Strombo night in Canada

How George Stroumboulopoulos plans to win over hockey fans and change the way they watch the game

NHL Awards Show

It’s not often Don Cherry gets overshadowed in the wardrobe department. But that’s what happened this week when he shared the stage with the unexpected new face of Hockey Night in Canada, George Stroumboulopoulos. Cherry, surprisingly, was dressed in a relatively tasteful black suit and white shirt. Stroumboulopoulos, or Strombo, as he’s called, wore an open-necked black shirt, tight-fitting black pants and a pair of pre-distressed brown leather wingtips. His trademark earrings dangled from his ears, a skull ring on his finger glinted under the camera lights.

Stroumboulopoulos, who will host Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) beginning in October, joked about the need to “dress for the set” (he was scheduled to tape his TV show George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight immediately after the press conference), but it would be a mistake to assume his new bosses at Rogers Communications Inc. expect him to be your typical, shiny-suit-wearing sports host when he shows up for work in the fall. Instead, the communications giant, which is taking control of CBC’s flagship hockey program as part of its massive $5.2-billion NHL rights deal, is hoping Strombo will help guide its hockey coverage in a unique, new direction, helping to draw in more women, new Canadians and casual hockey fans in the process. “There’s a lot of people on Twitter saying, ‘Oh, eff that guy,’ because I don’t approach this as a straight-up sports gig,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “But no one out there can out-sports-fan me.”

In addition to hosting the main HNIC Saturday night broadcast, Stroumboulopoulos will also be the studio anchor for a new Sunday night show called NHL Hometown Hockey on Rogers-owned City. He will also appear on other NHL-related broadcasts on Rogers’s Sportsnet channel. While the 80-year-old Cherry will still be there in all his floral-print glory on Coach’s Corner, along with Ron MacLean, it is Strombo, a Gen-X vegan with a passion for indie music and motorcycles, that most Canadians will see when they turn on their TV (or tablet or iPhone).

It’s a big gamble—almost as big as the one Rogers took when it signed the 12-year broadcasting agreement with the NHL last November. With the stroke of the pen, Rogers (which owns Maclean’s) cornered the market on national NHL broadcasts in Canada, and now Strombo is the one who will carry the weight of that deal—a tall order for a former MuchMusic veejay who figured his CBC talk show was winding down and made a failed attempt at launching a show on CNN last year. He has none of the traditional hockey broadcaster bona fides—ex-player, ex-coach—other than his passion for the game and congenial on-air personality.

Rogers top brass is acutely aware of the dangers of too much change, too fast. They struck a four-year sharing agreement to keep HNIC on CBC and Cherry and MacLean in the mix, albeit with a reduced role for MacLean. Nevertheless, there’s been a growing sense that HNIC’s best days are behind it. Its narrow focus on talking-head panel segments and insider gossip appeal mostly to hard-core viewers.

Strombo—who can’t help but talk about hockey in a way that infuses the game with all sorts of extra meaning, ranging from cultural to political—is the outsider that Rogers hopes will shake up hockey broadcasting in Canada. While he says his family never had the money for him to play in an organized league, he talks fondly of games of street hockey with phone books for goalie pads and a few years on the high school curling squad, where he wore skinny jeans, a skinny tie and taped the soles of his Dr. Martens boots so they would slide across the ice. But since most kids eventually have to pick a clique, he says he ultimately drifted toward bands and music. “I think it’s going to be funny for those kids who, like you and I, had to make these choices,” he says. “Now they will look at me and say, ‘Well, I guess we don’t have to anymore. Now there’s a Metallica fan who’s hosting Hockey Night In Canada.’ ”

News of Strombo’s appointment may have come as a shock to many, but it was a move long in the making. His name first surfaced six years ago, when the then-head of CBC Sports, Scott Moore, met Strombo for coffee and talked about him playing a role at HNIC. Later, Moore tried to bring him on board for CBC’s Beijing Olympic coverage in 2008, but the scheduling didn’t work. “He’s incredibly bright, a great broadcaster and had some terrific ideas,” recalls Moore, now the president of Sportsnet and NHL at Rogers.

