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The Fifth Line

April 6, 2011 |  by  |  Featured, Sports

As the 2010-2011 NHL Regular Season draws to a close, fans of the Vancouver Canucks have a lot to cheer for. Vancouver’s 40th anniversary in the NHL has been a superlative year in most respects, the team smashing club record after club record, winning for the first time the President’s Trophy by finishing as the best team in the league, and perhaps most importantly, being the odds-on favourite to win the Stanley Cup. *knock wood*

For my money though, as much as the on-ice product, this year it has been the on-air product which has provided so much of the entertainment. If the Fred J. Hume Award goes to the unsung Canuck hero, my vote for its fictive off-ice analog goes to those that bring us the games each night, specifically John Shorthouse, John Garrett, and Dan Murphy, the respective play-by-play man, colour commentator, and game host for Sportsnet Pacific, Vancouver’s local sports network.

To be sure, I enjoy watching my team perform well. I’ve delighted in watching the Sedins put the fear of Norse gods into opposing teams, working impossible magic with their unlikeliest of triplets in Alexander Burrows. I’ve been surprised and thrilled watching the amazing talent and boundless guts of Kesler 2.0, the man who went into the Vancouver 2010 Olympics a great talent with an even greater chip on his shoulder, but who walked away a super-hero with a silver medal hanging proudly on tall shoulders. I have loved watching two of the best goalies in the league develop an unlikely friendship, quietly racking up amazing stats, while most of the hockey world looks in the other direction. I’ve enjoyed all the stories of our team, the struggles they’ve faced, and their consistent response: winning.

Yes, I just analogized a hockey game with Aristotelian rhetoric, deal with its aptness, I am Canadian.

Of course, like all Canuck fans, I wish for 16 wins in the post season. That said, seeing the team winning isn’t why I watch the Canucks. If all one cares about is winning, one may as well be a fan of the Yankees. I watch for the drama, the underlying narrative of the team and the players, the feeling of participation in the endeavour.

Participation in the Endeavor

Participation in the Endeavour

The elite may turn up their noses at professional sport, decrying it as entertainment for the proletariat, seeing sixty minutes or so of arbitrarily structured competition, but missing entirely its persuasive appeal, persuasion which is rich in ethos, logos, and pathos, as if walking past a theatre of antiquity, seeing Aristotle speaking to a rapt group of listeners, dismissing the scene as ‘boring’, without ever having listened. Yes, I just analogized a hockey game with Aristotelian rhetoric, deal with its aptness, I am Canadian.

That richness of experience can come only from following a team closely, the casual watchers witnessing only the surface competition, their participation limited to the shallow feeling of superiority derived through belittling the team and its fans during times of lean, or to the somewhat hollow sharing of revelry found by clambering onto the bandwagon during times of plenty.

The most important, most impactful part of following a team is picking up on the underlying narrative, the back-stories and side-stories of the team and the players, essential understanding without which no empathy can be felt, no part of the endeavour can be shared, watching a game without it like eating your favourite meal with a plugged nose, the experience familiar, yet unsatisfying.

Key to development of this narrative are the broadcasters, like the Fifth Line of a team, they make up an essential part of the game itself, providing a window into the team and its players. Sometimes that window is a cold plate glass sheet, mass produced and impersonal, a barrier as much as a portal, but on rare occasions it is a warm kitchen window, wind billowing the curtains, its sill inviting neighbourly elbows and warm confections, bridging the world outside with the world within.

The Home Team

‘The Johns’ and ‘Murph’ provide more than a simple window into the world of the Canucks, instead having become part of the rich fabric of the experience themselves. Those of us who have followed the team, who have welcomed the Sportsnet crew into our living rooms night after night, have watched a certain magic developing between the Johns since their pairing two seasons ago. They became fast friends, obvious to viewers as more than the professional geniality between coworkers, the seeds of true friendship growing out of the necessity of being tied to each others’ side during long road trips, the roots of their relationship anchoring deeply in the foundations of their shared passions: good hockey and bad food.

The Johns

The Johns

Murph is a key member in this new gang too, sharing in the in-jokes and making sly references to their exploits, the story behind them sometimes being picked up on by the loyal viewer, but often being missed, left unexplained, intermittent rewards garnering the strongest response from faithful viewers. Dan will often throw softballs up to the guys in the booth, one time presenting an interstitial in Buffalo, its backdrop a giant bowl of hot-wings, his throw to the Johns upstairs a big fat meatball, one that he knew Garrett would be powerless to resist, setting him off on one of his wonderful and bizarre digressions.

