The gloves are off as TSN out-hits its hockey rivals with tough, gritty journalism. Keep your head up, Don Cherry
As executive producer of Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC), Ralph Mellanby committed what he considered his first act of journalism just by rewinding some tape. The sponsors, Molson and Imperial Oil, insisted the program not replay fights. Show them live, show the cheap shots that instigated them, but don’t show the fights again.
The rule lasted until April 4, 1968. That day, James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King; that evening, Liberals elected Pierre Trudeau party leader and prime minister. And that night, eight minutes into a playoff matchup between the Canadiens and the Bruins, Montreal’s John Ferguson and Boston’s Ted Green dropped the gloves. (Ferguson won.) But CBC didn’t show it, opting for news instead. Sensing the fight would set the tone for the rest of the series, though, Mellanby replayed it when HNIC finally went to air.
Fans were livid—because they’d missed the first period, that is. The outrage was so great that even CFTO, aCTV affiliate, fielded 150 calls from viewers who couldn’t reach the CBC switchboard. On a day that dramatically changed the political and social landscape of North America, Canadians just wanted to watch hockey.
While Mellanby’s defiance might have been brave, it’s a low benchmark for journalistic excellence. And despite the show’s periodic proclamations of a renewed focus on journalism, the old standard remains. On January 16, HNIC host Ron MacLean interviewed the NHL’s director of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, about the league’s latest scandal: Alexandre Burrows had accused referee Stephane Auger of having a vendetta against him after the Vancouver Canucks winger allegedly exaggerated the effects of a hit from Nashville Predator Jerred Smithson in a December 2009 game. When Auger officiated the Vancouver-Nashville rematch a month later, he gave Burrows a pre-game warning about embarrassing him, then handed the player three dubious penalties. The Canucks cried conspiracy.
Calling Campbell “Collie,” MacLean mocked Burrows while showing a clip of the hit: “We all thought he was dead.” The host broke down the footage of the player surreptitiously scoping out the refs and dragging out his recovery time—a tactic MacLean, a retired amateur referee, claimed was indicative of someone trying to draw a larger penalty. He then ran a series of clips of Burrows skirting the rules and getting away with dirty plays in the past. “Your sins will sort you out,” he pronounced. “Burrows has clearly made his bed.”
His unconcealed contempt aside, MacLean made a compelling case. But what could have been a measured takedown of both a dodgy player and a biased ref—a far worse problem for a sports league—degenerated into an ad hominem attack. MacLean didn’t give Burrows a chance to defend himself and later scoffed at the notion of a ref with an agenda, limiting his criticisms of the league to its ineffectual handling of habitual trouble-makers. Among his colleagues, MacLean (who did not return requests seeking comment) has a reputation as a guy who doesn’t pull punches. But that night, up against an NHL official, he seemed content to carry water.
Canada’s hockey broadcasts—HNIC, Rogers Sportsnet’s Hockeycentral and NHL on TSN—rely on business partnerships with the league. As reported by William Houston, then a sports media reporter for The Globe and Mail and now editor of truthandrumours.net, CTVglobemedia pays $35 to $40 million annually to air about 70 games and several playoff rounds on TSN, while CBC forks over $100 million per season for its marquee games on Saturday night and exclusive rights to the Stanley Cup final. Critics say these deals present a conflict of interest and undermine the networks’ motivations to do investigative journalism that could sully the reputation of the league—and their shows. “Anyone looking to a hockey broadcast for journalism,” says Toronto Star sports media columnist Chris Zelkovich, “is looking in the wrong place.”
But TSN, which launched in 1984, tries to tailor its coverage to the hardcore fan with strong and unsentimental reporting and analysis. In August 2009, Darren Dreger was following the upheaval in the NHLPlayers’ Association (NHLPA). On Friday, August 28, he predicted on-air that executive director Paul Kelly’s future was in peril. Leadership has long been controversial in the NHLPA. Founding executive director Alan Eagleson served time for fraud, and players accused Kelly’s predecessor, Ted Saskin, of spying on their e-mails. Given this history, senior producer Ken Volden granted Dreger’s request to cover the union’s meetings in Chicago. Two days later, he was the lone journalist at the Drake Hotel when the executive board fired Kelly at 3:30 a.m. Dreger won’t make assumptions about why no other network covered the meetings, but says, “I can assure you, if most had a do-over, they would do it differently.”
Faced with the challenge of covering a game so deeply rooted in the Canadian identity—combined with overbearing sponsors and a league that can be thin-skinned and arrogant—it’s easy to opt for deference and to let uncomfortable stories slide. But NHL on TSN suggests televised hockey-talk can still be principled, trustworthy and undeterred by the inertia of tradition.
