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John Doyle: Strombo or MacLean? Doesn’t matter, hockey’s lost its appeal

One recent Sunday evening I went out for a pint. In a neighbourhood bar I watched the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup. I was a bit surprised to be witnessing this – I had no idea that the darn thing was still going on. Thing is, in this reasonably crowded downtown Toronto bar, filled with twentysomethings and TV screens, there was me and one other guy paying attention to the hockey on TV. That's it – two of us.

Hockey is fast becoming a dinosaur sport. The world has evolved and NHL hockey hasn't. And neither has the TV broadcasting of the game. That makes the issue of George Stroumboulopoulos or Ron MacLean as anchor of Hockey Night in Canada redundant. It doesn't matter, because hockey has lost its appeal.

Certainly it has lost its appeal to the TV audience that matters – urban youth. Maybe Rogers was onto this when it first put Stroumboulopoulos in place as the new face of HNIC. With his hey-man style of interviews and some distance from the old, old school of CBC's HNIC, his task was as obvious as it seemed – to make the broadcast more appealing to a younger audience. If that was the case, Rogers bungled the execution of the plan.

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The countless ads for the show, in which Strombo was obliged to prove his hockey bona fides, were excruciating. For a start, it raised the question that Rogers didn't want asked – "What does this guy know about hockey?"

Possibly, it was too late anyway. NHL hockey now exists, and has for some time, in the arena of boomer nostalgia. In the popular culture, its appeal is on the level of progressive rock from the 1970s.

What's happened is that NHL hockey plods along, in its arrogance and incompetence, as if the digital age hadn't happened. The manner in which it is televised is calcified, as if social media was still a novelty that was best ignored. While all coverage of all sports has changed, across multiple media platforms, hockey on TV is the same old, same old.

In the discussions about why Strombo didn't click, much mention has been made of "hard-core hockey fans" who were never comfortable with him. Never comfortable with anything about him, from his hair to his attire to his interview style. "Hard-core" is the main issue here. Hockey has become fossilized, connecting mainly to people who are "hard-core" fans, and it has failed to draw in a younger audience.

The growing sports in Canada, in terms of connecting with a younger audience, are baseball, basketball and soccer. Baseball doesn't need much in the way of marketing to seduce the youth audience, but basketball and soccer have been sold to the younger demographic with aplomb. The Toronto Raptors' "We the North" campaign took fire and became something like a social movement. It was inclusive and cleverly constructed to give basketball a cool factor, a quality that NHL hockey now lacks. Soccer, which is represented by three MLS teams in Canada, also sells itself as inclusive – the mass gatherings of fans are a joyous occasion, whether the team wins or loses. Meanwhile, hockey has the feel and vibe of obscurantism and exclusivity. The rejection of Stroumboulopoulos, because of his youth, looks and attire, only proves this.

Further, hockey has been oversold as an aspect of patriotism. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper attached itself to hockey as a way of presenting itself as benign and in touch with so-called "ordinary" Canadians. And the NHL went along with this.

The upshot is the younger demographic associating hockey with old age, conservatism and the past. The fact that hockey remains violent, sometimes brutally so, and that the NHL has failed to make the game transcend the ugliness, only adds to the youth demographic's estrangement from the game.

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There is, of course, much to admire in hockey. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup with skill and tenacity, not brute strength. Or so I gather. The last time I was at a Toronto Maple Leafs game, it was against Pittsburgh. It was an utter pleasure to watch Sidney Crosby play – the delight he took in occasionally being playful, using panache instead of amplitude. But there aren't enough Crosbys to save hockey from itself.

On another recent evening, at the end of a day of thrilling matches at the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, I scanned Twitter to see what friends were saying. One friend, a woman in her 30s who is an avid sports fan, wrote this: "Briefly flipped to the NHL Awards but then realized life is worth living." A devastating comment, and instructive. There's more to sport in Canada than hockey, and hockey is fading away as the sport that matters. Ron MacLean won't stop the rot.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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