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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
"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?
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
is now on sale.