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For CBC, the game’s steadfast protector, hockey is ritual. Nostalgia-heavy broadcasts are an effective draw, though: HNIC regularly places in the top 20 in Canada’s BBM Nielsen ratings. Not that the show has no journalistic spine: Scott Morrison, a one-time Toronto Sun sports editor and Sportsnet’s former managing editor of hockey, co-hosts the “iDesk” segment with Jeff Marek, while Pierre LeBrun, a respected writer for espn.com, often appears on “The Hotstove” panel discussion. And Elliotte Friedman roams the sidelines conducting interviews and contributing features to the pre-game show Inside Hockey. Still, Friedman acknowledges the duality of his role. “It can’t be hard-core journalism all the time,” he says. “I still take it pretty seriously, but I realize part of making a broadcast successful is making it entertaining.”
That’s why “The Hotstove” also features loudmouth Mike Milbury, a former player, coach and general manager whose role is to react to LeBrun and the other panelists with contrarian bombast. That’s also why “Coach’s Corner”—a platform for Don Cherry to praise the troops, junior hockey and tough guys, and to heap scorn on those who dodge fights, wear visors or are European—remains the show’s spiritual centrepiece.
Although the talking heads may occasionally hold the league accountable, there’s a difference between debate about the news and the reporting that breaks it. Coordinating producer Brian Spear calls HNIC a “family show,” noting many Canadians watch one game a week—his. As TSN’s vice-president of production, Mark Milliere says, “Your grandmother’s watching it while she’s making soup on Saturday nights.” Even Mellanby’s wife “won’t watch the game, but she’ll watch Don Cherry.” Hockey fans may tune in to HNIC for the hockey, but the average Canadian watches out of habit.
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Sportsnet’s role in the mosaic is less defined. Since its launch in 1998, the network’s personality has vacillated as its personnel has turned over. When Morrison arrived in 2001, he wanted to build a journalistically sound hockey department, with a staff that included Darren Dreger as Hockeycentral host. But that philosophy changed in 2006 when Sportsnet decided to go after what Morrison calls “the elusive 18-to-whatever audience,” discarding the standards he felt his team had successfully established.
Morrison and Dreger left, but Nick Kypreos stayed. Last fall, the former NHL tough guy scored an exclusive sit-down with Mike Danton, who’d just served five years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder. Most people believed his agent, David Frost, was the target when he’d tried to hire a hitman. (Frost’s long relationship with the player struck most people as harmful and exploitive.) But now, out of prison, Danton claimed he actually wanted to kill his allegedly abusive father, Steve Jefferson. The November interview was a huge get—a high-profile, national event for a network that specializes in regional broadcasts.
When Danton claimed he’d wanted his father dead, Kypreos ignored the substantial evidence to the contrary. “Rogue Agent,” one of Bob McKeown’s three documentaries on the story for CBC’s the fifth estate, featured multiple phone calls in which Danton tried to hire two different men—including a dispatcher for the local St. Louis police—to “take care of” Frost. Officers later arrested the player at San Jose International Airport. While awaiting indictment in a California jail, he crawled back to Frost. Later in the documentary, McKeown played a call in which the nervous agent advised the player on the coming legal proceedings, instructing him to blame his parents. Frost then asked if he still had to worry about his own safety.
Now walking free, Danton told a wildly different story. But Kypreos didn’t challenge this alternate history—he legitimized it. Over the hour, Danton spoke at length, explaining his bad behaviour, downplaying his relationship with Frost and offering appropriate contrition. By the time Kypreos asked what “prison was like for a guy that knows nothing but hockey,” it was obvious this wasn’t a fifth estate-style exposé. This was the first stop of the Mike Danton Soft-Focus Redemption Tour, sponsored by Sportsnet, with your host, Nick Kypreos.
Although the show drew an impressive 189,000 viewers, the reviews were predominantly negative. Globesports media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin said Kypreos seemed “unwilling to judge his subject” and that this approach “postpones the inevitable date with reality.” Friedman, who’s careful not to denounce his friend, admits there were elements of the interview he didn’t believe and wondered how thoroughly his colleague had prepared. Houston was blunt: The reluctance to push Danton to answer any tough questions “made the exercise a failure.”
In a statement on sportsnet.ca, Kypreos admitted he could have been more thorough and tenacious, but didn’t want to risk “Danton getting up and leaving with so many storylines still untold.” Considering the Rogers stable also boasts veteran reporter Mike Brophy and radio host Bob McCown, revered by one peer as the “greatest shit-disturber in Canadian sports media,” Kypreos’s botched effort was just another squandered opportunity for the network.
