Change isn’t easy, in almost any aspect of sports. You’ll see a lot of sports fans in both hockey and basketball come to grips with the loss of their favorite players to other teams, who spend money on big free agent contracts once the period to sign them begins tomorrow. We like things the way they are and want them to stay that way, and a forced change just takes a lot to get used to.

The same is true in sports television. Rogers is about to undergo a mammoth attempt at changing the habits of hockey fans across Canada. Taking viewers who see them as a home for regional hockey telecasts to seeing them as the national partner for most of the season and playoffs. They have a great asset in CBC to help them along, but this will be a brand new era for hockey in Canada.

A smaller, subtle, but still important change happens today: Sportsnet starts to get rights to broadcast their programming of big NHL events in America, beginning with the opening of free agency. Rogers’ show will launch at 11 a.m. ET and run through to 6 p.m. ET. The responsibility isn’t lost on those involved.

The show is important as a benchmark for hockey fans in either country nowadays, says senior producer Mark Askin, a man who’s worked in game production for decades and is transitioning into the studio before returning to that work next year. “These shows have become, in some ways, bigger than the game. They’re signposts throughout the year where you know where you were when so-and-so was traded, or your favorite team signed a guy.”

“We’re really excited about this platform,” says Darren Millard, a hockey host who has been with the network since its inception in 1998, and will continue into the Hockey Night in Canada era. “Being on the NHL Network and having a new stage to show off our broadcast.”

Millard is the main host, along with Jeff Marek and Chris Simpson (American viewers may recognize Simpson from the early days of OLN/VERSUS). Their analysts include veterans Nick Kypreos (who doubles as an “insider”), Doug MacLean — whom Millard calls “an entertainer” capable of light and serious topics, while has something close to a “Statler and Waldorf” dynamic with Kypreos — and Billy Jaffe, along with newcomers Greg Millen and Darren Pang.

On the “deal-breaking” side of things, Kypreos joins the just arrived from CBC Elliotte Friedman (whom Askin described as a “game changer” for the network), former NHL VP of Broadcasting John Shannon, and respected journalists like Scott Morrison and Chris Johnston.

What NHL fans in the United States may wonder is this, and it’s an important question to have answered for what’s going to be a 12-year partnership that will be seen at certain points in America: where does Sportsnet differ in terms of how they cover the sport from other networks, and particularly on this unique, important day?

“Hockey Central and Sportsnet, if you had to differentiate between the three networks we have the same types of people — former general managers, former players, former coaches, all the shows have that,” said Millard. “I think that Sportsnet has the reputation of maybe laughing more, I think the shows are a bit looser.”

“We still cover the bones of the trade, the bones of the announcement, we work as hard on breaking the news. But we also aren’t afraid to have some fun with it. I think, over the course of seven hours, you see a trend towards that kind of thing.”

“What we are trying to do is what we will try to do,” said Askin. “I just don’t necessarily worry what the other side is doing. I have enough trouble just worrying about what we’re doing. I’m very confident in the group we have together, very confident in the people that will also be added to our team, and what we’re trying to do is get the story to our fans.”

Of course, one time in 2007 — a year Millard admits “went too far” — the show can get caught being a little too loose, like when they held a pizza party featuring the anonymous hockey insider “Eklund.” But these days, the network kind of knows the limit and relies on the talent, as he says.

“Now, we’ve got a great blend of personalities that people will see (for the first time).”

While that’s all nice, what the network really prides itself on is a segment they call “The Strategy Room,” something both Millard and Askin beamed about when I spoke to them on Monday, and something that is often promoted as one of the lynchpins of Sportsnet’s player movement congestion days as being their best feature.

For those unaware, The Strategy Room is a series of segments hosted by Marek, who moderates discussion between former NHL GMs, execs and players on past deadline days and free agent signings, and how they might be comparable to today. For example, a previous year had Mike Keenan revealing he had a deal in place to trade Roberto Luongo to Boston for Joe Thornton, which is priceless in ways that are beyond measure. The segment is very highly hyped at Sportsnet, and Askin and Millard show it, especially with a small alteration for this year.

“We’ve used it before to tell stories, but in this case there’s gonna be three game analysts up there, to give us another spot where we can analyze what just happened,” said Askin. “In this day and age, on this stage, you want as many voices and opinions heard, because it’s a big deal.”

“It’s actually in one of our boardroom at Sportsnet, and they just sit around and talk to each other,” said Millard. “It’s a blend of strategy talk, right on down to storytelling. Every year, it becomes one of the most memorable parts of those shows because there’s opinions, there’s stories, there’s revelations. The guys are just so honest with each other in that type of presentation. Those who haven’t seen it will be really intrigued.”

The line between intriguing viewers with off-kilter segments and serving up hard news is a line Sportsnet needs to balance. July 1st is an important day on the NHL calendar year, not just for the players but for the fans and the media. It’s a piece of real estate you want to own, because you want to be depended on by hardcore hockey fans, who are the only people — at least in the U.S. — watching this, anyway.

“When your team signs somebody, you want to hear what all these guys who are prominent guys in the game think about it,” says Askin. Starting today, Sportsnet is betting on this making a difference in two countries.

About Steve Lepore

Steve Lepore is a writer for Bloguin and a correspondent for SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.

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