Sunday, February 13, 2011

HNIC: Career Back-up Makes Bad

Anyone who wanders into Major League Baseball can't help but notice the stark contrast between the field of play and the uneasy space just off it, where the executives and the scouts make their livings. The game itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you're very good, you don't survive in it. But in the space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won't be tolerated.
- Michael Lewis

The late Roone Arledge transformed the way television covered sport.

Those beautiful shots of the host city and its skyline that open each broadcast? His wife’s idea. Arledge introduced it after going to San Francisco to see a Major League Baseball game.

Multiple cameras and, amazingly, cameras that move? Arledge.

The instant replay? Arledge.

Iso cams? Arledge.

Slow motion? Arledge again.

Monday Night Football? The dude created it.

The only staple of modern sports coverage Arledge didn’t invent, and the one that’s become the most essential part of my nightly sports viewing? The mute button.

I get that the Leafs aren’t a particularly good hockey team. I watch them struggle night in, night out. I can read the standings, a box score, and you don’t need to go into the agate type to do a quick calculation of their goal differential (I’ll save you the time: it’s not good).

I also know that there are huge swaths of this country that takes great delight in the Leafs struggles, a feeling normally described as Schadenfreude but often seems more akin to pulling the wings off a fly.

But Saturday night’s Leafs Habs game may have hit new lows in terms of tone and content. Garry Galley and Glenn Healy combined for a rare daily double of snark and stupidity.

Healy was a career back-up goalie who put up a .887 save percentage. He received a Stanley Cup ring for opening the bench door on the 1994 New York Rangers, which is the equivalent of claiming part of a Pulitzer for working on the copy desk. The main exception to that analogy being, the kid working the copy desk likely wouldn’t run his mouth as much about his role in the big win.

I recall Garry Galley being a marginal player on a lot of teams (Boston and Philly in the mid to late 80s). I had no idea he was a broadcaster and I wish it were still so. I’m not sure what team he normally covers but I hope he returns to them as soon as possible.

This isn’t a complaint because the Leafs lost. The Habs were hands-down the better club and were full marks for the win. They deserved the two points and they seized them.

I also - as anyone who has ever read this blog, listened to one of the PPP podcasts, or met me in person knows – have no problem with criticizing the Leafs. And, let’s face it, there is much to criticize.

What I do have a problem with is irrational or unfounded criticism and Saturday night’s broadcast was replete with it.

Two quick examples:

Countless times Galley and Healy spoke about Thomas Kaberle’s propensity to never shoot the puck. A quick look at NHL.com shows that Kaberle’s actually 31st in the league among defencemen in shots. In half an NHL season Kaberle has just 13 less shots than James Wisniewski who, according to Galley and Healy, is a revelation on Montreal’s defence.

Viewers were also told that Montreal hasn’t given Toronto “a sniff” this whole season. That’s absolutely true if you ignore that Toronto beat Montreal 3-2 on October 7 and 3-1 on December 11th and the season series is actually 2-2-0.

On and on it went, the snark coming so thick from Healy it was as if he’d ingested an entire strata of comments from TSN or HFBoards and the toxins and stupidity were desperately trying to purge themselves from his body.

The mute button is an adequate response for dealing with Nick Kypreos’ history of head injuries, Doug Maclean’s rampant managerial incompetence, Healy’s chronic unfunny snark and the regularly scheduled rantings of Pierre Maguire. The downside is, I don’t get to actually hear the game and its wonderful sounds.

The crowd at the Bell Centre has to be the best in hockey. They are passionate, engaged, and they clearly “get” the game. That’s what I want to hear when I watch hockey and that’s what the game lacks when I have to keep hitting mute.

I’ve often said that I would be willing to pay extra for the CBC or TSN, or Sportsnet (Home of the StupidTM) to offer a digital package with game only sounds. I would have paid a pretty premium last night.

In a country full of journalism schools and a passion for hockey it’s shocking how few “outsiders” make it on air. Many of the sideline guys and panelists are outstanding, but when it comes to colour guys, the metric for competence seems to start and end at former player.

The Leafs, love them or hate them, draw the largest ratings in the country. They play in the most populous centre among the largest corporations in the land. They are a terrible hockey team that, oddly, is much beloved. National broadcasters, you would think, might want to court this massive fan base. Maybe finding one or two on-air personalities that aren’t so openly hostile, or ill-informed, would be a good start.

Might be the sort of thing an innovator like Roone Arledge would do.




**addendum**

Glenn Healy added this gem to the Saturday night broadcast: "I played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and you don’t get shutout on Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada.”

That's a great insight from Healy, especially in light of his performance with the Leafs against the New York Islanders on Saturday, October 4, 1997.

Yeah, it was a 3-0 shutout loss for the Leafs with Healy between the pipes.


15 comments:

  1. Primitive9:57 a.m.

    I was pretty irritated by the end of the 2nd. I made the exact same comment about Kaberle and shooting. A nice coffee and reading this was a great way to start my Sunday. I feel better now, Thanks.

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  2. Anonymous10:14 a.m.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly with one exception. I believe Craig Simpson to be one of the best color men in hockey. He is very intelligent, insightful and objective.

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  3. Nice piece, but I think you identify the problem in your last paragraph: Since the Leafs are already such a huge ratings draw, and since Toronto fans have shown they'll put up with anything, why field anything other than a sub-par product, on or off the ice?

    Of course, we're also talking about the same corporation that replaced Barbara Budd with the lamentable Jeff Douglas, so it's not like HNIC is the only CBC institution that has a problem with terrible hosts these days.

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  4. lordosis11:15 a.m.

    I was at the game yesterday, as I go to all Leafs games when they are in Montreal, and the crowd there is always incredible. About a third are Leafs fans, and the banter back and forth between the two demographics is great.

