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Roy MacGregor

A broadcast booth makeover Add to ...

It wasn't much, but perhaps a start.

CBC's Hockey Night In Canada sent aspiring singer Alyonka Larionov - 22-year-old daughter of world Hall-of-Famer Igor Larionov - off to Moscow last week to help the very capable Elliotte Friedman find his way around Russian hockey.

Yet while connections and language are helpful, what would really help would be a little analysis - from a European, any European.

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For reasons that simply baffle, hockey analysis in North America has fallen exclusively to North Americans, and not just North Americans but almost entirely to failed general managers (Mike Milbury), failed coaches (Barry Melrose), a full team of former fourth-line players and more ex-goaltenders than the Philadelphia Flyers have gone through since expansion.

Some are simply silly (no names required, surely), a few are excellent and several others are keepers - but where oh where is the European sensibility, the Russian/Swedish/Finnish/Czech eye, the voice that might explain what is never explained by the North Americans?

Just one example: How did Swedish hockey find its way from Inge Hammerstrom - whom Harold Ballard once said could go "into the corner with six eggs in his pockets and he wouldn't break any of them" - to the Sedin twins in Vancouver, who control pucks in corners and along the boards at a level never before known in professional hockey? Who teaches this? And how?

To have no European voice doing colour commentary, between-period analysis or sitting on one of those endless hockey "panels" - even if he keeps picking at his BlackBerry - is simply ludicrous given what NHL hockey has become.

Last year alone, a Russian, Alexander Ovechkin, won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player, the Art Ross as its leading scorer, the Rocket Richard as its top goal-getter and the Pearson as the one the players themselves deem best overall - but nowhere will you find a Russian voice to explain how it was that such a machine was built.

Where is there any European analyst to tell us about different training theories, coaching tactics, skill development?

No one is claiming it is superior to North American ways - the Olympics had a Canada-U.S final, as did the world juniors, as did women's Olympic hockey - but it is different. And would be refreshing to have that difference explained.

This year, the top two scorers are European trained: Henrik Sedin and Ovechkin. And while Sidney Crosby leads an impressive list of North American stars, seven of the top 15 scorers come from Europe.

A European, the Detroit Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom, has been the dominant defenceman of the first decade of the 21st century.

A European goaltender, Boston's Tuukka Rask, has the league's best goals-against average. While New Jersey's indomitable Martin Brodeur again leads the league with wins, the next two are European: San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov and Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov.

No one is asking that the TSN and Sportsnet panels and HNIC screens be swept clean, but the insertion of a reasonable number of European eyes and voices would seem not only justified but a necessity.

It might also be pointed out that, as any hockey writer soon learns over several years of covering the league, the more articulate and interesting voices have as often as not been using English as a second language.

Igor Larionov did not come by his nickname, The Professor, by accident. But where is the erudite, insightful Larionov? Off selling his wine, supposedly.

But if not Larionov, then how about Arturs Irbe, the little Latvian goaltender who would, admittedly, add to the irrational number of former netminders trying to explain the way the game is played beyond the crease, but who is one of hockey's most original minds?

And should he ever retire, how about turning Bryzgalov into a full-time colour commentator? After all, he was author of the single best one-liner to come out of the Vancouver Winter Games when he said after Russia's 7-3 loss to Team Canada that the Canadians "came like gorillas out of a cage."

How refreshing would it be to hear something like that as opposed to "He might like that one back" or "Your best player has to be your best player" or "He's got a good stick"? …

But don't look for it to happen any time soon.

Vesa Rantanen, a respected Finnish journalist who has been covering the NHL out of Vancouver these past several years, says the problem is that NHL broadcasting is its own "old boy's club" - almost like the mafia, he says. They look after their friends and most of them are also looking for "real" jobs back in hockey and are merely using their broadcast posts as visible résumés.

"You don't get the best analysis," Rantanen says, "because no one wants to rock the boat they are all in.

"For the most part, I'm very disappointed with the level we get."

He's not alone.

And one obvious step toward more intelligent - more on -topic - commentary would be simply to bring analysis up to where the game has been for some time.

 

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