Talking Hockey Night in Canada's 60th anniversary with Trevor Pilling, CBC Sports head of programming

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A discussion of the venerable franchise's 60th season, Hockey Day in Canada's venue change, and the studio's personnel change.

CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, perhaps the most famous name in all of sports television, premiered last Saturday and proved the program -- and the NHL itself -- is as popular as ever. 3.3 million viewers tuned in to their broadcast of Toronto-Montreal, a record number for the 7 p.m. ET timeslot in the regular season. Their two other broadcasts (Ottawa-Winnipeg and Anaheim-Vancouver) also did extremely well, and Don Cherry managed to rustle up his usual brand of controversy.

In an interview conducted just a couple of days before the season began, I spoke to CBC Sports head of programming Trevor Pilling. We discussed the (much talked about when they actually debuted) changes to the network's studio team, whether or not Don Cherry really draws higher ratings than the actual hockey games, and if he felt NHL fans would return to Canadian broadcasting's best-known brand (HINT: he was right).

Steve Lepore: What was the general status of the network during the lockout without hockey?

Trevor Pilling: The network did fine. I think there's a huge appetite for hockey in Canada, and with Hockey Night in Canada being the No. 1-rated Canadian produced show on any given week, of course we would have preferred it be up and running, but we and a strong roster of other programs that came in and filled the void. But there's nothing quite like hockey in Canada, so were glad that it's back.

SL: Based on that, I assume you're expecting the audience to return in full force with this shortened season? Do you see a 48-game season as, perhaps, an advantage?

TP: Well, in looking for a silver lining, there certainly are some exciting factors involved in a 48-game schedule. Certainly, we would have preferred a full season. That said, that was not within our control. There are things about a 48-game schedule that make it exciting. It levels the playing field a little bit more, gives everyone a little bit more of a chance to make the playoffs and make a run to the Stanley Cup Final. There's certainly some positives about it. We wouldn't ever trade a 48-game season for an 82-game season if we were given the choice.

SL: Was it a challenge putting together a schedule? You have a 48-game season, you're limited to Saturdays, and you don't have any out-of-conference games.

TP: Really, the schedule is the league's business. We work with them to get the best schedule possible. The thing that makes the intra-conference games good for us is we end up seeing a lot of Canada vs. Canada match-ups, and our audience tends to grow when there are more Canadian teams involved.

We have a pretty darn good schedule and thanks to the schedule-makers at the league, for example, on Hockey Day in Canada (Feb. 9) were able to have every Canadian team play. The Canadian/Canadian match-ups and inter-conference matchups actually play in to that 48-game schedule being more exciting. Yeah, there's some challenges. That said, we had a couple of months to be ready and we were anticipating a real quick return to action. So we had a good action plan that we were able to implement as soon as they had a deal and that's part of being in television broadcasting, you need to be nimble and you always need to be ready to change and react, and we were ready for it.

SL: Hockey Day is changing sites this year, correct?

TP: It was originally scheduled to be in Lloydminster, which borders Saskatchewan and Alberta. Because we didn't know whether [the lockout] was going to be resolved or not, what we did was put Lloydminster on ice for one year. They will host it next year, and this year, what we've done is moved to a location in Peterborough. We're still executing Hockey Day. There's a huge outdoor pond hockey tournament that's happening there Feb. 9.

It just made sense for Lloydminster to be able to turn Hockey Day into the best event they possibly could. They needed more run-up than the schedule allowed. Were really excited to be going there next year, and were pleased with our plans in Peterborough, and... you know, part of Hockey Day in Canada is that were also live from a number of remotes, not only where the NHL teams are playing, but in other grassroots communities where hockey's being played.

SL: During a regular year, how much run-up is there to Hockey Day in Canada in the host city?

TP: In a regular year, Hockey Day has turned into Hockey Week in that community. There's a number of banquets, a number of clinics that the Hockey Night in Canada panelists go in and do. They do community service and givebacks, all kinds of things. Last year, we were out in Prince Edward Island -- I was fortunate to be there -- and, we usually take it to a smaller community, somewhere off the beaten path. The community certainly embraces it, they're really pleased to see our network stars show up.

That's one of the unique things about Hockey Night in Canada, were not just about the pros, were also about the game at it's core, at the grassroots level. It's really good to see the looks on the kids faces in those communities, when they see Ron and Don come into the arena, and get a chance to shake hands and get autographs and share some stories. It's really a great opportunity for us to give back.

