Mar 11, 2015, 06:48AM

Sports Television is Yesterday’s Medium

What do hockey commentators do for 10 hours of TV?

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It’s the morning of Monday, March 2, and a surprising number of Canadians are setting out to do a full day’s work. Surprising because the National Hockey League’s trade deadline hits at three p.m. Eastern, and national sport networks in both official languages are running hours-long specials dedicated to breaking down all the last-minute deals as playoff teams load up. Most years this makes for a good day to call in sick. But over the last week most of this year’s expected deals have already been made. Without many big names on the market, the deadline’s expected to be a dud.

Which leads me to wonder: what do hockey commentators do for 10 hours of TV when there’s nothing much to talk about?

As an exercise in schadenfreude I decide to tune in and watch hockey men and professional journalists vamping for hours on end while waiting for something to happen. I know the French networks can talk about the Montreal Canadiens for hours, especially this year when the Habs are at the top of the standings and may be one of the teams still looking to make a deal. So I pick one of the English-language broadcasts, and at eight a.m. tune in to TSN, The Sports Network; I think on the whole they have a better and wittier staff than their competition, Sportsnet. (In fact, at TSN’s first commercial break, I flip over and see painfully unfunny analyst Glen Healy mocking his far-superior co-worker Eliotte Friedman by showing tape of Friedman at a celebrity poker tournament; it seems awfully early in the day to be pushed so far, but for Sportsnet this is their top material.)

The TSN crew are prepared for dead air. They’ve got multiple panels of journalists and insider rumor-mongers, plus a few scouting analysts, correspondents with each of the Canadian teams, even a musician hired to stand around in studio and compose theme songs for each trade as it happens. The first hour’s relaxed enough: introducing their cast, running down rumors, and discussing a couple of deals that took place overnight (two trades involving three players and four picks), notably the Tampa Bay Lightning adding defenseman Brayden Coburn. These guys are pros. They know it’s a long haul before them: a bit past 8:30 they show a graphic saying that the first deals of the past few deadline days have come in between 10:30 and 12:30.

Except this year at 8:55 a.m., defenseman Jeff Petry is dealt from Edmonton to Montreal for draft picks. It’s a deal that people have been talking about for a while, and probably became inevitable when Montreal’s competition in Tampa added Coburn. TSN is on it fast, talking to a sleepy Petry (it’s 6:55 Edmonton time) even before Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin gets through to him, and only 10 minutes after Oilers GM Craig McTavish woke Petry up with news of the deal. Petry—who, incidentally, is the son of former Major League Baseball pitcher Dan Petry—was the biggest name widely expected to move. What’s left for the rest of the day?

The trade’s big enough for the TSN crew to analyze it for a long time. They also dissect the troubled Oilers franchise, which is the sort of thing that can take a while; before long the panel’s arguing over the Oilers’ choice in the 2012 entry draft. It gets heated, which is unexpected this early in the day.

Just before 9:30 I flip over to Sportsnet, where things are a bit uncomfortable. It’s not entirely surprising the Philadelphia Flyers are involved. A report’s surfaced that the Flyers are trying to trade for the LA Kings’ Slava Voynov, a talented defenseman who’s currently suspended pending a trial for domestic violence. TSN doesn’t go with the story. At this point nothing’s confirmed, and anyway they’ve lined up a phone interview with Coburn. I see on Twitter that the report’s soon debunked; nothing to it after all.

Instead TSN spends a long segment talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs. “TSN” doesn’t actually stand for “Toronto Sports Network,” but occasionally they forget. A long discussion of the Ottawa Senators follows, some interviews with various general managers, and lots of speculation. The TSN gang does a good job of sounding intrigued by possibilities that they’ve all thought about and discussed for days. Probably the very real chance that something could happen at any moment adds spice.

At 10:30, as one of the panels discuss the New York Rangers’ power play, a wide shot shows stagehands bringing two llamas onto the set. Canadian Twitter explodes with llama jokes. The llamas are upstaged by a report on the Winnipeg Jets. Then the Montreal Canadiens deal a low draft pick for a depth center from the Buffalo Sabres, Brian Flynn. The llamas have to wait. A few minutes before 11 St Louis picks up the injured Zbynek Michalek from Arizona for prospect Maxim Letunov and a draft pick. It looks like things are happening.

And then nothing does. The trades stop, at least for the moment, and the TSN panel discusses all the Canadian teams. You watch them and realize that these are people who are legitimately passionate about hockey, and if they’ve talked all these issues through in the days and weeks before, they still feel strongly about them, raising their voices and shouting over each other.

