The NHL has had a ton of great ideas in the last half-decade or so. The establishment of the Winter Classic as one of the sports calendar's marquee events, massive television deals with NBC and Rogers, and the overall improvement of the league's access to players through outlets like NHL.com and HBO's 24/7.
All that said, the league still has one big fat weak spot within its media empire… the NHL Network. Every year, hockey fans have complained about the network's weak aesthetic look, lack of substantial analysis, poor coverage of huge news stories (i.e. the entire NHL lockout) and overall dearth of original ideas. If I'm flipping around channels, I would probably rather click on NFL Network, MLB Network or NBA TV. And I'm someone who would rather watch bad hockey television than good anything else. This is a problem.
In the spirit of Festivus, I figured the end of the year might be an appropriate time to air some of the grievances that I and many hockey fans league-wide have with the league's in-house network, and perhaps some ideas that can be used to fix them.
1. NHL On the Fly and NHL Tonight, the network's flagship shows, are both weak
MLB Network's MLB Tonight is probably the best "live look-in" style show, in part because they mix in the chatter with getting you live to the actual important moments that the average fan would want to see. Despite not being in the vein of NFL Red Zone, they still will have you watching the key moments when you want to see them. Potential no hitters, bases loaded situations, even just showing you the end of games.
The NHL on NBC has, in a way, parroted the style the MLB Tonight has for its live look-ins as well, showing it isn't impossible for hockey. During the NHL Live pre-game show, Liam McHugh will set up Mike Milbury and Keith Jones for discussions of a game as it is being shown live to the audience in progress. It's an effective way to get a hot take on a team or player in the news, while still giving the audience a great visual of an NHL broadcast.
NHL Network has two, fairly similar studio shows: NHL On the Fly (which runs 7-10 p.m. ET) and NHL Tonight (which goes from 10 p.m. ET until the end of the evening). While there has been an effort to make these programs better, they simply aren't up to snuff. In fact, they've gotten worse over time.
On the Fly used to be the closest to an American version of the English Premier League review program Match of the Day. There would be discussion and analysis, but the highlights would be uninterrupted by studio chatter and just use the play-by-play of one of the local broadcasts. It wasn't original, as we pointed out, but it made the show stand out in the United States and Canada.
Now, both NHL Net shows are what every other late night sports studio show is: hosts talking over highlights. And it isn't particularly good. In addition, NHL Network's "live look-ins" and updates are often well late, and the league rarely, if ever, shows overtimes or shootouts live on the show. NHL Tonight often eats up precious live game time out west with dull "arena cam" interviews with players that are never cut away from.
This is an easy fix. Whether you revert back to the Match of the Day style or not, make the show flexible. Show all shootouts live when possible, and maybe even all overtimes. Showcase the best of the game as it happens. Cut down on the arena cam interviews and stick with feeds of post-game press conferences from regional television networks and NBC/TSN. Hockey has forever felt like it's almost too fast for television. NHL Network's highlight shows make it seem too slow.
2. The network itself doesn't look great
Here's a fun fact I bet you wouldn't guess: the NHL Network makes a pretty tidy profit for the league. Chris Botta of Sports Business Journal reported last July that the network made $53 million in affiliate fees and advertising last year. They spent just $16 million on production. Meaning they could pump a lot of money into the network and still make profits in the tens of millions.
The current set-up sure doesn't look that way. The NHL Network set in Toronto, quite frankly, is the worst in sports that I can think of between the major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) the cable sports networks (ESPN, Fox Sports 1, NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network) and the major league networks (NFL Net, NBA TV, MLB Net, Big Ten Network, Golf Channel, it goes on…).
The desk is too small, there's very few other spots on the set to improvise, at least that we've seen. It really doesn't look much better than the original NHL on OLN set. I'm serious, take a look. If you ask anyone at NBC Sports Network now, that set and the VERSUS one that replaced it were openly derided before they moved into Stamford.
The NHL Network's other set, at the NHL Store on 47th and 6th in New York City, looks fine for what it is, and they've made it better and better as they've gone on. The graphics for the network are fine, but a little stagnant, and the live game graphics are reminiscent of the last days of VERSUS.
But the problem remains in Toronto, and they're producing at least six hours of live programming out of that place each night, and it's not anywhere near as aesthetically pleasing as what MLB Net has in Secaucus, NBA TV has in Atlanta, or NFL Net has in Los Angeles.
Botta's article also mentions that the NHL Network went back on original plans to move into the NBC Sports Network's international broadcast center in Stamford, Connecticut. In the Botta article, NHL VP of Programming Bob Chesterman is quoted as saying that "It’s… a non-issue because the talent we get in Toronto is outstanding. You’re only as good as your talent. In the end, that’s what’s going to be our driving force.”
While I respect that you might get better hockey talent in Toronto than in Stamford, the fact is that that building already puts out a better 90 minutes or so of NHL studio programming three nights a week than NHL Network does all week long. While it might be fair to say that the quality could go down if they did more from that building, it would still at least look a lot better.
3. They somehow don't have enough talking heads
For a league that schedules itself the way the NHL does — with three-game nights often following 11-game nights — there are rarely ever more than two people live on the air of NHL On the Fly or Tonight. Just a host and an analyst. This set-up is more applicable to the old way those shows were done, where you didn't need people to talk over plays very much. Now, you really need that because they're going to be breaking down replays.
Frankly, the shows can often seem very monotone with just one voice speaking. One analyst unquestioned, without any banter, can get dull after a while. There's something to be a said for a network that avoids making itself about mindless debate, but you have to have some sort of discussion going on.