The Johns’ love of food features frequently in their banter, reports of an impromptu gastronomical tour of several cities’ best burgers adding relish to an recent swing through the Northeast. At first it wasn’t clear if the ad-libbing was contractual, often coming after a mention of the recent Safeway Score ‘n’ Win featured product, but before long it became clear that Garrett – it’s usually Garrett that starts it – only piped up when it was a product that he especially enjoyed or perhaps something healthy which Mrs. Garrett was trying to get him to eat more of, the products which Garrett had no interest in receiving no added mention.

Sometimes, if you listen carefully just after a break, you can almost hear John Garrett entering the commentator booth with a tray full of nachos, its lava-hot cheese piled in nuclear orange heaps across the months-old chips, Shorty pausing in his summation of the action, almost surely distracted as Garret silently, excitedly mouths: “Look at all the cheese they give you here!”


Extra Cheese for Cheech

Of course the Johns’ appeal doesn’t rest on their junk-food predilection alone; they are excellent sportscasters. They know the game and the team very well, the narrative they weave adding incredible depth to the Canucks, the trusted relationship that Murph has with the players allowing some of their individual personalities to shine through the normally featureless facade of Professional Hockey Player and Team Representative.

Garrett’s dread of his inevitable interruption by the uncannily timed canon blast, and Shorty’s schadenfreudian glee each time it occurs, are sure to make anyone a fan of their act.

Both Johns are true Canucks fans, Garrett having been a Vancouver goalie back in the early 80s, Shorthouse deciding as a boy that he wanted to grow up and become the Canucks play-by-play announcer just like his idol, Jim Robson. Each shows their favour differently, with Garrett sometimes seeing the game through Canuck-coloured glasses, quarreling from time to time with Shorty, whose unswerving loyalty for the home team runs so deeply that any sort of advantage through a call leaves in his mouth a bitter taste, preferring always to call it fairly.

Like Lemmon and Matthau, their styles compliment each other beautifully, an odd couple more different than alike, sometimes giving each other grief, but always good-naturedly. This last season, in which they have worked many more games than in previous years, spending much more time together, the Johns have become at times a bit like an old married couple, referencing disputes about calls weeks after the initial spat, obviously belying arguments that had continued off-air, but were ultimately agreed to be disagreed over, for the sake of the viewers.

Their rare and friendly bickering aside, it is always a pleasure to visit with the Johns, their contribution adding entertainment above and beyond the game being played. If you ever get to watch them call a game in Columbus, pay special attention to the pre-game segment; Garrett’s dread of his inevitable interruption by the uncannily timed canon blast and Shorty’s schadenfreudian glee each time it occurs are sure to make anyone a fan of their act, perhaps even a participant in the John Garrett drinking game.

Team Canada

Watching a Canucks game without the Johns is like trying to watch a game in standard definition after experiencing HD Hockey. Games that CBC broadcasts, or especially TSN, are a pale shade of what we’ve become accustomed to on Sportsnet. Unfortunately for Canuck fans, during the most exciting time of the year, the broadcast rights are too expensive for Sportsnet to afford, the games aired instead by CBC.


Hockey Night In Canada Crew

The game on CBC is a bit of a mixed bag. The in-game commentary is often painful, the individual announcers usually calling only a handful of games a year, their unfamiliarity with the team glaring in comparison to the Sportsnet crew, often resulting in pauses in the play-by-play, the announcer searching for a name, floundering, coming up with only “the Canuck defenceman” in their attempts to describe the action. By far the worst though, is listening to some of the commentators struggle to fill the time between plays, their ‘insightful’ comments equal parts inane drivel and mindless parroting of details from the game’s crib sheet: – “Bob, it’s like the Sundin, check that, Sedin brothers know where each other are on the ice.” – “Well you’re right about that Doug, they’re twins you know.”

As bad as the CBC in-game crew is, the Hockey Night in Canada team of analysts is outstanding, Ron MacLean and Kelly Hrudey always insightful. PJ Stock stumbled out of the gate at first, but once he was able to relax, to be himself, and to spar with the rest of the crew like a part of a team, he came into his stride, providing a welcome splash of youth and goofiness on the slightly staid HNIC institution. Being on the West coast, Vancouver viewers are often fortunate enough to miss Don Cherry’s bluster, though we do get the full brunt of Mike Milbury, the CBC blowhard heir-apparent.

Scott Oake is unlike other sports interviewers in that he’ll often ask the questions that others know you’re not supposed to ask.

