Is Hockey Night in Canada too Toronto-centric?

William Wilson October 13, 2013 29
An older version of Hockey Night in Canada logoCBC/Hockey Night in Canada

Whether you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs or one of Canada’s six other professional hockey teams, you’ve likely heard the argument before in some form: the CBC and Hockey Night in Canada are bias towards the Leafs.

There are many competing opinions on this matter. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the facts. Few people have stepped back to reflect upon the accuracy of their charges either for or against the CBC. In other words, their commitment to the debate may run deep, but their commitment to the facts runs shallower than a flooded rink.

In such an emotion-driven debate, it would be nice to check the facts and that’s what this article intends to accomplish in cursory fashion. There simply isn’t enough time or space to systemically review the CBC’s portrayal of the Leafs, but we can look at some anecdotal and schedule-related information. Specifically, we can look at how the voices behind the game treat the Leafs and look to see if the CBC schedules games in a way that prioritizes the Leafs over other markets.

You’ll find no conclusive answer here, but what might surprise you is the fact that reality’s a little messier than a simplistic black-and-white presentation of the hockey world. Like almost every other facet of life, it appears that there’s little room for conspiracy theories in hockey.

THE VOICES BEHIND THE GAME

Right off the bat let’s get one thing perfectly clear: there’s little point denying that Don Cherry, Bob Cole and Harry Neale share an obvious bias for the Leafs. The “Kadri Kiss” is only the latest incarnation of Cherry’s longstanding love affair with the Boys in Blue & White. Cole’s bias is more subtle: he would regularly refer to Team Canada as the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2002 Winter Olympics broadcasts.

However, you shouldn’t confuse bias for prejudice. While these commentators are certainly bias in favour of the Leafs, I wouldn’t say they’re prejudicial towards any teams in the league. Cherry may display prejudice towards certain players (or groups of players based on their ethnicity), but this regrettable fact applies to the Leafs as well. The main point here is that there’s no hatred (obvious or otherwise) directed by the most loyal of CBC’s Leafs commentators against the other teams in the NHL.

In the same way, one can detect a sense of bias in Jim Hughson (hockey’s greatest voice?) and Scott Oake: if you listened to these guys on a regular basis, you’d quickly get the (false) impression that there’s no professional hockey east of Manitoba. Hughson’s infatuation with the Vancouver Canucks is so intense that it even caught the attention of the Globe and Mail some years ago.

If I sound critical of biased commentators, that idea should be quickly cast aside. I think it’s only natural for hockey commentators to show bias towards the teams they cover for two (hopefully) obvious reasons: 1) they’re paid to talk about particular teams; and 2) their whole professional lives are consumed by the teams they cover. For this reason, you can excuse them for not talking about other teams on a regular basis.

On the other hand, I don’t think there’s much room to claim that the rest of the CBC’s hockey team is bias one way or the other. Ron MacLean might be thought guilty by association with Cherry, but there’s very little in his own words to suggest a bias in favour of the Leafs. Elliotte Friedman and Kevin Weekes are consummate professionals, and P. J. Stock is, well, he’s simply there. It would be wrong and unfair, I believe, to argue that these analysts only ever talk about the Leafs.

Having said all this, there is one prejudiced member of CBC’s hockey team – Glenn Healy – who seems to take particular delight in lambasting the Leafs, especially incumbent goaltender James Reimer. However, I don’t take Healy very seriously (and neither does Friedman apparently) on account that he’s a generally negative person so his presence in the CBC studio doesn’t really bother me. In fact, it often provides me with some entertainment on the side.

THE TIMING OF THE GAME

On the surface, if there’s one area where the CBC appears most bias in favour of the Leafs, it would concern the timing of games. Here the argument is that the timing of every Hockey Night in Canada broadcast revolves around the Leafs regular 7:00 pm EST time slot.

We can look at two Canucks games to find superficial support for this claim. First, the Canucks played at their regular 7:00 pm PST time slot last night, but this meant that fans of the Montreal Canadiens had to wait until 10:00 pm EST for the start of the game. In contrast, last night’s game in Toronto between the Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers took place at 7:00 pm EST, meaning Oilers fans had to watch the game early at 5:00 pm MST. The supposed takeaway from this is that CBC wouldn’t move up the timing of the Canadiens-Canucks game since this would interfere with the timing of the Leafs-Oilers game.

It might be immediately questioned why the Leafs game would depart from its regular time slot to make room for the Canadiens-Canucks game and here I have no answer. This is simply one of the “proofs” offered to show how the CBC favours Toronto. It isn’t acknowledged that the game started at its regular time in Vancouver, which could be taken as bias in favour of the Canucks over the Canadiens. It also isn’t mentioned that the Quebec feed of the Canucks-Montreal game could still have started at 4:00 pm PST (7:00 pm EST) since there’s no single feed of Hockey Night in Canada. None of this apparently matters, however: if another team - any team - has to play at a time inconvenient for its fans, the Leafs must somehow be responsible.

The second game in question offers more support for a charge of bias though it ultimately fails as well (it also exposes a tension in the overall argument). In November, the Canucks will host the Leafs at 4:00 pm PST (or 7:00 pm EST), which departs from the normal timing of games in Vancouver.

