The Best and Worst of Hockey Media in 2010
December 29, 2010 2 Comments
It has been quite the interesting year for hockey fans across North America. I don’t know how Canadians view it (probably differently), but to me, the fun and sheer glee that came from the Olympics seems like it happened in a different year, a different era. But we all have shorter attention spans now, and it was only 10 months ago. I miss it. Let’s find a way to bring the World Cup back so we can have some of that non-stop, all day hockey again?
Anyway, this year saw a ton of craziness beyond the Olympics, from another record-breaking Stanley Cup Playoff on VERSUS, to the Kovalchuk madness, to whatever Don Cherry was wearing and saying, to the continued worry and banter over where the NHL’s next television deal will take it. It was loaded with a lot of great and not-so-great moments. Enough of that, however, let’s hand out some fairly meaningless awards after the jump!
Play-by-play man of the Year: Chris Cuthbert, TSN. It doesn’t hurt that he’s likely the best hockey play-by-play man alive, but it could be seen that this award is mere circumstance. He called the biggest moment for Canadian hockey in a generation, perhaps in it’s long and storied history, with Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner giving Canada the gold medal on home ice. It was the moment of his career, and he did it absolute justice. It was just desserts for a man who’s been unfairly denied some of the big hockey moments for many years.
Cuthbert’s smooth, excitable cadences put him in a league of only a few that can make bad hockey watchable, and elevate great hockey to almost transcendence. That Canada won and therefore gave Cuthbert a defining moment is just a perfect capper to a wonderful Olympics. Still, the award would feel a little off if he weren’t always 100% in his day job.
Color Analyst of the Year: Billy Jaffe, VERSUS/NHL Network. This one might surprise a few, but no one has done more with less this year than the former Islanders color man, who was unceremoniously dumped by the team after his former network (MSG) had set up a new contract. The Islanders felt he was too critical. In reality, though, being “critical” is just a case of “viewing things realistically.” Jaffe may have been critical, but he was one of the best ambassadors a dying organization with ever-changing faces had.
Luckily, Jaffe has taken the same energy he brought the Islanders and used it to spread the hockey Gospel across America for VERSUS (where he’s both a game analyst and the main man on NHL Overtime), NHL Network (for On the Fly and NHL Live) as well as some college work, calling the Big Chill in front of 113,000 at the University of Michigan.
He’s another guy who brings boundless energy and, key for an analyst, a willingness to break things down at both the micro and macro levels. Any of VERSUS’ studio guys can run the 360-degree monitor that the network uses, but Jaffe adapted to it best, and often looks like a college professor whose combined the 101 course with an advanced class. American hockey fans could do much worse than continue to learn from Billy Jaffe, as he’s risen to the status of being the best hockey analyst on any American network.
Studio Host of the Year: Ron MacLean, CBC
For a man who likely has his job for life and will maintain the respect of millions of hockey fans for as long as he continues to do his gig, Ron MacLean sure likes to stir the pot. From the Alex Burrows controversy, to his heated confrontations with Colin Campbell and Brian Burke, no studio host has made himself more visible this year. We can’t imagine another one doing so. That’s because MacLean remains a class journalist who isn’t afraid of the truth. As cheesy as it sounds, that something that doesn’t always come easy in the world of the NHL.
He also remains absolutely essential as the perfect sparring mate for Don Cherry. Could you see Bill Patrick doing this? Or even James Duthie? No one is their element amongst the chaos like MacLean, who always keeps his cool and keeps things moving, which is probably the ultimate compliment for a man who basically helms the madness that is Hockey Night in Canada.
Studio Analyst of the Year: Mike Milbury, NBC/CBC/VERSUS. Yes, yes, yes, he was controversial. He’s been called every name in the book by every pundit on the internet, and yet one name you never call him is “boring.” No analyst made for more discussion between hockey fans this season. He remains a straight-shooter, and while he may be a bit of a bully, he has toned down some of the more unappealing aspects of his personality this year. However, I’d personally welcome a return to the more ornery Milbury if it means he’d bully the awful Eric Francis off of Satellite Hotstove the way he did to Al Strachan.
Personality to Watch For in 2011: Jeremy Roenick, NBC.
We still haven’t seen enough of good ol’ JR to figure out what he’s going to be as an analyst, and I fear we may not see enough of him this year either. While he was a great studio man during the Olympics, NBC either doesn’t want to or hasn’t found a way to make him a permanent presence on the Game of the Week. Hopefully, an NBC contract renewal will allow for a bigger budget to use him more often, because he’s really solid from what we’ve seen. Just, you know, keep the tissues handy.
Play-by-play Call of the Year: Ryan Kesler’s Empty Net Goal, Team USA vs. Canada. Play-by-play: Mike Emrick, NBC
Mike Emrick remains my favorite play-by-play man in network television sports, largely because of the child-like emotion he combines with scholarly preparation for each and every regional and national telecast he does. His call of Ryan Kesler’s empty net goal, on a fantastic effort that helped redefine the public image (at least among hockey diehards) of the Vancouver center remains easily the most memorable of a ridiculous, exciting, well-called tournament.
Play-by-play Blunder of the Year: Anyone who called Patrick Kane’s Overtime Winner for the Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Play-by-play: Jim Hughson, CBC; Mike Emrick, NBC; Dave Strader, NHL International.
Look, this was a hard one to get right, we’ll admit. But for all three men who called it – three of the best play-by-players in the sport, to boot – to get it wrong and sound confused and out of their element is really quite remarkable. I give them all credit, as none of them sounded a complete trainwreck (Hughson likely handled it the best), but it remains a fascinating study if you find a way to watch all three (I wasn’t able to find Strader’s version before the article was posted) to see just how weird the play that brought the Stanley Cup back to the Second City was.
