Play-by-Play

Is hockey better on Canadian TV or American? Are 2 voices better than 3? How about graphics? We explore!

 

Hockey Night in Canada is an institution north of the border and has been for generations, beginning in 1931 with broadcasting pioneer Foster Hewitt calling Toronto Maple Leafs games on radio. CBC started a Saturday night television broadcast in the 1950s, and almost every single Stanley Cup Final game since has been televised under the HNIC banner. In 2014, Rogers Communications and its sports channel Sportsnet took over the Hockey Night brand and the exclusive national rights to the NHL in Canada, and although a few of their experiments did not work in the first years of their deal, their product during these pandemic playoffs has been enjoyable despite the obvious logistical limitations.

One constant of Hockey Night has been their top broadcast team of Foster Hewitt Award winner Jim Hughson and two-time Stanley Cup champion Craig Simpson. The two first worked together in the late 1990s, and were named the #1 team for the 2008–09 season. They were brought over from CBC to Sportsnet after the Rogers takeover, and are currently calling their 12th Stanley Cup Final together.

Although I am an American and a fan of NBC’s hockey broadcasts, I find myself gravitating more to the Canadian side when the playoffs roll around. The Canadian style of hockey announcing is less conversational than what you get in the US, and sticking to two announcers on broadcasts for marquee events instead of three means there are fewer interruptions and more strict play-by-play. I’m not saying the American way of doing things is bad, I’m just saying I find the broadcasts on Sportsnet and rival TSN to be more suited to how I want to listen to a hockey game.

I watched Game #2 of the Stanley Cup Final, a 3-2 Tampa Bay Lightning win over the Dallas Stars, and took some notes on the Hughson-Simpson pairing.

  • Although his vocabulary is not as broad and varied as Doc Emrick, Hughson employs the fast-paced television broadcasting style you’d expect to hear from hockey announcers. However, he rarely, if ever, trips over his own words and never talks too quickly for the listener to understand. He is also great at transitioning from one thought to another seamlessly.
  • Hughson does most of the talking while the play is going on. He and Simpson have great chemistry, and they don’t step on each other’s toes very often. If Simpson has to talk during the action, it’s usually either when the puck is in the neutral zone or one team is going for a line change.
  • Before the opening faceoff, Jim mentions Dallas coach Rick Bowness’s public comments about needing a contribution from everyone in the lineup in order to win, then lists the Stars’ four unheralded goal scorers in Game 1, two of whom scored their first goal of the playoffs.
  • Occasionally after a player takes a shot, the Sportsnet scorebug will display the speed of the shot, similar to how each pitch in baseball is measured on a radar gun. NBC does not yet do this, and I have not seen Canadian broadcasts measure shot speed until these playoffs.
  • Before the Lightning’s power play early in the first period, Hughson mentions that the Bolts have not scored on their last 14 chances with the man advantage. After the penalty is killed, he updates it to 0 for 15. When the Lightning score on their second power play later in the first period, he references the 0 for 15 slump.
  • After Lightning star Nikita Kucherov faceplants hard into the boards, Simpson mentions that he got some blue paint from a New Amsterdam Vodka advertisement on his visor!
  • Simpson points out that the Lightning have been dressing 11 forwards and 7 defensemen since Game #2 of their conference semifinal series against Boston, but because of injuries are going with 12 forwards and 6 defensemen tonight.
  • Simpson points out after the Lightning open the scoring that they are 9-1 in the playoffs when they score the first goal and 5-5 when they don’t, and that goal-scorer Brayden Point was going his longest stretch in the playoffs without a point—two games.
  • After the Lightning score their third goal in the first period, Simpson mentions how the narrative in Game #1 was that Stars goalie Anton Khudobin was getting in the Bolts’ heads, and scoring three goals in the opening frame is a good way to dispel that narrative.
  • The Lightning continue pouring on the offense after the third goal. Hughson: “Dallas is its own worst enemy right now.”
  • After Star’s winger and noted pest Corey Perry unsuccessfully tries to goad Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman into a fight at the end of the first period, Hughson alludes to Perry’s reputation as a reason why no whistle was blown.
  • According to Hughson, the Lightning had nine shots from the slot, or the area in front of the goaltender, in Game 1. In the first period of Game 2, they had eight.
  • Both broadcasters mention that Stars captain Jamie Benn is the only Dallas player who has had any success on faceoffs in this series.
  • In the second period, the scorebug counts up the time of a shift by Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk that lasts over two minutes, then they clocked the shifts of every Star on the ice after Dallas pulled their goalie in the final minute of the third.
  • With some major NHL awards having been given out today, Hughson explains that the awards were voted on after the regular season was officially ended in May.
  • After Stars center Joe Pavelski scores to make the game 3-1 in the second period, Simpson wonders aloud if the puck was deflected with a high stick as he watches the replay, then concludes it was not upon seeing the proper angle.
  • A good line from Hughson: “Pavelski got hit in the face with a high stick, and he made sure the referee knows about it too.”
  • After an extended stretch where scrums form after whistles, Simpson says he wouldn’t be surprised “if a ref grabs a player out of these piles”.
  • With three Lightning players and two Stars in the penalty box together at one point, Simpson points out that Bowness is trying to protest Hedman, perhaps the Bolts’ best player, being the first one let out of the box after the penalty expires.

Even without fans in the stands, this announcer pairing is just as good now as they were a decade ago. They did their jobs without becoming the story of the game themselves. The voices have remarkable chemistry and Hughson helps weave Simpson in and out without missing a beat on his calls. Hughson is always on top of the action and Simpson, though not a button-pusher as an analyst, is good at identifying happenings off the puck that the viewer may not be able to see.

Most of the time, the broadcasters are at the mercy of the game, and it was a pretty good one, with the Stars coming back from a three-goal deficit to make it close at the end. I know what to expect out of Jim and Craig by this point, and it’s always an enjoyable listen.

I won’t give them a grade, but I recommend them to hardcore hockey fans who want to hear a different perspective from American coverage.

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Jake Baskin

Jake Baskin is a college student studying sports communication. He does play-by-play for Northeast Sports Network and previously wrote about hockey for various SB Nation blogs. He loves the history and evolution of sports broadcasting and dreams of being a national-level announcer.

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