This would be proof of bias if it wasn’t for the troublesome fact that three games will be broadcast on this day, starting with a contest between the Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets at 2:00 pm CST. (Following the “sound” logic on display here, I guess this means CBC is actually biased in favour of the Jets: it suddenly appears that they’re the ones dictating the broadcast schedule, but this obviously isn’t the case. The Jets find themselves in the worst time slot since they’re split between the EST, MST and PST time zones.)

Omitted from this second argument is the following fact: the only Saturday night Leafs game played outside the team’s normal 7 pm timeslot this season happens on February 8th, 2014 against the Canucks. Is this proof of a West coast bias?

No.

Like the game in November discussed above, it falls on one of CBC’s “Hockey Day in Canada” broadcasts and this fact alone explains the altered scheduling of the games; CBC is ramming three games into its regular two-game broadcast.

I mentioned earlier that there’s a tension in the larger argument: it concerns the lose-lose situation of the Leafs.

Based on the argument: if the Canadiens-Canucks game takes place at its regular time in Vancouver, then this is the result of the CBC showing favouritism towards the Leafs (since Habs fans will likely have to miss the game). However, if the Leafs-Canucks game takes place at an earlier time, then this is the result of the CBC showing favouritism towards the Leafs (since Canucks fans will have to watch the game at an earlier time).

In short, the Leafs are somehow at fault if the local game starts at its regular time or if it is moved to an earlier time. I’m not sure how to avoid this problem other than by cancelling the game altogether, but I’m sure this would be read as bias in favour of the Leafs as well.

The argument, in all its incoherence, appears to hold that local games should always be held at their regular time unless it involves the Leafs. In this case, the Leafs should bend the timing of their games to suit the fans of the visiting team and fans of other teams in competing time slots.

For instance, Leafs games should take place at an earlier or later time when the Canadiens and Canucks play against each other in Vancouver so that fans of these two teams can watch the game at a mutually convenient time. (A contradiction emerges here in that the local timing of the Vancouver game would still have to change, but I’m sure this would be thought acceptable since those pesky Leafs fans wouldn’t be able to watch their team play at a convenient time either.) Likewise, when the Canucks play in Toronto, the timing of the Leafs game should change to suit Canucks fans.

To put the argument in its simplest form, the anti-CBC/Leafs crowd wants their cake and to eat it, too. If the argument sounds convoluted, it’s because the argument is convoluted. Either all games should start according to local time without exception or some degree of flexibility must be accepted.

(If you still have trouble understanding the argument, this is likely due to the fact it’s ultimately based on two inconsistent claims: 1) home games should be shown according to local times (which presumably applies to the Leafs as well); and 2) the timing of Leafs games shouldn’t take priority over other games in the league even when they’re played according to local time (which exposes the contradiction in the overall argument).

Four other quick points should be said about the CBC hockey broadcast schedule.

First, as mentioned earlier, there is no single feed of Hockey Night in Canada. West of Manitoba, there are actually four separate feeds: there’s a western and central Ontario feed (featuring the Leafs); an eastern Ontario feed (featuring the Ottawa Senators); a Quebec feed (featuring the Canadiens); and an eastern Canada feed (often featuring the Leafs). This reality exposes the pure emptiness of the Canadiens-Canucks argument above. There was nothing stopping CBC from scheduling the Canadiens-Canucks game at an earlier time since it could have been broadcast separately in Quebec other than an obvious and understandable bias in favour of Vancouver.

In short, the Leafs game had no bearing on this decision.

Second, this may come as a surprise to some people, but the Leafs generally play at a later time slot when they travel out west. This can be seen by looking at the schedule for their upcoming road trip through Edmonton and Calgary. You miss these simple truths if you’re unwilling to look beyond the schedule of your own team.

Third, if the timing of the upcoming Leafs-Canucks game in Vancouver strikes you as skewed towards the visitors (let’s ignore for a second the fact that CBC is showing three games on this day), then I’m not sure how you’ll read the timing of games when the Canucks visit the top American teams in the Eastern Conference.

Canucks fans have to watch their team take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at 10:00 am PST and the New York Rangers at 11:00 am PST. This smacks me of gross bias and it suggests that CBC is actually trying to bridge the timezone difference between Toronto and Vancouver. They could easily burn the visiting team and make no attempt to balance the schedule, but that’s not the CBC way.

Finally, related to the last point, there’s an inherent bias in favour of games shown in the PST. Whether a game is shown early or late in the EST, fans of Western Conference teams generally have the opportunity to watch it. They might have to watch it early in the morning (like our Pittsburgh and New York examples), mid-afternoon (like our Toronto example) or evening (like our Vancouver example), but they still have these options to consider. Obviously, the situation doesn’t work in reverse. Fans of Eastern Conference teams don’t enjoy the same luxury: I often miss Leafs games when the team travels out west given their late starts.

What this suggests is that the NHL, not the CBC alone, shows an understandable bias towards the EST, not the Leafs alone. However, this is the only way all hockey fans can come together to watch the sport they love.

It’s a small price to pay for the benefit of saying, “I watched Kessel and the Sedins play on the same day.”


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