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Hockey Night in Canada: Can Rogers fix it?

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Rogers needs to do more than shuffle staff to get new viewers interested in hockey.

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2014 NHL Awards - Inside Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

This post is a follow-up to my previous commentary on Rogers’ hockey broadcasts, and its flagship show, Hockey Night in Canada. I suggest you read it here if you have not already.

One week ago the Toronto Star reported George Stroumboulopoulos (Strombo) has been replaced as host of Hockey Night in Canada and Ron MacLean will return to the role. These reports are not yet confirmed by Rogers. It is not clear if Strombo will continue in a different capacity with TV hockey broadcasting.

Since Rogers took over the NHL’s Canadian broadcasting rights, they prioritized changing style, not substance. A dozen new cameras angles and a giant two level $4.5M dollar set have yet to engage new viewers, especially when the content is so bland.

Rogers’ only unique change was adding Strombo to attract “younger viewers.” Rogers assigned him to the same type of role that has always existed, instead of creating him a new, fresh role. Now he is gone, and any hint of advancement in announcers with him.

The parade of ex-players hired as analysts displaced any possibility of new talent or a diversity of voices that might discuss hockey in a different way, or have expertise in different areas of hockey. In fact, Rogers’ arrogant method of throwing money at new sets, promoting itself, and handing out big salaries to a large staff — only to blame and everything but themselves for the problem — is infuriating.

There has already been a lot of pontificating on this from many writers and our own commenters. Most agree that Rogers did nothing to address fundamental problems with hockey broadcasting that have existed for years, and that shuffling staff is not a solution.

One comment that caught my eye recently was from long-time PPP member @mforbes37. He wrote that the TV rights deal can never be salvaged because there’s no growth in the number of hockey fans, and changes in how we watch and experience hockey means a negative TV ratings growth for hockey, in perpetuity. Essentially he wrote that the existing model is on its death bed.

I disagree, and argue that Rogers can work itself out of this mess with a commitment to presenting different hockey information in new ways, by changing information presented in the show and getting new and diverse talent on the air. It won’t even require a new multi-million dollar set — simply the will to shake up the status quo and focus on new viewers, not lost ones.

So how can it be fixed?

I’ll start by establishing goals and objectives for engaging viewers, and then walk through a few ideas, from simple changes, to a broader vision of the show five years from now.

In-game information

When you tune in to a hockey game you shouldn’t be left in the dark beyond the score, which is the least frequently changed information. Yet that’s almost all of the additional game data that Rogers offers.

Sports viewers, especially hockey fans, are craving data right now, yet in Canada we get less information than anywhere else.

Occasionally, supplemental data is tacked on to the side of the screen. During the playoffs, I once noticed a clock that counted a team’s time from last shot-on-goal, because it was supposedly a large and significant number.

What about missed and blocked shots? A shots-on-goal time clock isn’t telling us the whole story. Why can’t the basic shots-on-goal numbers be in the score bug all the time, and why are missed and blocked shot numbers never expanded? The commentators love to talk about blocked shots, yet this data is never available on the screen.

Beyond this, there are many other data-oriented possibilities available.

I am not suggesting that Rogers should make our TV screens into a mess of gimmicky dials and widgets. All that’s necessary is someone monitors the conditions of the game and dynamically adds interesting and relevant metrics to the screen. All the better if they use a creative way to display the information.

Here’s another example: why not have a momentum indicator? It can be displayed with a pie chart adjacent to the scores, updated with the prior 20 shot-attempts in a period, with each team having their colours as the share of the pie chart. When there is a significant imbalance it can be placed on screen for two minutes of game play. The play-by-play announcer can refer to it, and the colour commentator can explain how one team has outmaneuvered the other.

What about graphics that use modern tools and statistics to evaluate game play? This is a graphic used by the MSG network two years ago.

MSG Network

This not only touches upon shot attempts, but also shot locations, which is information now viewed as a useful tool to evaluating goal-tending ability and the systems of an attacking team. Again, this was from two years ago, and hockey analysis has already leapfrogged this type of data, yet Rogers isn’t even HERE yet.

It is arrogance on Roger’s part to assume they don’t need any kind of change in their delivery of game information, and instead tell viewers who are hungry for a better understanding of the game that they are “analidiots.”

From goalie shot heat-maps, to individual player stats on shot generation and suppression, to all the other analysis that has taken hockey by storm, why is this data never a part of Rogers’ discourse?

Are you having fun?

