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January 15, 2007
  

Hull of a Debut
Columnist Greg Wyshynski analyzes Brett Hull's debut on NBC, and talks with former NHLer Andy Brickley about why most hockey announcers are "hopeless homers or hacks."
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- I can't stand most hockey announcers on American television, and not because the majority of them are hopeless homers or hacks who think SportsCenter shtick can cover the limitations of their meager talents.

It's because they don't talk like we do.

Many of them don't sound like us. We have teams in American cities with distinct dialects — in the southern and southwest United States — who don't, by and large, have announcers who speak their language.

For example, a NASCAR fan in Tennessee turns on a race and hears a twang-filled voice dropping colloquialisms like they were hickory sauce on baby backs at a smokehouse. A hockey fan in Tennessee turns on a Predators game and hears Terry Crisp, born and bred in that cradle of the Confederacy: Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.

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(Mar. 02) Clearly, This Rule's a Bad Idea

Understand the difference, ya'll?

On the surface, this "language barrier" may seem like one of hockey's lesser obstacles on television — dwarfed by an invisible puck and an unimaginative presentation — but I've always felt it contributed to the xenophobia that repels so many potential fans.

It's hard enough when your best players have more vowels in their names than an episode of Wheel of Fortune; combine that with an announcer who sounds like he just got off the last puddle jumper from Moose Jaw, and the sport might as well be broadcast from one of the moons of Jupiter.

That's one of the reasons I like Andy Brickley, who played in over 400 NHL games in 11 seasons and is now the Bruins' color man on NESN in Boston. He was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, and sounds like an extra from the set of Scorsese's "The Departed." The kind of guy who says the "Range-ahs" play in "the Gah-dun." The kind that charmingly calls the cable network he sometimes moonlights for "The Versus," wrapping his New England accent around the last syllable like a serpent from Southie.

Brickley's a guy who sounds like his Bostonian audience and, better yet, a guy who knows to whom hes broadcasting.

"There's Joe, sittin' down at the Elks, having a couple of beers and watching the Bruins, saying 'What the hell is that [player] doing?' " he explained to me. "I'm trying to answer those questions, knowing what they're asking."

But even if some announcers sound like us, they aren't necessarily talking like us. All too often, they don't know what it is we're actually asking.

 

Because we're actually asking which coach, player or team they think completely sucks. Or which multi-millionaire is so overrated that he should be allocating part of his salary as a rebate to fans who were fooled into paying to watch him. Or which baffling decision by the NHL is destroying the integrity of the sport this week.

Broadcasters in other sports talk like the fans talk. NFL players get demolished during broadcasts, both in the booth and on the field. Baseball players get creamed by people like Tim McCarver 162 days a season. Charles Barkley has become the Don Cherry of televised basketball for his honest and hilarious rants against today's stars, echoing the sentiments of legions of old school fans.

But American hockey fans have had no Cherry, just the pits. Our announcers are too cuckolded by allegiances to former teammates and employers, content to offer boring platitudes and constructive criticisms in situations where real hockey fans are hoping to hear World War III declared on a team, an individual or the league.

Brickley believes that the NHL needs to establish itself in the mainstream before that kind of candid talk can occur.

"You gotta get to the 25th floor before you can even think about going to the roof with that kind of stuff," he said.

Perhaps that's why Brett Hull's debut on NBC's NHL studio show last Saturday afternoon was such a blissful change of pace. If the sport wasn't ready for his level of snark, Brett didn't give a damn.

My first glimpse of his potential as a no-holds-barred analyst came during a first intermission lament about the need to drop the instigator rule.

"With the new rules, a lot of the physicality of the game has gone away, and the fans love the fights," said Hull.

Co-host Ray Ferraro fed off that energy. Continuing an earlier assault on Pittsburgh pain-in-the-behind Jarkko Ruuto, Ferraro claimed the rule could rid the league of players "the fans don't want to see" like the pesky Penguin.

