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Oh, how we missed Rick Jeanneret and MSG!

Broadcast Follies

The press announcement was innocuous enough. At first.

Just days before the NHL All-Star break, the Buffalo Sabres announced that their upcoming four game road swing out west would be “radio only.” To add to the bad news, legendary play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret would be taking an extended vacation, which his contract allows, and the microphone would be turned over to a bevy of guest announcers.

In making the announcement, the Sabres cited their broadcast contract with the MSG network, which calls for a 70-game schedule. Eight more Sabres games are reserved for the Versus national telecasts. “We needed to select four games to be radio only. We chose these West Coast games due to their late starts,” explained managing partner Larry Quinn.

What happened next was a firestorm of complaints from the Sabres faithful. Calls came pouring in to the Sabres switchboard; comments on message boards and blogs howled in protest towards this boneheaded decision. No Sabres for, like, three whole weeks?

Sophisticated viewers began looking for backup plans. After all, there is the NHL Network, which was set to at least carry one game, in Calgary. The center ice package has local and regional sports network feeds of most games. If all else fails, there’s always the sports books or sports bars across the border in Canada, right?

Not so fast. Technology being what it is, even local subscribers to various sports packages on the dish would find dark screens and blackouts come faceoff.

The Sabres backpedaled, and three days later came the new announcement that the four games would indeed be telecast on MSG, but to do so the network would be picking up the local feeds of all the home teams. The radio plans, with guest announcers filling in for Jeanneret, would remain intact.

So what did Sabres viewers get to experience over the course of this road trip? A lot of strange graphics and unfamiliar commercials, some really bad camera work and sophomoric announcers, and a newfound appreciation for having a top-flight video production team and an icon for a play-by-play man.

The good? How about tuning in to the beginning of the Calgary game, and hearing the familiar strains of the old Hockey Night in Canada theme! Oft referred to as Canada’s second national anthem, CBC opted to drop the song after an almost 40-year run rather than pay exorbitant royalty fees. The sports cable network TSN, not available to viewers in the States, picked up the rights.

More good? Buffalo demolishing the Edmonton Oilers 10-2, in what was the Oilers’ worst home loss in franchise history. Drew Stafford with a hat trick. Nathan Paetsch getting his first goal of the season. Can anyone imagine what the backlash would have been the next day had this game not been telecast back to Buffalo!

The bad? Listening to veteran announcer Darren Pang on the Phoenix telecast, trying to wade through the poor work of his broadcast partner, coupled with the shoddy camera angles. It made one pine for the old days of International Cable channel 10. Or (shudder) Jennifer Smith.

The ugly? If the Phoenix telecast wasn’t bad enough, the crew manning the Edmonton booth had to be the absolute pits. Mind you, it was a tough night for the home team, but the goal calls were hideous and would never make it to a highlight reel. About the only “feel good” story from the telecast was the camera catching Drew Stafford’s uncle, Barrie Stafford, working behind the Oilers bench. When Stafford scored his third of the night, Uncle Barrie cracked a bit of a smile, for sure drawing the ire of local viewers in Alberta.

So did you turn down the television and synch up the local radio broadcast? If you did, there was one shining light, and that was in the form of Paul Hamilton. Familiar to Buffalo fans as the long-time Sabres beat reporter for WGR Radio, Hamilton was in the broadcast booth for the Phoenix game this past Saturday to do the play-by-play.

He nailed it.

Throughout the broadcast, Hamilton sounded relaxed, composed, offering the score and providing line changes at regular intervals. He showed emotion in his calls without being a screamer.

Best of all, he offered his expert analysis at key points of the game as an add-on to his play-by-play skills. Harry Neale? Take the night off, Paul is in the booth! Granted, Hamilton comes in with a big advantage, having honed his interviewing skills over the years and developed close relationships with the players. His insight resonated again and again.

No Sabres fan wants to think about it, but Jeanneret will one day step down from the Sabres mic for the last time. Son Mark Jeanneret is down in Erie doing the OHL Otters play-by-play, and has been rumored as a possible replacement. It was only one game, but after listening to Paul Hamilton’s call this past weekend, one can’t help but wonder if the Sabres have found their future.

TARO SEZ…

■ Got a quick glimpse of this epic Taro-esque sign during the Edmonton telecast: “If Sheldon had ever met Connie Francis, would the song be titled ‘Who’s Souray Now?’”

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