The Hockey Night In Canada panel covering the 2023 Stanley Cup Final. The Hockey Night In Canada panel covering the 2023 Stanley Cup Final. (Sportsnet.)

The last week-plus has seen a lot of speculation throughout Canada on what was ahead for Sportsnet’s NHL coverage, specifically Hockey Night In Canada (which is produced by Sportsnet under their national Canadian NHL rights deal, but airs on CBC as part of a sublicensing arrangement). That started with a report from Howard Berger, the former Fan 590 figure (he worked there from the station’s launch in 1988 through 2011) who’s been covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and more on his own website since then. On July 8, Berger wrote a piece suggesting long-time host Ron MacLean and other figures might be gone ahead of the 2023 season in “a major media bloodletting,” and he promoted it again the next day with “It could be the end of Hockey Night In Canada as we’ve known it.”

The key part of Berger’s piece there was a quote from an unnamed “media source familiar to everyone in the Canadian sports television industry”:

It was an alarming bit of speculation from a media source familiar to everyone in the Canadian sports television industry: “We may not recognize the Hockey Night In Canada panel next season,” claimed this person. “Based on what I’m told, only Elliotte Friedman is safe from the changes and cost–cutting measures on the horizon.”

That led to some of Berger’s own analysis, including complaints against MacLean for not doing more to support Don Cherry, who was let go in 2019 after refusing to back down following on-air anti-immigrant remarks:

It was after the infamous “you people” edition of Coach’s Corner (on Nov. 19, 2019) that MacLean’s enormous popularity began to decline. Cherry inadvertently grouped all immigrants to Canada in the same sentence while criticizing those who had not worn a poppy to honor Remembrance Day. Nationwide backlash provided Rogers the excuse it had long–been seeking to fire Cherry and recoup his seven–figure salary. MacLean, by all appearances, was forced between the old rock and a hard place. At the threat of losing his own job, he went on the air prior to the Sunday Hometown Hockey telecast and apologized to the country for Cherry’s remarks the previous night… even though MacLean had sanctioned the “you people” homily with his patented thumbs–up gesture. This was seen by Cherry’s innumerable advocates as throwing the coach under the bus. MacLean’s following immediately plummeted and his brother–like relationship with Cherry ended on the spot. Neither have been reclaimed.

There is no data offered there for “MacLean’s enormous popularity began to decline” beyond Berger’s own observations. And it seems rather unlikely that a staffing decision four years later would have a lot to do with the Cherry incident, or with MacLean’s response. (Indeed, MacLean’s on-air apology was more effective than Sportsnet’s own belated statement in showing that the company didn’t support what Cherry said. And it seems at least somewhat unlikely that MacLean acting in a way that fit with the corporate decision on Cherry, and reportedly doing so at Sportsnet parent company Rogers’ behest, would now be used by that company against MacLean.)

But yes, in this era of layoffs and cost-cutting everywhere, it was quite possible to envision Sportsnet (which has a lot still to pay on their NHL deal) moving on from some long-time figures. (Although, Berger estimates MacLean only makes $450,000 Canadian annually, so he’s far from the top of the list even in Canada.) And the 63-year-old MacLean’s responsibilities at Sportsnet had already diminished following last year’s cancellation of Hometown Hockey, so it was at least conceivable the company could fully move on from him. And that led to Berger’s piece gaining wide internet traction. But this weekend, both MacLean and panelist Kevin Bieksa said they’re coming back:

Of course, none of that means Berger’s original piece was completely inaccurate. The piece was based on a comment from a “media source familiar to everyone in the Canadian sports television industry.” A source can say whatever they like, especially when granted a level of anonymity where it’s not even clear what side of the industry they’re working on and how much they know. And the specific wording of the source’s comment did not say that change was definitively happening. Perhaps MacLean and Bieksa truly were “not safe” at that point in time, and decisions on bringing them back or not weren’t yet made. (And, really, in this media environment, no one appears particularly “safe.” And Sportsnet has made massive cuts before, and may do so again.)

But the amount of attention and traction this piece got was remarkable, especially given that it didn’t come from one of the usual figures breaking Canadian sports media news, and given that it relied on a single anonymous source. Many interpreted Berger’s piece to mean that MacLean, Bieksa, and possibly more (beyond them and Friedman, Hockey Night In Canada studio coverage also included Kelly Hrudey, David Amber, and Jennifer Botterill last season; it’s unclear at this point if all of them are coming back) were definitively gone. Now, it seems clear that MacLean and Bieksa at least are not.

[John Shannon and Kevin Bieksa on Twitter; image of the Hockey Night In Canada panel from a 2023 post-Stanley Cup Final segment]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.