    The best part about the rocking Bell Centre? You can close your eyes and still know what's going on by the crowd reactions. Definitely not the same as the ACC.

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  5. Anonymous12:00 p.m.

    Excellent post. Couldn't agree more. I'd expect Healy's level of smugness from Patrick Roy, and not a guy with a career record of 166-190-47. Of course, perhaps that's just it: Healy is an expert in incompetence due to his first hand experience.

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  6. Galley normally covers the Sens, so in addition to Bryan Murray's one-year rebuild, Ottawa fans have that to look forward to.

    One other thing that was driving me nuts was their periodic reference to the number of seconds during which Phil Kessel had the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, as if this metric could tell me anything at all, ever. Kessel "only" (no context offered, so no actual relative comparison was possible) had the puck on his stick in the Montreal zone for TWENTY SECONDS (blink blink blink, alarms sound) in the first period! Twenty seconds! That doesn't *sound* like much at all, does it? Phil Kessel must be the very epitome of fail, no?

    Keeping in mind that Kessel is a sniper who depends upon his quick release to score (or at least so it would seem to me, the non-terrible-former-NHL'er that I am), wouldn't it be rather unusual for him to have the puck on his stick for a lot of time? Isn't it kind of stupid to attempt to get a handle on his "effectiveness" in this way?

    Healey just seems bitter and angry ever since he fell victim to the Paul Kelly putsch over at the NHLPA.

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  7. The bit about toxins and stupidity purging themselves from Healy's body is the most poetic sports writing I've read since Fire Joe Morgan hung it up. Well done.

    I would kill for a game sounds only feed. Play-by-play is a leftover from the radio era, and adds nothing to the TV broadcast. Colour commentary, in theory, could be interesting, but I've yet to hear it happen. It would be wonderful to leave them out, but keep the spine-tingling cutting of skate blades on ice, and home crowds go from ear-damaging levels of cheering to absolute silence in a moment as a lead is surrendered. The environmental sounds at a hockey game are breathtaking. No need to bury them under idiocy.

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  8. Anonymous2:31 p.m.

    Color commentary is usually anecdotal, and therefore flows most naturally from former players. Also, since the ratings are always there, the network doesn't feel the need to appease the fans and can give our market the short end of the stick when it needs to spread itself thin.

    I'd love to hear what other actual broadcasters have to say about this topic. No disrespect, but you are incessantly snarky. It's far easier to critique the efforts of others than to put forth the effort yourself.

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  9. Glenn Healy is THE WORST.

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  10. Anonymous4:40 p.m.

    Healy sure made you feel bad for being a Leafs fan on Saturday's broadcast. It's one thing to tout or pull favourites for a team in your colour commentary. It's also another thing to continually ridicule and debase a team at the same time. Either way spells favouritism. Healy interrupting Bob Cole's play by play was also another horrid lack of his professionalism.

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  11. Hebsie991:30 a.m.

    I remember when the on air crew at RDS went on strike and they broadcast Hab's games without any on air commentary. It was neat for a while but I must say it did get a little boring. Although at the time it was a nice respite from having to constantly correct Bob Cole for getting every call wrong.

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  12. Anonymous 10:14am - I like that you used sarcasm without the need to use "/sarcasm".

    Anonymous 2:31pm - You think you'd get any insight from the same colour guys that don't offer any insight?

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  13. "since Toronto fans have shown they'll put up with anything, why field anything other than a sub-par product, on or off the ice?"

    Because when the largest group of fans decide the announcing is so bad they'll start muting their TVs they're obviously not going to unmute the commercials, not to mention the people who get frustrated at hearing how bad their team is and decide to watch something else.

    I'm not in charge of a TV network but I have to imagine I'd want most of my viewers to be happy, not annoyed.

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  14. Hockey is miles behind sports like baseball in the infiltration of "non-hockey" guys into levels of management, broadcasting and some such. There are no Theo Epstein/Brian Cashman/Alex Anthopoulos types running NHL teams. Could you imagine Don Cherry's reaction if a Canadian NHL franchise hired someone to run it that didn't have sufficiently bona fide hockey experience?

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  15. Anonymous8:29 p.m.

    Since the lockout, the CBC has greatly increased its Habs coverage. It just keeps increasing every year.

    I used to be one of those Habs fans who whined about the lack of attention our national broadcaster gave my team, so you'd think I would be happy to have finally got what I asked for.

    And yet what did the CBC give us?

    Mike Milbury. PJ Stock. Don Cherry. Sometimes Healey and Galley. Notice a common thread? An on-air team stacked with ex-Bruins (except Healy), almost always deeply critical of the Habs, if not downright hostile, and often just plain incompetent. And of course Bob Cole, who if he once was great, and even if he is a Habs fan as some say, has completely lost the ability to follow the play and call a good game. He can't even tell an icing from an offside from a penalty call anymore, for Pete's sake.

    In short, HNIC is a complete mess, and what you describe actually sounds a lot like a Habs fan's typical Sunday morning rant. Except when they've shut out the Leafs, I guess.

    So even though the CBC appears to have given me what I want, I now go out of my way to avoid HNIC. It's RDS all the way for me, baby. They deliver a pretty good play-by-play. The colour commentators (Benoit Brunet and Joel Bouchard) are not superb, but they do make an honest effort to analyze the game without trying to relate everything to anecdotes of their playing days. And those two are balanced by a lot of guys who are not former players.

    I feel for those who are stuck with HNIC for whatever reason -- no cable, can't speak French, whatever. It's just pathetic, and needs to be rebuilt from top to bottom. It's not just that they're hostile to the Leafs. It's that they're relying on a bunch of guys who are radical anti-homers in some twisted, stereotypically Canadian "fair play" kind of way. Bah.

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