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Off ice observations from the Rivalry Series

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Some thoughts about the broadcast and attendance

Canada v United States Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Women’s hockey has held the national spotlight recently, and the Rivalry Series was no exception to that. The on-ice product was everything everyone expect of a US-Canada series. Off the ice, there were strides made but also some of the same old issue that have plagued women’s hockey.

Attendance

The first game of the series in London, Ont., was a sellout at 8,435, even with a winter storm in the area. The third game in Detroit drew a 9,048-strong crowd. Based on Nicole Haase’s research, the games are 26th and 21st most-attended games in women’s hockey, respectively.

Looking at just the international games, they are the only two on the list that aren’t played as a run-up to an Olympics or at a World Championship tournament. Granted, this is one of the first times an exhibition series has been played not only at the beginning of a quad cycle but also as preparation for a major tournament, so there’s not much competition there.

To see such excitement a full 12 months out of the Olympics is invigorating. The numbers say great things about both the sport and continuing the Rivalry Series as an annual event: if you play it, people will come.

A few fan-made signs around the arenas pointed directly to the impact of the game’s recent visibility.

Broadcast

For those of us at home, all three games were broadcast live on television in both Canada and United States. The NHL Network picked up the TSN feed, meaning all viewers tuning in for the English-language broadcast had the same show.

It goes without saying that a live broadcast on major networks is positive, especially for an exhibition series with no international standings implications. Adding to that, four of the five people on the call were women — Cheryl Pounder teamed up with Rod Black while Tessa Bonhomme was in the studio with Caley Chelios, Jayna Hefford (Game One and Two), and Lori Dupuis (Game Three) — and the on-air teams pass the eye test of being a leap forward.

Initially, Game One’s broadcast started off well. Bonhomme led Hefford and Chelios into a conversation before puck drop about the new faces on the ice, which gave both space to talk about the CWHL and NWHL. The CWHL and NWHL mentions continued throughout the series, with talk of players’ teams, stats, and how the season is nearing the playoffs.

The inevitable mention of a player’s male relatives did happen, albeit much later in Game One than expected.

Even Chelios wasn’t exempt. Instead of being introduced with her job title as a FoxSports reporter covering the Tampa Bay Lightning, she was her father’s daughter. Her job was rarely - if ever - mentioned on the broadcast, passing up an opportunity to add to her credibility in front of a new audience.

There were other mentions of men in various players’ and coachs’ lives. Cara Morey’s husband was talked about more than the fact that Morey is the head coach of Princeton’s women’s hockey team. The old standbys “granddaughter of King Clancy” and “sister of Phil” were trotted out in all their tired glory.

Overall, Game One was one of the best recent broadcasts I’ve heard in women’s hockey. The studio analysis was strong and intellegent, and Black stayed mostly on topic during play.

And that’s about where the positives ended.

Game Two was okay. The quality took a noticeable drop from Game One, but it wasn’t as bad as broadcasts have been in the pass, nor as bad as Game Three proved to be.

Bonhomme and Chelios were joined by Dupuis in the studio for Game Three. The former CWHL player and general manager provided the same knowledge base that Hefford brought, allowing the CWHL mentions to continue. But once the actual game started, the typical problematic broadcast issues reared their ugly heads.

It took less than five minutes for a player to be mentioned in terms of a male relative. The same storylines we’ve heard during the previous to games were repeated over and over and over and over again. Ann-Sophie Bettez’s long path to Hockey Canada was shoved down viewers’ throats at every turn, with barely a mention of her U Sports or CWHL accolades. Alex Carpenter had a chip on her shoulder pad and was looking to make Team USA after being cut late from the Olympic team. Sarah Nurse has a lot of other athletes in her family.

By the third period, Black’s in-game commentary pretty much ignored what was happening on the ice in favor of droning on about various other topics. This didn’t go unnoticed online, based on how Twitter lit up with frustration at the broadcast’s decreasing quality.

As a fan of women’s hockey, I was extremely frustrated by Game Three, especially compared to how well Game One went. I understand at the beginning of a game it’s important to repeat certain information to get new viewers caught up. However, to rely only on those few factoids all game reeks of laziness and poor research. The viewers — and players — deserve better from the broadcasters.

The future of the rivalry series

The success of the three-game series showed there’s an audience for these types of exhibitions, even outside of Olympic tune-ups. Whether or not we see more is up to Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, but the people have spoken.