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'Hockey Night' aces on-air chemistry test

Not to get all needy, but can we have Saturday's iteration of the Hockey Night In Canada's Hot Stove every week? While a rehashing of the Alex Ovechkin-Bruce Boudreau feud in Washington could have been like watching paint dry, the trio of Mike Milbury, Glenn Healy and Elliotte Friedman had a brisk thrash at the topic – subtly guided by Ron MacLean.

Milbury was for tough love. Healy staked out the Greta Garbo turf – leave Ovie alone. And Friedman seasoned the mix with a little perspective on the history of the feud. Nice, tight, simple.

But then TV is simple. Role-playing works. It's why Don Cherry has been doing the Henny Youngman "take my visor, please" schtick for decades. And it's why Saturday's trio work. Milbury is the angry old-school guy. Healy is the former player with strong union leanings. Friedman is the non-hockey guy with impeccable connections. The audience recognizes the roles and tension builds from the opening joust. "Sparks are going to fly," it says.

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The experiments with others on the Hot Stove simply get in the way of that chemistry. While Eric Francis has tried hard in the year-plus he's been flown in from Calgary, he hasn't found a defined role yet – besides being the butt of Milbury sarcasm. When he's on camera you can't wait to hear from Milbury or Healy or Friedman. The camera is a harsh master.

Both TSN and Sportsnet suffer from the same lack of tension with constantly shifting panels. In their defence, the private networks have infinitely more shows to service. Doing panels 270 days a year – as James Duthie seems doomed to host – would leave anyone glassy-eyed. Still, the shifting coach-for-rent seat on TSN and Sportsnet's enforcer-for-hire guy blur the dynamic created by a set group of debaters.

And, too often, you've got too much of the same guy – witness Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean both doing the voluble, old-school guy at the same time. A contrasting personality would work better on Sportnet's A-team – but after them comes Marty McSorley and Brad May. How's that a change? With that in mind, we present our favourite panelists, in no particular order.

Mike Milbury: Knows who he is. Articulates the argument that gets lost in Cherry's act. Hockey's a physical, dangerous game. How much of that do you want to take out? Had the grace to admit last season that he'd been wrong about head shots. An argument waiting to happen, i.e. great TV.

Aaron Ward: Still learning TV, he's brought a sense of humour to what can be arcane stuff on the TSN panel. Doesn't pander much, and as his former teammates leave the game, he may become even more honest. Doing the Bob Uecker self-deprecation works.

Elliotte Friedman: "What have you ever done?" is the quintessential hockey putdown. If you didn't play, you can't talk. But Friedman has emerged as perhaps the strongest and most thoughtful of us Philistine journalists who don't draw an NHL pension. Always prepared, with killer connections, when Friedman speaks or writes (his 30 Thoughts has become mandatory reading) it's gospel in the league.

John Shannon: Honestly, didn't think this was going to work when the former HNIC/NHL employee signed on at Sportsnet. But Shannon has evolved into the sober, non-shouting one at Sportsnet. His Wayne Gretzky to potential Toronto ownership scoop this week shows he still has plenty of connections. Seems to have found glasses that work on-camera. Not likely to go for the chin tuck, however.

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Glenn Healy: The old goalie is the NHL Players Association's conscience and an unapologetic supporter of players' rights. Still, he has the best sense of humour at an otherwise dour HNIC, knows the game intimately and understands the cold stare of the TV lens needs a little help.

Bob McKenzie: The gruff, former scribe is like a part of TSN's set. The guy logs more airtime than the dudes at 100 Huntley Street, which somewhat dilutes his impact. But when an issue burns through the hockey culture, it's not official till McKenzie weighs in. Plus, with a killer BlackBerry and 300,000-plus Twitter followers, he must be doing something right. Tim Hortons needs him on its coffee cups.

Finally one, that we miss – Mike Peca. The former Sabre and Maple Leaf was raw and didn't get frequent use by TSN, but when he got on a topic it was take no prisoners. His savaging of Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester last season as "a guy I liked playing against" was classic. Peca's back on the management side working for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres. Too bad.

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