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Hazel Mae. (NESN)
Hazel Mae. (NESN)

USUAL SUSPECTS

Hazel Mae reconnects with Sportsnet Add to ...

After almost two months of tap dancing, Rogers Sportsnet has made it official: Hazel Mae is leaving MLB Network to be its new suppertime anchor on Sportsnet Connected. “It was out of respect to MLB Network that we didn’t announce this till after the World Series,” Mae told Usual Suspects on Thursday.

For Mae, a 41-year-old Philippines native who was raised in Toronto, it’s a homecoming. She worked on air at Sportsnet until 2004 when she headed to Boston to work for NESN. In 2008, she moved to the MLB Network where she anchored a number of high-profile shows. Still, when Scott Moore, vice-president of broadcasting at Rogers, beckoned, Mae decided it was time to come home. “I was always a little homesick,” she said. “I had nieces and nephews back home. Sometimes money and career take a back seat to other opportunities.”

Working for NESN and MLB Network, Mae polished her game, evolving from a bubbly to a more substantial on-air presence. Going head-to-head with Rod Smith on TSN’s SportsCentre, she’ll need some gravitas. “I learned a lot from talented people I worked with in Boston and New York,” she said. “Having Bob Costas as a colleague [at MLB Network] being able to pick his brain, was a great asset.”

After being immersed in baseball only for four seasons, it’s a crash course in NHL storylines and names for Mae, who has the good fortune that Canadian teams are almost all on the upswing this season. “I’ve got some catching up to do. But even though I was in Boston all those years, I’m still a Canadian girl. I was cheering for the Canucks against the Bruins in the [Stanley Cup]finals last year.”

Choosing sides

Mae represents the latest Sportsnet challenge in its battle with TSN, the leader in the clubhouse with its conservative hockey-based editorial slant. Certainly, the contrast of an effervescent woman against just-the-facts Smith on TSN’s SportsCentre will provide viewers with stylistic choice. Based on viewing two typical suppertime programs this week, you’ll also get editorial options.

TSN is all about hockey (Toronto whenever possible). So, despite the clear lead story last Monday of Tony La Russa retiring from the St. Louis Cardinals, TSN instead led with speculation from analyst Bob McKenzie on the return of Sidney Crosby. Next, the CFL’s host broadcaster went with the announced retirement of coach Ken Miller from the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Only then did it find its way to the La Russa story. Weak.

On Rogers Sportsnet, the Toronto Blue Jays’ TV broadcaster, La Russa was given extensive coverage on Connected for almost nine minutes at the top of the show. Connected then shifted gears to hockey stories. The Miller retirement was buried deeper in the lineup. Advantage Connected, had it moved up Miller. Both shows devoted pieces to the dirty hit by Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back Johnny Sears Jr. on Toronto Argonauts quarterback Steven Jyles. (TSN added footage from its Off the Record program on the subject.) Disappointingly, both networks had only Argos voices and nothing from the Bombers’ side.

Wednesday, both SportsCentre and Connected led with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils game. But while TSN’s focus was on the red-hot Leafs (shock), Connected first dealt with the return of Devils star Martin Brodeur to the New Jersey net. Connected then presented an excellent report on pilot error in the Continental Hockey League team’s plane crash last September. Showing good hustle, it had a live reporter from Russia to flesh out details. When TSN took on this important story, it was later in the lineup and then just a copy story. Connected then stumbled with an inane piece from the normally reliable Kathryn Humphreys glorifying brawler Mike Brown of the Leafs.

Sportsnet has its new branding, and its panels now features two desks (?) instead of TSN’s one. (Sportsnet’s hockey panelists are more animated but TSN’s James Duthie remains the consummate anchor.) It also thumps the tub for its own mixed-martial arts coverage while TSN virtually never touches the octagon.

So what to make of it? SportsCentre remains stubbornly parochial about the Maple Leafs, specifically, and the NHL, in general. At times this obsession defies reason, but then reason has never met the viewership numbers the Leafs can drive even in summer. Thanks to its regional focus, Sportsnet can present a better-balanced lineup – though their Toronto-based panels and shows can get very Leafs-centric, too. Both have become slaves to top-10 video lists – most of which are getting repetitive.

Neither is breaking much ground journalistically (enough with line combinations!), although Michael Farber’s SportsCentre piece with former enforcer Chris Nilan shows the potential for longer-form material. (In this vein, why is Brian Williams isolated on CFL?) We’d love to see someone take real editorial chances instead of trotting out blooper tapes. In the end, we prefer SportsCentre’s anchors (Jay Onrait excepted) over Connected’s hair and teeth – though Mae could alter that. With its new sister magazine, Sportsnet might have the better news-gathering operation at the moment (we really like Arash Madani). We prefer Connected’s edginess as well.

Conclusion: Pending Mae’s arrival, a virtual dead heat. Both have considerable assets but lots of room to upgrade journalistically, too.

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