Ron MacLean appreciates the support of viewers who are not happy with his reduced role on Hockey Night in Canada, but he doesn't expect any changes as a result of a poll fewer than six weeks into the first season of a new version of the show.
An Angus Reid Institute survey of 1,504 adult Canadians about their thoughts on HNIC, now being produced by Rogers Media network Sportsnet, the new Canadian NHL broadcast rights holders, found that 74 per cent of them felt MacLean's reduced role hurt the show's brand. George Stroumboulopoulos, who replaced MacLean as the host of HNIC, did not fare well in the survey, which was not a surprise given that it is early days for the new look and people tend to resist change. The poll found that 60 per cent of those surveyed do not think Stroumboulopoulos, an accomplished interviewer and host, is a "credible replacement" for MacLean.
MacLean, who serves as host of the Hometown Hockey segments on Sunday night Sportsnet broadcasts and is still on Coach's Corner with Don Cherry, said Stroumboulopoulos, 42, does not have anything to worry about.
"George will be fine," MacLean, 54, said on Tuesday. "He's in the same crosshairs I found myself once upon a time."
Once upon a time was March, 1987, when MacLean was promoted to the host's chair at HNIC under far worse circumstances than Stroumboulopoulos's debut on the most popular TV show in Canada. MacLean, who started in the business doing local TV weather reports in his native Red Deer, Alta., was thrust into the host's role late in the NHL season because Dave Hodge was dumped after expressing his anger on the air over a decision by CBC bosses to cut away from a game that went into overtime in favour of the news.
While MacLean eventually became as popular with the Canadian public as Hodge, at the time he was the relative unknown replacing a beloved star whose firing angered many viewers.
MacLean said it was "extremely difficult" to replace Hodge and he sees the parallels in that situation with this week's poll results from Angus Reid.
"The first thing I would say is what was the Angus Reid poll back in '87, when I replaced Dave Hodge?" MacLean said. "I'm sure the numbers would have been precisely the same, if not a greater outcry."
The fact most viewers rue MacLean's reduced role does not surprise him because he says a TV brand is built over a number of years, and for reasons that go beyond individual personalities. When people have that much loyalty invested in a show, change is unsettling.
"It really comes down to the branding, and branding is three things: frequency, consistency and then anchoring," MacLean said. "Anchoring is the tricky one to explain, but anchoring is how something makes you feel, a Rockwell painting [for example]. Certain things just evoke a good warm and fuzzy feeling.
"That branding takes place over quite a period of time, so that's what always gives the incumbent the edge."
MacLean said it is a combination of the behind-the-scenes people and the on-air stars that produces popular shows. He said he would never have made it through the early days of replacing Hodge without Cherry, with whom he quickly developed a rapport on Coach's Corner, as well as play-by-play man Bob Cole and analyst Dick Irvin.
In addition to the problem of replacing a star like Hodge, MacLean said it was a particularly difficult time for HNIC because it was facing serious competition for the first time from the relatively new all-sports television network TSN, which started in 1984.
"The only thing that got me through it was Don Cherry," MacLean said. "Don Cherry was at a time when TSN began their operation. They were better at doing updates than we were, they had a vast empire of reporters that were currying favour with fans in the cities across the country.
"The only thing that kept Hockey Night in Canada maybe slightly above in terms of a brand was the work of our best: Don and Dick Irvin and Bob Cole. That's what separated us."
A full look at the Angus Reid poll can be found here.