NHL Network also hits on a problem that the league has in general with television: the bench of players who make for good analysts isn't very deep. NHL Network's talent stable often borders more on pleasant than actually insightful (It should be noted that everyone I've ever dealt with at NHL Network is a true hockey person, and therefore pleasant and thoughtful). Jeff O'Neill has made waves in Canada since beginning his broadcasting career and is becoming good at the gig, but the rest just seem kind of… there to say the things you expect hockey analysts to say. And they do. And that's it. Barry Melrose is occasionally on, and he is what he is, but it isn't enough.
This does not include the network's hosts, I should add. Kathryn Tappen's Olympic hosting gig is well earned, as she often puts an intelligent, pleasant face on the channel. Steve Mears is one of hockey's finest young broadcasters, having already logged time in an NHL radio booth (he'll be calling the World Junior Championship off a monitor for the network again this year), and serving as an effective host for NHL Live. EJ Hradek is also a fun personality who'd be capable of bringing news to the network if they actually made the effort. But when it comes to finding an honest, incisive take on the night's action… you might want to find a way to pipe in TSN or Sportsnet.
4. A lack of regular, original programming in general
Yes, NHL Network is usually live from 5 p.m. – 1 a.m. ET five days a week, and various hours around game programming on the weekends, but… there's literally nothing else. The network did away with most of the old Top 10 and "Classic Series" shows they'd produced on the older version of the network, and now have very little backlog. While this is merely a nuisance during the regular season and playoffs, it drives me into an unnecessary rage during the summer.
You see, the NHL Network is largely bereft of studio programming once we hit July. NHL Live goes off the air for a couple months and so do the Toronto-based shows, and NHL Network basically turns into a re-broadcast of last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs until at least the middle of September when pre-season hockey saves us all.
This is the complete opposite of MLB Network, which had a ton of clip-heavy, talking head-heavy compilation shows ready when they hit the air. Tons of episodes of Prime 9 and Classic Seasons were already there and prepared to air. There's no such thing on NHL Network during the off-season. Perhaps an old NHL Productions' produced documentary, or one of the five or six episodes of NHL 36, but nothing substantial. There's no hint of the quirky, stylish NBA TV programming such as NB80's, which I'll stop and watch even though I'm hardly a casual basketball fan.
The NHL doesn't merely seem confused about its non-studio programming identity, it just doesn't appear interested in having one. It's just studio show, studio show, rerun throughout the night/two games from a night ago repeated/back to studio shows. That's the pattern every single night, unless there's a live game. It just continues the idea that the NHL Network is this monotonous channel frozen in time.
5. Original productions of games
Speaking of live games, this is more of a minor complaint, but still a place where the network could stand to get better. The NHL Network takes broadcast feeds from regional sports networks (and on Saturdays, the CBC) to air their games, often with just their own graphics imposed on the screen. This is fine, I guess, but there's just so much more that they could be doing.
NBA TV rarely does original productions until the postseason, but MLB Network makes it a point to have at least one of their "Showcase Games" each week, while the NFL Network has a much-maligned, but still highly rated package. The network is not in nearly enough homes to earn an exclusive broadcast each week (i.e. only available on NHL Network in the home markets of the teams), but why not build towards a day when that could happen?
What about a game of the week with an original production on Thursdays? Last I saw, Gary Thorne wasn't on ESPN anymore. He was even employed by the channel to work the World Juniors a few years back. Why not feed into many hockey fans' nostalgia and have him and Bill Clement call a Thursday Night Hockey game? Hell, you could still use the camera shots from NESN or Fox or Comcast, just have Gary and Bill there in person, describing the action.
6. No legitimate news operation to speak of
Again, something that very much hurts NHL Network during the off-season. Whenever a signing breaks during the far longer Major League Baseball off-season, I know that if I tune into MLB Network within an hour or so of the signing, they will probably have somebody on camera breaking it down. Until now, NHL Network broadcasts TSN's Free Agent Frenzy show on July 1st, and then says sayonara for the summer. Unacceptable.
While NHL Net has Bob McKenzie or Darren Dreger of TSN come in once a week or so to dish on various insider gossip, it's far from a regular presence. Especially considering the fact that NHL.com employs quite a few respected journalists, why aren't they put to use? Why isn't the NHL's own network a factor when any news story whatsoever is broken. The only story on record that the network came close to breaking was when Kevin Weekes had the Ryan Getzlaf signing last season. Why isn't Hradek counted on as a newshound, considering his background in newspaper writing and with ESPN The Magazine?
NFL Network employs tons of journalists, and uses them across the network and NFL.com. MLB Network has every baseball insider under the sun making frequent appearances on the channel. NHL Network has… an occasional segment, and even then, it's rarely their own talent.
In summation, this whole column may be for naught in a year. There have been rumors that Sportsnet's acquisition of the league's TV rights may give them some hand in how NHL Network looks, and that may completely change the game for the channel. Or maybe they bite the bullet and finally move down to Connecticut and join the NBC family (I've been to the studios, they have the room, folks).
There are a few things a league-owned network can be: a propaganda wing, a flashy source of entertainment, or a legitimate newsgathering organization. NHL Network serves its fans none of those things right now. Hell, I bet NHL fans would be fine with a propaganda wing if it looked good and it was entertaining. It could be SportsCenter-esque flashy, but with hockey all the time. Or it could take a journalistic approach and give hockey fans juicy stories and break trades and signings.
Right now, the NHL Networks does none of those things well, or even at an acceptable level. It is an eyesore for a league that has started to pride itself on putting together professional, flashy, good-looking events. That it has actually regressed since getting on the air in 2007 is not good for a league with a solid entertainment record in recent years. It cannot continue, or else the road to credibility with hockey fans will become an almost insurmountable hill to climb. I believe it can be salvaged, but not in its current format.