December 26 2005


December 26 2005

Hokey's repid comeback

Edward Keenan

One it’s I I i chords. ties, a thing easier which colour about on “There Harry affects commentator. the Neale’s are new fewer my NHL: whisjob vocal I’m as V not complaining, but I get the * chance to speak fewer times because they play on for longer stretches,” says the 20-year broadcasting veteran. When Neale’s in the booth calling games alongside Bob Cole during the first half of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada each week, his job is to analyze the key points during stops in

play. This season’s more free-flowing action means he can be silenced for minutes at a time. “I get the odd glance from the play-by-play guy,” he jokes, “as if to say, ‘Are you still working here?’ ”

Still, Neale says, that’s good news for fans. “When I watch the games that I’m not working on television—and I watch

‘With the new rules, there’s endto-end action...You look at the shootouts and notice that people don’t sit down. The excitement is at an all-time high.’

a lot of them—there’s no doubt about it that they’re better to watch.”

Midway through the season, after a lockout that some predicted could have spelled the end of the NHL, the predominant media sentiment is that the league and the game of hockey are thriving. A list of rule changes introduced during the hiatus have led to across-theboard increases in scoring and scoring chances, a faster-flowing pace, dramatic third-period comebacks that, Neale says, mean “almost no lead is safe,” and heartwrenching shootouts to decide tied games.

Broadcasters say all of this is good news for television viewers. “Any time that the game improves, we’ll be better,” says CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada executive producer Joel Darling. “With the new rules, there’s end-to-end action and there are games that are being won late in the game. You look at the shootouts and notice that people don’t sit down. The excitement is at an all-time high.”

So far, the ratings bear out Darling’s assessment. As of mid-November, the average audience for the first game of CBC’s weekly doubleheader was up 47 per cent to 1,607,000 viewers and the second game was up 57 per cent to 1,138,000 over the equivalent period in the season before the lockout. Darling points in particular to the Oct. 15 Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens game when 1,940,000 viewers tuned in, an increase of 69 per cent over the equivalent Leafs-Habs game in 2003. “That’s more than 500,000 more viewers than we normally would have gotten in the past couple of years. When you think about, on a Saturday night, getting two million viewers, that’s a big number in this country,” Darling says.

The ratings bonanza isn’t limited to the CBC. Over atTSN, the other major national broadcaster of the NHL, the number of viewers per game on the national telecast has increased 135 per cent to 648,000, including a network record 2.1 million viewers during the opening night Ottawa Senators-Toronto Maple Leafs game. “Astounding is the word,” TSN executive producer Mark Milliere says.

Regional broadcasts on Rogers Sportsnet have also been breaking network

records—early in the season, ratings for its Senators games had tripled previous seasons’ averages.

Though broadcasters at both CBC and TSN lay credit for the improved ratings on the rule changes, those changes have also presented some challenges. As Neale points out, fewer stoppages in play means fewer opportunities to present replays and analysis. “Sometimes I’ve got something that I want to say that refers back to the last shift. Well, if we go four minutes, nobody can remember the last shift, so that comment maybe gets deleted,” says Neale. “In the [broadcast] truck ... they’ve got a bank of replays that they never get to that they would like to have shown.” Over at TSN, the improved flow has had an even more dramatic effect: on two occasions, they haven’t had a chance to take scheduled commercial breaks. “That may be an upside for fans, but we’ve got to squeeze them in somewhere,” Milliere says.

Perhaps the most dramatic change— for some viewers at least—is high-definition television, introduced in 2005 on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada for 22 regular season games and a yet-to-bedetermined number of playoff games. It’s also the biggest challenge. HDTV offers a picture that’s five times better than conventional television and a widescreen format that seems perfectly suited to hockey’s roughly rectangular

playing surface. Yet, as Joe Sidoli, director of production resources at

the CBC says, “The

technology is still in its infancy and there’s really not a lot of experts yet. We’re just learning as we go along.” High-definition broadcast equipment, for example, depends on fibre-optic cables. Sidoli says wiring up an arena with the required cabling adds a half day to set-up time, and even then, there are some things HDTV cameras can’t do. Wireless technology isn’t available yet, so when the broadcast cuts to a shot from the “net cam” to show the goalie’s point of view, HDTV viewers get black bars at the sides of their screens.

Though broadcasters at both CBC and TSN lay credit for the improved ratings on the rule changes, those changes have also presented some challenges

Fewer than two per cent of Canadian homes receive broadcasts in high definition, so Sidoli says that for the time being, CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada is not exploiting the potential of the wider frame, since shots and graphics are still framed for the approximately 98 per cent of viewers with conventional television sets. “Right now we’re not doing anything different. As more people get HDTV and we reach that critical mass of viewers, we

can start getting creative about figuring out how we can change the way we cover

the games.” He expects hockey to drive

sales of the new sets. “Once you’ve seen it in high-def, you don’t want to go back.” All viewers will, however, have noticed cameras in the dressing rooms before games, showing players getting ready. This is one of several initiatives the NHL has undertaken to allow more intimate access to broadcasters (see sidebar). Neale says the measure was overdue. “I think in the past the NHL has

been too guarded in reference to those behind-the-scenes looks for fans. Most fans have never been in an NHL rink, let alone in an NHL dressing room. And before the game, just to get a look at it, I can’t imagine that not being a little interesting.”

Looking forward, executive producer Darling says the CBC crew is most excited by the sixth annual CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada broadcast Jan. 7. The

daylong event will feature three all-Canadian games and reports from around the country, and is perhaps most hotly anticipated in this year’s host city, Stephenville, Nfld., where Ron Maclean and Don Cherry will spend the day. The town of 8,000 has recently suffered through floods in September that left 150 families homeless, and soon afterward saw a paper mill that employed 300 residents close. “It’s been a tough time there,” says Darling, “and enthusiasm about being host city is just overwhelming. They’re shutting down schools on the Friday— it’s going to be something special.” ■