At times such as the Winter Classic Monday, it appears as if there are two NHLs. The league on display in Philadelphia is a product of the NHL head office in New York, a hybrid mix of NBC promotion and pandering to U.S. sensibilities in the hope of gaining a more significant TV toehold in the United States. The other NHL is the rump Canadian league defined by Hockey Night in Canada, more religion than a hockey league. A given in the national fabric.
The two solitudes represent very separate notions of the game and run parallel during the regular season before colliding in the Stanley Cup final. For Americans, hockey equals a game; for Canadians, it’s a cult. U.S. sensibilities are not welcome in the Canadian iteration of the league; Canadian teams need not apply for HBO’s 24/7 series or the Winter Classic.
Or so it often seems. But Monday, the cultures collide on the newly christened NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) in the form of a documentary on the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. While the iconic series has been relived in various forms in Canada, this 40th anniversary year provides the first serious look at the series for a U.S. audience.
Produced by Ross Greenburg, the man behind the heralded 24/7 series, Cold War On Ice: Summit Series 1972 delves once more into the sociopolitical nature of the series won (spoiler alert) by Canada in eight games. Americans are intimately connected with the 1980 “Do you believe in miracles?” U.S. triumph over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid. But Cold War On Ice will show that long before Mike Eruzione & Co. vanquished the Soviets, a Canadian team had climbed that mountain eight years earlier.
NBC was unable to provide an advance screener of the series, but the PR bumph makes it clear that Phil Esposito will be front and centre with his own version of events. “They stole our beer,” he moans. “We had to drink vodka. Homemade vodka. You ever taste homemade vodka? Go into your garage and get turpentine and drink it. Holy cripe it is bad.” Others interviewed include Paul Henderson, Bobby Clarke, Vladislav Tretiak and Alexander Yakushev.
With the Winter Classic as a lead-in, Cold War On Ice should garner a sizable audience to a story engraved in the conscience of every Canadian (some of who actively rooted for the Soviets). Now it remains for Hockey Night to produce a documentary about the Americans’ 1980 Olympic triumph and they’ll be even.
Speaking of 24/7, did the episode last Wednesday show Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette applying pressure on his star Claude Giroux to return quickly from a concussion? In the clip Giroux seems clearly conflicted about whether he’s ready to return. Laviolette reassures him that he looks great and stresses the team needs him back. It’s the NHL injury dilemma in a nutshell: a player clearly apprehensive about aggravating an injury and a coach under pressure to end a losing skid.
Hockey Night in Canada’s Hot Stove panel picked up on the clip last Saturday. Mike Milbury, the only panelist to have played and coached in the NHL, wrote it off to Laviolette’s straightforward nature, adding, “It does set up the kind of the difficulty in this day and age with all the concussions and the severity of concussions the problems players face and the sensitivity that coaches have to have to that.”
The episode might have become bigger had Giroux been reinjured, à la Sidney Crosby. But Giroux’s four points in his first game back stilled that issue for now.
By the way, there was no mention on Hockey Night of Milbury’s recent legal scare, resolved in his favour.
In a major loss for Canadian sports broadcasting, former head of CBC Sports production Doug Sellars died New Year’s Eve as a result of a heart attack suffered while playing (what else?) recreational hockey. Within two years of joining CBC Sports, Sellars produced a Grey Cup game and went on to oversee all CBC Sports properties, including several Olympics and two Commonwealth Games.
A multiple Gemini Award winner, Sellars moved on to Fox Sports, where he worked his way up to executive vice-president at Fox Sports Media Group. John Shannon, who ran Hockey Night during Sellars’ tenure, tweeted Saturday, “Sellars was the consummate pro. Since moving to Fox, Doug was a great advocate for the NHL. Doug didn’t just makes stars, HE was a Star!” We second that emotion.
So you want to work in sports broadcasting? TSN’s Chris Cuthbert (@CCtsn) sums up the life in a tweet. “After 106 Starwood nights, 160,000 air miles, and 175 nites on the road its homeward bound to end the yr. No more games in 2011.”