Of all the headaches the NHL broadcast contract has given Rogers Media, one stands out: the constant stream of complaints from viewers.
On Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, along with the comments following online stories, the majority of gripes fall into two broad categories. The first can be summed up as get rid of Hockey Night In Canada host George Stroumboulopoulos and bring back his predecessor, Ron MacLean. The second is hate for the new look and new faces Rogers brought to the broadcasts, with the bulk of the complaints about Hockey Night, which was a CBC institution for 62 years.
The belly-aching makes some Hockey Night staffers, who go back to the days when the CBC produced the show, shake their heads. They find the non-stop complaining ironic, considering that in the final CBC years, which ended in 2014, viewers complained a lot about that version of Hockey Night on the same forums.
"We were under siege," is the way one veteran Hockey Night staffer describes the complaints about the show that hit the CBC. Another long-time employee says the criticism was not as intense as that being fired at Rogers: "There was complaining, sure, but not like this."
As the host, MacLean bore the brunt of most of the complaints along with the most prominent member of the show, Don Cherry. Viewers ripped the CBC's approach to the show, which was heavy on interviews and panel discussions, disparaged MacLean's folksy approach and called Cherry old and out of touch.
Fairly typical of the complaints was this online comment on a Globe and Mail story on March 9, 2014, about Stroumboulopoulos replacing MacLean as the host of Hockey Night: "Cherry is clueless … He hasn't been knowledgeable about hockey since the 70's. Looking forward to Rogers makeover."
An Angus Reid Institute poll released at the start of the 2012 NHL playoffs found that only 40 per cent of the 1,506 adult Canadians questioned had a favourable opinion of Cherry. This did not compare well with other top names in hockey like Wayne Gretzky (87 per cent), Sidney Crosby (80 per cent) or even Ken Dryden (61 per cent).
However, among those who described themselves as hockey fans, Cherry's favourable rating rose to 59 per cent.
The irony about the intensity of the complaints about Rogers' version of national hockey broadcasts, whether it's Hockey Night or Sunday night's Hometown Hockey or the Wednesday-night shows, is that the company went to great lengths to find out what Canadian fans wanted before it made all of the changes. Rogers and the NHL put together a research team that toured the seven Canadian NHL cities plus Red Deer, Alta., Sudbury and Kingston, in the late winter of 2014.
It was called a "listening tour" that connected with minor hockey associations, made stops in sports bars and the homes of people who volunteered to speak. In order to get a handle on the different viewing habits of millennials, young people were a focus of the team along with new Canadians and existing fans.
This played into Rogers' radically different approach to the broadcasts, which saw an $11-million studio built with all kinds of dazzling high-tech touches such as an ice surface that served as a screen for showing lineups or stats. Instead of sitting at a desk, broadcasters now stand on the mock ice surface with hockey sticks to make a point or sit on couches. MacLean and Cherry were both given lower profiles, with the Rogers producers keeping a tighter rein on the running time of Coach's Corner. Stroumboulopoulos and his skinny suits were brought in as the younger, hipper face of the Saturday-night show.
And the complaints grew even louder, much to the dismay of Rogers executives.
However, conversations with those connected to the show reveal that while the complaints are vexatious, there is a belief they stem from more than just an aversion to the Rogers version of hockey. No. 1, of course, is that all seven Canadian teams missed the playoffs, which left a lot of fans in a sour mood. In the worst mood of all are Toronto Maple Leaf fans, the largest group of ratings drivers, whose team went into the tank in year one of the Rogers deal.
Other factors are the deterioration of the game itself – scoring is at its lowest in decades and more than a few hockey people believe the steps to eliminate fighting and concussions have taken too much passion out of games – along with too many games on television and simply the fact some people really do not like the Rogers broadcasts.
Another suggestion by a long-time Hockey Night employee is that Rogers introduced too many radical changes in the broadcasts all at once. A more gradual approach might have softened the criticism.
But those employees believe there will be major changes over the summer to the hockey shows in response to the poor ratings in the first two years of the NHL contract. That was signalled by the recent firing of Gord Cutler, the senior vice-president of NHL production, who was No. 2 to Sportsnet president Scott Moore in the hockey department.
The timing of the move, on the eve of the playoffs, showed there was much more to it than a financial move. Cutler was hired from rival network TSN and those who know him say he was never shy about expressing his aversion for the way the CBC produced Hockey Night. His firing is a strong indication those at the top of Rogers Communications Inc., were not happy with the broadcasts.
But what those changes will be, aside from cost-cutting, has the staff guessing. The cost-cutting measures are obvious – only three Rogers play-by-play crews are covering an entire series in the first playoff round, which saves money on production costs.
The fourth crew, play-by-play broadcaster Dave Randorf and analyst Greg Millen, will see spot duty on select games in the first round along with a small technical crew. A year ago, Rogers had crews at most first-round series which, of course, included five Canadian teams.
With production costs running around $100,000 a game, Rogers could save about $500,000 over a seven-game series by cutting back to three full-time play-by-play crews, according to a broadcast industry source. This could add up to $2-million by the end of the playoffs, which run four series.