VERSUS vs. NHL Network for Post-Game Supremacy, and the Huge Mistake That Made the Choice Much Easier

You and I, the American puckhead (Sorry, another exclusionary post, Canadian hockey fans) aren’t used to options (aren’t you glad this is exclusionary, Canuckle-heads?  You get all the fun!  I’ll stop writing in parenthesis now).  Up until last year, your only choice after the NBC coverage of a Stanley Cup Final game – the pinnacle of our sport – ended at 11:00 PM ET on the dot was NHL Network… if you get NHL Network.  If you don’t, you’d need to turn to NHL.com or some other source, maybe some passing Melrose-isms on ESPN or ESPNNews.  It was slim pickings, to the point where you got to be thrilled when VERSUS aired a post-game show after it’s broadcasts.

Well, this year is a bit different.  Not only has the NHL Network gotten better penetration for it’s typically hour-long post-game coverage, but VERSUS has jumped into the fray, starting its’ coverage the second NBC signs off from the game telecast, and lasting until about 11:40 PM ET.  It makes for some interesting contrasts and – since NHL Network’s coverage airs in a continuous cycle throughout the night – a chance to get up to two hours of post-game coverage of every Stanley Cup Final event. Nevermind which you think is better… this is fantastic overall for hockey fans.  If only NBC could throw up a post-game show on it’s digital channel, we’d get to NBA Finals level saturation.

So let’s judge them against each other anyway after the jump.

“Studio” Talent – The word studio is objective since NHL Network is on-site and VERSUS is going live from glamorous Stamford, Connecticut (VERSUS will be live and in color from the slightly more glam Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4).  Anyway, the usual VERSUS crew of Bill Patrick, Keith Jones and Brian Engblom gather for a more discussion based program that Hockey Central is.  The NHL Network has a somewhat makeshift team of Brian Duff, Kevin Weekes and Joe Micheletti, as they navigate around more press conference stuff, but talk plenty about the game themselves, as they have more time to fill.

Really, Weekes has come into his own as an analyst with the change in venue from a neutered studio or a booth during the series, in no small thanks to fact that goaltender has been one of the major storylines of the 2010 Final.  Weekes is insightful and, while never all too critical, manages to say what needs to be said about how the goalies are playing.  He’s finally some personality thrown in on the usual Garrison Keillor-level drabness of the typical NHL studio show, and that can sometimes make up for his lack of legitimate criticism.  Another positive from Weekes has been his interviews with players this week.  He doesn’t really try to be a reporter, just a curious guy with a chance to talk to some of the best athletes in the world.

That said, Micheletti can borderline blather at times, but he was kept mostly tolerable for On the Fly during the Final.  VERSUS, however, remains without a real voice to it.  Engblom and Jonesy have been better during this playoff season than usual, but it remains – again, sorry Mr. Keillor – nothing but yawns.  There’s also too much relying on the discussion during Hockey Central at the Final.  It’s as if VERSUS has decided that they’ll show selected clips, but they’re gonna be the ones to give in-depth analysis, and that just isn’t what they’re good at.  ADVANTAGE: NHL Network.

Reporters: VERSUS has their two A-list reporters, Bob Harwood and Charissa Thompson, in the locker rooms and in the tunnels of the United Center.  Harwood has always been underrated for his ability to provide his own brand of commentary along with asking intelligent questions of the players as well.  He should get a chance to host Hockey Central or NHL Live sometime in the future, I think he’d make a good host.  Thompson remains solid for what was admittedly not her primary sport at the start of the season.  I don’t think many people notice Chris Simpson’s absence.  Mostly because people don’t care all that much about sideline reporters.

Deb Placey is NHL Network’s primary reporter, with Dave Strader doing supplemental stuff.  Placey, who has been reporting/hosting Islanders telecasts for over a decade, is finally getting her shot doing some national work, as she’s both with NHL Network during the post-season and VERSUS, where she subbed for Patrick as Hockey Central host, and she’s also very good at what she does.  Still, I like the VERSUS duo’s contrasting personalities and their ability to provide better interviews.  ADVANTAGE: VERSUS.

Content: As mentioned before, VERSUS seems to be more about discussion while NHL Network leans a bit much on press conferences, but both networks do both things.  The difference between the two is what they choose to show of both.  While VERSUS did rely too much on talking heads, they showed more footage of Chris Pronger being a dick, which has been easily the most entertaining factor in the series.

NHL Network has chosen to completely ignore Pronger, whereas VERSUS got it’s hands on the intriguing, almost skin-crawling but always entertaining footage of him bitching about Ben Eager and threw it on the air while it was still hot. This reeked at times of in-house network being meddled with, though I’m sure that isn’t entirely the case.  In fact, since NHL Net got there on Thursday, there’s been little discussion of #20 in orange that didn’t include talk of his overhyped battle with Dustin Byfuglien.  That said, it was inexcusable for NHL Net to not discuss much of Pronger whatsoever.

