Ron MacLean has been frozen out of the new version of Hockey Night In Canada. Literally.
While George Stroumboulopoulos will sit in the studio chair and take the starring role that once was his – ringmaster of the most popular show on Canadian television – MacLean will be looking in from the outside on Sunday nights. And even he admits his fractious relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, which saw Bettman boycott Hockey Night after one particularly contentious interview in 2010, might have something to do with it.
Under Rogers Communications Inc., Hockey Night's new proprietor, the man known for decades as the face of the show has a lesser presence. MacLean, 54, will still serve as Don Cherry's foil/sidekick on Coach's Corner on Saturday nights, but he faces exile on Sunday nights to Rogers Hometown Hockey. This is a show within a show where Stroumboulopoulos will throw from the Toronto studio to MacLean, who will be broadcasting from a different Canadian community each week, often from its frigid arena or the snowy and windy streets, squares or even ponds and lakes. Think of it as Hockey Night's old annual feature in its CBC days, Hockey Day In Canada, coming at you once a week.
This is the biggest change in role among the major on-air people at Hockey Night.
"I'm looking forward to that; I think it's a great concept," MacLean said near the start of an interview. "I kind of view Sunday night as a great television night for a couple reasons. Obviously it's a competitive night, but we're tidying up to get ready to go off to a work week and also tidying up to get off to a school week. That presents a real opportunity to focus the show in that regard. And I know that families are trying to have family night because everybody has to go to work on Monday. I think it's going to be a really successful night to put on hockey."
But as the conversation continued – and the topic turned to the belief among his broadcasting colleagues that MacLean's on-air clashes with Bettman played no small role in his reduced role – there were hints MacLean may not be quite as sanguine about the change as it seems. MacLean and Bettman usually butted heads over labour-management issues in the NHL. MacLean consistently took the players' side during interviews because, he said, he firmly believed the league was better off with a strong NHL Players' Association.
"Maybe that hurt me but I would gladly fall on my sword for that principle," MacLean said. "But I don't know that it had anything to do with [a reduced role]. It could have."
Bettman and John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, enjoyed a strong influence on Hockey Night when it was operated by the CBC. Now that they have handed the Canadian national broadcast rights to Rogers for $5.2-billion over the next 12 years, those close to Hockey Night say that influence has increased and the duo had much input into the decisions about the on-air talent.
Scott Moore, Rogers broadcast president, said in an e-mail message that he keeps the commissioner up to date on decisions, but the NHL does "not have approval or veto." However, Moore has always referred to the NHL as Rogers' "partner" when it comes to broadcasting games. Bettman declined to comment.
MacLean said Bettman, Collins and deputy commissioner Bill Daly "had a huge say in how the show was run," when it was operated by the CBC.
"That pressure was always there to acquiesce, to toe the company line and in some cases that might have been the league line," MacLean said. "But I felt strongly about the importance of a healthy NHL Players' Association. That was a difficult thing for both the CBC and the league to accept, always was. Nobody [at the CBC] was ever happy when I was treating a partner [with skepticism], a partner that thought they were more important than the NHLPA."
Hockey Night survivors who fared better are play-by-play men Jim Hughson and Bob Cole, who will continue in those roles with Rogers along with holdover analysts Craig Simpson and Glenn Healy. Also moving to the new show are Scott Oake and Elliotte Friedman, although Oake will remain a CBC employee.
The situation for the rest of the on-air people is mixed. Kevin Weekes – who has the ability to be a good broadcaster but suffers from a problem common among ex-players in not doing his homework and in being reluctant to offend former peers – left for the NHL Network. P.J. Stock will be going to Rogers, but will have a smaller role on Hockey Night. Ditto for Kelly Hrudey, who will appear on the studio show on Saturday nights, but whose main job will be handling Calgary Flames games.
Host and reporter Andi Petrillo was dropped from the show and joined Weekes at the NHL Network. Also gone are play-by-play man Mark Lee and host-interviewer Steve Armitage, who were both laid off by the CBC.
Joining the Hockey Night on-air crew is Tara Slone, who will appear on MacLean's hometown hockey segments. She was hired away from City's Breakfast Television show in Calgary. Sportsnet regulars Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean will also show up as Hockey Night commentators.
Most of the major behind-the-scenes players will keep their roles, although some, such as Hockey Night executive producer Joel Darling, will remain CBC employees. Sherali Najak will also stay with the CBC but continue as the producer of the marquee Saturday game.
Cole is happy with how things turned out since he dreads the thought of retirement even though he turned 81 in June. Whispers were getting louder about a further reduction in his role if the CBC kept the show. Then Moore signed Cole for a year under Rogers and said he would be willing to keep one of Canada's favourite broadcasters beyond that as long as he was up for it.
"I'm excited, really," Cole said. "It's a little shot in the arm. It's pretty nice when they look at your work and say, 'He hasn't screwed up much, he sounds okay.' I'd go nuts, I really would, if someone all of a sudden said you're not doing it."
As for MacLean, he will now work well into Saturday night on Coach's Corner, then either jump on a red-eye flight or an early morning one to get to small towns across the country by Sunday afternoon. He also lost a strong behind-the-scenes influence on Hockey Night, one MacLean always protested he did not have even as his co-workers insisted otherwise.
But, MacLean says, his differences with Bettman were never "that important, other than I think it was a bit of an anchor in my career. My hero was Lewis Lapham and his basic point was always one I lived by: I'm not going to trade in the ability to think for myself for a five-star hotel or a nice job where everybody knows your name."