TORONTO – Rogers Media hopes to accomplish one goal by returning Ron MacLean to the “Hockey Night in Canada” host’s chair — firm up the base.
“The hard-core hockey fan,” as Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties calls them, simply never warmed up to George Stroumboulopoulos.
“The regular ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ viewer is particularly comfortable with Ron,” Moore said Monday after confirming that MacLean would return to the role he held for nearly 30 years. “We need to re-establish that base.”
Stroumboulopoulos, who is leaving the Rogers-owned Sportsnet to “to explore new creative opportunities,” signed a five-year deal in 2014 after Rogers acquired the NHL rights in a 12-year, $5.2-billion agreement. Pushing MacLean aside was a controversial decision by the broadcaster, with Stroumboulopoulos seen by many fans as an outsider who didn’t have the necessary hockey background to replace his experienced predecessor.
MacLean, 56, saw his role reduced to being Don Cherry’s sidekick on Coach’s Corner and hosting “Hometown Hockey,” a Sunday night show that he will continue to front despite his expanded Saturday night duties. He will also keep his job alongside Cherry, who recently agreed to a new contract.
MacLean, who will host the early game on Saturday nights, thanked fans for being “kind and supportive” during his two-year hosting absence. He also said he was excited for David Amber, the rinkside reporter who will host the late game on Saturday nights.
He had mixed feelings, however, about replacing Stroumboulopoulos.
“George came in here for two years as part of a really great idea,” he told reporters on a conference call. “I was all for what happened two years ago.”
Stroumboulopoulos “probably put up with a lot,” said MacLean.
MacLean said he has not spoken with Stroumboulopoulos since the end of the playoffs.
“George is out there on his motorcycle,” said MacLean.
Moore said the decision to switch hosts was not an impulsive one.
“We waited for a year to see how his fan reaction went,” he said in an interview. “We came to the conclusion that the hard-core hockey fan had not reacted to him. At that point, we listened to our fans.”
Moore said there was no effort keep Stroumboulopoulos in another role.
“It would be difficult for him and difficult for the audience to accept,” said Moore.
Moore said he waited until after the playoffs were over to deliver the bad news, adding that Stroumboulopoulos “was disappointed, but he was a true professional.” News that the 43-year-old Gemini Award winner was on his way out first broke more than a week ago in the Toronto Star.
Moore also confirmed the departures of several on-air contributors, including Glenn Healy and P.J. Stock, the latter gone along with the 5 p.m. pre-game show. Regional personalities, such as Montreal’s Chantal Desjardins, Billy Jaffe and Corey Hirsch and Leah Hextall, are also gone while Damien Cox will move off the hockey broadcasts to co-host “Prime Time Sports” with Bob McCown on radio.
“There were a few cost moves made today,” Moore said. “Glenn was one of them, P.J. was another.”
Sportsnet’s hockey coverage took a ratings hit this year after no Canadian teams made the playoffs and the Toronto Maple Leafs, usually a big draw for the network, finished last in the NHL. Audience levels fell below the million mark for many early-round playoff games. While ratings improved for the Stanley Cup final, they were down on average from last season.
Moore claimed research showed viewers wanted to focus on fewer personalities, likening it to how “Friends” was all about the same six regulars.
Panellists Elliotte Friedman, Kelly Hrudey and Nick Kypreos will join MacLean and Amber in-studio Saturday nights. Daren Millard will continue to host the Wednesday night show alongside Friedman and Doug MacLean.
He refused to second-guess the way Stroumboulopoulos was initially brought on-board. Could he have been eased into the mix?
“I’m not a big fan of hindsight,” Moore said. “We worked with him to accentuate his strengths, of which there are many.”
Chief among them would be the former CBC host’s skills at the long-form interview. Moore admitted a live sports broadcast simply provided few opportunities to take advantage of that strength.
Moore laughed when asked if he has seen outspoken U.S. broadcaster Keith Olbermann’s tweets about the hosting switch. Olbermann dismissed MacLean as “Leno2,” suggesting the ouster of Stroumboulopoulos was part of a “Napoleonic coup.”
“He’s not our core audience,” Moore shot back.