We often criticize the talking heads we’re served up when we watch hockey, and unfavorably compare them to the quality and distinction of the American networks’ NFL crews. We get hacks and failed jocks and fourth-liners and goons, and even worse like P.J. Stock. And lots of goalies, for some reason.
On the Monday Night Football pre-game, we’ll have Steve Young on the pre-game show, a Hall of Fame QB who won Super Bowls and is opinionated, holding forth clearly and concisely on all issues.
During the game, it will be Super Bowl winning coach and entertaining moppet John Gruden, who has lots of insights into how a team is built, the inner dynamics and relationships between coaches and players. He can break down offensive plays for us and does a good job of presenting the game to laypersons.
And during one of the talk shows before the game, one of the ESPN guys I’m most impressed with is Louis Riddick, a former player who once he retired moved up the ranks to the post of Director of Pro Personnel with the Eagles. He’s effortless in front of the camera, very expressive, he engages his panel members very well, and explains the effect of various situations on the team, both from a player/locker room view, and in terms of the management, how this affects team development, roster decisions, the draft, etc. It sounds simple, but he starts his comments with a strong statement, explains what he means, gives us examples for illustration, then closes with a recap or punchline. He’s great.
Why we can’t have former GM’s or hockey coaches who speak as effectively and openly when it comes to the NHL is curious. We have a clown like Doug MacLean. Craig Button is all over the map, sometimes incisive, sometimes no better than someone who’s never been on the inside. I remember Neil Smith doing some work, but he’s very soft-spoken, mostly seeming to want to avoid controversy over anything else.
Same for a lot of the ex-coaches who make their way to HNIC during the playoffs, or on TSN’s panel. Most can be entertaining, but they seem mostly concerned with keeping things under wrap, and offending nobody so that they can get a job again really quickly.
The point is often made that the gig doesn’t pay as well for hockey as it does for the NFL, so we can’t attract the Grade ‘A’ talent, but I think it’s mostly due to the lack of competition. Sportsnet now has the contract wrapped up, they have no rivals, so they can sit on their kypreoses. TSN is in damage control, trying to wait out the decade without leaking too many viewers. HNIC is moribund.
In the NFL, there’s constant pressure to perform. Four networks airing games, trying to outdo each other. Every percentage point means millions. CBS tried for years to pump their pre-game panel, but as the viewers spoke and preferred the Fox Sports team, CBS cleared house of Dan Marino, Shannon Sharpe and Boomer Esiason, who never won the public’s favour or gelled as a unit, certainly when compared to how quickly the NBC team of Dan Patrick, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison found its legs.
I wish this competition, this drive to improve instead of the repackaging of old failures, existed in our coverage of the NHL.