Hockey Night in Canada is also home to After Hours, a late-night, live, and informal interview program hosted by the incomparable Scott Oake. As it airs right after the last game of the night, frequently a Canucks game, After Hours often features one or two extended interviews with Canuck players or coaches. These interviews are rare in that the subject usually answers questions openly, without trace of the cliché filled interview persona, providing viewers with great insight into the team, the players, and the game.

The Sports Interview

The Sports Interview

Scott Oake is unlike other sports interviewers in that he’ll often ask the questions that others know you’re not supposed to ask. Free from the equally clichéd sports interview questions, his interviews are pryingly insightful, if at times painfully awkward. It’s obvious that the players share notes on Scott Oake before their stint on After Hours, coaching each other on their coming interview, drawing up set plays in response to the difficult questions that are sure to come, determined to put on a good show and to not be embarrassed.

The best illustration of an Oake interview would be the episode of After Hours from February 19, 2011, in which he interviews Canuck backup goalie Corey Schneider and Dallas Stars head coach Marc Crawford. Just one example from which is Oake asking Schneider why he had such a terrible start in the AHL early in his career, an incredibly awkward question, but one which is asked with the pure intent of serving as juxtaposition with his phenomenal play this year, a question resulting in an answer which provides a much better insight into Schneider, the development of goaltenders, and what it is like to turn pro, all details that would remain buried without Scott Oake to dig them up.

Roasted Crow

Roasted Crow

The whole episode is well worth watching (especially so for Canuck fans who get to see how incredibly poised and mature Schneider is for a rookie), but the Marc Crawford interview is almost indescribable in its entertainment value. Crawford, who used to be the head coach in Vancouver, also worked for a couple years as a HNIC commentator, sitting alongside Oake on the After Hours show, obviously developing a friendship, a familiarity that Oake would exploit to have some good-natured fun with his old comrade. At the end of a night that saw his team thoroughly thrashed by the Canucks, Crawford gamely faced tough questions about his team, gentle mockery of his voice and his hair, and even probing questions regarding his wife and son not moving from Vancouver to Dallas with him, bearing it all without a hair out of place, a picture of inhuman poise with the wry smile of a good sport etched on his face. It was incredibly awkward to watch. To be honest, I’m not sure how much of that particular interview was Oake looking for good insight and how much of it was simply a roast of his old colleague, but it sure was good television.

Sadly, Scott Oake lost his son quite recently, and I would like to pause in my true appreciation of his work to pass along my condolences to him and his family.

In the absence of Oake, Elliotte Friedman took his place on After Hours this past week, and the effect on the show was palpable, the entire tone feeling quite different. Lost was the more personal tone of the interviews, an angle that was surely missed, but in its place was a bit more depth into the hockey itself.

The episode of After Hours from April 2, 2011, featured interviews with Coach Alain Vigneault and Roberto Luongo, providing fascinating glimpses into the message from the coaching staff for a team with little to play for until the post-season, into the new goaltending style that Rollie Melanson has brought to Luongo’s game, and into the somewhat unlikely friendship that Lou has developed with Schneider. It stands as one of the better insights into Canucks hockey we’ve seen from CBC in a long while and is definitely worth watching.

Luongo After Hours

Luongo After Hours

It seems that while Scott Oake’s strengths lay in teasing the narrative out of the people behind the uniform, Elliotte Friedman’s strengths fall to the analysis, seeing the game of hockey in a way that few career sports commentators ever have. Each is able to ask the perfect question necessary to fill in the fine brush strokes of the greater picture, with each style complimenting each other.

While I look forward to more of Elliotte Friedman and the fresh perspective he brings to After Hours, and while I know the show will certainly be less awkward with him in place of Scott Oake, I will miss the angle that Oake provides. The pairing of the two on After Hours would likely make for some of the best hockey programming, but alas, it is unlikely that CBC would have two hosts travel with the crew.

The Second Season

It looks as if the playoffs will feature Friedman on the Vancouver crew along with Mark Lee and Kevin Weeks. Weeks is an excellent colour commentator and Lee is quite good on the play-by-play, second among the CBC stable only to the former Vancouver caller, Jim Hughson. The too-infrequent games worked by Lee and Weeks have been the best that CBC has offered this year.

Hopefully, familiarity from working so many more games than they have in the regular season will allow the CBC crew to get better and better throughout a long post-season. *knock wood*

Though, no matter how deep the Canucks go in the playoffs, I know I’ll be a little sad to not have the Johns in my living room, sharing in the experience.    

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