Best Positive Story on Puck the Media in 2010: The interview with Bill Daly came out of nowhere and is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I sort of tripped and fell into the opportunity through just doing some catch-up reading on another story, shot the man an e-mail, and a day later, I was speaking to the second most powerful man at the NHL offices in New York. I’ve gotta say, while his voice may have the gravitas, his personality doesn’t hint at him being any more than a regular guy who loves the game.
Worst Negative Story on Puck the Media in 2010: Mike Milbury’s Eurotrash comments at the Olympics. One of the most, if not the most commented upon story in the two years I’ve been running this site, and possibly the most commented thing I’ve ever done. Again, like much of the Olympics it now seems like a distant memory, but it certainly showed some ugly tendencies from a lot of people. I’m quite surprised he didn’t get reprimanded, but he remains opinionated and the man almost every hockey network goes to for analysis.
Most Improved Network: VERSUS. Games 3-4 nights a week? Check. An hour-long NHL studio show that appears to be increasing in personnel budget by the week? Check. Continued solid production values on the broadcasts themselves? Check. An entertaining intermission show? … Well, can’t win ’em all. The fact is, though, that VERSUS continues to make incredible strides in hockey coverage, to the point where I’d bet a lot of the same hockey fans who once trashed the network are hoping they keep the rights to hockey after this season.
Network We’d Still Like to See Get Better: NHL Network. There has been an effort made to sort of right the ship with that at times rudderless league-sponsored channel, which does keep growing in subscribers. There are more games, On the Fly is in HD, and the World Junior Championship coverage is a must, and makes NHL Net a destination channel for hockey fans every December. Still, beyond that and their great supplemental coverage of big events, I don’t really see there being a lot of must-see programming.
The network remains a non-entity in the summer, and while efforts have been made to make On the Fly a bit better, they haven’t made me take notice, beyond the always lovable Kevin Weekes. The fact is, VERSUS launched a hockey show six weeks ago, and it already has better production values and has at least the same, strained chemistry that On the Fly does. That is saying something. The NHL Network is something the league must look into improving over the next 12 months.
Hockey Show of the Year: CBC’s Scotiabank Hockey Tonight. One thing I hope NHL Network never stops is simulcasting the first half of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader, which includes this 30-minute pregame show, hosted by Ron MacLean. All the insider information and headline news features contained on your typical Sunday NFL pre-game show, but without the ridiculous forced laughter or gimmickry, unless you include the epic musical opening segments – narrated with gravitas by the excellent MacLean – and we don’t, because they’re awesome. Not a minute of the show is wasted, a rarity in hockey television.
Hockey Blog of the Year: MC79Hockey. Not even close, and that’s saying something. In a year where Chris Botta, John Buccigross, Greg Wyshynski and Dmitry Chesnokov all continued to make headlines without wasting dead trees and ink, writer Tyler Dellow controlled an entire nation’s sports conversation for well over a week, and he did it all the old-fashiond way: Just being curious as to what was going on behind closed doors. Ethical and with peerless journalistic practices that made it hard for anyone not named Damien Cox to argue, Dellow shed light on e-mails that Colin Campbell sent calling Bruins forward Marc Savard “a little faker”, among other things.
This made hockey fans take a good, long look and question how the league operated behind closed doors. The e-mails were there for anyone to see, as they’d been made public due to a lawsuit. However, only Dellow went into the corners and did the dirty work, making him easily the online hockey writer of the year.
Hockey Writer of the Year: Tom Gulitti, Bergen Record and Helene Elliott, Los Angeles Times. If you found a way to combine these two forces of hockey journalism to make up their own entity, not one stone would be found unturned into the long, arduous Ilya Kovalchuk saga. Elliot covered the LA Kings interest in the sniper, forcing out every detail of the team’s courtship and eventual abandonment of their offers to Kovy.
From there, Gulitti worked tirelessly (he mentioned, but never complained, about how it ate away at his summer) on the negotiations, press conference, NHL disapproval, appeal process, re-negotiation, NHL penalties, and everything else that followed. He was, and still is, a bookmark site for me, and his work in the paper, while condensed, lost none of it’s compelling nature.
People We Have Positive Thoughts About, But No Category in Which to Reward Them:
Hockey Media Man of the Year: John Collins, NHL Chief Operating Officer.
You might be wondering why a non-broadcaster, or at least someone who doesn’t work for one of the NHL’s TV networks, isn’t here. However, no one has affected the NHL on television more the past few years.
From his tireless efforts to make the Winter Classic a riveting success, to his hand in redeveloping NHL.com into a place where legitimate, breaking news can be seen without fear of thinking the league is watering it down, to the consistent improvement of the league’s product on both regional and national television (one would have to think he’ll have a big hand in the TV contract negotiation), there’s very little of the NHL aesthetic that Collins doesn’t seem to have his hands on.
However, 2010 marked a ban year for Collins’ involvement in the NHL. First, there was the winning documentary Broad Street Bullies, which got the league in bed with HBO, a network that Collins had developed ties with while working for the NFL. Then came the ultimate coup: A four-episode miniseries called 24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic, taking a behind the scenes, gritty, uncensored look at two teams in the midst of regular season play for the first time in North American team sports. It is a compelling watch that deserves to be recognized by both the sports and regular Emmys when the time comes. While much of that may have to do with HBO and their commitment to excellence, none of it would be possible without Collins’ tireless work at taking the NHL into the future.