There’s no going back since Bieksa joined the crew in 2020

Bruce DowbigginThe recent news that the NHL is contemplating an 84-game regular season is a testament to the bankruptcy of ideas at NHL HQ in New York City. Perhaps they felt it necessary after the shellacking the league absorbed for its “non-binary” proclamation. And its inept handling of sexual abuse scandals over the past few years.

A little red meat, perhaps, for those who still tune in to watch the hockey, not the Woke lectures? Whatever. If adding a few more meaningless regular-season contests to what is already an interminable winter slog is all they’ve got, you have to wonder if anyone has turned the calendar on the 21st-century Chez Gary.

The league’s principal TV mouthpiece has also contracted a case of intersectional fever. Hockey Night In Canada is fully vested in the latest progressive talking points from trans inclusion to equity pay arguments. Like all Canadian broadcasters, it purports to be a good corporate citizen by toting up World Economic Forum bonafides.

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But the venerable TV franchise has changed for the better in the past couple of years with the addition of former NHL defenceman Kevin Bieksa. The irreverent product of Grimsby, Ont., has made the show about him – not vice versa. The only problem might be that he gets bored with the format or always flying back and forth to California.

Like Ozymandias lying stolidly for centuries in the windswept desert, Hockey Night In Canada has endured. Okay, maybe not that long. But it seems like the format, the tone, the zeitgeist of the program has been locked in for as long as memory serves.

That tone was serious, sombre, even a touch grim. As the show’s technology soared and danced, the editorial drift was rooted on the spot. Levity? Humour? Irony? Nope. This was partly due to the long reign of Don Cherry and Ron Maclean over the editorial. It was Grandpa Simpson’s fierce-old-man-cursing-clouds leavened with a highly-sentimental-pensioner.

If there were any levity it escaped our attention. But there is evidence that with Cherry gone and Maclean playing Goodbye Mr. Chips, a sea change is occurring on at least two fronts. One is the emergence of former Canuck Kevin Bieksa as the new tone-setter of the editorial.

Bieksa – whom Cherry always malapropped as Bieska – was a good quote for years in the dressing rooms of the Canucks and Ducks. Among the many gems that filled reporters’ notebooks was this one on the sex appeal of the Sedins: “Two good-looking redheads with goatees, how can you resist?”

But as we’ve seen too often to count, locker-room wit can melt like the snow under the hot lights of TV. Yet Bieksa has been a moveable feast. His insouciance with media has become his ragging on fellow panelists during intermissions that used to be as much fun as skating in July. (Wait, they’re doing that this year!)

In particular, Bieksa’s ongoing banter over reporter Elliotte Friedman’s garish wardrobe and hockey experience is a must-watch. (Friedman gets in his own shots.) What he says is rarely as important as how he says it – lippy, sarcastic, sardonic, disruptive.

Bieksa told journalist Lisa Dillman that his inexperience might be a bonus. “I feel like I came out of the gate raw and almost naïve to everything, but I thought that really helped me. I don’t know if that makes any sense … You don’t get sucked into the everyday lingo and what other people are doing.”

The former Canuck is also good on the whiteboard stuff, although the panels have others who can talk shop. He talks the Cherry Code of honour without any of the accompanying blood lust. On Sunday he was on point showing how the Rangers lulled Tampa’s Alex Killorn into cheating in the defensive zone, leading to a New York goal.

There’s no going back since Bieksa joined the crew in 2020. The younger iteration of the crew has moved it into less formal territory. HNIC is no longer a church; it’s a supper club. Bieksa is now the must-watch for his hockey insight, but even more so for his “what will he say now?” quality.

That candour might frighten some in the upper reaches of management – who carefully guard the brand as a 1960s artifact. But it means that for the first time since Cherry left, viewers have a reason to stay tuned in for intermissions.

Bruce Dowbiggin is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the eighth best professional hockey book by His 2004 book Money Players was voted seventh best.

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