Let's put this in perspective: Here is the first national telecast of the season on the NHL's flagship broadcast network, and Hull and Ferraro have both just torn down what Gary Bettman's administration considers to be an essential rule for successfully marketing the game to soccer moms from San Jose to Raleigh, and keeping the league from falling into the hands of barbarous goons.

God, it was beautiful.

Hull went on to mercilessly mock increasing the size of the nets ("One of the dumbest ideas I've heard in a long time," he said); held up goalie equipment, calling for it to be streamlined and specifically calling the catching glove "a cheater"; claimed that in order for Penguins Coach Michel Therrien to keep his job that he needs to play Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin "until they drop"; chose Crosby over Ovechkin to start a franchise because he's a "North American kid, with all the personality and good looks and charm to start a franchise with marketing"; said Roberto Luongo is the best goalie in the league, and guaranteed that Marty Brodeur had faced less than 20 shots per game through his career; and mocked Buffalo's uniforms before claiming his infamous "in the crease" goal to win the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals was legal because he has a ring to prove it.

It was quite an afternoon.

How long have we waited for this kind of blunt thought in mainstream American hockey coverage? How long have we yearned for critical opinions about the game that play to the smarts, instead of "Hockey 101" nonsense that plays to the newbies? Sure, some of Hull's comments were patently bogus — that Brodeur statistic shows that when it comes guarantees, he's not exactly Messier — but laugh, scoff or agree with him; the fact is that he gets a reaction.

Clearly, the NBC studio show is modeled after TNT's stellar NBA broadcast. Bill Clement is the same dorky host as Ernie Johnson. Hull is Barkley, the Hall of Fame caliber player whose opinions feel like they should dictate policy as they entertain the masses. Ferraro is Kenny Smith, a slightly-above-average former player who gets off a nice line or two and acts as the Big Cheese's sparring partner.

But NBC has a long way to go before it matches the effortless flow and perfect pitch of TNT's cable standard. Some advice:

- The broadcast needs a newsman — like the role Peter King plays on "Inside the NFL" — to break stories and add some scuttlebutt to the proceedings.

- Play to the cheap seats. Give us the top five hits or fights from the week that was. Don't be afraid to use a little humor now again — the more "Slap Shot" references, the better — even if the casual fans won't get the jokes.

- Rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. The repartee between Ferraro and Hull is too forced and lacks chemistry; partially because for all of his charisma, Hull's about as fluid a television performer as Milton Berle would be today.

That's understandable. Hull told me in an interview months ago that becoming a television star wasn't something he was planning for while he was still playing.

"I think being with NBC and the great company that they are [enticed me]," he said. "I'm also a big football fan — watching those guys, I thought it was something I'd like to try."

Here's what I'd like Hull to try: Come out swinging against non-goalies we actually care about. Taking shots at Jarkko Ruuto is the equivalent of a Mexican child's birthday party with 20-foot piρata: Undeniably fun, yet tediously predictable. <i>(What, were you all out of Sean Avery material?)</i>

Give me candid comments about all-stars, especially ones you played with or against. Who's not getting it done, and why? Please tell me there's more to someone that has 741 more regular season goals than I do than "all [Jarkko Ruuto] does is cause trouble out there."

I think hockey fans are ready for this kind of honest analysis, something that's commonplace on Canadian broadcasts — which Brickley considers the gold standard for televised hockey.

"When I watch a Canadian broadcast of hockey games, I'm so jealous. It's such an event. It doesn't matter if the Leafs are on TSN or Rogers or CBC. We try to do that at NESN, and it's just not the same. Go north of the border, and hockey's a way of life," he said. "I'm proud to be an American, but as a hockey guy, I'm jealous of that."

As an American fan, so am I. That's why Hull's debut on NBC was such a promising success — he wasn't there to promote the game or pass the time, but to actually treat the subject with some reverence. For the first time I can remember, there's an unpredictable voice in the studio, which makes that broadcast something I may make time to watch in the future.

Because they're finally talking like we do... even if these three Canadian boys sound nothing like me and Brickley. Capisce, tough guy?
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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