Canadian hockey fans won’t just be switching to different channels to get their fix this season. Rogers and the NHL have promised more games and more robust coverage than ever as part of a new $5.2-billion, 12-year television-rights deal.
"Hockey Night In Canada" will have a new look, with George Stroumboulopoulos taking over host duties from Ron MacLean, and Sportsnet recently unveiled a new state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar studio to showcase its newfound reach and influence in the sport. Don Cherry and MacLean will still team up for the "Coach’s Corner" segment, but some of the other pre-game, intermission and post-game coverage will be different.
While it may take time for viewers to adjust to the changes, there will be no shortage of hockey on the air under the new broadcast agreement.
"There are more games actually being televised than ever before," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
"Hockey Night In Canada" games will be shown coast-to-coast instead of by region and Rogers and the NHL have made a point to showcase Sunday and Wednesday nights. Blackout restrictions on GameCentre Live for computers, tablets and smartphones will also contribute to the "more games" philosophy.
Rogers is banking on Sunday night becoming appointment viewing with MacLean hosting "Hometown Hockey" from 25 cities across Canada.
"This was a way for us to take something, particularly in Canada, that we know is as close to religion as you can do, something that’s vitally important to the country, something that’s fun and exciting, entertaining, brings people together, and take it to places where it’s never been," Bettman said.
To do it, the league and the network mapped out a schedule that should make Sunday part of the new hockey-watching routine. NBC in the United States has its Wednesday night rivalry programming, and Rogers made sure it got the games it wanted among the 1,230 in the regular season.
"We sat around the board with the NHL — there were 12 of us, 12 of them — and said, ‘How can we create the best schedule?"’ Rogers Media president Keith Pelley said. "And you can see it. You can see the schedule now. There has not been a schedule like this for NHL hockey in this country ever. The NHL have been nothing but spectacular in helping us create the best schedule."
There are actually fewer Sunday games than last season (123 in 2014-15 compared to 132 in 2013-14), but the Rogers "Hometown Hockey" broadcasts make 25 of them much more of a national production.
Bettman said it was important to take control of Sunday nights and compared it to "Sunday Night Football" in the United States. The better parallel may be Thursday night NFL action, which has become the norm instead of a rarity in recent years.
But "Hockey Night In Canada" is still the crown jewel.
"Saturday night sitting in front of the game with a family dinner and friends over, I don’t think that’s going to change," said Mark Messier, who’s working as a Rogers ambassador. "Saturday night hockey has always been an institution in our country. I don’t think that’ll ever change."
At a recent Canadian Club of Toronto luncheon, Bettman said in a chat with Stroumboulopoulos that the new rights deal was a chance to take "Hockey Night In Canada" to the next level on multiple platforms. Viewers are now able to stream it online or through GameCentre.
"This will create a hockey experience if you’re a fan unlike what you’ve ever seen in terms of how complete the coverage is," Bettman said.
Stroumboulopoulos is the new face of that.
The 42-year-old talk-show star recalled sitting in a room at the Fan 590 radio station 20 years ago and betting Jeff Marek which one would get on "Hockey Night In Canada" first. Technically, Stroumboulopoulos got there as part of a pre-game show when he worked for CBC, according to Marek, who will host national coverage on Thursday nights.
Stroumboulopoulos will be front and centre on Saturday nights, running things on the biggest program in the sport.
"This is the show that I’ve been watching without reservation my entire life, and when I was thinking about changing my job I didn’t know what to do," Stroumboulopoulos said. "This I didn’t think was even a remote possibility. But this is the only show in Canada you grow up needing to be a part of."
Broadcasts will still feature the familiar play-by-play voices of Bob Cole and Jim Hughson, and Rogers hired Dave Randorf from TSN and Paul Romanuk — who returns after working overseas for nine years — to join the group. Some analysts and panellists were hired from CBC and others, like Leah Hextall and Darren Pang, brought in from the outside.
"One of the things we’re really excited about, about the Rogers deal — people say, ‘Yeah the money,"’ Bettman said. "It’s not about the money, it’s the people we’re going to be dealing with … and all the talent that they’ve assembled."