October 08, 2010
Versus, the NHL's cable home since the lockout, has a specific editorial aim when it comes to hockey: Don't have the homerish specificity of local hockey coverage, but also don't have the broad generalizations of NBC's NHL season for dummies coverage.
Leon Schweir, Versus' executive producer for sports, likes to use commentator Eddie Olczyk as the personification of this. He's hardcore hockey on Chicago Blackhawks broadcasts; aims more for the casual fan on Versus; and then caters to basketball fans who stumbled onto a hockey broadcast when he's on NBC, where "he knows people that are flipping in are probably waiting for the golf," said Schweir with a laugh.
The problem as we see it, and we're not alone, is that Versus' coverage has always been closer to NBC's general tone than one that caters to die-hard hockey fans and knowledgeable puckheads. This is sometimes true within its game coverage, and has been especially true within its studio show.
An example from Thursday night's coverage of the NHL's season openers: The last segment of the Versus pregame show featured TSN's Darren Dreger as the resident newsbreaker/insider analysis guy. To set up the interview, Versus Hockey Central host Bill Patrick did what felt like five minutes of background on the Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) contract rejection from the NHL this summer. His questions to Dreger about the contract are ones hockey fans had stopped asking somewhere around Labor Day.
Shouldn't it be assumed the majority of the audience knows the Kovalchuk affair back to front before opening night? Shouldn't it be assumed that anyone who chooses to watch the NHL on a Thursday night instead of "30 Rock" doesn't need a Cliff's Notes version of a story that, frankly, was moldy bread by Oct. 7?
Versus, however, would have us look at the bigger picture here. Like the fact there was a 30-minute pregame show Thursday night. Like the fact Dreger was a part of it. Like the fact that Kovalchuk's contract and other NHL news was discussed and analyzed. Like the fact that Aaron Ward(notes) was there to save us from the Jones/Engblom blockade that keeps us isolated from our enjoyment.
Versus claims it has heard our criticism and made substantive changes to its coverage. Have they gone far enough to quiet their critics among U.S. hockey fans?
The network's come a long way since the OLN days. It's in 75 million homes and is developing more and more interesting properties like "The Daily Line" (on which I appear often but that I'm uncompensated for, in full disclosure) and that T.O./Chad Ochocinco show you have seen an ad or 50 for Thursday night during NHL coverage.
From a game-production standpoint, Versus' coverage continues to improve. Compelling matchups, announcers that get your attention (for better or worse) and more games on the air than the NHL could ever dream of squeezing out of, say, ESPN. Versus is airing a total of 79 regular-season games, which is 14 more than last season. (The tally includes 26 games of "bonus" coverage.)
"Coming off the Olympics, there was a renewed spirit about hockey, and we wanted to take advantage of it. So we added a lot of bonus games going into the final weeks before the playoffs were determined, and got a nice reaction," said Schweir, in a phone interview this week.
He said the game coverage excels because it focuses on the game rather than on, say, the issues of the day. "We think the best selling point for someone liking hockey is the actual game. Part of our philosophy is what we can do to enhance that experience," he said. "At the same time [our announcers] are calling a good game, it's not the time to go over the latest issues in hockey from that week."
That's the responsibility of the studio, which returned with host Bill Patrick, former Philadelphia Flyers player Keith Jones, ex-NHLer Brian Engblom and his unmistakable mane, as well as some new additions this season. Via Versus:
Last year Hockey Central featured high-profile guest analysts during regular season coverage and will continue to feature guests on select telecasts this year. Darren McCarty(notes), 17-year NHL veteran and four-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Detroit Red Wings, will once again join the studio team as will Aaron Ward, who secured three Stanley Cup Champion titles during his 13 years in the NHL. The studio show will also feature Mike Milbury, currently an analyst for NHL telecasts on NBC and CBC and whose NHL tenure included a 12-season career with the Boston Bruins and as GM of the Islanders, on several telecasts. Dave Maloney, who played in the NHL for 11 seasons and was the youngest player to serve as Captain for the New York Rangers, will also make in-studio appearances.
These characters will not only appear between periods, but on a series of 30-minute pregame shows that Schweir said will cater to fans clamoring for more "big issue" coverage on the NHL's national TV home.
"This year we're adding more pregames than we had before," he said. "We have the chance to take a broader stroke. You have the time to do it. It isn't a two-minute segment between commercials, between periods."
The pregame shows will feature news from Dreger; short video segments, like the one that tracked the Blackhawks with the Cup that aired Thursday night; and panelist debates about the issues of the day and the games that evening.
The problem with the panel, frequently: It's a snooze. Like Thursday night when Jones, Engblom and Ward all said the Detroit Red Wings were the team to beat in the West. No deviation. No variation. Just three guys exchanging smiles that their views were homogenous. It was a wasted segment.
There's a politeness that undercuts a lot of what's said on these hockey studio shows, and Versus' is no exception. The most controversial thing said Thursday night might have been Ward putting over Tuukka Rask(notes) for the Vezina; but then again, they used to be teammates.
"We're never going to be a screaming show. But I agree with you: Getting people to voice their point of view more would be great. It's hard to get hockey players, or ex-hockey players, to get to a higher level of debating," said Schweir, who said the pregame show format will offer a chance for those debates to occur organically.
"Now we're at a level we've never been at before. There was a limit to how much we could do."
Bringing in fresh voices -- well, fresh for Versus -- will help. So would more integration of digital media like VERSUS.com, which boasts writers like Adrian Dater of the Denver Post who stir more controversy on two paragraphs than the Versus panel does in two periods of hockey. Schweir said there will be more integration between broadcast and digital.
"We have our share of content on VERSUS.com, but the NHL also has a compelling site. We always put our material and stuff that we've done and we try to have an overall view of the NHL. But obviously NHL.com can cover the areas we're not covering," he said.
The problem is that Versus' coverage can at times mimic that of NHL.com; which is to say it feels filtered and state-controlled, that punches need to be pulled if Gary Bettman is going to join the broadcast team during the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins game.
It's a criticism of Versus. One of many. And to their credit, they've listened, and listened good. The pregame show may turn out to be exactly what puckheads have been missing in this coverage if the network is willing to take chances and continue the dialogue with its viewers. You know, the ones who don't need the Kovalchuk timeline eating up valuable "real estate" on the air. (And don't need concerts from Canadian bands unheard on U.S. radio.)
Paul Kukla, one of the most respected hockey bloggers and fans around, may have said it best Friday morning via Twitter: "If they are trying to reach someone else besides a hockey fan, I guess they are achieving what they want."
Schweir said the network keeps an open mind.
"We always listen, but we take everything with a grain of salt. When I listen is when I know there were mistakes, and I want to see what effect it had on the viewer when there have been mistakes," he said.
"I'll tell you this: I know for a fact that we had almost 165 games and we never missed a goal. What do you want to see? You want to see a goal scored. You can complain about this and that, but that's solid coverage."