get yours.'"
The media experts weren't blown away by year one of the Habs on Rogers hockey.
So, with all the money spent, and with the the changes to the Canadian hockey-media industry, the experts' opinions suggest that, while it was far from a catastrophe, Rogers has a fair amount of thinking and work do do before it will deliver a truly interesting and innovative hockey broadcast to Canadians in the next eleven years.
But, despite the concerns that were duly raised by the media experts, and that we all hope will be heard by the new national hockey media bosses, it's still hockey, and it's still Canada. We're all already tuning in to Rogers to watch playoff games this spring. And, with that in mind, I leave you with one last set of opinions from the media experts, their playoff predictions. After all, they come closer to reaching a consensus on the eventual Stanley Cup champion than they did on the network that will bring all the action to the fans.
Enjoy the Stanley Cup Playoffs!
Experts' Playoff Predictions (Made Prior to Start of Round One)
New York Rangers over Winnipeg Jets
Marcy Di Michele
Chicago Blackhawks over New York Rangers