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Steve Dryden, TSN’s managing editor of hockey, gets a little sheepish when he talks about his binders.
His office in the CTV complex in suburban Toronto is unremarkable, except for a signed photo of Bobby Orr and Eric Lindros on the ice together. The bookshelf to his left is stocked with hockey reference materials, scouting reports and record books dating from the 1970s; below those are colour-coded binders. Smirking, Dryden explains the red binders contain handwritten box scores for every NHL game since the early 2000s, while the others are packed with pertinent stats—blocked shots, breakaways, fights and turnovers, all of which he diligently compiles. The former editor-in-chief of The Hockey News has been doing this since he covered the OHL’s Cornwall Royals for the Cornwall Standard Freeholder in the 1980s. The records help him keep track of trends and storylines, and serve as a physical memory bank when he sends producers into the archives to put together clip packages. He considers it an “old school” approach rather than an obsessive one—a throwback to a newspaper sensibility.
On Dryden’s desk is a replica of a crude early-model goalie mask. It’s there for a segment on Jacques Plante, the first goalie to regularly wear one 50 years ago. TSN commemorated the milestone with a piece that explored the birth of the mask from the perspective of Andy Bathgate, whose shot was the last to hit Plante before the goalie insisted on wearing his mask in games. NHL on TSN host James Duthie introduced the segment with an under-reported side of the story: the shot, Bathgate admitted on air, was intentional. A few games earlier, the Canadiens’ goalie delivered a dangerous poke-check that sent the New York Ranger headfirst into the boards. When Bathgate got the chance to retaliate with a wrist shot into the netminder’s cheek, he took it. Rather than rehash the oft-told Plante story with the pablum of the goalie mask’s evolution, Duthie found a lesser-known, more substantial angle.
The studio component of NHL on TSN supports the program’s role as what Milliere calls “the show of record” for hockey in Canada. The team includes Bob McKenzie, another editor emeritus of The Hockey News, and Dreger, the show’s “insiders.” Even Duthie is a journalism school graduate who started in news. Though they too admit entertainment is a large part of the job—“You’d be naive to say it’s not the number one goal,” Duthie says—they keep the analytical elements accessible and dignified, complemented by daily reporting. The result is an editorial mix that blends the breaking news of trades, transactions and injuries with reflections on issues facing the league and the occasional investigative report.
On October 29, 2009, the broadcast day begins when the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning arrive at the St. Pete Times Forum for their morning skate. The play-by-play announcers, colour commentators and producers speak with players and coaches. They’ll develop five to 10 stories (including who’s injured, who’s playing well and who’s changing lines) that will be further refined as the broadcast approaches. “It’s preparation meets opportunity,” says Milliere. “Every match-up is a play in three acts, and every night there’s a story to be told.”
But these stories can often seem like fictions. He offers the hypothetical example of an early season game when Maple Leaf goalies Vesa Toskala and Jonas Gustavsson were in competition for the starting job. The show’s opening teases the rivalry with footage of each man at practice. When Gustavsson makes a spectacular save during the game, a camera cuts to Toskala on the bench, lingering long enough on his blank expression to cast doubt on whether he’s happy for his teammate or upset his job is on the line. With a cut to Toronto coach Ron Wilson looking pleased, the dramatic elements of the story, real or not, begin to emerge.
This is storytelling, absolutely—an important component of journalism, and more entertaining than, say, a dry recitation of statistics—but given the banality of the typical athlete interview, there’s little reason to believe the truth is nearly as exciting as this series of jump-cuts makes it seem.
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Both TSN and CBC deny their sponsors or the league carry any editorial weight. “Push-back is not common,” Dryden says. “They understand that that’s the job. We’re constantly raising issues, big or small.” He notes that TSN found instances of goals scored after the puck bounced off the protective netting above the boards. Officials had been missing it, counting goals when the play should have been called dead, and NHL on TSNaired the evidence. “The NHL didn’t want us shining a light on that,” he says.
But the league has bigger problems. Head injuries have been impossible to ignore since Don Sanderson, a 21-year-old minor league hockey player, fell into a coma and died after hitting his head on the ice during a December 12, 2008 fight. Through the end of last October, the NHL claimed only 10 players had suffered concussions in exhibition games and the first month of the season. But TSN conducted its own survey of all 30 teams and found that 26 players had missed games with concussions or related symptoms. “I don’t know what their threshold is,” Dryden says of the league’s head injury policy. “Apparently, it’s bigger than ours.”
