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Strombexit: Is there really a culture war over hockey?

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Are “urban youth” really giving up on hockey?

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A lot has been written in the wake of Rogers’ firing of George Stroumboulopoulos and several other Sportsnet on-air broadcasters. There are a variety of takes about what went wrong. Many have come back to a declare there’s a "culture war" in hockey.

The Globe and Mail’s resident TV critic, John Doyle, kicked this off with a scathing indictment of Rogers and the NHL for their failure to market hockey to a new generation of fan, and therefore condemning the sport to its current slide in popularity.

Doyle frames Strombo’s firing as a final straw of sorts, the one that finally broke the Millennial fan, forever turning them away from hockey. Hyperbole aside, some of his arguments are correct.

I have already covered how Rogers wasted an opportunity to deploy the millions of dollars at their disposal to modernize hockey broadcasting, instead blowing it on gaudy sets, gimmicks, and salaries for ex-players-turned-broadcasters.

Then there is the legitimate issue of co-opting hockey for a politicized and corporatized Canadian Nationalism, like when we learned that immigrants could only become real Canadians when they enrolled their children in hockey while sipping Tim Horton’s coffee and talking about how "It’s so cold in Canada!"

This hyper-corporatization of the sport in recent years -- PK Subban in six Scotiabank commercials every game, the specter of ads on jerseys, the acquisition of teams by media conglomerates -- has also left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans wondering, "What am I getting out of this new big money era of the NHL?"

These are all irksome things to me, and many other so-called ‘Millennials’, but you know what is more irksome? When writers like Doyle go off into this culture-war angle, where 19-34 year old urban residents are pitted against "hardcore fans" in a battle for hockey viewing supremacy. This is what he wrote:

It doesn’t matter whether George Stroumboulopoulos or Ron MacLean host Hockey Night in Canada if the NHL can’t market themselves to the young, urban Canadian.

It’s easy to make caricatures. Picture a grizzled 50-something man who just finished his shift at the Porcupine Gold Mine in Timmins crushing a can of Lakeport in his fist while screaming about how Strombo’s pants are too tight and too red.

Let’s get real and drop this silly stereotype of a division in fans. No "hardcore" fan tuned out solely because Strombo had tight pants, and no urban twenty-something will stop watching because Ron MacLean is back.

What’s really happened is Rogers has shown it doesn’t even know who hardcore fans are.

Scott Moore, whom Keith Olbermann recently called the "stupidest executive" in sports, has unfortunately hijacked this term "hardcore fan." He has deployed it in carefully crafted press releases and PR statements to create a fan conflict where none exists. The purpose is to frame his strategy of turning hockey broadcasting in Canada back in time to appeal to the mythical hardcore fanbase comprised of my aforementioned imaginary gold miner as something that will be successful.

The reality is that Rogers is retreating from risk. They don’t even want to try and learn how fans now discuss and enjoy hockey. Rogers would rather salvage their NHL deal with the lowest-risk, lowest-return option, cutting the shows to the bone and banking on the Leafs and Habs making the playoffs (sorry Jets, you can’t turn this one around). New ideas are apparently not a part of Moore’s NHL world view.

Last week I attended an event called Puck Talks. It was held in downtown Toronto at the Drake Hotel. It was a sunny and hot Wednesday night, perfect for activities not involving talking about hockey indoors. Yet there were around 200 people there. It was a crowd that skewed young, with an almost even mix of men and women. We were hanging off every word of the various hockey media personalities talking about free-agency, the draft, and trades.

Andi Petrillo, James Mirtle, Kevin McGran, Chris Johnston, Steve Dangle, Michael Augello, and many more collectively put on a fantastic show.

If we Millennials are more disinterested in the sport than ever, why did 200 of us pay $20 to spend our evening there? If attending an event like that on a hot and sunny day in June doesn’t make us hardcore fans, then what does?

In a world enthralled by Brexit and Donald Trump’s populism, it’s easy to extrapolate a culture war as a part of some other event, or use it as a convenient excuse for some other systemic problem.

The Strombo to MacLean change isn’t going to fix Sportsnet’s hockey broadcast, but that doesn’t mean it’s proof Millennials have or will stop caring about NHL hockey.

It doesn’t matter where you live, how old you are, or what you know about the game: we are all craving better coverage, with more innovative reporting, stats, analysis, and information about the business of hockey. There’s no urban-rural cultural divide here. None of us want more ex-players yelling at each other about tired narratives or playing hockey in their suits during the intermission.

Let’s drop the fallacy that Rogers is responding to the ratings decline to appease a certain block of fans. They are trying to salvage their broadcast contract by slashing costs while putting as little effort or expense as possible into modernizing their hockey coverage.