The Rogers takeover of hockey is breathtaking. But I don’t just mean breathtaking, and not just takeover. It’s more like absorption. The way you absorb food, and transform it so that it becomes you, literally. Rogers has become hockey, or aims to.
Hockey used to have sponsors, which started with Esso back in the day, and broadcasters, which was the CBC. But none of them devoured hockey or claimed to be it. Yet many stories on the new season were about Rogers, not the teams. It’s as if Rogers isn’t either; it’s both, and some mighty new entity.
You see the grandiosity in the ugly way Rogers stomped into CBC HQ in Toronto and took over two upper floors, then walled themselves off. The CBC may be crappy and moribund, but it was built by the people of Canada with their taxes and talents. Rogers acts as if it’s there for the taking, the whole place eventually. It’s like any occupation, there’s no respect. In a victory you can still show respect for the vanquished. Not in an occupation.
Rogers has many motives, as befits their grandeur. One is to reshape their image by “pivoting.” From what to what? Hated to — not loved but — fealty! In the monopoly days of telcoms, phone companies were often deeply hated: Bell here, AT&T in the U.S. But even under competition Rogers excels. They admit they want to counter this odium with hockey. Then they offer a GamePlus option, with unique camera views, but only if you surrender to Rogers as your ISP. When it comes to incurring hate, they’re their own fiercest competition.
And such ego. True, sports cable nets are ego heavy, often in an endearing, childish way. But the new context makes the hollow swagger of Nick Kypreos and Doug McLean merely obnoxious. The rooster quality was supportable while they were in the cable playpen and it separated them from the general cultural population. Now they’re on Main Street. They make Don Cherry look modest and reticent. He at least wears those suits, as if he knows he should make an effort, not just strut his ego around naked. They are to him as Doug Ford is to Rob.
Rogers’ corporate ego mirrors this: it’s massive but deeply shallow. It expresses itself only in numbers, in quantity. So we get hockey on all their sports channels, plus CBC, CITY, CTV even FX. FX? WTF. Rogers says they’re the new guardians of the game but really they don’t know how to be anything but multipliers of it. At some point, we’ve had too much, we’ll turn away or retch.
And there’s this: You can’t really guard something immaterial. But all Rogers really owns and provides is images of hockey, on multiple platforms. Fewer and fewer Canadians play it. The equipment’s too costly, the concussions worrisome, parents prefer soccer. Attendance is declining. You have to be an idiot to pay the ticket prices (mea culpa). And even the images get re-imaged: the GoPros on the refs’ helmets, the SkyCam. It’s like the tourists who get off the bus already shielded from actual sights by their cameras. I don’t know where this ends but it’s nowhere good, and nowhere real.
It’s almost mystical. There’s a notion in Kabbalah (the original version, not Madonna’s) of the celestial body of the primal Adam. Not the guy in the Bible but his prototype, writ large in the stars, like a constellation, so he’s kind of electric. He’s not quite God but since Adam was created in God’s image, he’s godlike and this celestial Adam stands between God and the actual universe, filling it with light derived from his own electric qualities. Surely you can see why I associate this with Rogers. It hovers somewhere in the regions above, full of light and electric synapses, raining hockey down on us. Not hockey as concrete human reality but as an electronically mediated set of images in the service of shareholder profits. They want to devour it whole (minus a few shreds) turning hockey itself into Rogers by metabolizing it into their corporate celestial body.
This is hubris and it’s blasphemous. No one can be hockey but they’re trying. Aux armes, citoyens.
This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
Photo: flickr/Roland Tanglao