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The Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford talked to Don Cherry about hockey night in Canada and his ongoing campaign to pay tribute to fallen Canadian soldiers on his Coaches Corner segment. Cherry was photographed at his daughter's home in Mississauga on September 25, 2010. Globe and Mail photo by Glenn Lowson (Glenn Lowson/Copyright: Glenn Lowson)
The Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford talked to Don Cherry about hockey night in Canada and his ongoing campaign to pay tribute to fallen Canadian soldiers on his Coaches Corner segment. Cherry was photographed at his daughter's home in Mississauga on September 25, 2010. Globe and Mail photo by Glenn Lowson (Glenn Lowson/Copyright: Glenn Lowson)

The Usual Suspects

Don Cherry's reign continues at the CBC Add to ...

Think Don Cherry's act has worn a little thin? Think it's time to re-examine Hockey Night in Canada's adherence to old-time (read: rockhead) hockey? CBC vice-president of English-language services, Kirstine Stewart, had a message for you Saturday. "Take off, eh?" As first reported by Usual Suspects, Cherry will stay at CBC till at least the 2012 NHL playoffs..

By extending the contract for the king of Coach's Corner, CBC has pushed its chips firmly behind the cult of Cherry's personality. The extension may be moot, of course. Cherry turned 77 this month and CBC may not even have Coach's Corner in 2014, when its NHL contract runs out. But by extending The Suit, CBC is disavowing any role in the debate raging about head shots, intimidation and fighting in the national pastime.

Not that everyone at CBC thinks it's a swell posture for the Corp. One internal source lamented to Usual Suspects that while Cherry has done very well by CBC, the reverse ain't necessarily so. "He's grown his own brand, not ours," the source said, "and when he leaves he'll be fine, but there will be nothing left behind for us."

Heritage Hockey

Watching the NHL's impressive Heritage Classic presentation, it's natural to wonder, why should fans pay for St. Louis Blues v. Minnesota Wild on a February Tuesday night after they've seen how grand the game can be in Sunday's pomp and frigid circumstances? With big events the NHL's new instrument to expand the brand, ordinary events may not thrive.

Au contraire, says John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, the outdoor games are a great stimulus. "What we see is the Winter Classic or the Heritage Classic activates our fan base," he said while touring the game site before Saturday's alumni game. "It raises the profile of our product for all our fans. They see these outdoor games and they want them for their own team. Everything in the league pivots off these events."

Yes, but after Pittsburgh's Singin' in the Rain experience, isn't the league a little wary of being "warmed-out" of an outdoor game?

"A night-time game in Los Angeles?" Collins asks, looking at Don Renzulli, the NHL's senior vice-president for events. "We think we can do that. There's always risk when you're dealing with the elements, but we think we can take this experience to all the clubs." While not tipping his hand about the next venues, Collins says the NHL has had inquiries from all its teams about staging an outdoor game.

As Renzulli proudly shows off the 400 yards of piping needed for the ice plant and the network TV portables that the NHL transports from site to site, the question arises: "How many outdoor games can the league support in a season?" On cue, Collins and Renzulli laugh. "Not as many as I want," says Collins, who, like Renzulli, came to the NHL from the National Football League. "We think there's no better way to promote our product."

Holding it back is availability of dates, network commitments and the unique requirements of each location. "In Pittsburgh we could have our entire operation inside the building," Renzulli says. "In McMahon [Stadium]we have our whole operation outside the building."

A severely crowned playing surface was another challenge to Renzulli's events crew.

"Our people have worked without a break since before Christmas to this weekend," Renzulli says. "These set-ups are bigger than anyone knows. We probably have onsite about 125 [people]here at McMahon Stadium for this game."

Where does the league go next? "I think, without a doubt, the Stanley Cup playoffs are the greatest hidden asset we have," says Collins, dodging Montreal Canadiens walking to their dressing room at McMahon. "In terms of brand equity, compared to the Super Bowl, the NBA or the World Series, it's right there. But there are so many games played over an eight-week period, it hasn't risen to that March Madness level yet.

"It's an untapped asset that we want to put a national halo over. We have a lot of room to grow that time period. The Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic are jewel events. But the playoffs are the true jewel event we have. This is where all this leads."

Signing Season

The success of Sunday's game is timely in the United States as the league is negotiating its new TV deal there. (Collins expects it to be wrapped up by the spring.) While Collins wouldn't comment, sources are telling Usual Suspects that the deal will likely be an exclusive one without side deals for other networks such as ESPN. While the NHL product has advanced rapidly, it's probably one contract away from splitting off packages to multiple U.S. networks.

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