It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of HBO's initial 24/7 documentary series last NHL season on the sport in the United States. The whiff of HBO's respectability married to the sound track of Bruce Boudreau's serial profanity raised the profile of the sport south of the border and entertained hockey lifers in Canada, too.
Ratings for the series featuring Pittsburgh and Washington, which culminated in the fateful Sidney Crosby concussed-in-the-rain game, were buoyant by NHL standards. The series won an Emmy for technical excellence. A generation of sports media in the U.S. which disdains hockey took a second look. Some gave it a third look.
Even the cognoscenti in Canada were impressed by the access and insight they gained on players such as Max Talbot or Alex Ovechkin and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
So what do you do for an encore when the Rangers/Flyers dressing-room confidential debuts tonight? The 12-minute preview isn't especially helpful in priming the pump. While the producers do their best to make the Rangers/Flyers rivalry seem like Pacquiao/Mayweather, the quotes from players and coaches sound more like Brady Bunch versus The Waltons on Family Feud.
Rangers coach John Tortorella does allow that he hates having the cameras around, and various players growl that they loath the other guys. But if you want Usual Suspects to reserve the next four Wednesday nights (okay PVR them and watch 'em later) you have to deliver a little more than boilerplate WWE hype. Perhaps the producers didn't want to give away the best nuggets so far.
What is notable is that the producers are not emphasizing the skill in the sport. The version of hockey in the slick edits and great cameras work is 90 per cent crash and 10 per cent dash. Most NHL nights this season contain one, maybe two fights in all the games. But the promo makes the uninitiated believe that Rocky V is about to happen 10 times a period. That's an interesting editorial choice at a time when the league's stars are being concussed at a furious rate and a stick-tap on the gloves draws a penalty.
There were some quick cuts in the promo of the rain falling last year in Pittsburgh, causing a one-day delay and a generally unplayable surface. Will the risks of playing outdoors be raised in the documentaries? Will Crosby's concussion get air time?
The other factor emerging is the NHL's continued adoption of the NBA/MLB broadcast strategy of "pay for 30 teams and use only eight". This is a major-market initiative. Canadian teams do not exist for U.S. market considerations. You are not going to see a Columbus/St. Louis Game of the Week, and you're not going to see 24/7 spend a month chronicling the inner workings of the Minnesota Wild (best in the West so far) and Carolina Hurricanes.
The league is happy enough to have these teams function (in the words of NBA owner Dan Gilbert) as the Washington Generals, but getting HBO or NBC on board? Not going to happen. The league has been lucky to have one of the elite eight U.S. markets in the Stanley Cup Finals since 2004's Calgary/Tampa tussle, accounting for boffo ratings and media attention. But if the Wild somehow emerge to challenge the Buffalo Sabres in the Final, expect Bob Costas to get laryngitis.
So enjoy tonight. Maybe there will be gems. Maybe there won't. Just remember the whole thing bothers Tortorella no end, and that'll be worth the time invested in 24/7.
What Rivalry: Good on Prime Time Sports' Bob McCown who's been having fun this week with the Appalachian wedding of Bell and Rogers buying into Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. While co-host Damien Cox pursues a "nothing to see here" insouciance about editorial complications from the rivals merging interests at MLSE, McCown has been making light of the divided loyalties produced by the two companies owning all the Toronto pro sports franchises (except the Argonauts).
Monday McCown mused about how the sluggos in the broadcast trenches are supposed to resume their supposed bitter competition after watching their bosses hug it out last Friday. Tuesday he was asking if his paycheque would now be "Thirty-seven and half cents from Rogers, Thirty-seven and half cents from Bell and twenty five cents from Larry Tanenbaum". And so on.
Cox, who seems annoyed at the entire line of inquiry, wondered what's the fuss about when the companies united for the two weeks of the 2010 Olympics? McCown rebutted that was a one-off for two weeks. This is, like, FOREVER. McCown has tribal immunity at Sportsnet, of course. Still it's refreshing that not everyone is ignoring the elephant in journalism's closet.
Then Again: Of course, McCown followed that by joking that the name of Eric Lamaze's deceased horse was "Giddyup" during a discussion of Lou Marsh Award balloting. Cox thought the Olympic gold-medal winning horse might be named "Hickory". Sigh. Hickstead was the name.
Penn State Of Mind: You might think that the Penn State sex scandal is a made-in-America scandal. But Canadian networks are tying the Jerry Sandusky criminal case to events in Canada during the infamous Graham James case. CBC News Network highlighted the testimony of Sheldon Kennedy - one of James's victims - Tuesday throughout its news day. CTV News Network was on the case as well. Good hustle.
Tebow TV: Hey, have you heard, this Tim Tebow kid in Denver might be worth watching? At least, that's what we hear from ESPN. Twenty-four hours a flippin' day. The best part of the Tebow phenomenon is how he makes traditional NFL personnel guys on TV who've predicted his demise look simply apoplectic when he does everything wrong and still wins. "He can't play. He can't throw," one of them ranted in August. And you know who you are, Boomer Esiason.
Marvelous Marv: Another reason why we hope Marv Albert never retires. The veteran announcer was doing the Houston/Cincinnati NFL game Sunday when it was noted that the parents of Texans' QB T.J. Yates had perhaps not received field-level seats for the game from the Bengals' box office. We especially like Marv's line about security guards hassling John and Carol Yates for moving down seven rows into the sunlight.