It's not as if George Stroumboulopoulos and company had a tough act to follow. Sportsnet's Wednesday Night Hockey debut was a letdown. However professionally competent they might be, Darren Millard, Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean are simply not up to the standard set by TSN's James Duthie, Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger. Sportsnet's inability to lure TSN's marquee hockey talent to the (other) dark side was its biggest off-season failing.
Enter Stroumboulopoulos, a former veejay and celebrity chat monster with no sportscasting experience, save for a stint at Toronto all-sports radio station 590 The Fan early in his career. As the new face of HNIC, Stroumboulopoulos's urban hipster flair (ear rings, skinny jeans, Kim Jong-Un haircut etc.) represents a radical departure from the button-down sensibilities of the past.
But guess what? The guy was great, and why wouldn't he be? Stroumboulopoulos is a polished, professional broadcaster who happens to be a rabid hockey fan. He's at ease in any on-camera scenario, whether holding court with a panel of hockey experts, introducing new studio innovations or hobnobbing with Stephen Harper in the Prime Minister's hockey man cave at 24 Sussex. If Stroumboulopoulos was that comfortable in the glare of his much-anticipated HNIC debut, imagine how good he'll be in mid-season form. In the meantime, he's got Elliotte Friedman as the glue to hold the HNIC panel together. Friedman is hands down the best sports broadcast journalist in the country, and would almost certainly have ended up in the main chair if Sportsnet had taken a more traditional direction. Between them, Stroumboulopoulos and Friedman should accelerate Mark Messier's development as a broadcast personality and hockey analyst, ultimately solidifying them as a trio as formidable as Duthie, MacKenzie and Dreger.
Which brings us to the other two mainstays on the new HNIC panel - Nick Kypreos and Damien Cox. I don't dislike Kypreos, but I can take him or leave him, which I suspect is a widely-shared sentiment. Cox is badly out of place in front of a camera, where he exudes reptilian warmth - a common shortcoming among print journalists who try to cross over to television. I'd rather see PJ Stock on the panel. Stock is a natural - camera-friendly, likeable, engaging and funny, and approaches broadcasting with the same tireless work ethic that got him to the NHL despite limited hockey skills.
It's an ominous sign that Coach's Corner was practically an afterthought on HNIC's first Sportsnet-produced dosey-doe. Ron MacLean and Don Cherry were relegated to what appeared to be a glorified broom closet, and didn't do themselves any favors by opening their segment by complaining about being "phased out" before Cherry resorted to his already well-worn theme about the Leafs not drafting good Canadian boys. It's painfully obvious that retaining Cherry was a public relations move, and Coach's Corner will be put out to pasture after this season. MacLean has the newly-created Hometown Hockey thing, but dispatching a guy in his mid-50s to a different one-horse Canadian backwater every weekend in the middle of winter comes across as a tactic designed to convince MacLean to quit at least as much as it resembles an exercise in connecting with smalltown Canada. Whether or not they're being phased out, pissing and moaning about their lot on the very platform that launched them to enduring national acclaim didn't exactly cover Cherry and MacLean in honour or glory.
Change can be daunting in any circumstance. Hockey Night in Canada's makeover is probably the most ambitious and culturally significant project in Canadian television history. Between a set that looks like the bridge of the Enterprise and a calculated gamble on a main host who doesn't fit hockey convention, Rogers/Sportsnet has shown that it's not afraid to take chances. Tweaks are required and presumably will be made, but first returns strongly suggest that one of the country's most sacred institutions is in good hands.