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Usual Suspects

NHL gets back to the violence Add to ...

Hockey fans catching the first images of the 2011-12 NHL season via Rogers Sportsnet and online streaming must think that the league’s “annus horribilis” never happened. With stories about the crisis of conscience over Sid Crosby’s concussion and Rick Rypien’s suicide still resounding, the young toughs at various NHL prospect tournaments are still beating the snot out of each other in fights meant to display their readiness for the big time.

In one gory encounter, Edmonton’s Colten Teubert had his nose smashed to a bloody pulp by a single punch from Vancouver’s massive Adam Polasek (described as a “killer” punch by the TV voice). Teubert is going to miss the rest of the tournament as a result. But, as Don Cherry is wont to point out, no one headed in disgust for the exits at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton, B.C.

Meanwhile, Ron Robison, commissioner of the Western Hockey League, was busy telling a CBC Radio audience on Tuesday that his league had to continue allowing its teenagers to fight because it’s a feeder league for the NHL, and... well, that how it’s done in the Ligue Nationale du Hockey. That fancy stuff is for other folks, Robison intoned. Must feed the beast.

Huh? What happened to the new resolve expressed to the media after the severe head injuries to Crosby and Marc Savard, or the tales of enforcers taking the edge off with painkillers, alcohol and worse? That was then. This is now. And never the twain shall meet.

Silent Killer: Former player-turned-broadcaster Rhett Warrener delivered a discouraging warning on sports leagues’ concussion protocols. Speaking on The FAN 960 in Calgary, Warrener pointed out that, because players know that telling team medical personnel you have a head issue means a mandatory missing of a week or more of games, “then the players will stop telling people. How do you monitor that?... players will say, ‘I’m fine’. They won’t even make a gesture that they’ve had any kid of head injury, because they’ll know they’re on the list, and they’re going to be monitored.

“You can’t even determine it by the hit. You can get crushed and have everything be fine, and you can get the right knock on the chin and be in a terrible mess. You can’t even go off the contact, so a doctor can’t go ‘You got run over you must be hurt’.”

Habs New Voices: Sergio Momesso was not stranger to the rough ‘n tumble of the NHL as a player. Now the ex-Canadien, Canuck and Maple Leaf is headed to the radio booth to do colour commentary on the Habs’ new English radio home, the Team 990. He and Bobby Dollas will join new play-by-play voice John Bartlett on the call of the games. Meanwhile, more news from Montreal for fans of SI’s Michael Farber, who’s been on the DL since being diagnosed with cancer the spring. The panelist on TSN’s The Reporters was given the news he is in remission three months after treatment. Good news, as his trenchant wit and humanity were sorely missed in hockey’s lost summer.

Number Crunching: Not surprisingly, NBC’s Sunday Night Football package featuring Dallas and New York Jets posted a record overnight audience. The Cowboys/Jets game earned a 16.9 overnight rating on NBC, up 3 per cent from last year’s Dallas/Washington 16.4, and up 26 per cent from 2009’s 13.4 for Green Bay and Chicago. That’s the highest rating for a regular season game on NBC since the network resumed its NFL package in 2006.

Why not surprising? First, the NFL is simply killing in the ratings these days, despite its near-death experience with the lockout. Second, however, is that numbers released by Nielsen research in the U.S. show that the number of households in America has declined 1 per cent for 2011-12 to 114.649 million. Due to the decline in TV homes, says Nielsen, “a given number of television homes will now translate into a higher rating. For example, Mavericks/Heat Game 6 in June aired in 15.459 million TV homes, equalling a 13.3 rating in last season’s Nielsen universe. The same game would now earn a 13.5 rating in the new Nielsen universe.”

The strength of the NFL numbers and the decline in Americans choosing cable or satellite carriage reinforces how dependent conventional TV is on sports programming to preserve its hegemony on appointment viewing. With digital over-the-air signals, plus Netflix and Apple TV and PVR, viewers do not have to rely on traditional carriers or networks for news, reality shows and movies any longer. But sports in real time remains the captive of cable carriers and specialty channels. If you want ‘em, you have to subscribe. So if you want to know why ESPN paid $1.4-billion a year for a single weeknight of NFL games, you have your answer.

He Said What?: Live TV is a fickle beast, as ESPN’s Ron Jaworski discovered Monday night. Exasperated with a poor pass by Miami’s quarterback Chad Henne, Jaworski blurted, ““S - - -, you have to get rid of this ball just a split second quicker.” Several shuttles back and forth on the PVR confirmed Jaworski’s profane gaffe. After a pregnant pause, action continued. A rattled Jaworski apologized: “A little earlier in the show when Chad Henne was making a throw I said an inappropriate word. I want to apologize and I hope I didn't offend anyone.”

In the past such mistakes cost broadcasters their jobs, but Jaworski is in no danger of that. Unlike in the past, viewers can easily turn the dial just a few clicks to see and hear much stronger language than Jaworski uttered. What was once a capital crime is now just a moving violation.

Landsberg in a new light: TSN's Michael Landsberg believes depression killed his friend Wade Belak. In a lengthy, personal blog Landsberg talked of their bond. “I knew Wade walked with a limp. I knew it because he spoke to me about it. I have the same limp. It's how I refer to depression that doesn't disable us – even though we feel it every step of our lives. Wade's limp, however, was worse than I knew.”

Landsberg then described an e-mail exchange he'd had with Belak seven days before the former NHL defenceman died. Landsberg had just talked publicly of his own depression. “He responded, 'I thought you were a big pussy. Ha ha. Who am I to say? I've been on happy pills for 4-5 years now'. I wrote back, And how are you?' And Wade wrote back, Fine. Fine. Ugh.”

Landsberg then recriminates himself for not following up with Belak, not doing more. To outsiders, it seems a harsh judgment. But the men were friends, and the heart will do what the heart will do. It's a powerful piece, and, as we learn, Landsberg the glib TV host will never be seen the same way again.

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