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Hockey Public outrage gets Leafs radio broadcasters back on the road

The power of social media and public opinion paid off for Toronto Maple Leafs fans on Monday, not to mention the radio team of Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph.

Thanks to a storm of criticism on Twitter that spread to traditional forms of media, senior executives from both Rogers Communications Inc. and BCE Inc., which share the Leafs' radio rights as well as majority ownership of the team, reversed a decision to have Bowen and Ralph call the road games off a television monitor in a Toronto studio this season. Neither company would officially confirm the change, but sources from both companies said it was in the works. However, one source said both companies did agree that Bowen and Ralph would be travelling to the Leafs' away games.

The Twitter firestorm erupted Monday in the wake of a story posted by the web site TorontoSportsMedia.com. The report said Bowen, who has been the Leafs' play-by-play voice since 1982, and Ralph would be grounded this season and would call games from a studio for both Rogers Media and Bell Media. While Rogers Media won the NHL's Canadian national broadcast rights in a 12-year deal for $5.2-billion in 2014, it split the radio and regional television rights for the Leafs with Bell.

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The no-travel decision came after new Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello instituted a policy he employed for years when he ran the New Jersey Devils – team charter flights were strictly for players, coaches and team executives. Broadcasters, including the television crew, could no longer take advantage of the charters and team buses.

Program directors for both Sportsnet The Fan 590 and TSN Toronto 1050, the flagship Leafs network radio stations for Rogers and Bell, respectively, were informed of this decision on Sept. 16, the day before Leafs training camp opened. Without access to the Leafs charters, both companies were faced with footing the travel bill for Bowen and Ralph, which would cost up to $130,000 for the regular season. The stations will also have to pay travel costs for at least two television broadcasters and a producer, which brings the total travel bill to about $500,000 for this season.

Thus the decision was made by both Rogers and Bell to eliminate the travel for Bowen and Ralph.

This should not have been a problem, but starting this season, both Bowen and Ralph became contract employees with both Rogers and Bell. Previously, only Ralph was paid by the two companies – Bowen was an employee of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Leafs' parent company. However, even though Rogers and Bell jointly own 75 per cent of MLSE, they operate as separate companies, even internally, with regard to radio rights.

By the time Lamoriello's decree became known, the budgets for both stations were set. Given narrow profit margins, neither Dave Cadeau, program director of The Fan, nor his counterpart at TSN 1050, Jeff MacDonald, had the authority to suddenly increase their budgets by $65,000 each. Sources at both Rogers and Bell indicated that executives much higher up the ladder declined to authorize a budget increase. Appeals to Lamoriello to reconsider his ban were rejected.

Bowen and Ralph were informed last week they would be calling road games from a studio, not opposing teams' arenas. "I've never done it," Bowen said Monday before the decision was reversed. "But we will do our best."

It was not surprising the news caused a sensation on both social and traditional media on Monday. The Maple Leafs are by far the wealthiest team in the NHL, and the majority owners are the very companies trying to save a relatively paltry amount of money.

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However, at least one executive managed to explain to his superiors how badly this made both Rogers and Bell look. At some point Monday afternoon, the higher-ups agreed and Bowen and Ralph were back on the road. Efforts to convince Lamoriello to let Bowen and Ralph back on the charter will continue.

Cadeau and Sportsnet president Scott Moore declined to comment, as did their counterparts at TSN. Bowen said he wanted to wait until he heard the news officially before commenting.

"At this point, I have not heard anything from anyone," he said, "so I'll have to leave it until the press release."

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