It doesn’t feel like the Sportsnet people are. There’s no excitement about the game. There’s no one who gushes about a fantastic play or highlights.

Joy is reserved for nitpicking flaws and crafting a narrative without evidence, discussion, or anyone to challenge it. Is the “book” out on Reimer? Prove it. Tell us something other than how you played the game (20 years ago). No one on a panel is willing to offer a counter narrative, no matter how outrageous, unless it is a prearranged argument that looks as cro-magnon as a staged enforcer fight.

Even Don Cherry does this. He carefully selects plays from many games for a highlight reel on his segment to establish a narrative about a player, and there is no chance in hell that Ron MacLean would ever say anything to contradict Don.

I look at Sportsnet staff like Steve Glynn, Dimitri Filipovic, and Jeff Marek and wonder why they are not on these panels. They love talking hockey. They live for going over plays, looking at players in detail, researching the big picture of a team as well as the close-up view of each player. They have an incredible enthusiasm for the game and love to break it down, analyze, and debate with other people.

Apparently, that kind of love for the game doesn’t fit Rogers’ vision. During an intermission we are fed a narrative in a precisely scripted time block, and then watch four consecutive Scotiabank commercials.

I know it’s not realistic to have everything ad-lib with no advance planning for a panel discussion, but surely there has to be flexibility. Can no one jump in to say “Wait a minute! I don’t agree!” in a way that wasn’t scripted in advance? Is the broadcast so hindered for time that natural conversation is not possible?

Speaking of natural conversation and having fun, those hallway intermission interviews are not fun for anyone. Sure, occasionally you get an insightful comment, but more likely you hear about “going north-south, playing a 200 foot game, and getting the puck in deep.”

Why not give that time to an actual systems analyst (we miss you, Justin Bourne) to break down what happened in the period?

Diversity on the air

As long as Rogers keeps hiring nobody but former hockey guys, hockey guys are the only source of opinions on the broadcast. Rogers needs to develop in-house talent who are not either broadcasters with insider connections, or ex-players.

I already mentioned some names who can have segments, but there are places to look outside of your own show.

Why have no Canadian women made it into an analyst role yet? Women like Cassie Campbell-Pascal and Andi Petrillo have been a part of broadcasts, but not on a panel or doing analyses. I don’t know if they would want to take on that role, but there are women out there who would.

CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress says a key goal of her league is “creating leadership opportunities for women.” Call her, Rogers!

Has anyone at Rogers listened to Tessa Bonhomme’s new podcast? Her expression of enjoyment for broadcasting is incredibly genuine. She is as competent as any existing panel member, and might see the game from a different point of view that would add value to a discussion.

However, CWHL players and women’s Olympic hockey players are only some of many possibilities. There’s a lot of talent out there, men and women, who have never “played the game” but can still talk hockey with the best. For proof they need only look down the hall at the the Punjabi broadcast.

Rogers must look beyond the very narrow template of voices and opinions they now put on the air. Playing pro-hockey shouldn’t be a requirement. Diversity of thought and analysis makes for an interesting broadcast and is key to attracting new viewers.

Lessons from the SHL

I occasionally enjoy watching an SHL game on Saturday mornings. The broadcasts are from a network called C More Sports.

Does Rogers ever look at other networks and leagues for inspiration?

I don’t think the SHL hockey broadcast budget is very large, but they do very well with what they have. There’s no giant set, it’s a small an intimate one. It still has lots of screen space to put up information.

There’s a sense of intimacy that is lost on a giant set.

I cannot understand 80% of what the SHL presenters are saying due to language, yet the broadcast still feels more informative than watching Kelly Hrudey and Nick Kypreos playing with hockey sticks and a net on a fake ice surface.

Their intermission interviews are actually live. They give players a headset and the broadcast team in studio ask them questions; often far more substantive than what we get in the arena hallway on HNIC (I know because they do these interviews in English for Canadian players in the SHL).

The point is, like displaying stats and data, other networks have been doing it better for years. Has no one at Rogers been taking notes? This is the arrogance at work again.

Final thoughts (for now)

The current ratings crisis has created an opportunity for Rogers. It cannot be understated how pivotal this moment is to the evolution of hockey broadcasting in Canada. A stagnant TV broadcast could be overhauled in a way that adapts to how we watch, enjoy, and understand hockey in the future.

Will Rogers seize this opportunity to become a leader in sports broadcasting, or will they revert back to the same people, with the same ‘hot takes,’ riding out ‘olde tyme’ hockey until the NHL pulls the plug and goes 100% direct to consumer?