TORONTO — The overhaul of Hockey Night in Canada has begun.
Rogers executives took over a CBC-TV studio Monday to tout an upcoming NHL broadcast season that, under its guidance, will “be a season like never before” with a “fresh face.”
That fresh face is CBC-TV personality George Stroumboulopoulos, who will be the new host of Hockey Night in Canada, taking over from veteran anchor Ron MacLean, whose Saturday night role will be trimmed to co-host of Coach’s Corner.
Rogers boss Scott Moore admits the 41-year-old Stroumboulopoulos was recruited in a bid to attract a broader audience to the media giant’s various sports channels, especially as younger viewers appear to be increasingly tuning out of TV entirely.
“We want to get a little bit younger, we want to catch that demo that is not necessarily coming to the television at all — that are either playing video games or not going out and participating in the games — we want to get a new breed of Canadian fans that get passionate about the games,” Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties, said following a televised news conference.
“I think George does that, I think George brings a different sensibility but one of the great things is having him with the rest of the team. He’ll sort of be like that ’Sesame Street’ thing — one of these things is not like the others — but he’ll bring something different and his own unique take on hockey broadcasting.”
The shakeup is Rogers’ first major personnel change since acquiring the NHL broadcast rights in a blockbuster $5.2-billion deal in November.
MacLean and Don Cherry will continue to host their popular Coach’s Corner segment, and MacLean will still host the annual Hockey Day in Canada show.
In addition, MacLean will be involved in a new Sunday night telecast, Hometown Hockey Community Celebration, on City.
Meanwhile, Sportsnet personalities Daren Millard and Jeff Marek will also be part of the Rogers broadcast package. Millard, who will continue to host Hockey Central at Noon on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, will also host “Wednesday Night Hockey” on Sportsnet. Marek will be at the helm of “Thursday Night Hockey” on Sportsnet 360 in addition to weekend pre-game shows on Sportsnet.
The new HNIC broadcasts will continue to be shot at CBC studios and air on CBC-TV, the result of a four-year sub-licensing deal, Moore said. But the HNIC brand will also be used on City, Sportsnet, Sportsnet One, Sportsnet 360 and FX Canada, offering up as many as seven games on Saturdays.
The announcement came as CBC announced that Stroumboulopoulos’s Gemini Award-winning chat show “George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight” would be cancelled after the completion of its 10th season.
“I knew that you can only do something for so long before it’s time to try something else,” said Stroumboulopoulos, a rabid Montreal Canadiens fan who began his broadcasting career as a radio reporter at the Fan 590 (now Sportsnet 590 The Fan).
“I love the Rogers component but I love the CBC component as well and it felt like a natural fit. But yeah, I knew that the show as a daily show was going to change and I’m still talking to the CBC about what we can work together on in the next little while. I have no interest in walking away from it and I’ve been led to believe that they don’t either.”
A former MuchMusic VJ known for his pierced ears and black clothing, Stroumboulopoulos will no doubt bring some edge to “Hockey Night in Canada,” which has been headed by the straightlaced 53-year-old MacLean since the mid-80s.
MacLean appeared to take a light-hearted dig at the handover Monday as he joined the press conference, shaking Stroumboulopoulos’s hand with the barely audible quip: “Don’t screw this up, it’s a big show.”
Later, he said he was glad to continue working with Cherry on Coach’s Corner and understood why Rogers was keen to revamp “Hockey Night in Canada.” He harkened back to how he took over the reins from former host Dave Hodge.
“I think it’s a great idea to get George — someone younger, it’s always good,” he said. “Dave was 26 when he started, I was 26 when I started and we sort of broke in as the fresh faces to a great team.”
He looked forward to Stroumboulopoulos’s spin on the venerable Saturday night staple.
“George can handle the show — he’s a great ringleader,” said MacLean, who hosted the show for nearly 30 years. “And (with) his interview skills, that just really hasn’t been a part of the Saturdays for the last little while. I think they will want to re-trigger that skill, of a good interview.”
The change could meet resistance from some traditional hockey fans but Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke thinks Stroumboulopoulos is “brilliant.”
“I don’t think there are a lot of guys who could switch from a news format to a sports format, but he can,” Burke said at the NHL general managers meetings in Florida. “He’s a brilliant guy, I think.”
“I had no idea that was coming, but I’m a big fan of his,” he added. “It surprises me, but that’s good news.”
Cherry said Stroumboulopoulos better know his stuff or he won’t last.
“You have to be honest and the camera … you can’t lie,” said Cherry. “I’ve seen guys come and go, they’re entertaining, but you can’t fool the public.”
Moore said talk of the shakeup began as soon as Rogers secured the NHL broadcast rights, although details were only recently confirmed. A broader cast of analysts and panellists has yet to be announced, he added.
And even though MacLean will have a more limited role on Saturday night, Moore insisted he’s a key part of Rogers’ hockey coverage.
“I was always a proponent that in any way shape or form Ron was a key part of what we were going to do going forward and if we were going to bring somebody else in we needed to find someplace that Ron could truly help us build something,” said Moore. “I think that’s what we have on Sunday night.”
MacLean noted that his new Sunday night gig — which will also be hosted in studio by Stroumboulopoulos — ends any possibility of returning to a possible new season of CBC’s reality show “Battle of the Blades,” which also airs Sundays. But he expected to continue his presence on CBC through upcoming Olympic coverage.
Moore said adding hockey to City’s Saturday and Sunday night prime-time lineups should help promote the overall schedule. He noted that Saturday nights have typically featured OLN repeat programming.
He expected Sunday night hockey to draw a much bigger audience to City’s prime time, allowing the network to push weekday comedies including “2 Broke Girls” and “Mike and Molly.”
“Sunday nights we have an advantage in that we will not be buying Hollywood programming for at least six months of the year,” he said. “I think that’s good for the Canadian broadcast landscape, I think it’s good for hockey, it’s also a great lead-in for City News which will move to 10 o’clock on Sundays.”
As far as his role as the new face of “Hockey Night in Canada,” Stroumboulopoulos said he didn’t expect to change things that much. He stressed that he expects to stay out of analysis and focus on his strengths as an interviewer.
“I’m just going to bring me to the team,” he said. “I am who I am, I have my life experiences, and my professional experiences.
“But I don’t think that the way the show has been done needs to be … like, ’Oh, let’s bring in the new guy and get something drastically different.’ That’s not what I do. I just come here to be hopefully a quality host to the show that can put everybody else in a position to shine.”
— With files from Stephen Whyno in Boca Raton, Fla.