By Jason Menard
Just because it’s on the Outdoor Life Network doesn’t mean that the NHL has been put out to pasture. In fact, the NHL can finally revel in the fact that it’s been put on a pedestal and will get the respect that the game deserves.
Getting away from ESPN’s hipper-than-thou style of bluster and bombast can only help put the focus back on the ice, where it needs to be. Instead of focusing on ESPN’s fast-talking, cliché-ridden, telecasts, they’ve moved to a channel that is content in letting the story develop on its own, without all the bells and whistles.
What ESPN – and, unfortunately, its Canadian subsidiary TSN has been moving the same way – sells is watered-down, forced cool to its target demographic of yearning-to-be-hip teenagers and early 20-year-olds. Every highlight recap is rife with attempts at edgy witticisms, strained pop culture references, and puerile puns. Each broadcast is more about selling the sizzle while ignoring the steak.
However, the very nature of the Outdoor Life Network’s programming means that its viewership is accustomed to savouring the meat of the broadcast. After all, this is a channel that features fishing as a significant aspect of its daily programming. With all apologies to all the anglers out there, there’s nothing sexy about fishing. The channel’s viewers appreciate the programming for its own, and instead of being blinded by the pomp and circumstance that ESPN/TSN’s viewers are enamoured of, they’re more tolerant of letting the game speak for itself.
And really, that’s what we love about hockey. It’s a game best served stripped of all the extras that ESPN revels in. It’s as simple as black and white – puck and ice. That’s what’s made the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada so successful. There is a reverence for the game that comes across with every broadcast as they’ve chosen to focus on the game, not the extras. It’s a concept that the American networks have ignored in the past.
Watch an American football game and it’s hard to see the on-field action for all the crawls, scoreboards, and animations that crowd the screen. But at least the stop-start action of the NFL lends itself to this deluge of information. The fluidity and grace of hockey at its finest needs to be appreciated in its entirety – the simplicity of a black puck on white ice gets overwhelmed by encroaching statistics, graphics, and overlays.
While laudable in its attempts to bring hockey to the masses, Fox swung and missed in its attempt to aid the viewing public. Whether it was the distracting fuzzy blue dot that made it look like our game’s finest were stickhandling a beach ball or the digitally created vapour trail added to every shot and pass, the additions served to distract viewers from the actual game action. Instead of appreciating the game’s speed, grace, and beauty, they were drawn to non-integral artificial additions.
Even watching a game on American TV just doesn’t feel right. The camera angles are too wide or too close. They lack the intuitive feel that the CBC has mastered with its generations of broadcasting history. Most importantly, they lack the reverence and respect for the game that comes through on each and every Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.
So, instead of being an afterthought on ESPN, buried behind other sports that are more ingrained in the U.S. viewers’ psyches – an afterthought on the broadcast schedule, the NHL now becomes the marquee property for a cable channel backed by the financial clout of Comcast.
Instead of being shuffled around the schedule, fit in where time permits, and generally ignored in promotions, the NHL now benefits from a consistency of broadcast – 58 games exclusively shown on the network on Monday and Tuesday nights. Even the additional features have been designed to get people closer to the game – miked players, net cams, and more access to players and coaches both on and off the ice.
Welcome to the Outdoor Life Network NHL. While some Canadians may mock the league as it takes a place alongside bull riding, the Tour de France, and professional yachting, the fact of the matter is that hockey will move to the front of the pack on OLN. Much as Hockey Night in Canada is the CBC’s flagship show, so too will hockey become the dominant property of the Outdoor Life Network.
For American viewers, that means they’ll finally get to see the game treated with the respect it deserves. And maybe now they’ll see why our little game of shinny played on a frozen pond fans the flames of our passion north of the border.
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