In a season that looked seriously like no NHL games would be played, it was with a measure of relief to see the return of hockey to arenas and screens.
Despite all the threats and hullaballoo over protests and payback over the shoddy way fans were treated during the lockout, they came back in droves. NBC — fresh off signing a 10-year contract with the league — reported a record audience for their inaugural broadcast Saturday. Not much of a statement for fans vowing to quit cold turkey — and that’s in the States.
Up here, we’re hopeless. When Gary Bettman crows about how hockey fans are the best in all of sports there’s a bit of a dark underbelly to that. We’re somewhat addicted to the NHL habit. If Bettman knew there was any chance we wouldn’t be back, the lockout would have been much shorter.
As we know, habits are hard to break. Heck, as long as it wasn’t in the middle of summer, Canadian hockey fans would likely have tuned in for a 10-game season.
Feeding that addiction of course is the beast of television. NHL hockey and TV is a marriage made in high-def heaven. Along with the action on the ice there are the folks we love — and others love to hate — who bring us the games. And the king of that hill is the venerable institution of HNIC on CBC which celebrates it’s 60th season.
About the best way to sum things up is that it felt “normal.” Hockey Night In Canada was back Saturday night with all the usual suspects plus a couple of new faces. The show’s producers pulled out all stops, rolling out the truncated season with a triple-header in Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. The pre-game lead-in to the main Toronto vs Montreal game featured a thoughtful piece by writer/musician Dave Bidini that celebrated HNIC’s 60th season. The item featured many of those now iconic NHL images stitched together with a personal but not over-the-top love letter on hockey’s impact on the Canadian psyche. HNIC host Ron MacLean positively gushed about Bidini’s knack for creating “art” yet still be so damn informative. Well, okay. Though sometimes a “nicely done” or saying as little as possible is the way to go.
Speaking of which the HNIC talking heads panel has expanded to five, copying the trend these days to cram as many opiners around a desk as possible. Still haven’t decided whether this is a good thing for HNIC. In my estimation the show always held itself to a higher standard being on the national broadcaster and should beware of becoming just another sports “yell-talk” show.
On the upside, it cuts down on the dull moments when too many words are spent on rumours and hockey minutae. It also means less hot air from Glenn Healy who always sounds like he wants to fire someone. The downside with five of them blathering on, and helpless to stop themselves from interrupting (which regretfully is the way of most sports talk shows) it becomes the conversational equivalent of ping-pong. A testosterone-fuelled competition to get a word in edge-wise. We’ll see how it plays out during the season.
On the radio, The Fan 590 (Rogers) and TSN Radio 1050 — the media behemoths that own equal parts of MLSE — were going full bore with their own talkfests. The Fan promises the best pre and post-game shows with the return of former FAN stalwart Gord Stellick teamed with colour analyst and ex-Leaf Ric Nattress.
Meantime TSN Radio 1050 (“the official broadcaster of the Toronto Maple Leafs”) hosts the before and aft with Jim Tatti and Scott MacArthur. Thankfully the thundering-holy-mackinaw! voice of veteran Leaf broadcaster Joe Bowen is still on board along with affable sidekick Jim Ralph. These guys have great on-air chemistry and Ralph likes injecting some much-needed humour into things when they get a little serious. And good on him: It’s a game and it’s entertainment, not a hostage taking. When Bowen’s not on the mic and doing Leafs TV, Dan Dunleavy will do the play-by-play.
As expected opening night displayed plenty of pent-up hockey talk by broadcasters that finally had an escape valve. Everyone wanted to make a splash on the airwaves after such a long delay.
For the vast majority of fans this is the way they’ve always gotten their hockey fix. If Saturday’s start was any indication, the dial on all media platforms will remain turned up for this lockout shortened season.