What do you do when your greatest asset is also your biggest liability?
As the CBC prepares to negotiate a new contract with the National Hockey League, there are reports that league officials are putting significant pressure on the network to overhaul Hockey Night in Canada and muzzle Don Cherry.
Frustration from team executives and owners apparently boiled over at some recent meetings between the NHL and the public broadcaster. Apparently it wasn’t just coming from Brian Burke, the Maple Leafs general manager who has engaged in a public feud with Cherry.
The problem for CBC is that Hockey Night in Canada is dominated by Coach’s Corner, the popular intermission segment featuring Cherry and Ron MacLean. Ron and Don are the stars of the show, but they — especially Cherry — are also holding it back, limiting its potential to evolve into a modern sports broadcast.
Coach’s Corner is a strange phenomenon, a bizarre mix of hockey, politics and mythology that clings to an outdated notion of the sport and the nation. We accept it only because we are used to it. Just for fun, imagine yourself trying to convince a foreigner that the spectacle, including Cherry’s wardrobe and idiosyncrasies, is not only serious but almost universally popular.
Rather than address current-day issues in the league, the segment tends to focus on themes that only Cherry cares about. He argues fruitlessly on behalf of his own obsolete philosophy of the game, unloads viciously on his critics, plays clips of himself from previous episodes where he might have made an accurate prediction and then gets misty eyed as he honours fallen Canadian soldiers. It’s all about him, not the sport.
As a result of his unique popularity, the entire broadcast lives in Cherry’s shadow. It’s impossible for anyone else to contradict or eclipse him, so the rest of the show withers.
HNIC overemphasizes the business of hockey rather than engage in compelling storytelling about great moments or interesting players. And it maintains a testy relationship with the league’s head office, clearly demonstrated in the hostile exchanges between MacLean and commissioner Gary Bettman. Imagine such a touchy on-air dynamic between the commissioner of any other sport and its lead broadcaster.
And yet it’s impossible to overstate Cherry’s uniquely widespread appeal in this diverse and sparsely populated land. His name has come up when a new governor general was required. Eight years ago, when CBC viewers were asked to vote for the greatest Canadian, Cherry finished seventh, ahead of Sir John A. Macdonald.
That says as much about this peculiar country as it does of Cherry. Imagine a list of the greatest Americans of all time including Terry Bradshaw or Tim McCarver, let alone seeing one of them place ahead of George Washington.
But this wasn’t just a statement about the country’s passion for hockey, but also the power of television. So important is the Saturday night tradition, Cherry also finished three spots ahead of Wayne Gretzky and 12 places in front of his cherished former charge, Bobby Orr.
You can’t argue with success. For all its faults, Hockey Night in Canada is routinely in the top five highest rated programs in Canada.
Ultimately, with only two seasons left on its current contract, and with Cherry soon to become an octogenarian, something has to give. In the era of government cutbacks, can the CBC continue to use taxpayers’ money to outbid other networks for hockey coverage?
Between now and the next round of negotiations, CBC executives face some tough choices. Do they overhaul the show and start a new era, or back away from hockey altogether? Do they take a tough stand against the league and risk losing the contract, or phase out Cherry to placate the critics?
They’ve shown reluctance to tinker in the past, hanging on to Bob Cole as their lead play-by-play man long past his best-before date. And Cherry, of course, will not go gently into that good Saturday night. If you think he’s preparing for retirement, consider this: he just started tweeting.
And for a private rival, it’s not just as simple as outbidding the CBC for the contract. The league and a new rights holder would have to consider how to match the coverage provided by CBC during the regular season and playoffs. Would CTV, for example, want to turn over its entire broadcast schedule to playoff hockey in April, May and June, forgoing other programs like the season finale of American Idol?
Of course, with the high percentage of households getting cable and satellite signals today, that might not be necessary. Depending on how eager the NHL is to move away from the CBC, it might accept a combined package from CTV and TSN.
One way or another, an era is coming to an end. Even if CBC wins a new contract with the NHL and manages to do so without scrapping Coach’s Corner, Cherry won’t be around forever. CBC executives soon have to start preparing for a new chapter, without Cherry, without HNIC, or perhaps even without both.