After Rogers struck its deal with the NHL, a small group, including Moore and Keith Pelley, the president of Rogers Media, gathered at a cottage outside Toronto. “We started talking about what we wanted to do to change things up a bit and put a fresh look on the program—not just HNIC but Sportnset as well. His name came up and we all thought, ‘Well that’d be interesting.’ ” Just before the Sochi Olympics, a plan for how to use Strombo, MacLean and Cherry had begun to take shape.

Strombo is among the first to admit that it may take die-hard hockey viewers a while to get used to seeing him on their favourite program. He’s not exactly the jock type. After his current show wraps, he is planning to head down south on his motorcycle, where he will camp or stay in motels and likely take in a concert or rave along the way.

It just goes to show there’s no generally accepted path to the centre of Canada’s hockey universe. MacLean, for example, was a Red Deer, Alta., radio DJ and occasional weatherman before he got his big break replacing Dave Hodge on the broadcast. He was in his mid-20s at the time. By contrast, Strombo comes to HNIC at age 41, with two decades of experience under his belt. And even then, he’s only half the age of Cherry.

Ron MacLean (left) sits alongside Don Cherry as Rogers TV unveil their team for the station's NHL coverage in Toronto on Monday March 10, 2014.

Ron MacLean (left) sits alongside Don Cherry as Rogers TV unveils its team for the station’s NHL coverage in Toronto on March 10, 2014.

Of course, that didn’t make the announcement any less surprising. Even long-time host MacLean said he was caught off guard when the news first broke on Twitter Sunday. “When you wake up and see ‘Strombo Night in Canada,’ you’re like ‘Wait a minute,’ ” he said. “So yeah, I’m human.” Along with Coach’s Corner, MacLean will host a segment on Hometown Hockey that will be broadcast from a different small Canadian town each week. Keeping MacLean (and Cherry) was part of the plan from day one, says Moore. And when the idea for the Hometown segment first emerged, it seemed ideal for MacLean. “I genuinely think Sunday night in a small town in Canada with the NHL backdrop is a good idea,” says MacLean.

It’s no secret that the relationship between the NHL and Hockey Night in Canada under the CBC had become rocky in recent years. That was never more evident than during MacLean’s confrontational interviews with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman—the last of which happened in 2010, when MacLean grilled him about franchise values. (“We’re watching a wonderful game and you just want to tick off franchise after franchise?” said an annoyed Bettman.) “The pressure on me to back off, toe the company line and be a good marketing arm of the NHL is incredible,” he told Maclean’s Jonathon Gatehouse, in the writer’s book on Bettman, The Instigator. MacLean recalled once running into Bettman off-camera. “He walked right up to me and said, ‘You know, I’m the only reason you have a job.’ And he gave me a crocodile smile.”

When asked whether he thought his run-ins with Bettman may have played a role in Rogers’s decision to bring in new blood, MacLean deflects by saying, “That’s a question for Gary”—but notes that Bettman would have had some say in what Rogers does with the HNIC brand.

Either way, the new Sunday night spot featuring MacLean will only be one corner of Rogers’s new hockey broadcasting empire in Canada. The options for watching the NHL will jump exponentially under the new rights deal. In addition to the Saturday and Sunday night broadcasts, Daren Millard will host a Wednesday night show while Jeff Marek hosts another one on Thursdays. Games will also be made available over the web through NHL Centre Ice, streamed to subscribers’ computers, tablets and smartphones. If there’s a game on, it will be playing somewhere in the Rogers universe.

If HNIC is the crown jewel of Canadian hockey, it is also somewhat tarnished. In 2008 it suffered the humiliating loss of its theme song, outbid for the rights by CTV. It has been stalled in the ratings, with as few as 600,000 viewers tuning in to Coach’s Corner midway through last season, as the Globe and Mail reported last year. And it’s pro-Toronto Maple Leafs bias has, for years, grated on fans living outside southern Ontario and become a source of increasing frustration for other Canadian clubs.

