It’s a funny thing about major-league sports: Overseen by billionaires and protected by armies of highly paid defenders, they entertain hundreds of millions across the globe with sometimes brutal displays of power and strategy and cunning. But a little bit of criticism, and they’re down on the pitch like Neymar, flopping about in impressively theatrical torment.
They especially don’t take kindly when the brickbats are being thrown by their business partners.
Which is why it was so shocking to see broadcasters across Canada unload this week on the hockey world for being so out of step with the unrest sweeping most of pro sports.
On Wednesday night, Rogers Sportsnet went through the motions in the run-up to the Boston Bruins-Tampa Bay Lightning game, but you could tell something was off. Hours before, the NBA had announced its three games scheduled for that night would be scrapped, as a protest by players over racial injustice expanded across the league.
During a panel discussion, a morose-looking Kelly Hrudey gave expression to what many were thinking: “I don’t think we should be here. I think the NHL should postpone the games.” A little while later, just before the puck dropped, Christine Simpson told her Sportsnet colleague, Chris Johnston, on air, “I feel actually sick to my stomach that we’re here, doing this game.”
Sportsnet, of course, is operated by Rogers Sports & Media, whose parent company, Rogers Communications Inc., paid $5.2-billion in 2013 for the national Canadian rights to 12 years worth of NHL games. In the years that led up to that deal, rumours would frequently fly about the NHL’s unhappiness whenever it was the subject of coverage it considered too critical by CBC personalities.
When Sportsnet took over the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts in 2014 and pushed Ron MacLean out of the host’s chair in favour of George Stroumboulopoulos, my former colleague David Shoalts wrote that MacLean “admits his fractious relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman … might have something to do with it.”
Before this week, there were a few rumblings of discontent at Sportsnet over hockey’s decision to not take as strong a stand on the racial justice issue as other pro sports. When the NHL returned to play this month, Sportsnet host Donnovan Bennett wrote a piece in which he noted, “If we’re grading on a curve, the NHL and the hockey community are falling behind the rest of the class.” A couple of his colleagues echoed the comments, but the criticism was muted.
Then came this week’s eruption. On Thursday, over on TSN, which is also a partner of the NHL through its airing of some regional games, host Kate Beirness asked Kayla Grey whether the league’s move to suspend games, which had just been announced, was “too little, too late.”
“Absolutely, it is, because at this point, Kate, it’s reactionary. It’s because Twitter, it’s because analysts who spoke up told them to do so,” said Grey, who added that, when the league had restarted its games, it was “hiding behind their BIPOC athletes to make it seem as if they were a lot further along in thinking than they actually were.”
But Sportsnet is the NHL’s closest friend, by virtue of their multibillion-dollar business arrangement, which makes the network’s words sting the most.
On Thursday afternoon, the drive-time boys Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro let loose. Seixeiro went after the hockey players, noting that some of them in the Western bubble, which had begun its Wednesday game at 10:30 pm ET – more than six hours after the NBA announced the Milwaukee Bucks-Orlando Magic game wouldn’t proceed – had suggested after the game that they didn’t know what was going on in the outside world.
“You weren’t really sure what was goin’ on?!” Seixeiro yelped, incredulous, staring through the camera like a laser pointer. “You’re a bunch of under-30s with phones in a bubble, and you have nothin’ else to do but look at your phone! You didn’t know what was goin’ on?? … You need to know what’s going on, and you need to pick a side!” Micallef nodded along, and the two recalled that, the previous day, they had both joked darkly that of course they NHL wasn’t going to cancel its games that night.
Behind the scenes, something remarkable was occurring: Tim & Sid knew they were safe saying whatever they wanted.
Rogers personnel often praise the company for its approach to editorial independence. But they also know the company cherishes its relationship with hockey. Earlier in the day, Jordan Banks, who had taken over as president of Rogers Sports & Media last summer, sent an unusual e-mail to staff. “Last night, many of our Sportsnet on-air personalities and colleagues across RSM used their platforms to share their thoughts on what transpired in Wisconsin and across all of professional sports over the course of the past several days,” the e-mail read. “Please know that Bart [Yabsley, president of Sportsnet], myself, and the entire RSM leadership team stand behind you in expressing your views and opinions in support of Black Lives Matter. We have your backs.”
He and Yabsley separately called about a dozen on-air people to directly offer their personal reassurance that there would be no repercussions for criticizing the league or hockey.
In a statement provided to The Globe, Yabsley outlined the company’s position: “We do not tell our on-air personalities what they can and cannot say in the reporting and opinion of news in the sports world. We are in a time of change and are using our platforms to ensure that diverse voices are heard.”
He added: “We have openly and regularly reminded our on-air personalities that they have our full backing to express their support for Black Lives Matter and the fight for racial equality. When you have the level of profile and platform that some of our personalities have, and that we have as a media company, we fundamentally believe we must use those tools to influence positive change.”
I would liked to have asked Yabsley some questions about how the current tumult might be affecting Sportsnet’s relationship with the NHL. A spokesperson told me he was not available for a call.