"Don't screw this up."
With a smile and a handshake, Hockey Night In Canada host Ron MacLean said these words to George Stroumboulopoulos as he introduced him as the new face of HNIC at a press conference March 10.
MacLean's remark wasn't a warning, just good advice.
Strombo, a MuchMusic VJ before he was scooped up as part of a youth blitz at CBC to host a nightly talk show, has now been entrusted with putting a new, hipper face on another aging institution. At least that's what Rogers Communications, which secured the broadcasting rights to Hockey Night in a $5.2-billion deal last November, is banking on.
Media commentators have long been looking for a shakeup. The sports TV landscape is changing, and Hockey Night was looking increasingly out of step in it. The show's viewership numbers pretty much flatlined in the last decade, in line with the number of Canadian-based National Hockey League franchises that made the playoffs.
In the hockey world, the jury is out on whether Malton-born, Humber College-educated 41-year-old "Strombo," as he's affectionately called, can revive a program deeply linked to our national psyche. It's unlikely Strombo's bosses at Rogers are looking for the spirit of The Punk Show he used to host back in the day.
But his hiring does reflect a dramatic shift toward turning the game rooted in Canada's collective pride into packaged entertainment.
David Lanys, president of Toronto's College of Sports Media, got his start in the industry alongside Strombo working in the control room at sports radio station The Fan 590. He says, "Broadcasting is entertainment, and the more time goes on, the more that line gets blurred."
Nicole Neverson, associate professor of sociology at Ryerson University, who specializes in sport and gender, says Rogers hopes Strombo's hiring will increase the game's profile from a cultural standpoint.
"Rogers is interested in representing its flagship show as a cultural one," she says. "It's not just hockey. Hockey is part of the broader culture and does not exist in a vacuum.
"Perhaps Strombo will be given some artistic licence to address and facilitate more discussion on the sociocultural aspects of the game. That could interest a wider demographic."
Well, we can hope. Marusya Borciurkiw, a media theory prof at Ryerson who specializes in Canadian television, says Rogers played it safe. To her mind, Strombo is "a fairly conservative choice."
"Sports broadcasting needs to begin to respond to issues that percolate within the medium and within various sports, like the invisibility and exclusion of LGBTQ athletes, for example," Borciurkiw tells NOW. "Let's hope Strombo has the will to make sports broadcasting a little more in tune with the times."
While his appointment puts a progressive blush on Hockey Night, it's also a move seen with some suspicion as not putting hockey first, even if he got his start in sports radio.
Strombo's edgy style has been known to come off as contrived. For some he's definitely crossed over into unlikeable territory. But what he has in spades is charm.
In other words, he's just the kind of guy a company like Rogers would bring in to convince us they care about the future of the game and the legacy of HNIC.
Scott Moore, President of Sportsnet and NHL Properties at Rogers addressed concerns about Strombo's sports journalism experience this way: "George is one of the smartest and most versatile broadcasters in the business."
Moore added that "We know how passionate fans are about hockey, and so we've brought together the best anchors to deliver the best hockey experience to Canadians."
He's referring to the "dream team" of commentators unveiled by Rogers to appear along with Strombo, which includes some of the most respected hockey journalists in the business. But the team fails to represent a game that is growing wildly in popularity with young girls and non-white players in Canada and around the world.
At the press conference, Strombo remarked that his love of the game began when he was five years old with the wave of eastern Europeans coming into the NHL. As the son of immigrant parents, Strombo said he began to "recognize" names like his own on the backs of players' jerseys.
But his son-of-immigrants story has a familiar ring. He said in a Huffington Post interview in advance of his venture into American TV last summer (CNN's Stroumboulopolos, which was not renewed for a second season) that "guys like me aren't on TV too often."
What he was referring to besides not being a traditionally attractive heterosexual male was unclear.
Strombo seems genuinely excited about his HNIC gig, though he declined an interview request from NOW through his agent. "George will be unable to provide this as he is not doing any more phoners or quotes at this time. Thanks for the inquiry!" came the response.
With its overtly nationalistic tropes and emotionally stirring opening montage, Hockey Night is one of the few experiences generations of Canadians can share. With his new role, Strombo has the opportunity to widen the show's appeal.
The onus will be on him not to toe the party line. If Strombo can muster some of that pioneering punk spirit from his VJ days, he won't just save Hockey Night In Canada; he could cement his legacy as one of the country's great sports journalists.
1993 The 21-year-old Stroumboulopoulos begins his broadcasting career on Kelowna's 104.7 The Lizard. Hosts a metal show and dresses up as the station's mascot. Later, he interns at Toronto sports radio station The FAN 590.
2000 After a stint on CFNY 102.1 hosting shows including the New Rock 30, he heads to MuchMusic. Bono proclaims himself a fan.
2004 Takes part in CBC-TV's The Greatest Canadian series as a passionate advocate for Tommy Douglas, the father of universal health care.
2005 Begins hosting The Hour, CBC's late-night talk show, revealing more of his own personality, including his choice to be vegan. Charitable initiatives include his work with Hiphop4Africa.
2008 Wins Gemini Award for best host.
2013 Tapped by CNN to host Stroumboulopoulos, a foray into American TV that's largely panned.
2014 Chosen as the new host of Hockey Night In Canada. CBC announces cancellation of George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight at the end of the 2014 season.