Critics say Hockey Night in Canada has become overly reliant on filling intermissions with business and insider gossip. It’s a criticism that could be levelled at a lot of pro-sports coverage. That kind of content is cheap to produce, says Ralph Mellanby, a former executive producer who worked on the show for over 20 years (and hired Cherry). But, he adds, that focus sucks the life out of what makes sports so entertaining: the stories, the characters and the drama. He calls HNIC a “very tired talk, talk, talk show.” Moore says changes are in store, with more focus on the stars of the game. “We want to put the fan back at the centre of the show. I want to see less and hear less about salary caps and NHLPA escrow—and more about why Alex Ovechkin didn’t play well leading into the Olympics or where is Steve Stamkos going to play when he becomes a free agent and what effect that will have on the fans.”

Stroumboulopoulos seems to identify some of the same problems. Just like he feels Canada is ready for a HNIC host who likes going to hip-hop concerts, he believes the country is ready to stop treating its favourite sports heroes like one-dimensional beings who do nothing but give 110 per cent on command. “I think hockey has limited what players have been able to do,” he says. “I think we’ve spent a lot of time in Canada beating the personality out of players. Anytime they have personality, the press generally jumps on them.” Now, thanks to social media, he argues that fans can, for the first time ever, interact directly with their favourite players, and that HNIC needs to reflect that change. “I want to create a space where we’re open to a player being a human being, first of all, but where they can also be interesting and funny and outspoken. My job is not to run a dressing room; that’s the coach’s job. My job is to connect people to the players they love, and there’s lots of ways we can do that. I know a lot of these players are interested in that next step of their development. So we on this broadcast want to create this type of space.”

What’s not yet clear, however, is how exactly Strombo will create the kind of hockey-as-culture he relishes. While he says, Rogers “literally just wanted me to be me,” a hockey discussion with Strombo quickly has a way of morphing into something much bigger and more weighty. Consider his description of growing up in Toronto with hockey in the 1980s: “The Quebec Nordiques were playing, there was a another referendum coming down the pike, Mulroney has his majority, but he was a prime minister from Quebec. Then there was this Western alienation and the rise of the Oilers and the rivalry between the Flames and Canucks.” Hockey fans may not know what hit them.

Ellin Bessner, a journalism professor at Toronto’s Centennial College, is among those who believe Strombo will be a good fit for the program, although she says her hockey-crazed 16-year-old son’s reaction to the news was that it would be “weird” at first. She says Strombo’s popularity among women should help draw in more female fans, which is long overdue given the rising popularity of women’s hockey in Canada. Bessner also says his skills as an interviewer should go a long way to improving the quality of player interviews on the show. While she calls his style unorthodox—he slouches, crosses his legs and talks too much—she nevertheless considers him one of the best in the business because he does so much research on his subjects. “He does things that get people out of their comfort zones,” she says. “All these people come through with their movie promotions and have been interviewed a million times, and George finds out things about them that make them say, ‘Hey, how did you know that?’ ”

Strombo is a lot more familiar with the NHL than many viewers probably realize. While he often professes his love for the Habs on air, those who have worked with him at the CBC say they are frequently amazed by how deep his passion for the game extends, including the finer points of trade deals and the NHL draft. He took the rare step of actually learning how to skate in his 30s and has played some ice hockey in the Exclaim! Cup, a tournament that consists of teams made up largely of musicians and artists. “I suck. I’m terrible—I’m the worst player in the tournament,” he told an interviewer from Eye Weekly in 2006. (Those who’ve shared the ice with him say Strombo is not just being modest, but that everyone enjoys playing with him nonetheless.) Nor is he a completely unfamiliar face to the NHL, having been a presenter several times at the annual NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

Most importantly, he is smart enough to recognize that, regardless of what he brings to the table, he is not going to be the only star anymore. “As much as I appreciate being a part of it, and the attention around it, I know as well as anybody who is a host that you really have to drive the attention toward something else,” he says. “When the puck drops, that’s all that matters.”

It’s an approach that MacLean, a man who could be lacing up his skates for his final four years on HNIC, seems to agree with, despite his high-profile battles with Bettman over the years. For all the hype and importance placed on the NHL’s signature broadcast and the people who deliver it, he says that, for the most part, his on-camera job for the past quarter-century has been relatively straightforward, if not exactly easy. “I work really hard to create new ideas to say the same thing: Tonight’s a big game,” he says. “Maybe this will be what keeps it fresh.”

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