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Rogers Communications' smart play: More Don Cherry, not less

The future of Don Cherry and Ron MacLean is uncertain after NHL lands huge Canadian broadcasting deal with Rogers Communications. Don Cherry and Ron MacLean still make Hockey Night in Canada must-see viewing. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
By Allan Muir Are we witnessing the end of Don Cherry's stranglehold on Saturday night? That was one of the key questions raised after it was announced that Rogers Communications had paid $5.2 billion to take over all English-language NHL broadcasting in Canada, including the venerable Hockey Night In Canada, after this season. And with new owners calling the shots, many assumed or hoped that the new 12-year media rights deal, the biggest such agreement in NHL history, meant Cherry's days were numbered. Grapes, of course, isn't buying it. "They've been saying that for 30 years" he told CBC's Andi Petrillo on Thursday. "I know I'm No. 1 and Coach's Corner is No. 1 and what are you going to do?" You can't blame the man for his defiant attitude. He's always kept the wolves at bay before. But the fact of the matter is that Hockey Night In Canada and, by extension, Cherry's job, belong to Rogers now. The show may be an icon, but it's their icon. And it's almost inconceivable after making that kind of investment that they would not take the opportunity to put their stamp on the brand. So the question is, what do they want Hockey Night In Canada to look like? There's a real possibility that they might do more than slap a few Rogers logos around the set. In fact, there's a good chance that Cherry and his old running buddy Ron MacLean could be cast aside as Rogers looks to make the broadcast something uniquely its own. But Rogers needs to tread carefully. The game's the thing, especially in the sweet spot of the Saturday night-time slot, but as more and more contests become available--which is the whole point of the Rogers plan, after all--there has to be something that separates HNIC and makes it appointment viewing. Cherry has always been that something. "I'm a big fan of Don Cherry. I've worked with him and have a great respect for him," Scott Moore, president of broadcast for Rogers Media, said on CBC's As It Happens on Tuesday night. "I've already spoken to him. He asked if we were going to start our monthly lunches again. I'm looking forward to sitting down with him to discuss if he wants to be part of this." On the surface, it sounds like Rogers is amenable to having Cherry remain in his bully pulpit. But Moore's words were very carefully chosen. Instead of saying "we want him," which is what you'd expect to hear if they were set on having him return, it's "if he wants." Many are reading between the lines and saying that means Grapes is on his way out. I'm not so sure. It might instead be a canny bargaining tactic, presenting an air of semi-indifference ahead of what could be a tough negotiation to keep the master in place, perhaps for as long as the four years HNIC is set to run under the current agreement between CBC and Rogers. That would make sense. No matter how many members of the Canadian media are tenting their fingers and murmuring "Excellent!" at the thought of Cherry's dismissal, the fact remains that he is revered by a much larger and more important segment of the public. You know, the segment of the public that buys products like beer and trucks and hardware backed by advertising dollars that will be key to the success of this venture. So forget dumping Grapes. If Rogers wants to hit the ground running next season, it needs to emphasize more Cherry the way it's emphasizing more games. The smart play for Rogers would be to leverage him across their multiple networks, using his must-watch status--and yes, even the haters must watch--to drive eyeballs into trying out games and channels they otherwise might not. Rogers can tout the modern wonder of having five games to choose from on a Saturday night all it wants, but the fact is that when Toronto or Montreal is on in prime time, there aren't going to be too many folks switching over to try Philadelphia at Pittsburgh or Phoenix at Los Angeles, even if the main HNIC game is a blowout. Unless there's a good reason, of course. And there's no better reason than more Coach's Corner. It could work. It's not like Cherry's hot sports opinions are a finite resource. There's never enough time in the slot he's currently allotted to get to everything he wants to discuss, so showcasing him on another Rogers broadcast gives him more opportunity to hit the hot button topics, and hockey fans more of what they crave. Of course, that's only a short-term fix. At his age (he'll be 80 in February--hard to believe, I know) Grapes has only so many good years left. So maybe Rogers decides that now is the time to pursue TSN's James Duthie, MacLean's only equal in the hosting field, and Bob McKenzie, who doesn't have one-tenth the on-camera presence of Cherry, but is undeniably the sport's best connected and most informed personality. Rogers can make the argument that there was Saturday night hockey before Cherry and it'll be still there long after he's gone. That's not callous. Business at this level isn't motivated by sentimentality or doing the right thing. It's about the bottom line. But know this: the bottom line for Rogers will look a lot better with more Cherry
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