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usual suspects

An NHL season dogged by controversy at Hockey Night in Canada is ending with a search for a new executive producer for the program. Current executive producer Trevor Pilling says in an internal CBC memo that his "time needs to be spent defining the larger vision of CBC Sports production and seeing that our department has the tools and talent it needs to be great."

Pilling goes on to say, "This position is one of the most important in the industry and the successful candidate will have earned a rare opportunity in sports broadcasting." Rare perhaps understates the opportunity or challenge facing Hockey Night. Under siege from unhappy Canadian NHL teams and the league itself, the Saturday night staple has two years to prove that it deserves to keep all or some of the coveted national TV contract in Canada that is has owned almost since the advent of TV.

The question is: What respected broadcast executive can CBC recruit with no guarantee of an NHL TV contract beyond the 2013-14 season? Can the CBC pay industry rates to attract a qualified candidate? And will the CBC back any successful candidate who wishes to rein in the stars of the show, Don Cherry and Ron MacLean?

Usual Suspects has spoken with several industry figures who've been approached about the position. Their concerns ranged from compensation levels to whether CBC's board would support changes with Cherry and MacLean. One industry veteran also cited the ability to weather the internal politics of the CBC.

Pilling did not respond to a request for comment, but Jeffrey Orridge, the executive director of CBC Sports, said, "The position for executive producer of HNIC will be filled long before our negotiations to extend our relationship are concluded. It is such a coveted job and such a rare opportunity, I am certain it will attract some of the most talented people in the industry."

CBC Sports rethink?

The new federal budget, in which the CBC's funding was slashed by $115-million beginning in 2014, had folks in the public broadcaster's sports department apprehensive. The once-powerful department is trying to obtain new properties and keep the ones it has. With the cost of major properties escalating recently, the prospect of a 10-per-cent cut from the government being passed on to CBC Sports is a formidable challenge in the first year of a new NHL deal.

The cuts take place alongside an existential discussion of how CBC Sports should function in the future. While some within the CBC are arguing for keeping the department intact, others have suggested that it might be organized more on a per-contract basis with staff for, say, Hockey Night in Canada, only working the nine-month NHL season or those working a world soccer event disbanding at the end of the tournament. This is the "big event" strategy.

Needless to say this would shake up CBC Sports, which is, curiously, moving up three floors within the CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto despite a cash crunch at the Corp. CBC Sports is making efforts to employ its staff in other branches of the CBC, with on-air talent Scott Russell, Brenda Irving and Andi Petrillo doing sportscasts into local TV suppertime shows. But it will take more that that to save the department if it loses Hockey Night in the next negotiations for the fall of 2014. Estimates say that advertising purchased for Hockey Night constitutes as much as half the annual CBC ad revenues.

PR man out

Did Cherry's infamous "pukes" rant at the start of the NHL season contribute to a veteran CBC publicist Jeff Keay leaving CBC this week? Many are asking if Keay's departure is connected to the first Coach's Corner broadcast of the season in October when Cherry disparaged three former NHL tough guys for talking about how depression and concussions affected them and other fighters in the NHL.

The Hockey Night personality described them as "pukes" and traitors to the brotherhood of fighters, which had been shaken by the deaths of three enforcers in the summer of 2011. The uproar caused by Cherry's remarks led to Keay responding in his position as spokesman for CBC. "He has strong opinions and expresses them colourfully and sometimes even outrageously. But his arguments, and the many others heard on CBC HNIC, address issues that are being debated at all levels of professional hockey." Keay then cited Cherry's work on player safety.

The tone went over like the proverbial lead balloon with the hockey safety community. Presumably, Keay ran these sentiments past his superiors at CBC. So it was surprising a short time later when CBC vice-president in charge of English services, Kirstine Stewart, seemingly contradicted the earlier missive. "While we support [Cherry's]right to voice that opinion, we do not share his position," Stewart said. "Player safety is a top priority for CBC, and we support the initiatives of the NHL and others in keeping players safe on and off the ice."

The Cherry tempest eventually calmed, but shortly after the press release flip-flop Keay was moved out of his position as chief spokesman to another corporate role. Then it was announced that Keay would be leaving the CBC on March 31. Keay had an excellent reputation within CBC and with those in the media with whom he'd dealt.

Keay declined comment on this story. His replacement, CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson, e-mailed, "There was no single incident that led to this decision. It's not uncommon to have a change with the spokesperson when changes are being made in the [executive vice-president's]office."

Sources told Usual Suspects that Stewart, upset by the negative response to the first press release over Cherry, wanted the CBC position stated in her own (different) words. Keay's transfer followed shortly thereafter.