In fact, here are some things we saw in the second half-hour of NHL Network’s post-game (where perhaps something goofier and more controversial belongs, since it is superficial in terms of the actual game) instead of a chat or footage or mention of Chris Pronger:

  • A second showing of the game’s highlights of the same NHL International feed they showed an hour ago (at least let us see NBC/CBC footage).
  • A press conference featuring Antii Niemi and Marian Hossa.
  • An interview with Philadelphia defenseman… Oskars Bartulis
  • A press conference with Peter Laviolette that had happened a while ago.
  • Discussion of the Hawks defensemen and blocking shots.
  • An interview with Philadelphia defenseman… Braydon Coburn
  • A segment called Ice Pix
  • Bridgestone Highlight of the Night
  • Discussion of how the Hawks depth is helping them win

Of all the things that stick out here… seriously, an interview with Oskars Bartulis?  Even as a hockey fan, you have to draw the line at what you do and don’t truly care about, and frankly, I do not care one bit what Oskars Bartulis has to say about this one.  In fact, John Cusack probably has a better perspective on what happened during Game 2.  NHL Network mentioned Chris Pronger’s name zero times in 60 minutes (with commercials) of post-game coverage, and the only time his name was brought up was when Ben Eager mentioned him commenting on picking up the puck at the end of the game.  This is fairly infuriating, and proof that the NHL Net isn’t quite in tune with what the fans really want to see from a post-game show.

Moving on, VERSUS and NHL Network both use talent that worked the game.  VERSUS has NBC commentators (and the men that will be calling Games 3 & 4 for the network) Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, while NHL Network uses Dave Strader and Joe Micheletti, who are calling the game on the international feed, which airs in many other countries (though I’ve heard that some nations aren’t getting that feed).  The commentary Emrick and Olczyk provide is the talent highlight of the show, whereas Micheletti is glaringly bland, and manages to be one of the only NHL broadcasters that makes my father angry at the mere sight of him.  He literally asked me during the Game #1 pre-game as to why Micheletti was even working the series.

ANYWAY,  NHL Network does do more colorful shots of the entertainment around the arena, but that is mostly superfluous.  ADVANTAGE: VERSUS

Timeslot: NHL Network has been holding to a hard 11PM, whereas VERSUS is on the air the second NBC is off the air.  However, NHL Network goes a full hour, whereas VERSUS cuts to the utterly forgettable as-of-late “The Daily Line”.  Also, the VERSUS show never reruns, whereas you get at least 12 hours of repeats of the same On the Fly.  ADVANTAGE: NHL Network.

Overall: The one thing that NHL Network does that the more traditional fan was likely enjoying was a more-or-less straightforward presentation of the post-game atmosphere without injecting too much of a narrative throughout.  This is where VERSUS differs and succeeds.  They chose to inject a dose of Chris Pronger, to discuss the controversy, to create the storylines, and to set up their own coverage for Games 3 & 4.  NHL Network seems almost worried that the show will become dated at some point.

That said, I don’t want to come off as too critical of either.  They are both providing an incredible service to American hockey fans.  It was just heavenly to have nearly two hours of post-game hockey coverage to watch on my DVR last night.  I hope this is only a sign of future increased coverage around the Stanley Cup Final.  The market clearly isn’t saturated yet, so let’s hope for more.  Hey, NHL Network, how about a wrap-up of the Final from your studio, akin to your off-day coverage.  There’s no problem with an additional perspective of the Final.

But in the end, the ignorance of Pronger’s comments shows that NHL Network isn’t concerned enough with the non-technical, non-x’s and o’s storylines involved in this series, and that’s something that is absolutely essential to covering a seven-game championship series.  You just have to develop stories, heroes and villains, etc.  Meanwhile, VERSUS has done enough to have it both ways to make them the early winner as far as post-game hockey analysis goes.  ADVANTAGE: VERSUS.

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About stevelepore
Steve Lepore is the Managing Editor of Puck the Media. His work has been featured in The Hockey News. Feel free to contact him at stevemlepore@gmail.com

3 Responses to VERSUS vs. NHL Network for Post-Game Supremacy, and the Huge Mistake That Made the Choice Much Easier

  1. Ian Kidd says:

    Well said, Steve. NHL Network’s coverage is boring and gives the viewer no sense of what the key stories are.

  2. Andrew says:

    We’re international, but we’re getting NBC. I guess that’s a good thing…when the sound doesn’t freak out on us!

  3. Xavier says:

    Steve…hey NHL Network wasted air time last night talking about Pronger’s stupid little games and even showed Laviolette mocking all the journalists because of their obsession with this. You guys must be satisfied now?

    Ian…tell me what key stories NHL Network ignored. Please don’t tell me the whole Pronger thing is one of them because then I’ll know I just wasted my team asking the question.

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