Forced to Watch: Canucks on Sportsnet

Announcer Jim Hughson goes easy on the Canucks, but at least he knows Mats Sundin plays for someone else

By Steve Burgess 8 Mar 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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It's got to be a thankless gig, calling hockey games. Do the best job you possibly can and still, your success will not have much to do with you. When the team's playing well people tune in; when they suck, ratings dive. And you, the broadcast crew, are carried along like Captain Ahab strapped to the back of Moby Dick.

Not that the broadcasters aren't important to fans. They're like in-laws-a sideshow, but inescapable once you've made the big commitment. Fans who are wedded to the Canucks on Sportsnet have lucked out. Jim Hughson is a pretty cool mother-in-law.

Getting used to Sportsnet

When Sportsnet snagged the Canucks' rights a few seasons ago, the initial dividend was increased coverage. Long ago was a dark time when there were almost as many Leaf games on Vancouver television as Canucks' matches. Sportsnet finally brought supply in line with demand (although a few years ago that demand was not what it has since become).

At first, Sportsnet coverage was a bit of a shock to local hockey buffs used to Hockey Night in Canada and TSN. Sportsnet seemed to have pioneered the Parking Lot Cam, with replays that appeared to have been shot from somewhere north of the rafters. The on-screen play clock ought to have come with a disclaimer: "All times approximate" (a problem that persists to this day. Sportsnet does not have the technology to sync its on-screen timer with the scoreboard clock.) And Sportsnet certainly shares the revenue-generating strategies long familiar to radio listeners-no puck shall drop without a Swipe 'n Win plug. Between periods it's a wasteland of ads and promo plugs, a sorry contrast with TSN's far more entertaining package.

Well, can't blame them for turning a profit. Besides, thanks to Hughson, Sportsnet has got the main ingredient covered quite nicely. Ever since his days on CKNW, Hughson has been a treat for local fans. The legendary Jim Robson was a hard act to follow but Hughson was the necessary choice, marking a sea change to a new generation of hipper, wise-cracking sports broadcasters. Partner John Garrett is a decent foil for Hughson-unlike many too-polite broadcast teams, Hughson and Garrett are willing to disagree openly.

Matt Sundin has a twin?

An appreciation of their coverage sharpens whenever Hockey Night in Canada comes to town. Regional sniping notwithstanding, HNIC truly is the home of the Maple Leafs (one of the true joys of Saturday night hockey is hearing announcer Bob Cole near tears when the Leafs get scored on).

More than once a CBC announcer has referred to "the Sundin twins," confusing Daniel and Henrik Sedin with Leaf star Mats Sundin. The CBC coverage suffers from its lack of familiarity with the Canucks in more subtle ways, too. HNIC announcers in Vancouver toss out plenty of canned stats, but rarely make comments that might suggest they've actually been watching the Canucks on a regular basis.

But if the Sportsnet broadcast team benefits from its familiarity with the Canucks, the flip side-excessive loyalty-is also a problem. Honest discussions of Canucks shortcomings are rarely entered into on Sportsnet broadcasts, and the channel's Canucks coverage too often carries the stink of in-house programming.

It can be a bracing shock to hear analysts on HNIC's Satellite Hot Stove make unvarnished assessments of the Canucks. You find yourself wondering why the local TV announcers haven't made the same tough comments. Too often, the Sportsnet broadcast team comes off like a division of the Orca Bay head office.

Nonetheless, Canuck fans are lucky to have Hughson in the fold. He's quick, clever, and calls a great game. Unfortunately once the playoffs begin Sportsnet coverage ends, and Hughson is out the door. Based on past playoff experience, weary Canuck fans may envy him.

Steve Burgess is on holiday and his Forced to Watch  television columns will return to The Tyee in a few weeks.

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