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(Mary Altaffer)
(Mary Altaffer)

Usual Suspects

HBO cameras to focus on Tortorella, Bryzgalov Add to ...

Calling it the worst-kept secret in hockey, NHL chief operating officer John Collins has confirmed that the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, the teams featured in the Jan. 2 Winter Classic, will be the subjects of next season's instalment of HBO's 24/7. The inclusion of Rangers coach John Tortorella and Flyers' new goalie Ilya "Why you have to be mad?" Bryzgalov became slam dunks when the NHL schedule was released showing them as the New Year's holiday attraction.

The ratings and critical success of HBO's behind-the-scenes program surprised both the league and U.S. broadcasters who were unsure that the league could achieve crossover into the crowded American sports market. Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma, who became a star for his understated performance on and off the ice, was clearly impressed by the program, which netted an Emmy Award.

"I don't think we had a real good idea of the quality they were going to show," Bylsma told Usual Suspects at last weekend's NHL draft in St. Paul, Minn. "The quality was like we've never had in hockey. When you hear your general manager say 'I've never seen that before'. To hear your players say 'I never saw that'. To hear fans say the (same about) exposure to the referees, the coaches, the players, the dressing room, the travel...

"I remember they gave us a week's trial period to figure out our routine. I walked into my room for the first time for a 5:30 meeting and there were four guys, one with a boom, one with a camera, a second camera and a director, just like this, and I'm trying talk to Brooks Orpik, and I couldn't see him. We needed to establish some ground rules. They're wonderful at their job, they're not trying to get you in a bad situation.

"It was fascinating, a great look into the game. I think you got to see Dan Bylsma in a different light, you got to see Sidney Crosby in a different light, you got to see Evgeni Malkin in a different light. That's exposure I'm glad we got. I'm glad it was me. I'm glad it was our team. I would do it again."

So what advice does Bylsma have for Tortorella, Bryzgalov and the others about to have their inner life exposed to the world?

"The first thing you think is they're going to find me behind a closed door or see me yelling at a player... and they're not trying to do that. They're not hiding. You know where they're at. If there's situations you don't want to be on TV or recorded, that's there for you. I probably turned off the microphone... maybe 2 per cent of the time. They're trying to make you look good and portray your team in a good light."

While Bylsma doubts they'd let the cameras backstage in for the playoffs, he says it could work. "I wouldn't be averse to that. If I got the same crew back. They were Pittsburgh Penguins. The eight guys (on the production crew) that were in our room were Pittsburgh Penguins. It was 'we' and 'us', and I still get texts from them."

McGuire Double Duty: Expect Pierre McGuire back with TSN next season -- but in a reduced role. The Monster Man is going to be devoting more of his game time to NBC/Versus on its sked of games. But contrary to published reports, McGuire will continue doing TSN Radio duties, That's Hockey, draft day and trade deadline coverage, among other shows. As well, TSN viewers will catch McGuire when the network picks up NBC/Versus games during the season.

The altered schedule will give McGuire a little more family time. TSN will move Ray Ferraro up to the No. 1 analyst job between the benches with former player Mike Johnson taking on some of the extra duties at ice level. Expect as well to see a lot more of former payer Aaron Ward on the panel next season as TSN liked the work the three-time Stanley Cup winner did during the playoffs.

The Hall Truth: While it (finally) nailed a few good player choices this year, the Hockey Hall of Fame voting committee continues to embarrass the institution. Actually it's some members, because we know there are good people in the deep recesses of this Masonic cult trying to talk sense. For instance, why do players/builders have to be nominated? Is it not enough to look at the eligibility list and make a decision? And Bill Hay's arrogant responses to any media questions about the process may have washed with John Ziegler as NHL president, but it's a relic now. How about accountability? The noblesse oblige of the voters is best summed up on Twitter by Adam Proteau of The Hockey News: "Q. Why did the Hockey Hall of Fame induction committee cross the road? A. It's none of the public's business. #StarChamber"

Soccer Scores: Canada's narrow 2-1 loss to mighty Germany at the women's World Cup was a ratings winner for CBC last Sunday. The games drew 662,000 people -- that's a boost of 147 per cent over Canada's opener in the 2007 World Cup. Canada's next match is Thursday versus France.

Other ratings bizness: The NHL draft, which is kind of like watching a convocation without knowing the students, captured an average of 1.6 million for its four hours Friday night on TSN. The peak of 2.1 million came as the Winnipeg Jets revealed their new/old nickname and their first draft pick since returning to Manitoba.

Interesting to note TSN and Rogers Sportsnet looking to extract higher fees from cable customers -- even as they finished 1-2 in profitability for Canadian specialty channels in 2010. Their owners -- Bell Inc., and Rogers -- are taking advantage of the CRTC freeing up sports and news channels to competition. Their justification for the increase lies, in part, with spiralling rights payments for sports properties.

The strategy is reminiscent of a similar move from ESPN (which is a minority owner in TSN) when it sought to acquire its first NFL package in 1986. As detailed in the book Those Guys have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, ESPN was short the money to buy its first NFL TV package. So it simply jacked up the rates it charged to its cable carriers by up to 20 per cent. Recalcitrant carriers were told to pony up or be left behind on the cash cow of the NFL. It worked.

Later, ESPN used a similar strategy to negotiate a deal whereby carriers fees increased annually by 20 per cent on a rolling basis. The deal solidified ESPN's immense profitability. It should be noted that as good as the deal was for ESPN, the cable carriers generally made out fine as well.

In Requiem: A final note about Nick Charles, the former CNN sports anchor who died this weekend at the age of 64. Before ESPN became the worldwide leader, before Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick defined highlight shtick, it was the dapper Charles and his partner Fred Hickman who were the go-to guys for sports highlights on Ted Turner's network (seen widely in Canada). Charles later went on to become a major voice in boxing broadcasting before falling ill with cancer. We remember his kindness at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when he helped a Canadian TV host find his way around the city that gave birth to CNN. He liked Canada and Canadians and was a true pro.

 

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