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Hockey Night in Canada and the Ideological Gap in Sports Broadcasting

Jonathan Willis has a short but sharp post up at Oilersnation about the decline of CBC’s Saturday night institution Hockey Night in Canada and its lateral movement into the National Hockey League’s doghouse that’s worth of bit of contextual expansion. There’s less to be said about the broadcast’s aggressive Leafs-centrism beyond “fuck, yeah”, but his points about the problems with the broadcast crew itself are more fruitful for discussion.

MacLean is about to wipe his sweaty hands off on his suit in disgust.

Although Willis is tactful enough not to name too many names, HNIC‘s on-air “talent” that go conspicuously unpraised can be inferred to be the culprits of the lamented deterioration of “journalistic standards.” These would be those who aren’t actually journalists, of course: former NHLers Kelly Hrudey, Glenn Healy, and PJ Stock (Hrudey was better before becoming a mere foil for Stock), but also later-night broadcasters Mark Lee and Kevin Weekes, whose combination of unintentionally hilarious malapropisms (“Corey Power Potter Play Goal!”) and shallow colour observations has blighted many an Edmonton Oilers game on the network this year (as if they aren’t already blighted enough in the first place by being Oilers games).

Additionally, you have Don Cherry’s increasingly belligerent and incoherent dotage (though he may have a future in music to fall back on) and the continued employment of Mike Milbury (he was back on this week’s Hotstove after several weeks of banishment for roughing up a 12-year-old kid at a peewee hockey game, contributing nothing of value but contributing it loudly). Even the professional journalists, the ones who rely on evidence, sources, and background for their analysis, are suffering in quality in those parts: Elliotte Friedman, solid but usually unremarkable as an analyst, is almost always the sole voice of reason and consideration amongst the fulminating clowns, Calgary Sun columnist Eric Francis dresses worse than Grapes and has an unfortunate weakness for dominant media narratives, and Ron MacLean is more of a helpless ringmaster for the circus each week, tossing out a pun here and there just to remind viewers that he’s still around.

I don’t agree that TSN is really killing CBC on the hockey broadcast front to any real extent; it also employs bloviating twits like Pierre McGuire and Darren Pang, after all. The sports-focused cable network does have an edge in its ability to provide a more immersive and nuanced brand of coverage than the publically-funded broadcast giant while also avoiding in-game plugs for Arctic Air and Little Mosque on the Prairie. The CBC’s Saturday-night-only approach to hockey broadcasting seems out of step with the complex instant-news reality of internet news and social media that we now live with. It does much better during the playoffs, when its traditional approach invests the proceedings with accumulating drama.

Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson relax during a brief break from pumping Roberto Luongo's tires.

But ultimately, the problem with Hockey Night in Canada is not one of format or personnel or frequency but, increasingly, of ideology. Hockey culture is increasingly characterized by a split between statistically-rigorous numbers wonks who tend to appreciate nuances and skilled displays on one side, and the rock-’em-sock-’em, hypermasculine, gut-reaction sort of fan who overvalue signs of toughness, privilege unmeasurable intangibles, and view the sport in more gladiatorial terms and not as a chess game on ice, a balance of probabilities and percentages, on the other. Fans from the latter group are almost certainly more numerous, and don’t look to their hockey broadcasts for depth of insight. They want to watch some hockey with the guys, and those guys include those onscreen, even if they are all grit-obsessed former Bruins, mediocre backup goalies, and spectacularly failed team executives. It’s the ideological gap crystallized in Moneyball, put on ice.

Hockey Night in Canada has chosen to appeal to the tribal-allegiance fan rather than the rational-analysis fan, and their overtures to the latter group are ever more marginal. This is unsurprising; nuance is never know to attract the eyeballs. But statistical rigour is the bedrock of sports journalism; without it, those who cover games are forever chasing fairies and leprechauns. The fuzzy magical thinking is no kind of foundation for a venerable hockey broadcast, and hopefully CBC will clue in before too long.

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Categories: Sports, Television

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