Almost by accident, Sportsnet stumbled into a human moment on the first night of their national NHL coverage.
Going into the first intermission, they segued to a coffee klatsch hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos. The network's made a lot of hires, but this skinny, middle-aged kid is the key. If their million-dollar hipster doesn't work, neither will Sportsnet.
The first smart thing they did – separate the lead host from his subjects with the cunning use of a table.
During his CBC days, Stroumboulopoulos sat toe-to-toe with interviewees, gradually invading their personal space until he'd annexed the lot of it. You half-expected him to get up, sit down in Stephen Fry's lap and start playing with his hair. It may be smart journalistic technique, but it's uncomfortable viewing.
Sitting acres away from Henrik Lundqvist (impeccably suited), Jonathan Toews (suited) and Sidney Crosby (golf-shirted), Stroumboulopoulos gravitated to the deep-thinker.
Diving in with what would be his only tired hockey question, Stroumboulopoulos asked Lundqvist, "I don't want to put you on the spot, but let's say you're a GM and you have to draft one player … Who do you choose?"
This is a terrible question on a bunch of levels and Lundqvist could smell the danger straight off. How does he not name a New York Ranger, while also not pandering? The Swede began with an, "Oh, man" and the sort of phony, mood-killing laughter interviewers dread to hear.
Lundqvist: "That's a tough pick."
Stroumboulopoulos: "It is."
Lundqvist: "Do I have to pick it?"
Stroumboulopoulos: "No, you don't have to."
And so, on we went.
Like the athletes he now covers, here was a small, winning adjustment. Every query from then on had very little to do with the minutiae of the game, instead focusing on the actual people who play it. The guests flowered under this line of questioning.
Toews – who resembles a turnip with lips in most interviews – was aflame with personality. At one point, he raised his arm. Lundqvist sat there, being beautiful and agreeable. Even Crosby laughed, so stiffly you worried he might crack a vertebra.
As matters steadily improved, Stroumboulopoulos began to get excited, clawing at the table like a small dog trying to climb onto an enormous couch.
The knock on him coming in was that he was too much the fan to do this job. As it turns out, that's exactly why he works. Alone among the hundreds Sportsnet has tapped to cover hockey like they're chairing the Yalta Conference, Stroumboulopoulos looks like he's enjoying himself. He carries himself seriously, but he doesn't take himself that way.
Elsewhere in the broadcast, we got a whole lot of old hockey broadcasting klieg-lit so brightly you might confuse it with new hockey broadcasting.
There's enough neon in the studio to fry the sockets of the visually impaired. It makes you pine for Ron and Don, sitting on top of one another, doing their thing from a utility closet.
But that's the way of things. There's nothing more dangerous than a television executive with money and prep time. Sportsnet wanted to revolutionize the NHL experience – which was never going to happen. Knowing that beforehand, they instead added more. More camera angles. More people shrieking at each other. More graphics. More bits. More moreness.
Most of the familiar stuff works. Most of the cutting-edge stuff doesn't.
The helmet-mounted referee cams, in particular, are a vertigo-inducing disaster. Seriously, who's running that union? Eventually, the officials will all be wearing IMAX cameras on their heads, after undergoing full spinal fusions.
In between, it's the familiar, high-intensity hockey blather. New arrivals to this country should be forced to sit through an NHL pregame show before they immigrate here. It seems cruel not to let them know what they're signing up for.
No sports coverage in the world erects so many barriers to entry. Players are referred to by first names or nicknames. The nomenclature is Byzantine. The discussion is so granular, you can't get hold of any of it.
The likes of Glenn Healy, Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean know an awful lot about the game. They're stumbling over each other trying to prove it to you. They've got the viewer bent backward, ramming a full scouting report down his or her throat in 30-second increments. There's no ease in any of this. It all seems so bafflingly urgent and oddly aggressive.
The real wonder – How does everyone manage to seem so world-weary and so hysterical at the same time?
They went big on opening night, time-warping The Tragically Hip in from 1991 and banging the "Our Game" Canadian gong so hard and long, even beavers wanted to defect by the end.
They dialled it way down on Thursday. You began to get a sense of what this new universe will look like on most nights of the regular season – exactly like the old CBC/TSN one.
They'll save the Last Night on Earth routine for Saturdays.
There will be 11 games broadcast in Saturday's showcase debut on Sportsnets One-through-360, CBC, CITY-TV, FX … at this point, I couldn't keep up and began guessing … the History Channel, Pravda, Wikileaks, the Numbers Station.
If you hold up a white piece of Bristol board after 7 on a Saturday night, Sportsnet will find a way to broadcast on it.
It's an awful lot of hockey. We've yet to see how much emphasis we need to put on "awful." My guess is none. They'll settle in time (and if not, they might want to slip a few of the more noted screamers an Ativan mickey).
Most importantly, they got the main hire right. All the on-camera talent takes their emotional cues from the moderator (and now you understand why both Sportsnet and Gary Bettman wanted TSN's James Duthie so badly).
In Stroumboulopoulos, they've found the one guy brave enough to do something truly revolutionary in a hockey broadcast – make talking about the game seem like fun.