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Usual Suspects

On Hotstove, head shots and Gemini honours Add to ...

Looks like Al Strachan is out of the Hotstove and into the fire.

On Tuesday, Usual Suspects received the following e-mail from Jeff Keay of CBC: " Hotstove has a number of guest contributors who we rotate through the lineup. At this time, we've made the decision to take Al out of the regular rotation and to use some of the other personalities we've added to the broadcast over the summer."

Translation: Strachan has been dropped from the Hockey Night In Canada segment a second time, having first been let go in 2005.

CBC's missive didn't specify why Strachan was let go, but it did say that it wasn't over the unauthorized use of HNIC's logo on the cover of a book Strachan has penned about the Maple Leafs. "While we did have an issue with that (we're very careful to protect its use)," said Keay, "we have no problems with the editorial content of the book. In any event, that issue was dealt with quickly and satisfactorily from our [point of view]and isn't a driving factor."

But Strachan's firing came so soon after the book issue that some observers say it's hard not to make some connection between them. There is also speculation that Strachan's negative comments about Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, among others, were creating pushback against Strachan. CBC denied that was why the acerbic Strachan was shelved.

"Our analysts speak their minds," Keay tells Usual Suspects. "That's why they're our analysts."

Contacted by Usual Suspects, Strachan confirmed the move but said he would have no further comment at this time.

Head Games: Sign of changing times? Calgary Stampeder Marcus Howell was knocked flat Saturday by a Saskatchewan Roughrider on the sidelines at the end of a punt return. After being hit in the upper body (head/ shoulder) Howell lay on the ground for some time. Many thought he was gone for the game. Imagine the surprise to almost everyone at McMahon Stadium when Howell was back to return the next punt.

TSN's broadcast crew was surprised, too. Head injuries are a hot-button topic that is receiving increasing attention in broadcasts. TSN sideline reporter Jermaine Franklin sought out Calgary's physical therapist Pat Clayton to ask if Howell had suffered a concussion. Clayton explained that Howell had merely been winded. Clayton added tartly that the Stampeders don't send concussed players back into play. The message was relayed to the booth. TSN did its due diligence. Case closed.

The microscope will only get stronger on pro sports teams as evidence mounts about the deadly effect of head shots, and TV networks such as TSN make exposing that information a priority. It happened again Tuesday after notorious head hunter Colby Armstrong of Atlanta Thrashers hit Montreal's Marc-Andre Bergeron with a blindside hit to the head - what NHL veteran Matthew Barnaby calls a "as clean as it gets. Too bad for Bergeron he had his head down." This, remarkably, from a player whose career was ended by a concussion.

TSN analyst Bob MacKenzie got to the real point - Bergeron coming back into the game after being knocked woozy by Armstrong. "You've got a player who's clearly concussed. You don't need a neurosurgeon or neurologist to come in and talk to him. When you see a guy as wobbly on his feet as he was, then he comes back and plays and gets run up against the boards and gets his helmet knocked off, there's a pretty good chance this guy's suffered a concussion... If the team values that player... you take him out of the game..."

Which led host James Duthie to be the only one on the panel to question Armstrong targeting the head on the hit. While nothing was decided, any TV discussion about head hits was unthinkable even a couple of years ago. And that is progress of a sort in a sport with a denial issue on head hits.

Losing An Edge: Noted in the fine print on the CBC Battle Of The Blades website: "This program is not endorsed by or affiliated with the National Hockey League or its teams''. Of course not. Why would you want to be associated with a runaway TV hit featuring some of the top names your league has produced? That might be... innovative. Or creative. Or paying attention to the nation whose bullish dollar increasingly underwrites your league.

Usual Suspects' editor keeps telling us we don't have to watch Battle o' Blades. (Or, as we call it, "Don't Touch Me There") Try stopping us. The show is a ratings hit and drawing attention from other hockey countries such as Sweden, Finland and Russia. And they say Canada doesn't produce hockey players with good hands any more.

Swept Away: TSN swept the three major Geminis for Canadian sports broadcasting on Monday. Fifteen years ago, when Usual Suspects was pounding the rock at CBC, the notion of the cable sports channel winning any Geminis was a very long shot. CBC simply had more voters and the prestige TV events. But then CBC largely got out of local sports, CBC stalwarts like Brian Williams, Rick Chisholm and Paul Graham migrated to TSN, and the sports specialty channel started buying up exclusive prime products such as the CFL, Olympic and curling. TSN now dominates the Canadian TV sports landscape outside of the Hockey Night In Canada franchise.

The result can be seen in its sweep of the awards Monday. Sportcentre won for Best Sportscast, James Duthie was awarded the gong for Best Sportscaster/Anchor and Brian Williams completed the hat trick with his win for Best Host/Interviewer in a Sports Program or Sportscast.

CBC now has to go outside the Corp for new talent. The capable Jeff Marek - who this week added duties on CBC's Newsworld morning show to his Hockey Night In Canada Radio gig - was brought in from AM 640 Radio's Bill Watters show. Scott Morrison - who's been working for HNIC and CBC.ca - came from Sportsnet and The Hockey News. Elliotte Friedman came to CBC from The Score.

In the past those positions were filled internally, but CBC has no "farm team" waiting for its chance. Scott Moore, CBC's vice-president for sports, is fighting to restore CBC's profile after years of drift in the department. Meanwhile, TSN gears up for its coverage of the Vancouver Olympics in February. Something no one would have imagined 15 years ago, either.

Georges Brashear: Georges Laraque. Donald Brashear. All those enforcers look alike. Apparently The Associated Press thinks so. Above a story saying Laraque apologizes for doing a sexy alcoholic drink ad with scantily clad ladies, AP posted a headline using Brashear's name instead of Laraque's. Brashear/ Laraque... could happen to anyone.

Question Mark: Comedian Bill Engvall has a bit he calls "Here's Your Sign". He spoofs people asking "what colour is that green light?" questions. This week's recipient - TBS peacock Craig Sager asking Jimmy Rollins after the Phillies' second baseman won Game Four of the National League Championship Series 5-4 with a double: "What does this win mean, going up three (games) to one?" Give us a second, we'll come up with something. How about we're up three games to one?

Wishin' And Hopin': Finally, those wacky folks at MLB.com sometimes get a little ahead of themselves. Awfulannouncing.com caught the site bleeding Dodger blue before Rollins' key hit on Monday. "Manny's Clutch Grab, clutch hits help Dodgers tie NLCS" read the banner on the MLB website. Followed by: "Matt Kemp hit a go-ahead homer, Casey Blake's first NLCS RBI stood as the decisive run and Manny Ramirez made a game-saving catch to give L.A. a series-tying 4-3 win over Philadelphia."

If you're scoring at home, just call it E6.

dowbboy@shaw.ca/ brucedowbiggin.com

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