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Bruce Dowbiggin

How Kevin Bieksa Taught HNIC To Laugh At Itself

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Like Ozymandias lying stolidly in the windswept desert for centuries, Hockey Night In Canada has endured. Okay, maybe not that long. But it seems like the format, the tone, the zeitgeist of the program has been locked in for as long as memory serves.

That tone was serious, sombre, even a touch grim. As the technology of the show soared and danced, the editorial drift was rooted on the spot. Levity? Humour? Irony? Nope. In part, this was due to the lengthy reign of Don Cherry and Ron Maclean over the editorial. It was Grandpa Simpson’s fierce-old-man-cursing-clouds leavened with a highly-sentimental-pensioner.

If there were any levity it escaped our attention. But there is evidence that with Cherry gone and Maclean playing Goodbye Mr. Chips that a sea change is occurring on at least two fronts. One is the emergence of former Canuck Kevin Bieksa as the new tone-setter of the editorial. The other is the embrace of betting on the show.

Bieksa— whom Cherry always malapropped as Bieska— was a good quote for years in the dressing rooms of the Canucks and Ducks. Among the many gems that filled reporters’ notebooks was this one on the sex appeal of the Sedins: “Two good looking red heads with goatees, how can you resist?”

But as we’ve seen too often to count, locker-room wit can melt like the snow under the hot lights of TV. Yet Bieksa has been a moveable feast. His insouciance with media has become his ragging on the fellow panelists during intermissions that used to be as much fun as skating in July. (Wait, they’re doing that this year!)

In particular, Bieksa’s ongoing banter over reporter Elliotte Friedman’s garish wardrobe and hockey experience are must-watch. (Friedman gets in his own shots.) What he says is rarely as important as how he says it. Lippy, sarcastic, sardonic, disruptive.

Bieksa told Lisa Dillman of The Athletic that his inexperience might be a bonus. “I feel like I came out of the gate, raw and almost naïve to everything, but I thought that really helped me. I don’t know if that makes any sense… You don’t get sucked into the everyday lingo and what other people are doing. ”

The former Canuck is also good on the whiteboard stuff, although the panels have others who can talk shop. He talks the Cherry Code of honour without any of the accompanying blood lust. Sunday he was on point showing how the Rangers lulled Tampa’s Alex Killorn into cheating in the defensive zone, leading to a New York goal.

There’s no going back since Bieksa joined the crew in 2020. The younger iteration of the crew has moved it into less formal territory. HNIC is no longer a church, it’s a supper club.  Bieksa is now the must-watch for his hockey insight, but even more so for his “what will he say now?” quality.

The other altering change on HNIC has been its embrace of betting. As we’ve written numerous times, sports wagering is the temptation that has finally had its way with pro sports. For over a hundred years betting was the poison that haunted sports. With the integrity of the event in question, there could be no hint of tainting games.

But after all this time, repressing sports betting did not prevent the growth of the industry. The online global betting industry began encroaching on the property of the sports leagues, earning them nothing from their own product. Governments responded with ponderous betting schemes such as ProLine where bettors had to go in person to stores and outlets.

With the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2018 allowing regulated sports betting in states, the lid was off on social media betting. In Canada, Ontario finally legalized online online betting in 2021, opening the door for co-operation between media and casinos/ online sites.

And so betting has come to HNIC. To say that traditionalists hate the segments on the show is understating it. Former HNIC host Dave Hodge summed up the disdain: “Tonight from Edmonton, “that” HNIC “intermission feature” will remind us that every Canadian kid should dream of placing a winning bet on a Stanley Cup playoff game.” Ouch.

Editorial Note: We have long been advocating for the integration of legalized betting with sports broadcasts. Lord knows we could do with fewer vapid interviews and more content that affects the viewer. In time, betting will fill that gap.

But for now, the broadcasters haven’t a clue how to make the content interesting. It;’s like the old beer ads where they weren’t allowed to show a bottle or people drinking. Somewhere between glassy-eyed analytics nerds and flashy Nathan Detroit characters lies a formula for acknowledging the reality of betting and making it palatable. Maybe even fun.

The current attempts are closer to community cable than network TV. It may take a breakthrough star to show HNIC and other sports broadcasts the future of their marriage to the betting industry.

To those who say it encourages the addictive lure of betting— yes, it does. But HNIC and other sports broadcasters have been flogging alcohol for decades. And not many things are more addictive than alcohol. Betting isn’t going away. It remains for the networks to find a palatable format that reflects that reality.

 

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). The best-selling author was nominated for the BBN Business Book award of 2020 for Personal Account with Tony Comper. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book with his son Evan Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History is now available on http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

The Cooler: Harper Attempts To Pacify CPC Over Poilievre

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As demons go, Stephen Harper always left something to be desired. While the media and his political opponents painted a picture of a diabolical schemer bent of hoarding power, Harper mostly bored ordinary Canadians. For all the strenuous efforts of newsrooms and chat rooms tapping him as Trump, The Harp lacked a certain je ne sais quoi when it came to ruthless maniacs.

