Sports fans are creatures of habit. Innovation just isn't part of their vocabulary. When Rogers Broadcasting acquired the Canadian rights to NHL broadcasts in 2014 for a whopping $5.2-billion, the company felt a natural urge to shake things up. As almost any devoted hockey viewer could tell you, that was a big mistake.
Rogers executives thought the old CBC Hockey Night in Canada approach was staid and out-of-date, and undoubtedly they were right. In particular, they focused on HNIC host Ron MacLean, whose insider status and intimacy with hockey lore weren't enough to compensate for his forced folksiness, excruciating puns and deferential encouragement of Don Cherry's simplistic rants.
Rogers wanted to expand its TV audience and decided the moment was right to win over a young urban demographic alienated by Mr. MacLean's old-fashioned, small-town style. And so they replaced him with George Stroumboulopoulos – a former MuchMusic host and all-around cool guy who rapidly proved that there wasn't actually an untapped market for next-generation hockey hosts who exude cerebral empathy but can't summon quite enough instant enthusiasm for the game and its characters.
Mr. Stroumboulopoulos, despite or indeed because of his skinny suits and hollow-eyed ex-rocker gaze, is reportedly out as a host, to be succeeded by the staid, outmoded icon he toppled. Hockey broadcasting didn't need some corporate idea of the latest thing, it turns out, and who's surprised? The pleasures of being a fan are grounded in a conservatism that is hard to explain or justify in a culture of innovation but easy to recognize in a more intimate sports milieu that thrives on familiarity and predictability.
Mr. MacLean, like the bombastic, irascible Mr. Cherry, has held court for decades, and that very longevity, however imperfect, became part of the draw for hockey regulars. In a world where change is a little too relentless and beyond our control, hockey can still supply stability and connect people across cultures and generations who otherwise have little in common.
Marketers, for their own mercenary interests, want to shunt us off into demographics and sell us on change. But the habits of hockey are powerful, and every now and then they provide this useful reminder: Sometimes the old ways are the good ones.