MacLean in, Strombo out as Hockey Night in Canada host: Report

According to Dave Feschuk of The Star, George Stroumboulopoulos is out as host of Hockey Night in Canada.

He will be replaced by the man he unseated just two seasons ago – Ron MacLean.

When Rogers acquired the rights to the NHL for $5.2-billion they decided to shakeup the prolific Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. The show went from owned by the CBC to subleased by Rogers to the public television network for at least four seasons.

Rogers felt the need to put their mark on the broadcast. In 2014, Stroumboulopoulos was named the host of the show. MacLean, who had been hosting since 1986, was relegated to Hometown Hockey on Sundays and the Coach’s Corner segment with Don Cherry (where he stares longingly at the darkness he hopes will engulf him.)

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In October 2014, the Globe and Mail speculated on the reason for MacLean’s diminished role in an interview with the host:

And even he admits his fractious relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, which saw Bettman boycott Hockey Night after one particularly contentious interview in 2010, might have something to do with it.

… the topic turned to the belief among his broadcasting colleagues that MacLean’s on-air clashes with Bettman played no small role in his reduced role – there were hints MacLean may not be quite as sanguine about the change as it seems. MacLean and Bettman usually butted heads over labour-management issues in the NHL. MacLean consistently took the players’ side during interviews because, he said, he firmly believed the league was better off with a strong NHL Players’ Association.

“Maybe that hurt me but I would gladly fall on my sword for that principle,” MacLean said. “But I don’t know that it had anything to do with [a reduced role]. It could have.”

The article goes on to allege that Commissioner Bettman and then-COO John Collins had significant influence on the broadcast while HNIC was under the umbrella of the CBC. When Rogers took over the rights, that influence extended to on air talent. Collins left the NHL a year after the demotion of MacLean.

A month following the Globe and Mail article, the Montreal Gazette published a poll stating “74 per cent of the respondents feel that Ron MacLean’s reduced role has hurt the Hockey Night in Canada brand.”

The logic behind the Strombo hire in the first place appeared to be the possibility of his appeal to a new, younger demographic who were familiar with him outside of hockey. His propensity for skinny ties and studs in his ears must have been exciting at first, but according to Feschuk, that grew thin on the brass running the show:

“Insiders say executives suggested to Stroumboulopoulos that he tweak his appearance to be less jarring to some mainstream eyes. A trip to the tailor for a more conventional wardrobe was on the list of polite requests … Sources say he didn’t appear to see the need for a makeover.”

HOLD ON JUST A MINUTE. The Old Boys Club has a problem with the way Strombo dresses, but they’ll give a multiyear extension to the human acid trip ?

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Moving on…

It appears as if Strombo is a victim of Canadian hockey circumstance.

Again, from Feschuk:

Whether or not Stroumboulopoulos succeeded in luring in younger viewers, his presence didn’t do much for the show’s overall ratings, which have been lagging since he arrived. The reasons for that trend, of course, can hardly be laid at the feet of one on-air personality. It hasn’t helped that the ratings-driving Maple Leafs have struggled through a couple of seasons in which they finished 27th and 30th in the 30-team league, nor that this spring marked just the second time in the century-plus history of the NHL a Canadian team didn’t make the playoffs.

Many appear to be relatively neutral to Stroumboulopoulos on the broadcast. He didn’t add much to it, but he wasn’t completely terrible either. Strombo did the best in the circumstance he was in; a fresh face among the old guard.

If anything, they dumped him too soon. A full year of Connor McDavid plus Auston Matthews on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens not being terrible will boost the ratings instantaneously.

Bringing back MacLean is like the arrival of your favorite uncle to a dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner. He has great stories and can handle the various personalities. From there it’s a bunch of old white guys complaining about the good old days where traumatic brain injury was part of game.

One bright spot as far as in-game talent is Mike Johnson who works between the benches on select broadcasts. The former NHL player was used during the playoffs as part of Sportsnet broadcast. He has a way of breaking down a game that’s easy to digest and won’t send you into a rage spiral like Glenn Healy.

As far as the commentary goes Elliotte Friedman, Chris Johnston, Cassie Campbell, and Jeff Marek (admittedly, we’re biased) continue to be underutilized in favor of the old boys club that surrounds hockey broadcasting. Their willingness to toe the line with the NHL and team executives likely makes the suits at the network nervous.

If nothing else changes on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, it appears that Rogers is abandoning the plan to attract new, young viewers in order to placate the old ones.

One has to wonder: is Hockey Night in Canada beyond repair?

UPDATE: Ron MacLean says to tap the breaks for now. “I’m kind of focused on that and I think there’s this feeling that we may do more or that I may do more going forward but I can guarantee that it’s not solid yet until Scott Moore says it is,” he said.