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Puck Heads Vs Talking Heads

By Mike Toth

Let us now talk about terrible television.

Most in-game interviews featuring TV talking heads and NHL'ers have always made for cringe-worthy viewing. But thanks to the COVID curse, they've only gotten worse. With social distancing "Zoom Chats" now all the media rage, hockey players and coaches look more like old school hostages trying to assure everyone that their kidnappers are treating them well. Just once, by the way, wouldn't you love to see one of those captives say "The heck with it!" and tell the truth?

"I gotta be honest, folks. It's brutal. You'd think one of these idiot kidnappers could throw me a bone and at least toss an "Archie" comic book into my cell."

Alas, that never happens; and we never get a whole lot out of those painfully boring intermission interviews either. In 1998, I was the on-site host for Edmonton Oilers telecasts on Sportsnet and was primed and pumped to break the boring mold. One of my first intermission guests was Pat Falloon, a former first round NHL draft pick who joined the Oilers after a disappointing start to his career with the San Jose Sharks. One of the knocks on Falloon was that he wasn't always in the best physical condition. But when I asked Pat about it during our TV chat, the Oilers reacted as if I'd grilled the poor kid on whether he'd ever attended a pro-Trump rally. The Oilers media relations director said it was an unfair question and claimed Falloon was very upset. But when I asked Pat about it at practice the next day, he just laughed it off and admitted that his fitness level wasn't the greatest during his early NHL years - no big surprise, as a lot of young players have to learn what being in "NHL shape" is really all about. Still, I was soon summoned for a meeting with my network producer, who informed me of the official rules of an NHL intermission interview.

"You ask a player for his thoughts on the first period," my boss explained. "Then ask him what he expects in the second period and if he's coming off an injury, ask him how he feels."

Scintillating stuff.

No wonder the poor audience receives typical puck head responses such as "We gotta get pucks out, we gotta get pucks deep, and we gotta get pucks to the net." After listening to that drivel, I lasted just one year as the Oilers host before begging to return to a studio gig where you can display at least a little creativity delivering the nightly hilites.

The relationship between the NHL and the TV networks that cover the games has always made for strange bedfellows. On one hand, networks fork over millions of dollars to the league and teams for the broadcast rights. Rogers Sportsnet, for instance, is in the middle of a 12-year $5.2 billion dollar deal to carry the NHL product. But the networks seem hesitant to demand a bigger bang for their buck, often allowing the NHL to lord over the content and control the message. It's ridiculous, for instance, that the NHL and it's broadcast partners simply stand by while Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella acts like a buffoon every time he appears on "COVID Cup" Zoom interviews. One word answers, a condescending manner and absolutely no insight - it's an embarrassing display for a league that always needs to battle the NFL, NBA and MLB for exposure. To their credit, young stars such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs often talk about the importance of selling the game to the modern generation. Matthews fancies himself as a fashion plate and loves modelling the latest clothing styles, while Marner is a social media maven who connects with young fans through his passion for video games.

All of that is fantastic.

But when the M & M boys were interviewed during their recent pandemic play-in series against Columbus, both of them dropped the marketing ball in a big way. After scoring the overtime winner to cap the Leafs miraculous comeback in game four, Matthews looked like he couldn't get to the dressing room fast enough even though talented Sportsnet reporter Caroline Cameron did everything she could to try and showcase the personality of the Leafs sniper. After their crushing loss in game five, meanwhile, Matthews and Marner looked like a couple of kids called into the principal's office after deploying a stink bomb in chemistry class. Shrugging their shoulders and delivering short, pouty responses, the Leafs dynamic duo missed out on a great opportunity to display their intelligence, class and grace in a difficult situation.

So, how do we get away from all of these unsatisfying, robotic and mind-numbing soundbites during NHL telecasts? One potential solution is for the networks and the NHL to work together and hire  experienced media coaches to get the two sides on the same promotional page.

The game plan is pretty simple. 

Encouraging reporters to have the confidence to ask more compelling questions, teaching players and coaches to deliver more thought-provoking answers, and ultimately creating a better product for the viewers at home. 

At the end of the day, it's all about selling the game. 

But it's also important to keep people from tossing their beer mug at the tube the next time a rinkside reporter asks, "Hey Bobby, can you give us your thoughts on the first period?"

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