Holiday Reads: Ron MacLean on ‘Hockey Night’ and Sochi

December 31, 2013  |  Ron MacLean for Maclean's  |  Comments

A forecast for the year in hockey (and hockey media)

The No. 1 obstacle to Canada winning hockey gold again in Sochi is the big ice. It’s the sword of Damocles that hangs over the team. There’s this idea that Canada didn’t do well on it in Nagano and Turin. And if they don’t get off to a quick start, that will be all the media and fans will talk about. I also know that [head coach] Mike Babcock is concerned about how the players will deal with the down time. Just getting away from the pressure cooker will be a little more challenging in a place like Sochi. The hardest thing for a hockey player is to not think about the game; they like to have lots of family and friends as distractions. But this time, it’s too difficult and expensive a trip for many.

In the NHL, the obvious trend this year is that the West is the best; the strength of the three California teams, and Chicago and St. Louis, is just astonishing. It’s heavy hockey—big men controlling the boards, winning all the puck battles by size. And the playoffs will be a war of attrition. The only question is whether the survivor of three rounds coming out of the West will have enough left in the tank for the Stanley Cup final, or whether a team from the East like Pittsburgh, with all its depth, will be able to pull it together and make it all moot. It’s hard to imagine that a Canadian team will be there. Vancouver might still be a dark-horse pick, but they’ll need to have their second line produce and take the heat off the Sedins.

The concern over concussions will be another dominant hockey theme. I always felt that the rule changes they made in 2005-06 to eliminate hooking and interference were going to speed up the game to the point where head injuries would be a problem. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, they’re definitely going to have to look at a few rule wrinkles to buy players time. As it is now, a defenceman going back to retrieve the puck is just a sitting duck. He can’t shoot the puck over the glass because that’s a penalty. His goalie can’t come out of the trapezoid and help him. Somebody has to figure that out.

As far as fighting goes, it’s hard to imagine it will still be here in 10 to 15 years. With the concussion lawsuit and the medical evidence, the courts and doctors are going to have so much sway. We’re up against the science. It’s like cancer and cigarettes.

Off the ice, it’s going to be a story of unprecedented growth. A decade ago, the league offices generated about 7% of hockey’s revenue; the rest came from the teams. Now they account for 20%. Bettman and his group have clearly found a way to grow by focusing on their licensing and sponsorships. And with this new series of outdoor games and Rogers buying the Canadian TV rights—$5.2 billion for 12 years—the potential is huge.

Under that new deal, hockey looks like it’s going to become distribution, rather than destination television; they won’t be directing people to one channel, but to the TV. I don’t think that’s wrong. I’m glad that Hockey Night in Canada survived. I thought it was going to be really difficult for the CBC to find the financial wherewithal to compete with the telecom companies, and this protects a nice community. Hockey Night has been there for 80 years.

But there are big questions. If there is going to be hockey on all of these different channels up and down the dial, what’s going to make me stay during the intermission, or the commercials? How do you protect the advertisers? How do you create the story that hooks the viewer? What is going to make you gravitate to the TV and have a family night?

I think Rogers recognizes that consistency isn’t necessarily exciting or sexy, but it is key to the deal. It’s what anchors your brand.

Now it’s up to Rogers to figure out what to do with us. What Don [Cherry] has done speaks for itself; he’s a flamboyant star. But our approach has been to maintain the sensibility, in his case, of a hockey player and, in my case, of a referee. We’re always thinking about the joy a family gets from sitting around the TV on a Saturday night—and that will occur, with or without me. There are lots of people who understand how to do that. And while Don obviously won’t go on forever—he’s almost 80—it will be a sad day when we lose him.

Honestly, a year from now, I still see myself doing Hockey Night in Canada. It will be a little different; more explaining where you go to see what. The logistics might need refining. But my gut feeling is that it will just be Hockey Night In Canada as presented by Rogers. And I’m glad for that.

This story originally appeared in Maclean’s

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