Stroumboulopoulos ready for HNIC spotlight

George Stroumboulopoulos joins Jeff Marek to talk about being named the host of Hockey Night In Canada and his past interviews with hockey players.

TORONTO – George Stroumboulopoulos is the new Ron MacLean, and with puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season still seven months away, most Canadians already have decided whether they like that idea.

Stroumboulopoulos, who made a name for himself first as a MuchMusic VJ and increased his popularity as host of his own CBC talk show, has been tapped to host Saturday’s iconic Hockey Night in Canada, replacing MacLean, 53, as ringleader of the nation’s most culturally ingrained television show.

"George will be a conventional but unconventional host. He’ll be the face of the show in-studio on Saturdays and Sundays," said Scott Moore, president of Rogers’ Sportsnet and NHL properties. "He’ll be quarterbacking between up to five broadcasts in the early game and two to three broadcasts late. He’ll be bringing Ron in from the communities. He’ll have a group of pundits and analysts with him. We’re still putting together the studio show, but he’ll be the ultimate quarterback."

Stroumboulopoulos was the only one of the five broadcasters announced to anchor Sportsnet’s national NHL broadcasts — MacLean, Don Cherry, Daren Millard and Jeff Marek the others — not wearing a tie at Monday’s announcement. He’s also the only one whose primary professional responsibility has rested outside of the hockey realm.

"Be yourself," advised Cherry, the don of prime-time hockey in Canada, peering across the dais at CBC’s Studio 41 in Stroumboulopoulos’s direction. "Be honest. You can’t lie. You can’t fool the public."

Stroumboulopoulos insists he won’t pretend to be something he’s not. He won’t be the star of the show; hockey will be, he says. Twice.

He won’t try to wing it and make some shrewd analysis; he’ll let his interview and hosting skills do the heavy lifting. But his passion for the game will shine, if not quite with the radiance of one of Grapes’ pocket squares.

Stroumboulopoulos first fell in love with the game at age 5, when his Habs were good, and has been "out of (his) mind about it since."

The Hockey Night in Canada opportunity, which Rogers first broached him about in January, presented itself at the perfect time. Stroumboulopoulos was in the midst of his 10th season with his talk show (taping wraps mid-April), and Rogers was looking to solidify its on-air NHL team; a gig he’d been dreaming about since working radio at a pre-Sportsnet The Fan 590 with Marek fell in his denim-clad lap.

Growing up a son of Canadian immigrants, Stroumboulopoulos admits he couldn’t make a minor-league lineup let alone a professional one, but his love for the game led him to road hockey as a kid and later to hone his interviewing chops during his first journalism job with The Fan by trying to get players to delve beyond the pregame and postgame clichés.

"Ron’s the greatest host I’ve ever seen," Stroumboulopoulos said. "I’ve so much respect for what everyone who’s come before has done with this that I’m just happy to be a part of it.

"I’ve spent more time in my life with the relationship I have with Hockey Night in Canada than anything else in my life."

Stroumboulopoulos is 41 years old. He’s been in front of a microphone, addressing Canada, for more than 20 years. He might be the oldest young host the iconic show has ever had, and yet some will paint the Mississauga, Ont., native as a hip, fresh alternative to MacLean. And Moore says that Rogers is after a demographic that is both younger and less hockey-obsessive. Dave Hodge, McLean’s predecessor, and MacLean himself were both 26 years of age when they got the gig that now belongs to a man who will be 42 when puck drops on Opening Night of the 2014-15 season. Stroumboulopoulos’s is a face the casual fan is familiar with.

"There’s no reason to be nervous. I’m excited about it more than anything," said Stroumboulopoulos, who checks his sports apps right after reading the morning news. "I know as well as anybody who’s a host: you really just have to drive the attention around it to something else. When the puck drops, that’s all that matters—the game. I still get booed by five-year-old Leafs fans when I wear my Habs hat."

MacLean admits he was scared when he became host of Hockey Night more than 25 years ago. And the enormity of the beast will only grow, as Sportsnet will broadcast more than 500 NHL games next season.

"It’s Pavlov’s dog. We’ve made Hockey Night in Canada so ingrained in each of us that we feel a bit of ownership, a bit of connection to the show. We all have an opinion on it," MacLean said of the 62-year institution. "I know when [fans] see George work, they’re going to be really pleased."

Some will see the loss of hosting duties as a demotion, but MacLean insisted today is not a sad day.

"When you wake up and hear Strombo Night in Canada, it’s kinda like, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’ Of course, I’m human," MacLean explained, "but I’m happy for George. Love him to death.

"You’re bringing in a highly respected broadcaster. Whatever the circus, you got a guy who knows what to do," MacLean says of Stroumboulopoulos, a 10-time Gemini and Canadian Screen Award winner. "There’s always someone that comes along that can take the reins."

Moore is calling Monday’s announced talent the "first line" of Rogers’ all-star team of hockey broadcasters. Further announcements on play-by-play callers, reporters and analysts will be forthcoming, and Moore said he hopes Elliotte Friedman, whom he called Monday morning, is part of that group.

Questioned about the lack of gender diversity on the starting five, Moore said Hockey Central’s Christine Simpson is expected to remain part of the team. And MacLean cast a vote of favour for Andi Petrillo, who currently runs HNIC’s iDesk segment.

As for MacLean, he still has a four-year deal with CBC, which will include hosting the next Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and possibly the Winter Games in South Korea.

In addition to guzzling coffee and dealing with Cherry on "Coach’s Corner" every Saturday, MacLean will also host Hockey Day in Canada and Sunday’s new Hometown Hockey Community Celebration, which will bring a weekly NHL broadcast to various hockey communities around the country.

"It’s a tremendous idea to bring the show to the community, bring the show to the rink rat," MacLean says of his new role. "What really was a great break was that Rogers got the package and took it to CBC. I don’t think that would’ve happened had it been TSN and Bell because they have CTV. For the CBC, this was a real dodge-the-bullet moment…. It worked out the best it could’ve."

Cherry and MacLean will continue the popular "Coach’s Corner" every Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada, a first-intermission institution since 1980.

When MacLean took to the stage Monday, he began, as is his style, with a joke: "George, don’t screw this up.”

And, as is his style, MacLean’s throwaway comment captured the sentiment of many Canadian hockey fans.

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