Perhaps it didn’t end the way Canadians wanted, but Tuesday’s TV marathon of world junior hockey was seven hours of tension-filled chutes and ladders. First, Sweden mounted another improbably comeback in the WJC, finally overcoming Finland 3-2 in a shootout that left even the zamboni drained. Then Canada almost came all the way back from 6-1 down before losing to Russia by a single goal.
TSN created this television monster and so milked every moment of the turbulence, with Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro riding the pressure drops with only a one-hour rest between games. The hardest thing in announcing sports such as hockey is leaving yourself somewhere to go when the drama is ratcheted up. Too often play-by-play announcers and analysts are shrieking halfway through the first power play, giving themselves no range to take the drama higher.
Miller and Ferraro did about as well you could with so many plot changes. They were supportive of Canada without descending to Jack Edwards jingoism. They drew out plot lines - such as the echo of Russia’s tragedy when the Yaroslavl team (including two former WJC champions from 2010) was wiped out in a plane crash last September. Best of all, they were helped by having a sense of self-deprecating humour in the face of huge mood swings. That allowed them to switch gears when the Swedes mounted their eventual comeback victory or Canada attempted its unsuccessful rally. And they did have The Cooler, Bob McKenzie, just to settle down the crazies.
A long, excellent night for TSN’s hockey crew. Now comes an even tougher assignment. Putting life into Thursday’s anticlimactic Canada/Finland bronze medal game. That might take even greater skill.
Press Gang: Looking for the longest current winning streak in hockey? Is it the Boston Bruins? The Vancouver Canucks? The New York Rangers? Don’t be silly. The longest streak of supremacy belongs to the Montreal Canadiens media corps. More, specifically, to the politically inclined membres de la presse who inhabit the Bell Centre.
When it comes to issues of the tongue, the Montreal media mob is undefeated in well over a decade. There was Saku “Speak French” Koivu, the Habs’ captain who donated millions to charity but didn’t have enough French to placate the media. There was Phoenix captain Shane Doan who was pilloried for an anti-French comment muttered by a European teammate. There was the splendiferous Don Cherry, who was briefly sentenced to a seven-second delay for comments about French players wearing visors.
But the piece de resistance had to be the grovelling performance of Montreal general manager Pierre Gauthier on Monday as he fell on his sword in abject apology for foisting a unilingual head coach upon the hockey fans of Les Glorieux. Gauthier was backing up so fast, we were expecting to hear “beep-beep-beep” as he tried to cover his derriere.
“We're sorry if we offended anybody by hiring someone who is not bilingual right now,” Gauthier said. “But when you're in the middle of a season and you're trying to effect change and you're having the difficulties we were having, you evaluate all your options. We felt the best option at this time was to work from within the organization. Those things can be taken care of in due time, but having a bilingual head coach of the Montreal Canadiens is very important and it's something that will be part of our decision going forward.”
This from the man who feigned indifference on the language trap when he first named Randy “no habla” Cunneyworth as head coach. And who let Cunneyworth appear unprepared before the press corps. A wiser man with a sense of history would have seen that it doesn’t pay to go high-hat with Montreal’s media, who are considered equal players in the Habs’ roman a clef.
Experience would have shown the hapless Gauthier that, while l’affaire Cunneyworth was nominally about language, the real bottom line was the unvarnished power of the nationalists in the media corps to play the language card. Journalists in other Canadian NHL cities are ultimately dismissed by a Brian Burke or Mike Gillis when they get above their station. Around the Habs, however, the media knows that invoking nationalist orthodoxy trumps any GM or owner.
Seeing as how they don’t have a 25th Stanley Cup any time on the horizon to occupy the zealots, we’ll likely see this gambit a few times more before it loses its sting. Which is why Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber, a Montreal resident for decades, says, “The Montreal Canadiens used to stand for excellence. Now they stand for something else.”
Preaching Sedition: Didn't anyone tell John Tortorella that HBO’s 24/7 was over as of Monday? That there are no HBO cams to save him from Gary Bettman’s wrath after the Rangers coach used a media conference to muse about a conspiracy between referees and NBC to prolong Monday’s Winter Classic? Jesting or not, Tortorella went way beyond his leash in raising a Tim Donaghy-like spectre between zebras and networks.
The question now is what will the NHL do about Torts? We know the NBA's commissioner David Stern would give the Rangers coach 10 games/$100,000 minimum for suggesting such a fix. Gary?
Winter Classic Future: No sooner had Usual Suspects suggested that Canadian teams need not apply for an NHL Winter Classic Game (and HBO 24/7 treatment) than rumours cropped up that the Detroit Red Wings will host the Toronto Maple Leafs next January at either Comerica Park in Detroit or the University of Michigan’s 109,000-seat football stadium. Which could mean a Winter Classic & 24/7 team that did not make the playoffs the year before. We won’t suggest which team, but do point out that Detroit is currently in a playoff spot.
But when it comes to the Maple Leafs, the exceptions are the rules (Owners with two NHL teams at the same time?). And why not? You could hold a bottle drive with the Leafs and still get a million people watching on TV. So it’s always going to pay off in attendance and ratings. To say nothing of four weeks of Brian Burke as Citizen Kane (“You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars *next* year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... 60 years.”)
Despite the big-market tilt of NBC/HBO selections so far, NHL folk bridle if you suggest the league only cares about a half-dozen markets. Fine. If they mean it why not have the two Cup finalists the next year in the 24/7 media glare? C’mon, Bud Selig can do it, so can Gary Bettman. We dare ya’.
Ratings Drop: Maybe a little shine came off the Winter Classic in the U.S.? Despite the presence of New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, the game on NBC drew fewer viewers than three of the previous classics. At 3.74 million viewers, it trailed the 2011, 2009 and 2008 WC games (2011’s 4.5 million tops the list as the most-watched regular-season hockey contest ever.)
Mitigating that number is the fact the game was bumped a day to Jan. 2 and two hours later in the day against the heart of the Bowl games. As well, the 3.74 million is more than any other regular season NHL game on U.S, networks, save one ( Jan. 27, 1996 on FOX). No Canadian numbers yet.
Despite the fact that the USA had been eliminated already at the World Junior Championships, TSN garnered 2.8 million on New Year’s Eve for the Canada/USA round-robin contest. It was the most-watched program on Canadian TV that night.
Say What?: We’re dizzy from so many NCAA Bowl games this Holiday season. And from hearing so many malaprops. A few favourites: From ESPN’s Todd Blacklege, “That pass goes off the defender... to the offender... and back to another defender.” Then there was ESPN’s Matt Millen, “It's strength versus weakness on both sides, but it's the weakness who is stronger.. is the team that will prevail” More Millen: “When he gets inside of a guy and bends his hips, he's pretty good”.
ESPN’s Brad Nessler essayed, “Clemson takes on another team from the state of Virginia, West Virginia”. And finally, there was Wendy Nix of ESPN saying fans were “flooding into” New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Ick.
But they all took a back seat to a jet-lagged Mike Milbury at the Winter Classic trying to say Blue Shirts. Except losing the r in Shirts.
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