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The New Hockey Night in Canada

Most pleased, but American viewers are being shut out

One of the coolest things about living in Buffalo in the growth of the sports television era was getting Hockey Night In Canada beamed into area television sets. In the days when Sabres hockey meant ten to fifteen televised games a season, being able to watch telecasts from Canada twice a week was a Godsend.

The Canadian pastime became a part of our culture. Before the days of cable, viewers here would buy rabbit ear enhancers and those clunky rooftop antennas with that device to point that antenna towards the north, northwest in order to pull in channels 5 and 9. Names like Danny Gallivan, Dick Irvin, Dave Hodge and the brash yet sometimes annoying Howie Meeker, all telecast announcers, were a ubiquitous thing for Sabres hockey fans.

But like all things, they do change. The first crack in the HNIC branding happened a few years ago, when the highly recognizable opening montage song disappeared from the telecast, snapped up by rival TSN who bought the rights. Often referred to as “Canada’s second national anthem”, the theme was no longer the kickoff to Saturday nights.

The music, however, was just a precursor to the blockbuster deal which went down last year.

Rogers Cable, the multimedia giant, paid a staggering $5.2-billion over 12 years for the rights to televise NHL hockey across Canada. For the first time, one network is now the hockey platform in both English and French. Viewers across Canada now have hockey games on the dial seven nights a week, over 500 games throughout the regular season, along with the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NHL All Star Game, and other marquee events.

So where does this leave CBC, Hockey Night in Canada, and of most interest to us, the American viewer?

With very little, actually.

CBC, which is a publicly owned entity, gets the “sub rights” for the English language telecasts on Saturday nights. A regional network in Quebec, TVA, gets those same rights in the French language.

And that means that HNIC hits the national open airwaves but once a week, on Saturday night at 7:00pm, and their focus will be on games involving all Canadian matchups as well.

Buffalo fans wishing to catch those telecasts can still do so via Time Warner Cable. For satellite viewers it’s hit and miss as the NHL Network picks up the Rogers feed sometimes. And of course subscribers to NHL Center Ice get the Rogers telecasts as part of their premium purchase.

If that isn’t enough in terms of the changes, then if you’re lucky enough to actually see the telecast, the entire format has been turned on its head.

Gone is long time anchor Ron McLean, a Buffalo area resident, actually, who commutes to his job in downtown Toronto. He’s not really gone. He still co-hosts the wildly popular “Coach’s Corner” with partner Don Cherry, but it is speculated that the new producers of HNIC may be looking to phase out this part of the program.

Long considered a staple of Saturday night hockey, Cherry’s schtick has worn thin with many a long, long time ago. His analysis of things going on in the world of hockey has often taken a back seat to pontificating on political issues, especially those near and dear to right wing interest groups. Shots of fallen soldiers, military adventurism in Afghanistan, or points of interest to law enforcement clog the program, while McLean stares on haplessly.

The segment has already been clipped from 7 to 5 minutes each Saturday. On opening night, Cherry derisively said, “I only got five minutes, eh? This is what you call phasing a guy out, you know what I mean?” McLean quickly responded, “At least you’re still in the phasing part.”

Despite being a national telecast, albeit headquartered in Toronto, Cherry wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his support of the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Boston Bruins, the team he coached in the 70s and 80s.

The new guard starts with studio host George Stroumboulopolos, who is surrounded by seasoned veterans from both Sportsnet and HNIC, including Elliotte Friedman and Damien Cox. Add the perspective of former players Mark Messier and Nick Kypreos, and the show takes on a vibe which is more focused on the hockey and less on the politics.

Canadian viewers seem to be responding favorably. “Stroumbo” comes to the network after a stint on the Canadian music network MuchMusic, and brings a youthful energy to the program, along with a stunning set which allows for movement and interaction among the announcers, rather than being seated at a desk.

Like it or not, the Rogers deal changes the face of hockey viewing across Canada, and just like American broadcasters tried to emulate HNIC for decades, it will be interesting to see how the new format spills over onto NBC hockey and the regional sports networks here in the States.


• Tickets now on sale for the IIHF women’s U18 tournament at HarborCenter. The event will take place January 5 to January 12.

• Schedule changes: Thanks to the storm, the postponed New York Rangers game set for last week will now be played on Friday, February 20. The Ottawa game, originally set for that date, will be played on Monday, December 15. Got that?

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