‘Hockey Night in Canada’ reboot badly needed

Bob Wakeham
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Along with the normal cursing and ultimate despondency that accompany my annual springtime frustration with that bane of my sports fan’s existence, the New York Rangers, there’s been a revelation of sorts making itself evident during my television viewing of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year: I’m starting to realize just how little I’m going to miss the CBC’s editorial control over “Hockey Night in Canada.”

OK, I know: as a former CBC staffer, someone who made a damn good living from Mother Corporation for many years — the corp got its money’s worth from yours truly, though, if I do say so myself, detached observer that I am — and as a supporter of public broadcasting, I should bemoan the loss of advertising revenue that will kick in next year when Rogers Communications becomes the virtual owner of a Saturday night franchise that’s been a staple of Canadian viewership for over half a century.

To be abundantly clear, I obviously don’t condone any erosion of the CBC’s ability to carry out its mandate, never have, never will; it hasn’t been a pretty sight as continuous governments have hammered the corporation and squeezed a fortune from its coffers (the right-

of-Reagan crowd, though, the Harperites, seem to have taken particular delight in placing the noose around Mother Corp’s fragile neck).

And I recognize that the impact on the CBC budget from the loss of “Hockey Night in Canada” will be dramatic, with repercussions for programming and employees.  

But what’s done is done: Rogers is the new king of the NHL hill, and CBC’s monopoly over Saturday night hockey has ended.

So, strictly as a fan, one of millions who have watched “Hockey Night in Canada” since the days of Foster Hewitt, I now ponder the “HNIC” landscape, as I’ve done every night in recent weeks, and — oh the shame of it all — am looking forward to next year’s changes, especially the considerably reduced role of Ron MacLean.

To put it bluntly: I will not miss for a single second the sappy MacLean appearing in just about every sequence “Hockey Night in Canada” delivers on Saturday night, Saturday afternoons on occasion, and nightly during months of playoff airtime.

I’ve always felt that MacLean sees himself as a daddy, right out of the 1950s, “Father Knows Best,” the lord and master of the household, who gathers all of his millions of kids around the television set each week, pats all of us on the head, tells us to speak only when spoken to, and reminds us constantly that he will explain what needs to be explained. Because Daddy Ron is, after, infallible in matters of hockey.

It’s more than just corny. MacLean has this unctuous, patronizing way about him. He talks down to viewers. Hell, he even talks down to the other people on the show. He’s the expert, even the adjudicator of parts of the program. He goes so far as to congratulate interviewers as if he has just vetted their homework around the kitchen table: “Nice job, Cassey.” “Terrific interview, Elliott.” As if, it should be noted, these interviews on “Hockey Night in Canada” (or before, during or after just about any sports event, for that matter) should provide an interviewing template for journalism classes across the country.

“How did you feel about that first period?”

“Aw, it was a good period for us. We gave it 150 per cent.”

“What can yo do to change things around in the second period?”

“Well, we have to get more pucks to the net, more traffic in front.”

MacLean would have given that exchange a four-star rating. “Good job, P.K.”

What also bugs me about MacLean is that he thinks of himself as some sort of poet, the poor man’s Leonard Cohen. His inane ramblings before some games (he probably believes they are intriguing and esoteric, way over the head of the average hockey fan), his pretentious interpretations of the words of some rock song, and how they have particular meaning for that night’s game, are mindless and downright embarrassing.

I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of hockey fans who turn to their spouses when MacLean, the poet laureate, bangs his gums during a “Hockey Night in Canada” opening, and shake their heads in bafflement: “What the hell is he talking about? It’s a hockey game, for mercy’s sake, not an existential debate.”

Now, MacLean is not going to totally disappear from the screen next year. Unfortunately, he’ll still have his Muppets routine with Don Cherry, the eccentric grandpa in MacLean’s imaginary ’50s living room. There was a time when MacLean provided a valuable role as a foil for Cherry’s wacky views, but he seems to have fallen in love with the old codger, and now merely helps Cherry along with his jingoistic foolishness and his preoccupation with fights, and aids and abets his maudlin and morbid tributes to dead soldiers, cops and firefighters.

MacLean is being replaced by George Stroumboulopoulos, not one of my favourite talking heads from the boob tube, who’s more of a sycophantic public relations flack than an interviewer. Stroumboulopoulos might bring fawning over interview subjects to a whole new level, an uncomfortable, feet-shuffling level (if the boot-licking antics on his present CBC program are any indication). Nevertheless, if syrupy George is the price for not seeing MacLean all over the screen, it’s a price I can live with.

And I certainly won’t miss the “Hockey Night in Canada” panel discussions between periods (where MacLean once again struts his Father MacLean, preachy stuff). P.J. Stock analyzes the game in much the same way he played: like a blockhead. Even in an atmosphere where clichés abound, he manages to outdo everyone around him in over-used banalities. And Elliot Freidman, one of Stock’s panel companions, is a walking, talking sleeping pill.

TSN’s hockey panels, starring the likes of Bob McKenzie and Aaron Ward, are positively substantive by comparison.

I do hope, though, that Rogers keeps Jim Hughson in its corral; Hughson, in my estimation, is a tremendous hockey announcer, one of the best in the business.

But I pray someone at Rogers will be kind enough to tell Bob Cole that his days as a top-notch caller of games is long gone, that he should have been put out to pasture years ago. Yes, I know it’s a sacrilege in some Canadian circles — in Newfoundland, in particular — to say anything disparaging about Cole. But he reminds me of a once great athlete who hangs on long after his talent has dissipated, and relies on nothing more than his reputation.

Watching Cole call the Pittsburgh-New York series was absolutely painful. He missed momentum swings, seemed oblivious to dramatic plays. It was sad.

So, Rogers, get rid of MacLean, Cole and the panel. Keep Cherry on a short leash. For the sake of hockey fans everywhere.

At the very least, for the sake of this one fan in Flatrock, Newfoundland.   

 

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC, Rogers Communications, NHL

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Flatrock

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  • Michael
    June 16, 2014 - 04:29

    "Elliot Freidman" It's Elliotte Friedman. If you're going to rip the guy, at least spell his name right.