The Downward Spiral of Hockey Night in Canada
FALLING IN LOVE IS EASY. We’re conditioned for it. It can happen in an instant, a natural sensation born of basic human need and desire. Sometimes it lasts a few seconds, like when your eyes meet another’s on a morning subway commute or when a song reminds you of a moment long thought passed. Sometimes it lasts a bit longer, it penetrates the being, it becomes like oxygen, or blood, or whiskey. A need. A constant. Sometimes, it seemingly lasts forever. It is unsettling, and yet it is everything. It wakes you in a cold sweat. It asks how your day was. It promises to take you to Nicaragua. It complains about its mother. It tells you it’s all going to work out. It lies.
But as easy as it is to fall in love, falling out of love is apocalyptic. It writes songs. It bears poetry. It drinks. Heavily. And within this context, within this slow spiraling death of what once had nothing but life, is the curse of audience. Of being a spectator in the film version of your own life, watching, hopelessly, as something, someone you love disintegrates. Becomes something you loath. Becomes that which you once, together, swore you’d never be. And as spring lists gently towards summer, and another long season of hockey comes to an end, we’ve collectively been witness to the sad, slow, merciless downfall of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. HNIC. Baby. We could’ve had something special.
The CBC has been complicit in the downfall of its flagship enterprise. It has allowed what was once an ingrained and important part of Canadian culture to become parody. It has been ruined by the egos of Ron MacLean and Don Cherry. Where once the Coach’s Corner segment was an entertaining and engaging (if somewhat sophomoric) ten minutes of intermission, it is now an endorsement for narcissism; a tired, uninformed, out of date lesson in poorly evolved sports television. As both MacLean and Cherry became more popular, their stars rising in a starless country, they failed to embrace or recognize the change in the game and era. They have become poster boys for the “shake it off” generation, and have watched and excused a deeply flawed hockey culture. They encourage and forgive violence, and help foster a culture that breeds the Graham Jameses, the Derek Boogaards, the Mike Dantons, the David Frosts, the Dany Heatleys. And they do it with a national platform, with the ears of children, with the attention of a nation that should change the channel.
But Hockey Night’s downfall isn’t limited to the wayward ramblings of two out of touch and woefully ignorant CBC employees. The entire production has disintegrated. Jim Hughson’s play-by-play does not live up to the standards of his predecessors, and his tireless attempt to develop “fakes, takes” into a catch phrase is embarrassing. Craig Simpson compliments Hughson the way gin compliments three day old coffee. Glen Healey’s entire motivation seems to be defending the players to a fault (as a former player and union employee) and reminding viewers that he used to sit on the bench next to some Hall of Famers, of whom he still has their email addresses. I’m not sure who PJ Stock’s agent is, but he must have photos of CBC execs doing untoward things to livestock. Stock’s partner on the unwatchable pre-game disaster, Andy Petrillo, is a pandering hire, as if HNIC is saying “Hey, look, we hired a girl! We’re so 1985!” Mark Lee seemingly doesn’t understand hockey, or simply doesn’t care. Mike Milbury is so out of touch with the era he almost makes MacLean and Cherry look contemporary. Eric Francis is nice enough to drop in from Calgary once a week to recite one of his Sun columns. When one compares TSN’s coverage to CBC’s, it’s as if they’re broadcasting entirely different sports.
What is perhaps most frustrating about the downfall of HNIC, is the manner in which they waste the talent they do have. I don’t care if Bob Cole can’t always remember the players names, or keep up with the action. It’s not radio. I can see for myself what’s going on. But his throat is golden, his voice iconic, and when he calls a game I feel like I’m home. Elliotte Friedman is one of the premiere journalists in the game, but he is often a wasted presence, and one gets the feeling the others resent his youth and talent. Cassie Campbell-Pascall is a rising star, and at some point she’ll leave for TSN or Sportsnet, where they’ll appreciate her. Dean Brown should have been elevated to a prominent national level years ago, and those in the Ottawa Valley are fortunate he wasn’t. Simply a great game caller. Scott Oake is one of the most natural and funny broadcasters in sport, but is wasted in his west coast relegation, as is Kevin Weekes. Unfortunately, cronyism and false loyalties keep these talents from more prominent roles on HNIC, and reduce the production to a shameful display, a shadow of what was once the pinnacle of sports television, not just in Canada, but in the world.
When someone, or something, you love becomes something you hate, it’s often a slow, painful process. But eventually, something happens to put you over the edge. Your friend sleeps with your ex. Your favourite band asks Nickleback to produce their new album. A writer you love is revealed as a racist. Your Russian former employer tells your peers you stole money. For HNIC, the last act of humiliation, the final step in evolution from icon to parody, came last week when Hockey Night added a parallel alternative broadcast entitled While the Men Watch. A description of the show, in their own words:
“Borne out of frustration with their sports-addicted men, Co-Hosts Lena Sutherland and Jules Mancuso created While The Men Watch doing their own version of sports commentary that women actually want to hear.”
Sutherland and Mancuso have been producing their own parallel programming for sometime, but being added by the CBC to its HNIC stable is both sad and frustrating. The two women natter on about stereotypical nonsense: Brazilian waxes, fellatio, players they’d like to date, coaches who need makeovers. It’s as if the CBC was looking to counterbalance their inherent misogyny with, well, more overt and offensive misogyny. It crosses the blue line into the offensive zone. The notion that only men watch hockey, while their doting partners wait for the game to end so that they can pleasure them and then buy shoes is the lowest form of an attempt at humour, and simply beneath the dignity of both the CBC and Hockey Night in Canada. One gets the sense that Campbell-Pascall must want to attack these women with her gold medal stick. That, I would tune in for.
Interestingly, the notion of a parallel broadcast is an inspired one, and surprising that it came from the CBC. But, as with the rest of HNIC, the execution is deeply flawed. The alternative feed could have been fanboys watching the game enjoying a few Molsons (sponsorship opportunity anyone?), or a feed absent of play-by-play (I mean, when I’m at the ACC, I don’t need Hughson whispering game action in my ear), or commentary by people new to hockey, or celebrities, or comedians, or for the love of Danny Gallivan, anything other than these two clichés in skirts digging their four inch heels into the temple of HNIC and pushing its head beneath the waters and further towards its inevitable death.
And that death is inevitable. After the 2012-13 NHL season, the HNIC contract with the league expires and they simply can’t compete with the multi-platform, contemporary broadcast capabilities of the likes of TSN and SportsNet. Its death will take MacLean and Cherry with it, a graceless exit from a game they once admirably championed. It will take Stock, and Petrillo, and Lee, and thank the good Lord, Sutherland and Mancuso with it. And the humble ghosts of Danny Gallivan and Percy Lesueur and Doug Smith and Elmer Ferguson and Foster Hewitt will gracefully retreat to the fabric of our nation’s memory. And we’ll move on, and the game will move on. But somewhere, in the depths of fleeting recollections, in that small place in memory we reserve for that which we once loved, that which we found to be life itself, will be a flaw unhealed, a distant wonder of what once was, borne of broken hearts, and the pain of watching a good love die.