So the sudden re-appearance last month of Canada’s previous PM to throw his support to Pierre Poilievre in the Conservative Party leadership race took on a sinister tone with the usual suspects. Harper’s brand of lukewarm western populism was taken out for another thrashing. CBC typically quoted a Dutch political scientist Hans Mudde as saying, ”Populism presents a Manichean outlook, in which there are only friends and foes.” Etc.

In truth it is likely Harper emerged from the business of making money to bless Poilievre’s massive lead in the CPC leadership for several reasons. The most obvious is that he recognizes the inevitability of Poilievre’s win and wishes to deny the media an electoral horse race orgy till September.

But mostly it is to signify that despite the Toronto Star and CBC’s histrionic protests, Poilievre will be a populist more in Harper’s own image than that of Donald Trump. He only appears radical to the pearl clutchers of urban Toronto.

You can understand why the Family Compact is agitated by Poilievre. With their Golden Boy Justin Trudeau imploding and Poilievre talking about removing the Bank Of Canada governor and stripping CBC of funding, this threatens to get out of their control. Not even the RCMP can bail out Justin now. Harper’s benediction is meant to still that radicalism in the mind of Tory voters.

But as we wrote on May 22, 2022, Poilievre himself is unafraid to thrash about in the Trumpian waters. He’s rejecting further debates, walling himself off from the Trudeau-funded media. “Poilievre has channelled the voters’ disgust with Trudeau and the Ottawa status quo epitomized by the Trucker Convoy. That disgust includes the grandees of his own party who foisted Scheer and O’Toole on the nation .

Their 2022 candidate is the well-worn place holder Jean Charest, failed Conservative and tainted Liberal premier of Québec from 2003 to 2012. Charest’s policy chest sounds like a throwback to the days when language battles and Québec sovereignty were the burning issues. He’s pro-choice, and he knocks PP for supporting the Truckers.

In the (first) debate, Poilievre did not spare Charest. “Now, Mr. Charest learned about the trucker convoy on CBC like other Liberals… He believes I should be cancelled from this leadership race, and disqualified, his words, because I don’t share his Liberal viewpoint.”

“That is the kind of cancel culture and censorship that you would expect from Justin Trudeau, but instead we’re getting it from this liberal on this stage.” He then slammed Charest on his Quebec Liberal party’s alleged acceptance of illegal donations during his time as Québec premier. And his ties to Huawei. “The average trucker has more integrity in his pinky finger than you had in your entire scandal-plagued Liberal cabinet,”

It was red meat for frustrated Conservatives who finally see a champion in the manner of  Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a tiger who won’t back up in the face of Andrew Coyne huffing and puffing about nasty truckers. It resounds with Conservatives who refuse to accommodate themselves to a Liberal reality.

Naturally this brought out the Conservatives version of Charlie the Tuna. They want Tories with good taste, not Tories who taste good. They’re appropriating all the Donald Trump derangement beloved by Canadian pack Media. 

“Yesterday’s debate was embarrassing for our party,” said CPC leadership candidate Scott Aitchison. “The fighting, yelling and screaming. The partisan cheap shots at fellow Conservatives. We will never win another election if this is how we talk to each other and Canadians.”

Yeah. Because all the “fighting, yelling and screaming” is why Canadians refused to vote for Scheer and O’Toole. Erstwhile Ontario leader Patrick Brown, who took a powder in the debate, also played the Stop Shouting card. “After watching the debate, I can’t help but wonder: how can any of these candidates expect to unite our party and expand our Conservative coalition if they’re already adopting a scorched-earth approach?” 

Reform Party founder Preston Manning also demurred. “Stay away from the personal attacks that only poison the party well and reinforce the public’s negative perception of party politics.”

Have these people noticed that, while the CPC plays rock/paper/scissors,  the Liberals are waging drone war on them? Like Republicans— who talk tough and then support Democrats sending g $40 B in untraceable money to Ukraine— the CPC has a credibility problem.

They want to win the government. To do so they need to penetrate southern Ontario and urban areas of Montreal and the Lower Mainland B.C. The leaders of the party— prompted by the Hill press corps— insist that you can beat Trudeau by using a feather duster on him.

Poilievre— a bilingual Alberta product who represents an Ottawa riding—  dares to disagree. (He says he would fire the Bank of Canada governor if elected prime minister). He’s willing to go over the heads of the CBC chattering class and Liberals pollsters who offer unwanted advice such as: “Conservatives must ask themselves if they are falling victim to the ease of stoking and selling the politics of anger,” says pollster Tim Powers.