The lead-up is something that's really taken to heart by those local communities. It's taken to -- we're heading into our 14th season for Hockey Day -- and it's turning into a big deal for any community that can host. That's why I wanted to give Lloydminster the chance to really knock it out of the park next year, and in the meantime, regardless of where it's hosted we're able to tell some of those heartwarming and inspirational stories from the grassroots of hockey.

SL: Don Cherry will get a second segment. Was this always going to be the plan, or is this maximizing what you can get out of Don in a shortened season?

TP: Actually, this plan was in place before there was even a lockout announced. With the five and a half time zones we have across Canada, and with Don coming on early in the night, we wanted to make sure that western viewers had a little bit of Don, where he's focused on the western game.

So now, he'll show up at the first intermission of our late prime game, just so everyone's getting their piece, and so that Don can have seen the first period of the western game to comment on the teams out west, and to basically share him with the whole country rather than just be something that happens late in the afternoon in our western provinces. People want more of Don, and were gonna' get a chance to give them more of him.

SL: Reports often state that Coach's Corner gets higher ratings than the game itself. Is that still true?

TP: Well, I don't really want to spoil a great urban legend... certainly what is fair and accurate to say about Don's intermission segment is that, for any intermission/halftime segment in any sports broadcast, the audience retention in Don's segment puts any other intermission segment to shame. He retains a huge amount of audience compared to any other break-type programming that exists.

SL: Another change that you made is flipping Kelly Hrudey and Kevin Weekes between the studio and the late game. Why do you think this gives you an advantage in the studio (with Kevin) and at the late game (with Kelly).

TP: I'm really excited to have Kelly head back out on the road and become a game analyst. Kelly knows the game very well, and I think he brings a really important mix of information about the technical side of the game, but also storytelling about the players. I think it's important that were providing a really nice blend of technical and deep insight, but also we want to know about the human side of these players. I think that plays into Kelly's forte very, very well.

Plus, the fact that Kelly's a western-based guy -- he's from Calgary -- and it's important to have some western people calling those western games. They're out there all week consuming the media that surround those teams and they get to know the players and the stories around those teams. That's why I love the idea of Kelly being on the broadcast out west. Not to mention what he will do with Scott Oake on After Hours will really help make that show continue to be special. That show's really one of the first interactive programs that's been on the air, taking questions from fans and one of the unique ways to get to know players.

What we've done with the crew here in Studio 42 is not only have we added Kevin, we've added Glenn Healy and we've added Elliotte Friedman. Those three guys join PJ Stock and Ron MacLean on our panel. The point of that, really, is to make sure that were providing diverse opinions, and it's somewhat like cooking a stew or a great meal. You need all types of different ingredients to make it come out to be the best meal it can be.

By having a couple former players, and Elliotte Friedman as a journalist/reporter, I think we'll really make that panel segment lively. You can certainly expect the unexpected out of guys like Glenn Healy, and a lot of fun and entertainment and a lot of insight. Another neat thing is that we've put Andi Petrillo, who was formerly LeafsTV, full-time on our Chevrolet i-Desk, and there'll be a lot more interaction between Andi at the i-Desk and the guys on the desk.

This is our program, and were in our 60th season, were the longest-running sports program in the world, as validated by the Guinness Book of World Records. While it's a show that's been around a long time, we're really looking towards the future, really looking to be not only in-depth and educational, but also fun and entertaining. That's what I feel this group can do to benefit the program. It's gonna' be fun.

SL: Have you asked anyone that was around in, say, 1995 or is it a completely new animal in terms of broadcasting?

TP: I think that there are some things to learn from last time around, that said, the media landscape is a completely different world. How we communicate is very different, and even what was expected out of TV broadcasts then vs. now is very different. I think we do want to be sensitive to how not everyone was happy with the lockout.

That said, we are happy hockey's back, and I know millions of Canadians are happy hockey's back as well. We want to do the best show we can to be as entertaining as we can be on Saturday nights and right through to the Stanley Cup Finals. I'm expecting that, in time, the audiences will be back to where they were before and hopefully our intention always is to grow it, and make our broadcasts as acceptable to fans of the game as we possibly can.

SL: Will the business of the lockout be discussed, or is that something that will be saved for Hotstove?

TP: I think it's not going to be the main focus of the night. There's so many things to talk about in terms of the teams, the rosters, and the run to the Cup, and with the 48-game schedule's impact on teams and their ability to make the playoffs and win the Cup. That will be the focus. Certainly, there will be some discussion of the lockout. For the most part, however, I think most fans have had their fill of that. They want their game back, and that's what we're gonna' give them.

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