Sports Hockey

NHL PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Ron and Don gear up for another long playoff run

By Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun

It took just a few moments into Monday’s conference call on Sportsnet’s playoff coverage to trigger the topic on everyone’s mind.

How great to have the Maple Leafs on the bill again. Whether you love ’em (as thousands of viewers still do) or hate ’em (it’s a long story, kids) they will bring in the ratings numbers in the first round, even if Washington dusts them in four straight.

Monday’s participants, led by Sportsnet president Scott Moore and Hockey Night In Canada’s long-time tag team of Don Cherry and Ron MacLean, must be relieved their blue and white ship has come in after three lonely years, the last one when none of the seven northern teams qualified.

Yet all three men, OK, maybe not Grapes as much, were conscious that this venerable show can’t be all about the Leafs.

“We’re tagged with that ‘Hockey Night In Toronto’ (accusation),” MacLean said ruefully. “People will believe what they prefer to believe. The last thing we said when it looked like it was going to be a Toronto — Ottawa series was that we should really watch we don’t give (non-Leaf fans) the short shrift. There are five (Canadian) teams and 16 (team) stories.”

The 83-year-old Cherry, as usual, does not apologize about dropping a ‘we’ now and again when he gets rolling on camera about the Leafs.

“I cheer for Toronto, but my heart is always with Boston.”

He won’t go as far as saying Mike Babcock’s team are going to upset a Presidents’ Trophy winner that’s on a Stanley Cup quest, however ...

“All the pressure is on (Washington coach) Barry Trotz,” Cherry insisted. “I always hated the first round when I coached because you have to play the worst team. They’re happy to get in, loosey, goosey. Me, I had a gun to my head.

“(Caps’ goalie Braden) Holtby, somehow you’ve got to get to him, get in his mind. If you lay back, that team will kill you. You have to be carried off on your shield.”

The last-minute derailment of a Toronto-Ottawa series was no doubt disappointing at Sportsnet HQ, in terms of provincial rivalry and having a guaranteed Canadian entry making it in the second round. But Alex Ovechkin versus Auston Matthews is timely consolation, while the Boston — Ottawa match will have a good following and the duel of goaltenders Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist will make Montreal and the New York Rangers a compelling, if not low scoring, series. Then there’s Connor McDavid in Edmonton, a great late show for Eastern viewers, with the Oilers in their new rink.

“Not just this year, but the future shifts to McDavid’s NHL,” predicted Moore. “I love the symbolism of old guard vs. the new and what we saw this year with Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, (Sam) Bennett in Calgary (the Flames take on the Ducks in Round One). I think (Matthews-Ovechkin) is a great story line, too.”

MacLean and Cherry kidded each other about their coming nine-week marathon where they’ll eat, drink, travel and argue on air as they’ve done for much of the past 32 years.

“We start off thinking ‘what will we have to talk about an entire two months,” Cherry laughed. “And by the end, in the final, we’re trying to squeeze stuff in.”

CANADIAN TEAMS STILL PLAYING IS GOOD BUSINESS FOR SPORTSNET

Scott Moore channelled singer Andy Williams’ famous Christmas tune as he re-introduced five Canadian teams to a holly, jolly-starved playoff audience.

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” said Moore, Sportsnet’s president. “Not just this year, but future years.”

The lack of any northern teams in 2016 was disaster for the network’s 12-year, $5.2-billion deal, only a couple of seasons in. But on Monday, Moore reported his advertising and sales department had been busy since 7:30 a.m.

“We will meet or exceed our budget,” Moore predicted, adding the increased value of each commercial spot would not lengthen breaks, but could mean more time for a segment such as Coach’s Corner.

When the mega-deal for broadcast rights was made with the league, the belief was at some point a Canadian team such as the Leafs would turn the corner. For four first-round games at least, it will be a ratings bonanza.

“When playoff fever hits Toronto it helps us,” Moore agreed. “The biggest markets drive a lot of interest. There are peaks and valleys, but this is still an excellent deal.”

In terms of production, there were some concerts by the Dixie Chicks in Ottawa and Montreal that Sporstnet had to skate around with scheduling because of building conflicts, but otherwise it will be smooth first-round sailing. The technical updates that Rob Corte, Sportsnet’s vice-president of production, thought viewers will notice is increased use of the ‘Angle Cam’ that has been embedded in the boards and a tiny HD cueball camera that shows a close-up of players on the bench.