" Hockey Night in Canada has become a program about itself."
There is nothing new to this statement - apart from the fact, perhaps, that it has now been typed and printed - as it has been said now for some time by those who were once part of the CBC's sports flagship program and is often said by those still involved with it.
Think of the recent HNIC as the Seinfeld of TV sports, a program that, in the final analysis, is really about very little, at times nothing, but the characters, often outrageous, who come and go between commercials - or, in this case, between periods. If only it were as funny.
It has become a program about itself, when it should be about the game.
No one - apart, perhaps, from nostalgic Toronto Maple Leafs fans - is asking the program to happily motor back to the era of Murray Westgate and Ward Cornell, but just as the iconic hockey show evolved over the years from 9 p.m. starts and the dreaded telestrator, it is time to rethink a program that is vitally important to Canadians but has clearly lost its way.
While the production values of the broadcast, including much of the play-by-play work, remain world class, the package has become not only predictable but seems, at times, barely aware that viewers have tuned in to see a game. For some time now, the TSN package has been far more informative and, most significantly, far more on topic.
It is difficult to say what happened to such a once-venerable show, but something undeniably has over the past few years. The game invariably takes a back seat to the Don Cherry-Ron MacLean Grand Entry, to the ramblings of the Coach's Corner segment in the first intermission and to the views of new additions to the show who often seem so stuck in the game's past that, unbelievably, Cherry at times emerges as the voice of reason.
Cherry is a most difficult subject to address. His national popularity is undeniable, his humour, and that of his gifted partner MacLean, often quick. But he seems only vaguely interested in today's game and, despite the endless "I told you so's," has largely lost sight of how today's game is played. His sermons on kids getting themselves and their sticks out of the way of shots is now ancient strategy, today's defensive game all about shot blocking, the goaltender often the last to see the puck.
The program no longer reflects public taste when it comes to officiating - HNIC seems to hate the new rules, while polls have claimed 85 per cent of fans embrace the crackdown on obstruction.
The listing of military and police tragedies on Coach's Corner is seen by some as an honest tribute by a sentimentalist who truly cares (my own view) and by some as a sly trick to ensure invulnerability from criticism. This facet of the show cannot possibly be addressed, deciphered and fairly dealt with in such short space, but it is still fair to say it is a reach from the show's mandate to bring the national game to a national audience.
Analysis, partly because of these heart-wrenching interludes, now falls to others. Recent additions such as Mike Milbury - Don Cherry on training wheels - and the excitable P.J. Stock seem more out of the last century than this one. While regular panelist Pierre LeBrun brings superb reporting to the grouping - and the brief New Media section offers welcome insight - too often the talk disintegrates into the tired "It's a man's game" chatter and National Hockey League Players' Association minutia rather than the striking and fundamental shifts the game has undergone since the lockout and the salary cap.
Where, many of us ask, is the analyst - imagine such articulate world players as Anders Hedberg or Igor Larionov - who can speak to the creative wonders that delight the imagination of all those youngsters who both play and dream the game: Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane …? HNIC often doesn't even seem to like such young stars.
Where is the coaching voice - Ken Hitchcock, for example - who can articulate how it is that today's coaches seem more university lecturers than fire-and-brimstone preachers?
Where is the calm voice of reason - such as my Globe and Mail colleague Eric Duhatschek - who is both knowledgeable and sensible and might take issue with those who, like Milbury, will speak of a head hit "as a thing of beauty?"
"If you don't like it," he once said, "change the channel."
Unfortunately, we cannot.
So please change the show.