NHL Live: VERSUS’ Under the Radar Success Story
December 1, 2011 3 Comments
I’ve been yammering on for the past couple of months about how good it is for the game of hockey that there’s just a lot more of it out there. I believe the statistic I’ve used in the past goes something like this: during the 2005-06 season, before NBC showed up in January, counting post-game coverage (we were lucky if we got any pre-game), the typical hockey fan in the United States – watches his own team and the occasional national game, no Center Ice – saw 7 hours of original hockey programming on television. That’s games and studio shows combined on OLN, which was all that was available to us. That increased to 10 hours during the six weeks NBC showed up, but still, it was but a pittance. A pittance, I say!
Last week, counting two games on VERSUS, three episodes of NHL Overtime, one game on NBC, three games on NHL Network, and oodles of On the Fly culminating with the 1 a.m. ET final show, plus NHL Live on NHL Network, hockey fans got roughly 80 hours of hockey programming. That’s a whole lot of people talking about pucks. So nowadays, weird as it is to say, we’re kind of cluttered with people giving us their opinion on what’s happening with the league in the United States. Who knew we’d ever get here?
This is a roundabout way to me saying that VERSUS’ edition of NHL Live – not the NHL Network talk show, which I do like – is my favorite of the NHL studio shows at the moment. On the Fly is consistently solid, but will vary depending on which analysts are in studio. NHL Overtime on VERSUS is hot mess of a program that I don’t have enough webspace to discuss right now. NHL Live on NHL Network is a fun couple of hours, but lightweight at times (as a call-in show should be). VERSUS’ NHL Live is currently the best of the bunch when it comes to hockey talk, and worth catching pretty much every night.
If you haven’t been checking in regularly, it’s a pretty fun half-hour (though the hour-long edition on Wednesdays doesn’t drag, either). It launches at the rink of whatever game VERSUS is airing, with Mike Emrick or Dave Strader directing traffic to interviews between the inside the glass analysts and players participating in the game. Then, the play-by-play man will send it back to the VERSUS studios, where host Liam McHugh (NHL television’s best find of the past year or so) will lead the often irascible, but always compelling Mike Milbury (admit it, you can’t turn the TV off when he’s talking) and his solid sparring partner, Keith Jones. The clear model for this (and most sports studio shows) is Inside the NBA, with the clever host setting up both the analysts – one bombastic almost to a fault, the other more level-headed, but no pushover. Ever since the OLN days, it seems as if they’ve been trying to imitate it, but with the current Live squad, they’ve found their own formula for success.
It’s a little difficult to pinpoint why the show works so well for me. Despite the polarizing Milbury’s presence, the show can be very low key, but never boring. McHugh sort of gently challenges the other panelists (which will occasionally include Pierre McGuire or Jeremy Roenick) instead of just throwing random questions at them, something I don’t think prior hosts have really done. There’s no room for the panel to get off on tangents or nonsensical arguments like on other shows. There’s a very loose, but scripted vibe to it all. It’s no secret that the program formerly known as Hockey Central was long one of my least favorite shows to watch. The show almost always seemed directionless, but under McHugh, it’s smooth sailing.
Credit must also go to Milbury and Jones for their contributions. I always felt like Jonesy was a more interesting guy than Hockey Central would let him be because there wasn’t really anyone pushing him. With Milbury in sort of the “starring” role, he’s become more of – as I mentioned earlier – the sparring partner, and has proved a very adequate one. While people may hate Mike Milbury because they hate what he did to the Islanders or his views on headshots, you’ve gotta’ admit the guy has a presence on television like no other NHL analyst. When he’s not off on some random aside about the “wussification” of hockey – something he’s rarely allowed to do when Pierre McGuire or Ron MacLean isn’t goading him into it – he’s really good at what he does.
Why are there no tangents and blabbering on? Because, again, the show has more of a direction, there’s stuff to get to. There are interviews live from the rink. Meanwhile, they have to get into a discussion of what the teams playing that night are doing. Or they have to show a live look-in from an early game. Or Darren Dreger or Bob McKenzie is making their weekly appearance. Or there’s another feature on a player to show. These are all things that Hockey Central rarely, if ever, had to them. There’s that word again: direction. The show seems to have a brain behind it, and hockey fans are all the better off for it.
Give credit to VERSUS/NBC in all this. They completely revamped their pre- and post-game show when they really could’ve just stuck with what they had. It’s just a pre-game show, who’s really gonna’ watch outside of the fans of each team playing? While it isn’t perfect (and the late night NHL Overtime borders on unwatchable a lot of nights) with NHL Live, VERSUS has carved itself a must-see half-hour (or hour) of television on a nightly basis, regardless of whether your team is playing that night. It’s, apparently, not an easy task.