Still, autonomy from the powers that be isn’t always a given. McKeown says that during production of one of his Danton docs, he asked CBC Sports for footage, but his timing was lousy; CBC was negotiating rights with the NHL and there was rampant speculation that the network might lose its broadcasting rights altogether.CBC Sports denied him access to any Danton footage and he ended up using clips from a Fox Sports affiliate in Missouri. Joel Darling, then the executive producer of HNIC, says he doesn’t remember the incident, but points out, “There are rights issues everybody has to deal with.”
McKeown’s not bitter—he happily acknowledges the value of HNIC—and maybe he should have expectedCBC to be risk-averse. Dave Hodge, now an NHL on TSN commentator, was similarly stymied. He preceded MacLean as HNIC host and, after Philadelphia Flyers goalie Pelle Lindbergh died in a 1985 alcohol-related accident, wanted to do a feature on drunk driving. He worried it was too common around the league, and hoped to include HNIC’s sponsor, Molson, in the segment. CBC killed the feature without explanation. Hodge won’t speculate about what happened—he just chuckles and says he no longer pays any attention to sponsors.
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Because they must live in what McKenzie calls a “state of perpetual awareness,” he and other hockey reporters don’t have a formal preparation period. “You don’t cram before going on television,” he says, en route to shoot a segment for TSN’s Off the Record as a last-minute fill-in.
The game day routine is similar for everyone at NHL on TSN: Read sports on the internet for a few hours, have a conference call with Dryden at 10 a.m., maybe do a radio appearance, then call up sources or catch up on game footage before a 5 or 5:30 p.m. meeting in Dryden’s office, where all the stories and segments go up on the white board. At the October 29 meeting, Duthie’s BlackBerry buzzes. He reads the message aloud. “Did you see this? Cogliano dressed up as Dany Heatley for the Oilers’ Halloween party.”
Everyone in the room laughs. Over the summer, rumours suggested Heatley, then with the Ottawa Senators, would be traded to Edmonton, against his wishes, for Andrew Cogliano and two other players. Dryden adds “Cogliano” to the board and moves on, but Duthie occasionally pipes up with more information until there’s a complete picture: “All Ottawa gear—bag, hat, gloves, visor, no teeth.”
The updates came from Cogliano. “I have relationships with a couple hundred players,” Duthie says, “but I tell them it doesn’t mean I’m going to coddle them. If there’s something to criticize about them, I will.” Still, he admits there are secrets he keeps—secrets that would surely be stories. “But that’s how you foster a relationship with someone to gain trust. Sometimes you don’t repeat what you know. That’s just all part of the process.”
For McKeown, this can both help and hinder coverage of sports—or Parliament Hill. “You get to know the individuals on a personal basis,” he says, “and it takes you away from the arm’s-length objectivity journalism is supposed to have.” Paul Romanuk, a former tsn play-by-play announcer, is more direct: “Journalism is what a newspaper writer does, perhaps a reporter at a TV station, but not a live sports broadcast. Anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding himself.” He qualifies that statement a moment later: “I’m not saying broadcasters aren’t critical of the product, but never confuse it with hardcore journalism, because it simply is not.”
An example of a story he doesn’t believe a rights-holder would break is the 1986 Sports Illustrated feature that exposed the wild partying of the Edmonton Oilers—to Romanuk, a piece of “real” journalism.
When McKenzie was editor at The Hockey News, though, that paper picked up on the story. Even today, he insists he and his colleagues wouldn’t hesitate to break it. He knows NHL on TSN isn’t all hard news, “but is a newspaper all hard news?” he asks. “No, it’s not. And yet, people might not ask whether a newspaper is journalism—they’d just say, ‘Of course it is.’ The vehicle doesn’t really matter.”
But this is Canada—hockey does matter, and the networks that broadcast the NHL have a choice: commit to journalism or bask in the game’s glory. For Friedman, Morrison and others who work on HNIC, being part of the program is an honour. The show, however, is an institution often interchangeable with hockey itself in the annals of Canadiana. The journalistic pedigrees of its staff are legitimate, but the broadcast is the sport’s standard-bearer.
NHL on TSN isn’t hamstrung by history, and without a rigid format, it can make room for stories others might miss. Critics may dismiss the job as easy—this is just sports, after all. The reporters work hard, sure, and there are stories worth chasing, but the stakes are undeniably lower than covering politics or finance. That’s not lost on the TSN crew. “The guys always show up at the same time at the arena,” jokes Duthie. “They skate around for an hour and you ask them dumb questions afterwards.” Some reporters more effectively than others.