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Canadian television sports personality Don Cherry tapes a segment for the Stanley Cup finals at Joe Louis arena in Detroit May 25, 2008. REUTERS/Shaun Best (SHAUN BEST)
Canadian television sports personality Don Cherry tapes a segment for the Stanley Cup finals at Joe Louis arena in Detroit May 25, 2008. REUTERS/Shaun Best (SHAUN BEST)

The Usual Suspects

Paralyzed in the Don Cherry Era Add to ...

San Jose Sharks president Doug Wilson remembers Hockey Night In Canada in a sweetly nostalgic way, with family dinner at home in Ottawa planned around watching Danny Gallivan broadcast Montreal Canadiens games.

And like Wilson, many Canadians have held on to vivid memories of the Saturday night ritual even as the show moved gradually to an edgier, more controversial format. It's become a blend of hockey, debate and self-reverence that is often criticized but never dismissed. It has made Don Cherry a household name and created a viewership cult that its competitors strain to match.

With Cherry aging and new technologies changing the way people consume television, HNIC is being nudged slowly into transition. While still technically superb, HNIC was slow to adopt other innovations such as the between-benches reporter popularized by TSN. So this summer, CBC replaced executive producer Sherali Najak - a traditionalist with loyal ties to the current staff - with Trevor Pilling, who made his reputation on the Olympics, CFL and the World Cup. The implication was clear: HNIC will be looking to address the void Cherry will leave, when he goes.

Cherry, 76, is the face, spirit and personality of a show that begins another season next week, with special Thursday night broadcasts of two season openers, Montreal at Toronto followed by Calgary at Edmonton.

Currently, CBC has no succession strategy and considering his impact, that's disaster in television. Think, All In The Family after Archie. As a metaphor for the challenges facing the show, he's the perfect symbol. Just as the network must replace Cherry ultimately, it needs to adapt to the realities of new media.

In interviews with The Globe and Mail, former Hockey Night producers Ralph Mellanby and John Shannon stress that the program must be a trend-setter.

"Right now it's still a good show, but it's a little predictable," Mellanby says. "The intermissions are the biggest challenges to make innovative [and]news-driven. I'd put the stuff from the pregame half-hour show into the body of the show and move the all the panels into the half-hour show. I get tired of all the talking heads on Hockey Night, TSN, Sportsnet, NBC. You need to tell stories, not just use talking heads."

Competition has intruded on what was once resolute tradition.

"The real challenge is to make the day feel special again," Shannon says. "It was something all to its own for so many years. For many reasons it's changed. The big challenge is how to rebuild this aura of 'this is the only place you're going to see this.' If you're spending the kind of money CBC is on its contract, tell the NHL how you want to spend it and have them adapt the product."

CBC Sports vice-president Scott Moore says the future lies in adapting new technologies.

"Every show must be more interactive and we're doing that now, providing second screens, live blogs, Twitter," Moore says. "There's probably a limit to the number of camera angles you can use. But the secret is finding ways to get an audience not to do multiple things unrelated to hockey while they're watching the broadcast."

Persuading the NHL to put microphones on players and cameras in the dressing room, for instance, would enliven the broadcasts.

And, say some critics, the show will need to remove the pro-Toronto bias.

"It's a national show, not the Maple Leafs show," Mellanby says. "Do a world hockey report. You need to tell stories that reflect the nation, not just have talking heads."

The conversation always comes back to Cherry, whose personality overwhelms Hockey Night in Canada.

Mellanby, who gave Cherry his start, says in the short term, "I'd give Cherry more time in his slot. It might be 10 years till he goes, and he still gets the viewers."

It should be emphasized that Cherry has no plans to go and CBC itself has no plans to replace him despite the turbulence created by Cherry's bravura turns and indiscretions. But it is a discussion that has to happen. He appeared to tire out during the playoffs, and he no longer wishes to travel extensively to support the show.

"It's something we've discussed," Moore says. "What to do when Don decides to hang it up. There is one school that says you don't try to replace him because he's an icon. But another school says if you don't replace him you'll never be able to create a successor. It encourages you not to make short-term decisions. You make changes carefully."

When he goes, Mellanby proposes a candidate for the Coach's Corner mantle. "If I was still there, the guy I'd want to replace Don is Steve Ludzik. He's been a coach and a player. He has charisma and presentation skills from doing [The Score]TV. I think he's a readymade star in the making. He comes across like Cherry, just maybe not as rough."

Shannon takes another approach. "I think it's better to reformat than replace Don. The day of the old format has been taken away by social-media and new-media platforms. Hockey Night's most valuable asset is still the games. So I'd stagger the starting times, like they do for the NCAA basketball tournament. Go to other games rather than more of the same intermission stuff. It still allows for journalistic content but it makes the day special again. It says 'This is the only place you're going to see this.' "

Symbolic of Cherry's dominance were the answers of several prominent NHL executives when asked a worthy successor to the former Boston and Colorado coach.

"Oh, that's a tough one," said Edmonton president Kevin Lowe, who grew up watching HNIC in Lachute, Que. "Honestly, no one comes to mind."

Long-time NHL coach Pat Quinn, who once roomed with Cherry, was similarly dumbfounded: "It's hard to think of anyone but Grapes in there."

Vancouver GM Mike Gillis thought for a while before saying, "Maybe Brett Hull? Let me think about it."

Ditto Wilson. "What have other people suggested?" he said.

When Cherry finally does take his leave, HNIC will have to be ready with a plan.

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