Book Review: Hockey Fight in Canada

Hockey Fight in Canadaby David Shoalts (2018, Madeira Park, BC: Douglas and McIntyre. 199 pages. ISBN: 978-1771622042). Released in Canada on Sep. 29, 2018. Will be released in the U.S. on March 23, 2019.

On Nov. 26, 2013, shock waves were sent throughout the National Hockey League, particularly among the league offices, the six Canadian franchises, their fanbases and Canadian media. The epicenter for those shock waves was the 12-year, $5.2 billion deal that was struck between Rogers (parent company of Sportsnet) and the NHL, a deal that gave Rogers the Canadian national broadcast rights for television, digital and radio coverage. The new deal occurred after the CBC, Canada’s publicly-funded broadcasting company that previously held the rights, was unable to meet the league’s asking price.

This meant that Hockey Night in Canada, the nation’s beloved Saturday evening hockey show and a CBC staple, was at-risk for cancellation. However, what resulted was the salvaging of Hockey Night in Canada, although initially in a different format, and the often-controversial Don Cherry, host of Coach’s Corner, thanks to Rogers purchasing the rights to the program.

In his book Hockey Fight in Canada, David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail takes readers on the journey from the events that led up to the new deal through the first few years of said deal. He uses the access provided to him as a national reporter to give a behind-the-scenes look at the breakdown in communication between the NHL, the CBC and Bell Media (parent company of TSN), ultimately paving the way for Rogers to step in and secure the rights contract.

What is the Targeted Audience?

As an American, I wasn’t aware of the battle that took place in Canada in 2012 and 2013 over the national broadcasting rights. I barely remember the conversations that occurred in the United States that led to NBC extending its contract for the American broadcasting rights in 2011. In some ways, my ignorance to what took place in Canada makes me the ideal audience because I had no prior knowledge to the events that occurred.

That being said, the book is excellent for all readers regardless of prior knowledge given how Shoalts explains in a detailed manner the circumstances that existed prior to the negotiations, during the negotiations and after the deal was announced. The result is a text that educates without being overly academic.

The Book’s Structure

The book is structured to take readers on a journey from the pre-Rogers deal through 2017, three full years into the contract. This is accomplished by breaking the text into three sections: the environment when the CBC held the rights and the underlying issues that existed with chapters that include ‘The Warning Shot,’ ‘The Gathering Storm’ and ‘Setting the State;’ the negotiations that occurred in an effort to keep the rights with the CBC or give them to Bell Media or Rogers – ‘Trying to Maintain the Status Quo’ and ‘The Big Money Steps In;’ And, finally, the announcement of the new Rogers deal and the results, positively and negatively, that have occurred – ‘Celebrating the Change,’ ‘Quebecor Gets in the Game,’ Storming the CBC’s Gates,’ ‘A Turbulent Maiden Voyage’ and ‘The Fall.’

In the first section, Shoalts discusses the conditions in which the CBC operated when they held the rights and the issues that were present but overlooked by the company’s brass. These issues included high-ranking members of the NHL community who were disgruntled with how Cherry and Ron MacLean, and by default the CBC, treated hockey outside of Canada. Yet the CBC felt these issues weren’t overly serious and felt they could maintain the status quo. That wasn’t the case:

However, as the CBC’s exclusive negotiating period approached in the summer (2013), it began to appear as if the public network was planning to go it alone (rather than taking on a partner in Bell Media or Rogers). ‘They thought they could keep Hockey Night in Canada pretty much on the terms they had it,’ said Scott Moore, who maintained close relationships with a lot of CBC people after he left for Rogers. ‘Whether that’s naive or not…’ – Pages 41-42

Moore’s quote sets the stage for the book’s second section, the negotiation period. The CBC entered this time period with the exclusive negotiating window Shoalts references in the above snippet. During that time they failed to take serious neither the issues that were present nor the desires of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. The CBC’s oversight meant that no new deal was struck, which paved the way for Bell Media and Rogers to step in. Bell Media initially looked like the favorites to secure the contract, however Rogers ultimately walked away with the deal after Bettman felt they would best represent the league moving forward.

The impact of the new deal was sizable. It meant that Rogers took over Hockey Night in Canada, which resulted in job losses as Rogers replaced many CBC staffers with their own Sportsnet employees. It meant that Rogers had secured not just the English television rights, but also the French rights by way of a sub-license with TVA Sports. However, it also meant that Rogers took on a sizable, and potentially unnecessary, risk that could result in either great profit or loss.

Broadcast-rights deals are won and lost all the time, with the shows in question simply shifting to the winning network. But it was unprecedented for the victors to literally storm the losers’ headquarters and take over their offices. – Page 130

The results, as many may know, have been both positive and negative. Rogers has struggled with viewership numbers depending on how good Canadian teams are in a given season, but that’s to be expected. They’ve tinkered on several occasions with the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, replacing MacLean and moving in a more modern direction at one point before reverting back to the original setup.

Well, thanks to the ratings dive and falling revenue, with the non-stop complaints about the show also playing a role, viewers were about to see a world of chance. Only this time it would be an about-face to the old version of Hockey Night in Canada. – Page 183

What Does the Book Accomplish?

As previously mentioned, Shoalts does an excellent job at leaving no stone unturned when covering the story. He uses his reach as a national reporter to land interviews that help tell the story. He bluntly tells of the problems with the new deal – financial risk and job losses – as well as the positives from it – new ways to view the product and increased awareness for the league as a whole. Ultimately, he leaves the decision about whether or not the deal was successful to the future, and to the reader. He doesn’t push you in any direction, at least I didn’t feel he did, and allows for the future of the contract to have the final say.

Do I Recommend the Book?

I could not recommend this book enough. What Shoalts manages to do in 200 pages, with telling a story that occurred over a period of several years, is magnificent. It provided me, someone without any prior knowledge of the situation, with context and insight into a headlining story. He covers the story from every angle and educates his readers in a respectable manner. I walked away feeling educated about what took place and realize how serious the American television rights negotiations may be before the current NBC deal expires after the 2020-21 season.

Special thanks to Harbour Publishing for supplying me with a copy to review.