“The challenge for us is navigation,” Moore says. “Letting people know where the games they wanna watch are, whether they’re gonna be on CBC or City, Sportsnet, Sportsnet One, Sportsnet 360. We have several destinations, we want to make sure everyone knows where their game is.” What you’ll see on Wednesday’s opening night doubleheader is all of their new cast. Well, most of them. Getting them all together in one place would look like one of those drawings of every character in The Simpsons’ universe, getting up to 100-200 characters.
The cast is another big part of this evolution and this meshing of the old school Hockey Night with everything Rogers wanted when they bought in. Intermissions, as much a part of the show as the games themselves for HNIC, will be the part of the show that most conjures up the old school version of uniting the country under one hockey program, since no matter what game you’re watching, you’ll get the same intermission show (sort of how every NFL feed comes back to the same halftime show). That includes Coach’s Corner with the seemingly immortal Don Cherry, but likely not Hotstove, the segment that was devoted to NHL news and insider rumors.
That’s part of what Moore sees as a big change in Rogers’ editorial philosophy from their predecessors. “We’re taking what I call a ‘Stars First’ editorial philosophy. Talk less about the business of the game, and more about great stars and great storytelling.” It’s what harkens back to HNIC’s old days, in which the first intermission was a feature at home with a player. Those features got Moore to fall in love with Jean Beliveau and Yvon Cournoyer and the Montreal Canadiens.
Rogers is serious about finding a way to crack the egg that the elite hockey player often can be. Moore adds: “We’ve invested a great deal of time and resource into an Olympic-stlyle features unit, to go behind the scenes and tell great stories about what I think is the number one asset of the National Hockey League, the players.”
“You’ll notice a difference, editorial will be less about salary caps and NHLPA escrow, more about why Jonathan Toews is the type of player that he is and great stories about the stars of the game.” Features in the first week include a visit with Maple Leafs’ forward Nazem Kadri’s family and tells the story of how Kadri’s family emigrated to Canada from Lebanon, and one about a teenage junior player, Ian Jenkins, who passed away before getting to play for the London Knights, but who’s attitude and influence spread to future NHL players like Canucks prospect Bo Horvat.
Diversifying the audience is also the reasoning behind the other biggest, most noticeable change: George Stromboulopoulos as the network’s new host on Saturdays (he’ll appear on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday night, at least during opening week coverage). It’s a combination of what Moore really wants to do with this show: make it new, and let it appeal to more people, but keep some of the old school flavor. Kick out some of the cobwebs without kicking out the people currently in the house. “The change in host is the best of both worlds, we get Ron’s presence with Don, and we get him to launch Sunday nights for us. We also get George, who brings a different perspective, different look and feel, just a different attitude. I think he’ll appeal to a slightly broader audience. He’ll skew a little more female at first, and that will widen our audience.”
The realization for Moore, as he puts it, is “this is not the same Canada that I grew up with when I was six or seven years old. There’s a very diverse cultural population in Canada.” This includes the return of Hockey Night in Punjabi with a broader reach than it had in CBC, as well as a digital program Sportsnet presented to the Board of Governors called Hockey 101. It’ll be a go-to beginner’s guide (in currently 22 different languages) to the ins and outs of hockey and the NHL for those who may not be familiar with the game, which Moore sees as a service to those emigrating to Canada.
“There’s no easy primer to find out what hockey is, how it’s played, who the stars are. We’ve done a great little website that will run off our Sportsnet website that will explain the game, explain the stars. When new Canadians come to this country, they want to fit in, and one of the ways to fit in is to talk about hockey, so how do you become part of that conversation? You’ve got to learn the language of hockey, so we’re doing a little bit of teaching that.”
Something that’s seen as important to hockey fans is the relationship the network maintains with the NHL, which now has billions invested in the NHL. That might worry some fans given the emphasis on less business stuff, but according to Moore, it’s all in perspective.
“I tell our editorial team that we’re partners with the league. Not cheerleaders, but partners. For the last number of years, particularly in Canada, the business of hockey took center stage. Now we have a long runway of labor peace in the league. Far less franchise issues. The game is in good shape, the balance of the game is terrific, the game on the ice looks great. I don’t think dedicating a segment every Saturday to talk about business is something that the fans want to here. We did consumer research: they’re tired of it. They want to talk about the breakout and the penalty kill and the power play, and why Alexander Ovechkin hasn’t won a Stanley Cup yet.”
Alexander Ovechkin actually relates to one more point I’m curious on about the future of the NHL on television: the analysts — often players who were marginal or mid-level themselves, far from superstars — often appear almost antagonistic with the game’s great players in a way they aren’t within any other sport. Moore plans to try and alter that perception, but again, without cheerleading.
He also acknowledges that this is definitely not an illusion. “My 13-year-old nephew said to me once, ‘do the people who talk about hockey on television, do they like hockey? Because they always seem to be mad.”
“For whatever reason, maybe it tends to be a little bit of the Canadian psyche, we tend to be a little insecure, a little critical at times, and I think that has driven the tone of some of the business coverage of the NHL. We’re not always as fast to celebrate our stars and be patriotic and some of the things that I admire about Americans.”
The turning point, he feels, came in 2010. “Canadians sort of said, ‘Oh, we’re pretty good at some of the stuff we do. Let’s celebrate, and not tear down people who are successful.’ Part of the Canadian culture that I’m not necessarily all that fond of from time to time, is that instead of building up stars we like tearing them down.”
There’s still room for criticism, though. “There are those would say that Alex hasn’t brought home a Stanley Cup, so he won’t be 100% celebrated until he does. But there’s no reason why we have to be overly critical about a Sidney Crosby or a Jonathan Toews. If you spend too much time listening to people be critical, you have no choice but to adopt that attitude yourself.”
That’s how Moore wants Hockey Night in Canada: always a little bit of the same, but now in state of perpetual motion that might make Don Cherry’s suits envious. Hopefully, that’s how we’ll see it going forward. They’ve got 12 years to get it right, after all…