MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens are grinding their way through the playoffs in a promising push that has millions of Quebecers basking in the glow of their televisions.
In the excitement, French-language sports channel RDS has reeled in more Quebec viewers than CBC has nationwide with its Habs broadcasts. And even many English-speaking hockey fans are tuning in to the French coverage.
Some Anglos in Quebec say they’re choosing RDS over the CBC’s English coverage, and many believe the public broadcaster should stick to what it knows best – Toronto.
“The announcers are better, they’re not as biased and they don’t care who’s winning – they tell it as it is,” Pat Wychocki said of RDS, which broadcasts every Canadiens game to 2.1 million subscribers in Quebec.
“It’s just more exciting.”
Wychocki, a Montreal resident, watches all regular-season Canadiens games on RDS, even though the broadcasts are in French.
He said the CBC team doesn’t have the same inside knowledge of the Habs, especially veteran broadcaster Bob Cole.
“He won’t even talk about the play that’s happening, he’ll screw up the names,” Wychocki said.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ratings cash cow shelved for another post-season, the CBC is pinning its post-season hopes on a deep run by the Habs.
But for the first four games of Montreal’s series against the Boston Bruins, RDS was ahead in the ratings battle.
The specialty channel says it has been told it averaged 1,556,000 viewers and had a Quebec market share that hovered around 40 per cent. That is the percentage of people watching French TV in Quebec at that time. The number jumped to a massive 53 per cent during one of the games.
Meanwhile, the CBC says it averaged 1,364,750 across Canada.
The CBC’s executive director of sports said the network’s playoff ratings for Quebec show the majority of the province’s anglophones have plopped themselves in front of the English CBC telecast.
Asked about alleged anti-Canadiens sentiment in its broadcasts, Scott Moore says it’s “absolutely not true.”
“We’re the national broadcaster so we’re not necessarily the home team voice, and the local broadcaster tends to be a little bit more – I guess the best word would be – a promoter of the team,” Moore told The Canadian Press in an interview.
“We try to be a little bit less of a homer broadcast and, because of that, people would naturally think we’re biased against them, which is not, I don’t think, the case.”
CBC’s first-round viewership from coast to coast is up five per cent over last year, he added.
“I think there’s a huge, latent interest in the Montreal Canadiens nationally,” Moore said.
“In many regions of Canada, including southern Ontario, Montreal is looked at as the second favourite team after the home team.”
But even some Canadiens fans outside the province say they prefer the French coverage, which can be added to a satellite package for a few bucks a month.
“Watching it on RDS, you feel like you’re back in Quebec,” said John Stevens, a retired teacher who lives in London, Ont.
“It really gets the flavour of what it’s like to be at a hockey game in Montreal.”
Stevens, who studied at a Montreal university, says he spread the word about RDS to other Habs fans in town.
He said some of his buddies regularly watch the games in French, even if they don’t understand the play by play.
“I think my French has gotten a lot better,” he said.
“There’s nothing like (RDS sportscaster) Pierre Houde saying ‘Et le but!’ (He scores!).”
RDS says it has 700,000 subscribers outside Quebec, none of whom are included in their ratings.
Meanwhile, longtime Canadiens fan Stephen Carrier, who speaks English at home, opts for RDS, primarily because there’s no Don Cherry.
The Montreal native said Cherry is too critical, especially when it comes to French-Canadians.
The opinionated ex-coach spurred controversy back in 2004 when he suggested players who wear visors were wimps and mostly “French guys” or Europeans.
“He probably knows a lot about hockey, but he should probably stick to his hockey analysis instead of his cultural analysis of the game,” Carrier said.
Moore said while the outspoken Cherry has never shied away from admitting his allegiance to the Leafs, he does not hold a grudge against Montreal.
“People love him or they love to hate him, and that’s a great position for an on-air person to be in,” Moore said.
Other Habs fans say they abandoned the CBC when it dropped its weekly English broadcasts of the Canadiens a few years ago.
“Right now there seems to be this anti-CBC bias, but what other English broadcaster has done any significant number of Canadiens games?” Moore said.
“We did more than TSN, (and) Sportsnet doesn’t do any.”
He said this year’s Canadiens playoff coverage is an example of CBC’s growing interest in the Habs.
Moore, a Montreal native and self-described “big Habs fan,” said CBC covered 19 Canadiens games this season and aims to add more next year.