I've written a lot over the years about how difficult it used to be to follow hockey in the United States as avidly as you wanted to. It still is, in some ways. The networks in the U.S., even NBC Sports Network which gives all it can to game coverage, still haven't figured out a way to cover the news of the game the way Canadian networks do. Which is why, when the biggest days for NHL news come around, the American networks (NBCSN and NHL Network) give way to allow Canadian broadcasters a chance to superserve fans of the sport.
In Canada, there are a few major to mid-major sports networks, much like in the United States. The difference is that there's a legitimate challenger to the network of record. TSN and Sportsnet battle for supremacy in Canada like no network has ever competed with ESPN. ESPN owns a piece of TSN, and the rights to the two biggest leagues in Canada, the NHL and the CFL. Sportsnet owns regional rights to Canadian NHL teams, as well as the Toronto Blue Jays. The two networks share the Raptors, the NFL and everything else.
None of those other things matter as much as hockey coverage, because this is Canada. Their rivalry is largely a silent piling up of "insiders" so that one network can beat the other at breaking the biggest trades and signings. It's an arms race, and often a literal one since most of the talent also writes for the network's websites (that was a shameful joke, I'll fully admit). The only shot ever really "fired" in the rivalry was a hilarious, profane tweet by Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos a couple years back.
TSN is definitely a legitimate number one at the moment, while Sportsnet often feels like the renegade operation in both talent and ratings. TSN has the look and literal backing of ESPN. It has Bob McKenzie, long considered the ultimate authority among hockey insiders, and probably the only person that 99 percent of hockey fans don't have some sort of weird, misplaced hatred for. They also have Darren Dreger, who is solid, if a little less bullet-proof after the last lockout. They have Aaron Ward, who despite a key mistake during the Jarome Iginla trade (which others also made and he, humbly, apologized for), is becoming one of hockey's rising stars on television. They also have James Duthie, easily Canada's best television host not named Ron MacLean.
TSN also has the big advantage when it comes to ratings around these big NHL trading/signing events. TSN drew an average of 259,000 viewers for 10 hours of coverage, while only 98,000 people in Canada watched Sportsnet, though the network made big gains from 2011 (72,000 viewers). Remember that this happens on a weekday and lasts for 10 hours the next time your Canadian friend talks about how great their country is.
Sportsnet has been making some gains in the past few years, especially in 2012. They tried out, and succeeded with, an excellent little innovation called 'The Strategy Room', which I'd be shocked if a producer of NFL coverage didn't see and said "let's do that" sometime in the future. They put their own best host, Jeff Marek, in a room with four former NHL GMs (Pat Quinn, Neil Smith, Doug MacLean, Brian Lawton) and had them basically breakdown every trade from a manager's point of view. Throughout the day, it got intense and yet it somehow didn't seem over the top. They told old stories from the boardroom in the past, and it was generally great television.
Both networks' coverage is accessible in the United States, as Sportsnet streams their coverage live on the network website, but TSN gets access to NHL Network in the United States. With that all said, let's take a look at the two channels' plans for Wednesday morning, afternoon and evening. Seriously, you guys, they do this for 10 hours each. Both shows launch at 8 a.m. ET and go until 6 p.m. ET. Canada is ridiculous.
Basically, TSN comes at things from a bunch of different panels. There's a total of 12 different sets of contributors to TSN's shows. If you watch the entire 10 hours, you could see up to 35 different people. That's a lot of ehs. Duthie hosts the whole shebang, and he'll typically sit at TSN's main desk with network analysts Aaron Ward, Ray Ferraro and Mike Johnson. Their job is essentially to analyze each trade and, God help them, fill time whenever necessary. A running joke among hockey fans is that the network pulls out predictions for the Canadian Olympic hockey team whenever they run short on material.
The real action happens at the "Trade Breakers Desk". TSN play-by-play man Gord Miller moderates McKenzie, Dreger and Pierre LeBrun, as they basically sit at their Blackberries and laptops and try to confirm and break trades. It's often a hilariously messy transition from one desk to the other. There'll also be panels featured around goaltenders, a set of reporters sitting in and going over all the deals, a social media expert and correspondents in every Canadian NHL city. NBC's Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire and Keith Jones will also contribute via satellite.
TSN is the standard, so they don't mess with things a lot. Having the desk to analyze trades and the desk to break them, along with a few other island nations of analysts every now and then, tends to work. Why experiment?
The biggest headline is that "The Strategy Desk" will return. Lawton, Smith and MacLean will return, with new panelists Denis Potvin and Mike Keenan. Throwing Mike Keenan into this is like throwing a rabid dog into a chess match, which could prove extremely entertaining.
Sportsnet also primarily uses a two-pronged set-up, with desks for analysis and trade-breaking. The main set is run by Daren Millard, with analysts Marty McSorley, Damien Cox and one of the most underrated hockey analysts in the game, Billy Jaffe. Seriously, listen to the guy, he usually outsmarts any panel he's on. The trade-breaking desk features Kypreos, John Shannon, Scott Morrison, Mark Spector, Chris Johnston and Bruce Garrioch. Johnston is a new addition from last year, and a solid one at that.
The network also devotes a panel to the Canucks, as they are obviously concerned with the future of their team's goaltending during the deadline. There will be a radio panel, and Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy joins Gord Stellick in sort of a comic relief role, though he'll be very angry at me for calling it that. Sportsnet also has correspondents in every Canadian city (or at least in the city every Canadian team is in), as well as at the Rogers Centre in Toronto to preview the Blue Jays home opener, because once in a blue moon, Canada acknowledges that another sport besides hockey exists.
The great thing about this, as a hockey fan in the U.S., is that you don't really have to choose, since there's no channel surfing involved. Put the TSN show on over at NHL Network and have the Sportsnet one on your laptop. Mute whenever commercials happen. If you're not a hockey fan, I still recommend checking both out just to watch what becomes the most fascinating, televised war of attrition, at least until the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins.