Who was the big winner in Rogers' shakeup earlier this week of "Hockey Night in Canada"?
Some might conclude it was George Stroumboulopoulos. Indeed, the 41-year-old CBC talk show host and former MuchMusic VJ has been handed what is arguably the best on-air TV job in Canada—host of "Hockey Night in Canada." The iconic TV franchise is so ingrained in Canadian culture it is right up there with the Mounties and the Maple Leaf.
Those feeling sorry for departing host Ron MacLean, however, can put off the pity party. By this time next year, MacLean may be seen as the big winner.
MacLean has been offered about as sweet an after-deal as just about anybody departing a top job could hope for—the chance to be a key part of a whole new night of a famous sports franchise. It's a bit like being asked to go from "Monday Night Football" to "Sunday Night Football," a U.S. transition where the new night now routinely outdraws the original Monday showcase.
Scott Moore, Rogers' president of Sportsnet and NHL properties, admitted Monday that Stroumboulopoulos' name came up as a possible new host of "HNiC" as far back as last November when Rogers' first announced their $5.2 billion deal to own exclusive national NHL rights in Canada for the next 12 years.
The former CBC sports programming executive was always, however, keen to have MacLean also be part of Rogers' hockey telecasts.
"And if we were going to bring somebody else in," he said Monday, "we needed to find a place where Ron can truly help us build something."
What Moore and Rogers Media president Keith Pelley wanted to do was extend the "HNiC" franchise to as many other nights as possible. To make the most of their big money NHL deal, Rogers wanted to be all-hockey, anytime, anywhere, carrying up to 600 NHL games a year.
To that end, Sportsnet's Daren Millard will host Wednesday Night Hockey on Sportsnet next season, with Jeff Marek fronting Thursday NHL games on Sportsnet 360. Stroumboulopoulos quarterbacks them all and gets the traditional Saturday chair.
Sunday, however, was the key part of Rogers' plan. It is easily TV's most competitive night, not just due to CTV's "The Amazing Race" and Global's "The Simpsons" but also due to an exploding amount of quality programming on cable and newer platforms. AMC's "The Walking Dead" has stormed Sundays, taking over the top ratings spot in cities such as Toronto among adults 18 to 49. Other cable fare such as "Mad Men" and the recently concluded "True Detective" are big draws, as are "binge viewing" shows from Netflix such as "House of Cards."
Rogers-owned City was finding itself continually squeezed out of Sundays. Each spring, executives would go down to Los Angeles and spend tens of millions importing American fare to simulcast on Sundays. Each fall these shows would get hammered on their schedule. Even homegrown attempts at reality shows such as "Canada's Got Talent" had little impact on City on Sundays.
The NHL deal, however, was a way out of this wilderness, positioning City as the big live draw of the night. Plus, as Moore suggests, Sunday Night Hockey will be a great promotional tool for City's Monday night comedies—already among their top draws. As he understates, Sunday Hockey "will have a much bigger audience than we've probably ever had."
Rogers also saves a bundle on their U.S. acquisitions by not having to import as many shows to fill Sundays on City. Instead, there's proven Canadian sports content leading into an earlier, 10 p.m. time slot for CityNews on Sundays.
For Moore, a key component on the new Sunday strategy was MacLean. While Strombo will be the studio anchor of the new night, MacLean will be the familiar face. Positioning him as the host of a year-long Hometown Hockey Community Celebration—sort of a weekly version of CBC's 14-year-old "Hockey Day in Canada"—plays on MacLean's already strong connection to viewers across Canada.
Besides hosting "HNiC," MacLean has hosted 10 Olympic Games on CBC, with at least one more to go in Rio in two years. If Rogers-CBC bid on the next Winter Games in South Korea, the 10-time Gemini Award-winner will make that his 12th games as host.
What MacLean will not be able to do anymore is host "Battle of the Blades," although there is some doubt the CBC Sunday series will even be back.
Moore laid out the new "HNiC" blueprint for MacLean two weeks ago in Vancouver while the two arranged a meeting around the Heritage Winter Classic outdoor game. (Moore broke the news separately the same day to Cherry). When MacLean heard the plan was to tailor Sundays around Hockey Day, he was happy to sign the four year deal.
"I thought it was a great opportunity," says MacLean. "We're up against a tough television night, but it's hockey. That should work."
Besides, after 28 years in the host seat, MacLean was starting to feel like a "pointer" anchoring panels between periods. Hosting CBC's recent Sochi Winter Olympic coverage provided him with more of an opportunity to tell Canadian stories, an involvement he hopes to duplicate with these new Sunday community celebrations.
So if anybody thinks MacLean has been shoved aside or mistreated, he has not. "I have a nice, four-year deal," he points out. Viewers who might miss him Saturday nights will still see him, on CBC, in his familiar role beside Don Cherry on Coach's Corner.
"That's kind of like being asked to take the shootout shot to win the game," he says.
Cherry signed a two-year deal, which is a year longer than his usual CBC commitment.
"What difference does it make?" says Grapes, and he's right. As MacLean says, Cherry will simply continue with Coach's Corner until he can't—"which will be another 20 years, unfortunately," kids MacLean.
As for Stroumboulopoulos, MacLean believes he is the right pick as overall "HNiC" host. "I think it's a great idea to get George," he says, pointing out he was only 26 and far less qualified and experienced when he was first named host.
"When we see him work, it will be 'Hockey Night in Canada,'" says MacLean.
To traditionalists, he adds, be patient. "I wish Foster Hewitt and Danny Gallivan were still doing the show. It's just not possible. There's always someone comes along who can take the reins."
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.