TSN was the clear winner over Sportsnet in the annual battle for best telecast on the NHL's trade-deadline day. But it was not simply a case of having the funniest and most insightful broadcasters.
TSN's presentation on a deadly dull day as far as the trades went, with the biggest ones made in advance of Monday afternoon's deadline, was a clear artistic success. The network did make the biggest mistake of the day in allowing a moronic, vulgar tweet about a couple of Toronto Maple Leafs players to flash across the screen but its panelists were funny, frank and irreverent with former Leafs head coach Ron Wilson leading the way. More on him later but Wilson has either just signed a long contract with TSN or has his retirement income set because his comments on tanking to get the Connor McDavid draft pick ensure it will be a long time before he is hired to coach in the NHL again.
Sportsnet, on the other hand, played it straight. There were some light moments and some decent insights, such as former Pittsburgh Penguin Colby Armstrong talking about how he learned from his mother that he was traded off Sidney Crosby's line to the sad-sack Atlanta Thrashers in 2008 and how emotional it was to watch from the stands as they played the Stanley Cup final. But for the most part it was the standard stuff from their panels as they waited for the blockbuster deals that never came.
However, this was not the fault of the Sportsnet broadcasters and producers. Their hands were tied once their corporate masters handed over $5.2-billion for a 12-year contract to become the Canadian national broadcast "partner" of the NHL. Being a partner of the NHL means never offending the league and never poking serious fun at it.
TSN was no longer under any such constraints once the NHL cut the cord. That was evident from the start as host James Duthie made it clear irreverence would be the order of the day.
Hence the appearance of two llamas on the set as it became obvious this would be a slow day, a send-up of the recent fuss on cable news and social media over two escaped llamas in Arizona. The sight gag worked because Duthie and the panelists managed to keep straight faces as the llamas were paraded behind them. There was also the in-house musician, Lester McLean, whose parody songs made up in lyrics what they lacked in musicality, especially the one about Evander Kane's track suit.
Duthie was a good sport in declaring the show "officially a parody" when Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman pulled off a spur-of-the-moment practical joke. He noticed TSN broadcaster Jermaine Franklin and others scurrying around when they saw him in conversation with head coach Bob Hartley. So Wideman pretended to take a cell-phone call on the ice, setting off the predictable speculation.
Social media being the ever-present beast it now is, both networks ran a Twitter feed across the bottom of their screens. But Sportsnet, perhaps due to big brother NHL looking over its shoulder, elected to restrict the tweets to industry types. TSN made the mistake of opening its scroll to Twitter at large with no or minimal adult supervision, so the storm that followed the scurrilous tweet and the requisite apology was perhaps inevitable.
Twitter, though, also provided the most touching moment of the day. A January letter from Jordyn Leopold, the 11-year-old daughter of defenceman Jordan Leopold, to the Minnesota Wild asking the team to trade for her "lonly" dad, a Minnesota native who was toiling for the Columbus Blue Jackets went viral after a radio station tweeted it following his trade to the Wild.
Many column inches are used each year to hash out which teams won and lost on deadline day but there was one clear individual winner on the broadcast front: Wilson. He was brought in for the deadline show by TSN and delivered gold right from the start when he joked it was the third anniversary of his firing by the Leafs and he still hated them. Well, he might have been joking.
But it was his comments in the wake of the Buffalo Sabres trading their No. 1 goaltender Michal Neuvirth to the New York Islanders for backup goalie Chad Johnson that sent reverberations around the league. It was the second time this season the Sabres traded their starting goalie and made clear what everyone suspected for some time, that they are paddling like crazy under the surface to finish last for the best chance to draft McDavid.
With TSN unconstrained by the need to keep the NHL happy, this started a discussion on tanking. Wilson said he was once asked by a GM to make sure his team tanked but not to tell the players. He did not identify the GM but dropped enough hints to indicate it was probably former Washington Capitals GM George McPhee in 1998. This is dropping an atom bomb on your NHL bridges, not just burning them.
It made for compelling television even if you had to sit through hours of numbing trade speculation to get to such nuggets. We should all hope Wilson signs on full-time with TSN.