This is TSN’s basic strategy: get a lot of hockey guys together, and have them argue over anything. Will Los Angeles get into the playoffs? Will San Jose fail to get in? Get the right mix of personalities and knowledge, and you have a variety of talking heads in a variety of sets; move from one panel to another often enough, and you have the illusion of action. Add some dramatic music, the occasional highlight package, tickers running along the bottom and right side of the screen, and it looks like things are happening even when nothing is.

Finally, at 11:30, the llamas make their big appearance, in a filmed segment from the TSN parking lot. They don’t seem terribly amused. But then it’s not a very funny bit. TSN goes to commercial with host James Duthie openly saying, “We need some deals.” None comes by noon. TSN starts looking back at last year’s trades. Meanwhile, Sportsnet acknowledges that the Voynov report was based on erroneous reporting (not theirs).

At 12:30 the TSN reporter in Calgary has breaking news: Calgary’s Dennis Wideman’s been pulled over by his coach during practice and given a phone. He’s speaking into it intently. Is something happening? After a few minutes it becomes clear. No. No, nothing’s going on. Except that Calgary Flames President Brian Burke has decided to play a joke on the media.

While this has been happening, TSN’s gotten itself into trouble. At the bottom of the screen during their broadcast they’re scrolling through tweets. I’ve been ignoring them. But one of the tweets was a bad joke from a Toronto fan playing on rumors of one Leafs player having an affair with another player’s wife. Justifiable outrage follows from the player, as well as fans irate at misogyny in the hockey world. TSN pulls the tweet, apologizes, and promises they’ve changed their protocols to ensure that sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

Meanwhile, one of the TSN llamas now has his own Twitter account. By 12:43 PM he has 100 followers.

One of the TSN analysts (Martin Biron) tells a long-winded story about his playing days. Another (Ron Wilson) tells a longer story about his coaching days. They go to the in-studio musician for a song. The song is about how desperate they are to fill airtime.

At about 12:55 Sportsnet scoops TSN with a trade I’ve just seen reported on Twitter: Ben Smith goes from the Chicago Blackhawks to San Jose for Andrew Desjardins. It’s another depth move. TSN reports it at 12:58. With two hours to go till deadline, six trades have been made, moving nine players and eight draft picks.

Then, while TSN’s paused for a news update, word comes of another trade, as the Detroit Red Wings get Marek Zidlicky from the New Jersey Devils for a conditional draft pick. Zidlicky, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, was one of the best defenders likely to move—so will this prompt another team to snap up one of the other options available? Or the reverse: is that Detroit’s main move? There had been rumors they were interested in Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf, and word has begun to circulate on Twitter that Toronto will retain some of Phaneuf’s salary if necessary… does this new deal mean he’s not going anywhere? The panel spins the Zidlicky move into these and other questions, building suspense.

At 1:20 the New York Islanders pick up veteran bottom-six forward Tyler Kennedy from San Jose. TSN reports this, and then interviews Dennis Wideman about the practical joke he played on them. “I’m not sure if we should be mad at you or thankful you gave us at least a minute of excitement,” says Duthie, who goes on to say he’s aware that show’s become “a parody of itself” with a group of analysts “talking for 10 hours about Ben Smith for Andrew Desjardins.”

It’s a moment of unexpected honesty. Why not? What’s he got to lose? If you’ve been watching this long, you’re probably going to keep watching. The show goes to commercial, then comes back and a panel begins earnestly breaking down an animated commercial for itself. Those who think there is no irony in hockey would be surprised by the levels of meta this show is uncovering.

In the next segment, John Liu, TSN’s correspondent with the Canadiens, promises TSN will be on the arrival of Jeff Petry “like flies on a llama.”

Meanwhile, more of those depth moves continue. Ian Cole from St. Louis to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Robert Bortuzzo. Freddie Hamilton from the Sharks to Colorado for Karl Stollery. An hour and 20 minutes to go. Michal Neuvirth from Buffalo to the Islanders for Chad Johnson and a third round pick. Overall 11 trades, 17 players, 12 picks. Pause. And debate over whether it’s sportsmanlike for the Buffalo Sabres to be tanking for a high draft pick, even though they’ve been clearly designing their team to tank since before the start of the season. But it fills time.

A little after two p.m. Vancouver acquires minor-league forward Cory Conacher from the Islanders for fellow minor-leaguer Dustin Jeffrey. A few minutes later Minnesota gets Jordan Leopold and a fifth from the Columbus Blue Jackets for Justin Falk. Arizona gets David Leggio from the New York Islanders organization.