The outcome of a Poilievre leadership may be another schism between Reform elements and establishment Ottawa TV panel figures. But Poilievre’s attitude in the face of Trump phobia will remain much like the irascible John Diefenbaker who blew out of the West in 1957, defying the status quo, to win the PMO twice. In the face of blowback from those quivering at Liberal omnipotency Dief opined, “You can’t stand up for Canada with a banana for a backbone.”

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft YearsIn NHL History, , his new book with his son Evan, was voted the eighth best professional hockey book of by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted seventh best, and is available via http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

 

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Bruce Dowbiggin

See No Evil, Hear No Evil: We’ve Been Here Before

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The news from the Hockey Canada sexual scandals keeps getting uglier. Sponsors are abandoning an organization thought beyond reproach just a year ago. Politicians are roasting HC executives. The IIHF is to determine whether it should withdraw tournaments from Canada till the mess is cleaned up. And the NHL is fretting that it houses sexual assault suspects— some big stars— from as far back as 2003.

The current parliamentary hearings over the 2018 WJHC champions have made HC toxic— its women’s team is expressing disgust with the organization. that represents them. The story is hampered by the fact that nothing has been proven or even alleged by police. The process has existed in a world of non-disclosure agreements and allegations and media distortions of the facts. (We’re told there are videos of the incident yet no one in the Ottawa hearings seemed to mention them.)

Faced with the uncertainties and player refusals to cooperate Hockey Canada threw up its hands and paid off the complainant.  The public is baffled. Who are the players involved? Who is innocent? Who is guilty? What is the evidence? Why did this stay hidden? How did Hockey Canada miss so badly?

So far the picture is opaque. Can we ever believe in the sports body again? Currently hockey is being used as a metaphor by all sorts of political actors to push narratives about male privilege and social inequality. What has been consistent is the excellent reporting (again) of TSN’s Rick Westhead and Katie Strang in The Athletic. Their dogged research and courage in exposing these stories is exceptional.

What’s also consistent is the tardy response of the mainstream hockey press that is now finally coming around to this story. There are hundreds of reporters and media outlets that seem to cover everything that moves in the sport. Yet a story that implicates the names of the current Conn Smythe winner and other young NHL stars— without vindicating them— is festering.

It’s not the first time in recent memory. In June of 2021— when sexual assault allegations on the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks emerged— we asked, “Most damning is where were the dozens of hockey “insiders” in the media during this time? The people we are told have their ear to the ground on all things happening in the league? Why did it take till 2021 for Rick Westhead (TSN) and Katie Strang (The Athletic) to unearth the poorly hidden story during the NHL’s postseason semifinals. 

Isn’t this the same media that swore it would never ignore this sort of story— no matters how much it hurt friends and sponsors—  when the Graham James and Dave Frost stories emerged? Aren’t these the same networks that went wall-to-wall on the earlier stories when they surfaced, trying to make up for their negligence about sexual abuse in hockey during the past? 

Sadly, the hockey media culture is the same one we encountered in the 1990s when, along with Carl Brewer, Sue Foster and Russ Conway, we exposed the corruption between the league and NHL Players Association director Alan Eagleson on a range of subjects from player pensions to collective bargaining to Canada Cup fraud. 

That story had lain dormant for a generation despite the repeated calls by Brewer for investigations into the cozy relationship between the league and Eagleson. Media with NHL sponsorships or broadcast deals would rather have eaten glass than reported what they saw.

Thanks to the digging of Conway, Foster and CBC Toronto the truth emerged in the mid 1990s. Eagleson was convicted of fraud and NHL president John Ziegler was replaced by Gary Bettman. A familiar pattern then ensued. When the facts (about James or Frost) became too hard to deny the negligent media put on the hair shirt, condemning corruption and vowing to never allow its negligence to happen again. 

Later, they grew even tighter with the people they covered, inking enormous broadcast deals or sponsorship contracts that have drawn them ever closer to hockey power centres. 

The NHL (went) into omertà mode when asked how it countenanced the alleged behaviour of Chicago team management in ignoring a sexual predator and then giving him a letter of recommendation. Stan Bowman, the son of NHL Hall of Fame member Scotty Bowman, is not answering questions yet. But as general manager of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey program for 2022 he will have to offer some explanations if he’s to keep the post. [he’s since been removed from both posts.]

Former Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, who was a Chicago player at the time, says, “I was not part of any meeting & I was not part of any decision & I was not aware of what was going on at the time. You can go on the record with that.” Done.

One would like to take the league and their snoozing media at their word that they will do better in covering these abuse stories in the past. Sadly, there is little reason to believe this contrition after so many false starts in the past.”

As we are seeing, the false starts continue.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft YearsIn NHL History, , his new book with his son Evan, was voted the eighth best professional hockey book of by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted seventh best, and is available via http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

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