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Free Agent Frenzy TV Review

01 Jul

It’s not easy speculating and pontificating for hours.  Yet, TSN does it every Canada Day with it’s Free Agent Frenzy.  Like Deadline Day, July 1 has become a TV event all in itself.  This season, coverage aired in Canada on TSN2, while the NHL Network aired it in the United States.  It was also streamed online.

This year was all about panels.  Lots and lots of panels.  TSN usually has multiple panels just because of the fact that they need to fill plenty of air time.  This year might’ve taken the cake.  TSN’s main crew was made up of James Duthie, Darren Pang, Mike Johnson and Pierre McGuire.  Then you had the insiders, Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger at their usual location with Gord Miller.  The Reporters are always there too with the curmudgeonly Dave Hodge.  This time around, Hodge was joined by Dave Naylor, Eric Duhatschek and Steve Simmons.  As if this wasn’t enough, there was a fourth group of panels.  This one was helmed by That’s Hockey 2nite host Steve Kouleas with Craig Button and Michael Peca at his side.  That’s plenty of people to talk for hours.  But, even that wasn’t enough.  TSN also had reporters stationed with every Canadian NHL team.  And to top it off That’s Hockey host Gino Reda was staking out the headquarters of Newport Sports, the agents of top free agent Brad Richards.

The problem with having all of these people battle for camera time showed up in the first hour of TSN’s coverage. TSN tried to fit in all of these elements to introduce stories that each person was going to cover. That led to TSN falling behind when it came to signings.  Twitter became the primary source to follow signings during this first hour, as TSN talked to it’s reporters and it’s panels discussed what might happen and who may go where, while players were actually signing.  I understand why TSN did this, but having Kouleas lead a game of “Either/Or” (a lame substitute for The Quiz segment during the NHL on TSN) while actual signings were going on was silly. That segment easily could’ve been buried until later the show, once the signings slowed down.  Or better yet, cut down on the panels and focus on what’s going on live and what may happen. Either way, leave the filler stuff until you actually need it.

Having Reda on the stakeout ended up proving worthwhile.  Reda and his camera crew got to watch the L.A. Kings execs get locked out of Newport’s headquarters.  It was a humorous moment and showed how serious the Kings are in their pursuit of Richards even though they had tried to deny their interest earlier. Later in the show, those cameras showed groups of fans hanging out around the offices, perhaps hoping to get a peek of someone. The dreaded Twitter scroll from draft night re-appeared although it seemed to be a little more relevant this time around. There weren’t as many “put me on tv” tweets, and more interesting comments and tweets from NHL players.  The second hour moved smoother but the Kouleas helmed panel got caught not paying attention to their Twitter feeds. After another game of “Either/Or” Kouleas reported that Ed Jovanovski was still available.  Too bad he had already signed with Florida. McGuire ended up shouting “He’s gone!” multiple times as Kouleas sat stunned and looking utterly confused. Again, this was the case of filler programming taking the priority of what was live and relevant.

Eric Duhatschek is one of the most knowledgable and credible journalists in all of hockey.  He was terrific on CBC’s Hotstove segment for many years but he has a very annoying habit when he is a part of The Reporters panel. Duhatschek repeatedly says “Yep, yes, sure, right” while his partners are talking.  Duhatschek did the same thing during deadline day, and it appears that none of TSN’s people have alerted him to stop this tick of his.  It was quite distracting to hear him in the background, during every Reporters segment.  Instead of focusing on what a panelist was saying, I was focused on how many times I would hear the phrase “Yep!” in the background.  For the record, I lost count.

As they do during trade deadline day, the NHL Network inserted their own updates into TSN’s coverage.  Brian Duff anchored these and they were kept short and sweet unlike when Deb Placey handled it at the deadline. Duff made sure to keep everyone up to date and did what a good update anchor should do – give relevant informant quickly and effectively.  Also, of note, since Free Agent Frenzy was airing on TSN2, Sportscentre updates were nowhere to be found, at least on the US feed. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to miss out on potential creepy Pierre McGuire/Darren Dutchyshen moments.  The updates were missed a little though because they are useful if you tune in late or you aren’t always paying attention to who went where.  After all, it is hard to keep track of all of the movement.

In an act of shameless self promotion, CFL analyst Chris Schultz made an on screen appearance although they did compare his size to Pang for a lighter touch. Seeing Schultz tower over Pang made for an interesting comparison and was funny.  Pang had a few other humorous moments during the show.  He told stories about his first NHL contract and how Steve Sullivan made his say “Holy Jumpin’!” for the first time and also did some playful word lingo with Alex Auld’s name.  TSN did plenty of telephone interviews sign recent signees although they did have some technical woes.  You do have to wonder though how many people were interested in hearing Mike Smith or Jamal Mayers talk on a cell phone.  It’s one thing to interview the high profile signings like James Wisniewski and Erik Cole but it’s another when you interview under the radar guys that aren’t very interesting or hold little appeal to the viewing audience.  The only thing missing during the day of chatter was bringing Maggie the Monkey out of retirement and having her spin a wheel and see who was going where and that’s probably not a bad idea for next season.  At the very least, it would be as entertaining as some of the talking heads’ conversations.  In a graphics department fail, they showed the old Buffaslug logo which probably didn’t sit too well with Sabres fans who are trying to forget that sad part of their history.

Overall, the TSN guys did the best they could with what they had to deal with.  Much of this review sounded harsh, but there’s only so much to talk about for six straight hours and TSN kept people entertained and informed. Pang and Duthie were the clear stars of the day with Johnson continuing to show improvement.  At one point Duthie confused the year 2010 with 2011 as a graphic was shown on the screen but I’ll give him a pass on that as the directors or producers probably didn’t alert him to what graphic was going up.  McGuire seemed muted compared to his usual hyper self. The Kouleas panel struggled while The Reporters were a mixed bag of information.  Hodge made some very good comments and asked good questions, as usual.  I just wish that he seemed happier to be there.  Simmons made a controversial comment, complaining that Brian Burke was in Afghanistan on Canada Day feeding troops.  This occurred as the Leafs were making a bid on Richards and the Leafs ended up not signing anyone during the day.  While that might have been thought provoking, it was certainly in bad taste for Simmons to make that comment.

Thanks to Twitter and it’s instant news updates, Free Agent Frenzy became the sideshow while Twitter was the star. Even Gord Miller remarked that they were “too busy tweeting” while later on Duthie made a quip about Steve Sullivan breaking the news of his deal with Pittsburgh via Twitter.  It makes me wonder how relevant TSN’s broadcast was today.  While TSN did break some news, many times, Twitter had it first, sometimes coming from TSN’s own staff.  I’m not proposing that the TSN insiders be on a Twitter embargo, but the broadcast could use less fluff and more instant signing announcements and analysis as they do so well come trade deadline day.  It’s ironic that TSN was promoting Twitter so much during their broadcast with the scroll, and promoting the #tsn hash tag while Twitter accounts broke news over and over again.  That’s one way of being proactive and I’m sure that’s how the TSN suits see it.  If you can’t beat Twitter, you might as well promote it, join it and hope people keep their televisions tuned to TSN while playing with their laptop, smartphone or tablet nearby.

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