Rogers takes Knights to masses

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

A piece of lighting equipment fell, the host forgot the guest's name at introduction time and somewhere in the background a muffled argument broke out between a couple of studio people.

Welcome to cable television.

That was years ago, when local cable TV was an adventure into the unknown, staffed by well-meaning amateurs extolling the virtues of everything from crocheted tea caddies to a crony running for municipal politics.

But it has changed, as a growing audience has been finding in Rogers broadcasts of London Knights games. Nobody can tell you how many have been watching the team's playoff spring but it's a fair guess viewership is enormous.

Along with the 159,000 London and vicinity homes served by Rogers is a hookup with Cogeco cable extending the reach to all southern Ontario. If the Knights beat the Kitchener Rangers tonight here to advance to the OHL final against Ottawa 67's, the province will be covered.

"I believe it would be something like 2.3 million and wouldn't be surprised if it was the largest viewership in OHL history," said Rogers regional station manager Mike Patterson.

It still has some warts, but devoid of the big-network glitz, the cable hockey broadcasts have been good. There's something about guys going on-camera without makeup.

They are play-by-play man Leigh Cunningham and colour commentator Rick Doyle. What you see is what you get, a couple of fellows with strong hockey backgrounds who, given the parsimonious nature of cable television, do what they do because they love it.

Cunningham is a Sarnia bartender and freelance writer when he isn't bringing the Knights to the masses. Doyle is a wine and beer distributor and president of the London Knights' Alumni Association.

Together, they play well off each other, Cunningham with a style that rises to a passionate crescendo as scoring chances develop, Doyle the even-toned voice of authority in parsing a scoring opportunity, goal or incident for the viewers.

Former Knights winger Doyle admits he had some misgivings three years ago when the Hunter brothers asked that he be colour man. He had visions of early cable TV but soon found production values of a telecast with seven cameras in operation were excellent, although there was a recent glitch when replay equipment went down.

He does three to four hours homework prior to each game to prepare.

Doyle says his close relationship with his on-air sidekick has gone a long way toward the blend they bring to telecasts. Cunningham amazes him with his persistence.

"He's made so many sacrifices and just sticks with it, trying to get a break," he said of Cunningham, who has done time as Knights' CJBK radio play-by-play man and also for North Bay Centennials games. "He has the ability to make it to the top."

Over in Kitchener, play-by-play man Roger Wardell and colour man and former NHL ref Lance Roberts share one thing in common with the London duo.

Cable TV once was the habitat of screaming homers anointing the locals with sainthood while characterizing the visitors as hairy-legged Hessians bent on razing the city. All lean toward the home team but present better balance.

The third member of the basic London on-air group, Brent Lale, does between-periods interviews and sportscasts for Rogers and works at family-owned Mackie's in Port Stanley. His Kitchener counterpart, Dave McLelland, is a retired teacher.

Both productions have a lot of volunteers, including young ladies who often break a broadcasting rule while doing fan interviews: Never ask a question that elicits a yes or no answer.

But it's generally good stuff for a growing audience, an expanding viewership Doyle has come to sense in his daily dealings as head of wine and beer distributor Direct Cellars. More and more strangers stop him to talk hockey now.


Videos

Photos