(Leggio, incidentally, is a minor-league goaltender who gained some notoriety earlier this year from exploiting a quirk of the rules. If a goaltender deliberately causes a stoppage by knocking the net off its moorings during a breakaway, the other team gets a penalty shot. Leggio was in nets when the team he was playing against got a 2-on-0 break against him. Seeing the two players coming, Leggio knocked his net off—turning the 2-on-0 into a slightly more manageable penalty shot where he only had to face one shooter.)

A pause. Just before 2:30 the Maple Leafs send fading veteran Olli Jokinen to St. Louis for a late-round pick (and, it later emerges, depth center Joakim Lindstrom). Another pause. No tension from the TSN crew, and no sense that they’re expecting something bigger to come. Word begins to come down from various teams that they’re done for the day.

A letter written by Jordan Leopold’s daughter emerges on Twitter. Leopold’s family lives in Minnesota, although Leopold himself was playing for Columbus up until about an hour ago. In January Leopold’s 11-year-old daughter wrote to the Minnesota Wild asking them to trade for her father so he could come home. Now they have. Duthie reads the letter out on the air. It makes for a sweet story. Above all, it makes for a story.

There’re 11 minutes left to the deadline, and the panel is casual. This is where you expect things to happen. And news of deals can trickle out for a while after three, so they’re going to have material for a while. Just before deadline word comes the Habs have acquired Torrey Mitchell for a minor-league player and a draft pick. At five seconds to three people in the background shout. A bell rings, marking the deadline. The guys in the back are working the phones, trying to get the details of the last deals of the day. At the moment 17 trades have been made, moving 27 players and 17 picks.

Now, the last transactions. Pittsburgh gets Ben Lovejoy from Anaheim for Simon Despres. Calgary trades young Sven Baertschi to Vancouver for a second rounder. Chris Stewart goes from Buffalo to Minnesota for a second-round pick. Stewart’s odd; he had a good season a few years ago, a lot of commentators like him, but analysts who follow advanced stats think he’s vastly overrated. Rumors had him going to Boston. TSN gives him a call; he doesn’t know what’s happening—“I haven’t heard anything, yet, guys, what’s, ah, what’s the word?” They tell him Minnesota, and Stewart, who seems to be the laid-back sort, is fine with that: “Sounds good.”

Then TSN talks to Mitchell, who is thrilled, going from the worst team in the league to the top team in the Eastern conference—which also happens to be his hometown team, and his childhood favorite. It’s a nice story on which to end.

If it were the end. There’re a couple hours still to go. A few more trades filter in: Boston sends Jordan Caron to Colorado for Maxime Talbot, and prospect Jared Knight to Minnesota for Zack Phillips. James Wisniewski goes from Columbus to Anaheim for William Karlsson, Rene Bourque, and a second round pick. Anaheim picks up Korbinian Holzer from Toronto for Eric Brewer and a fifth, as well as Michael Sgarbossa from Colorado in exchange for Mat Clark.

One by one the General Managers of the Canadian teams come out and give press conferences. The panel discusses them, getting into a mock spat as they critique Edmonton. At this point the show’s rolling, though, going from interview to interview. 24 trades, 42 players, 21 picks.

No really big players were moved at the deadline. Quantity, but not much quality. It was a better market for teams tanking than contenders. As TSN’s program winds down, with a full hour looking back at over the two dozen minor deals, I reflect that the broadcast was professional and reasonably engaging, the sort of thing that’s entertaining as background while you deal with not-too-involving work or surf the web. Which is the real problem for the show: Twitter was out ahead of the broadcast on almost every deal. It was, ultimately, an extended illustration of how TV has become yesterday’s medium. Even a live broadcast dedicated to breaking trades can’t keep up with the Internet. Instead, the medium that used to be condemned for being unable to present information with the depth of the written word has the ability to carry interviews and analysis that Twitter can’t.

With 10 minutes left Duthie throws to a clip: “I’m sick of hearing my own voice,” he says. “We are too,” a panelist calls back. There’s a highlight package of the show, and Duthie remarks that it’s all more entertaining in three minutes than in 10 hours. It’s true. The in-studio musician sings them out: “Very little drama, but at least we had some fun.” And that’s the end. Next year, TSN gets to do the whole thing again. Pray for James Duthie.

—Follow Matthew Surridge on Twitter: @Fell_Gard


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