Ron MacLean Not Suited for Hockey Night in Canada

Ron MacLean doesn’t seem suited for the Hockey Night in Canada host job. Not any more.

The Toronto Star has it that George Stroumboulopoulos is out as Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) host. The report suggests Rogers will roll back time and restore Ron MacLean to the host’s chair. It’s a “back to the future” move that resets the iconic brand.

The return of MacLean and his quick puns would be cheered in some quarters, but could it signal the end of Hockey Night as we know it?

Ron MacLean Not Suited for Hockey Night in Canada

Older viewers might find Strombo’s slim suits and red socks an affront to hockey’s tradition of staid personalities. They tolerate Don Cherry’s curtain fabric suits because he preaches from the pulpit of old-school hockey. Strombo, is an outsider, not qualified to talk puck.

Ron MacLean has continued to provide balance and perspective to Don Cherry’s rants. He is the hockey-educated foil who gives Grapes’ wrath a sense of sensibility.

MacLean’s hockey knowledge is infallible and seemingly available on-demand. He is the perfect host of a hockey program.

Classic Old vs New Debate

But his magical ability to conclude segments with a witty pun has about as much appeal to today’s casual fan as his talent as Cherry’s whipping boy. To them, Ron MacLean is merely an endurable – if quite capable – old school hockey broadcaster.

Strombo, on the other hand, is a more contemporary conduit of the national game. If a viewer doesn’t know what the trapezoid is for, or can’t tell you who Harold Ballard was, they can at least appreciate Strombo’s skinny suits, or wonder what’s in his hungry vegan stomach.

Main Stream Appeal

Strombo appeals to viewers who are not necessarily hockey fanatics. They might not have spent their childhood or parenthood trotting bleary-eyed to arenas at six in the morning. They might not spend thousands of dollars a year to have their pre-pubescent kid wear a leather-sleeved team jacket with their name and number monogrammed on the shoulder.

Strombo just might appeal to a segment of viewers who love the drama and excitement of hockey for no more than what it is. They don’t need to be made to feel excluded from a nationalistic ritual just because hockey otherwise plays a small part in their lives.

The needs of the new Canadian audience have become more elemental than having it affirmed that so-and-so was a “good Canadian boy” on the ice. Hockey Night in Canada reintroduces the country to itself every Saturday night. Just as the national anthem itself has evolved to better represent those who sing it, so to does Canada’s favourite television broadcast need to adapt to the changing multimedia landscape.

As HNIC host, Stroumboulopoulos is flanked by a multitude of retired players-turned-broadcasters. Their unique perspectives are highlighted by cringe-inducing hockey instruction on-set in tailored suits. Strombo translates the spectacle for an increasingly diverse viewing audience.

Appealing to the Casual Fan

Stroumboulopoulos is the casual viewer. His role, that of “not the hockey guy”, stands in stark contrast to MacLean’s. MacLean cheer-leads a national fervour for the national game, informed by his in-depth knowledge of the game. Strombo’s approach is to cultivate interest rather than command attention. As he did so successfully with George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, he plays the curious viewer.

The idea that Strombo’s style might be too much for the Hockey Night in Canada audience doesn’t hold water, of course. Don Cherry’s superfluous speeches and suits are in high definition, enough to make eyes water. Ditto for the argument that Strombo is responsible for flagging ratings. Without a playoff-worthy Canadian team to root for this year, can we truly blame viewers for tuning out HNIC and turning on Netflix? Surely no one ever said they were going to “Leafs game and chill”.

Other Changes at HNIC

Speculation about the host of Hockey Night comes on the heels of the firing of HNIC senior vice-president Gord Cutler before the 2016 playoffs, and the subsequent re-signing of Don Cherry. All this plays out against the backdrop of the mammoth broadcast rights deal between Rogers and the NHL.

The CBC was of course in on the bidding back in 2013, although it didn’t have a hope of matching Rogers’ ultimate 12-year, $5.2-million bid. Rogers sensibly kept the Hockey Night brand alive, though as per the terms of the deal the CBC would no longer control the editorial content of its broadcasts, and that includes on-air talent.

Rogers didn’t wait long to put its fingerprints on the show. Mere months after the deal, the company announced that Stroumboulopoulos would headline Hockey Night in Canada, displacing MacLean. However, Maclean remained integral to the show. He continued to work with Cherry in Coach’s Corner. He was also given hosting duties on the new Sunday Night show, Hometown Hockey.

Also as part of the deal, Rogers promised to retain the branding of HNIC for four years. We are now half-way through that term.

Ratings Slip

So the Strombo move, if true, begs the question: is Rogers simply reacting to what is surely a short-term ratings slump? Are they merely reverting to Ron MacLean to shepherd CBC’s older viewers into the sunset of the 2018 NHL playoffs? Is this actually part of the telecom’s long-term strategy for the Hockey Night in Canada brand?

An NHL Playoffs with no Canadian teams isn’t what Rogers signed up for, and was a key factor in the ratings slide. We are now living in an alternate 2016. There no guarantee any of those teams will make the playoffs next year, and Rogers knows it. However, this turn back the clock move is not what their flagship hockey broadcasts needs to stop that ratings slide.


Embed from Getty Images

TORONTO, ON – NOVEMBER 7: Sportscasters Don Cherry (L) and Ron MacLean at Canada’s Walk of Fame red carpet and star unveiling ceremony. (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)