One week shouldn’t be a large enough sample size to base meaningful statistics on, but early into Hockey Night in Canada’s post-George Stroumboulopoulos era, the season opener Leafs v. Bruins match, broadcast on the CBC, Sportsnet and City TV, drew an audience of 2,310,000 viewers, according to Numeris overnight ratings, 10% higher than last season’s home opener and the highest rated since 2013, the year that Rogers Media acquired HNIC exclusive broadcast rights from the NHL, acquiring the decades-long franchise from the CBC for a mere $5.23 billion.
The opening game viewership bump may have been lifted by weary Leafs fans, who although they have had precious little to dream about for the last several decades may finally feel a glint of hope returning with the introduction of superstar rookie Auston Matthews.
And although the early new is good, Habs fans can tell Rogers something about early optimism not quite panning out in the long run of an overall season, following last year’s spectacular 9-0 opening run.
Even with the team’s equally impressive 6-0-1 record so far this year, Canadiens fans seem hesitant to get their hopes up too high, given the hangover they’re still feeling from what happened to the team from Game 10 onwards.
Last season was also an annus horribilis for Rogers, as no Canadian teams made the post-season, with Canadian viewership dropping off accordingly, despite a well-deserved and satisfying playoff result, with Sidney Crosby proving to doubters that he’s a player for the ages.
Rogers had better hope that Canada’s team (aka. the Leafs) breathes some life into their 12-year deal with the NHL, since the first couple seasons haven’t fared well compared with the CBC’s usual numbers.
Last June, Rogers Media communications director Andrea Goldstein told the Toronto Star in an email that even though hockey is still the most watched event on Canadian television, average television audiences for the Stanley Cup finals were down 18% year over year.
2015’s playoff ratings were 12% lower than in 2014, a slump that Rogers was eager to blame on the early playoff departure of the Toronto Maple Leafs, even though five Canadian teams remained in the mix.
There’s no word on whether the return of Ron MacLean as host, a job which the broadcaster held for 28 years before being replaced by Rogers brass in favour of the younger, hipper Stroumboulopoulos, has anything to do with a return to form.
His impact is akin to what NHL coaches like to refer to as “intangibles”, or positive effects that don’t necessarily show up in the stats.
While MacLean is plenty hip himself, often quoting lyrics from Canada’s band The Tragically Hip, he never quite grated the audience in ways that Strombo seemed eager to.
In March 2014, MacLean playfully said to Stromboulopoulos before setting out on his hockey-related road journey, “Don’t screw this up, it’s a big show.”
In an October 2014 segment with then Boston Bruins enforcer, Vancouver native and now Edmonton Oiler Milan Lucic, Strombo ended an interview by taking a bracelet from his wrist and handing it Lucic, confiding, “A buddhist monk gave this to me.”
Perhaps Strombo was hoping that by getting Lucic to surrender his goonish ways, he could similarly charm his way into the hearts of Canadian hockey viewers.
But Stroumboulopoulos never did quite work out as Canada’s hockey boyfriend, despite (or perhaps because of) an intense desire to be liked.
“Two years ago, we made some changes to Hockey Night in Canada, we were enthusiastic about the changes, but at the end of the day, they did not resonate with hardcore hockey fans,” said president of Sportsnet and NHL properties at Rogers, Scott Moore, in a news conference call this past June announcing MacLean’s return.
Housecleaning at Rogers in the past year has seen not only the departure of Stroumboulopoulos, but also of other on-air personalities like P.J. Stock and Glenn Healy, not to mention Senior Vice President of NHL Production Gord Cutler, who was appointed by Rogers in February 2014.
Don’t feel sorry for Strombo, though. He’s still got three years left on a five-year contract. He’ll land softly somewhere.