Rogers changes course on NHL by axing TV production head Gord Cutler

Chris Zelkovich
·Chris Zelkovich

Beset by sagging ratings and negative critical reviews, Rogers has changed course on its NHL coverage.

The media giant announced Tuesday that it has replaced production head Gord Cutler as it prepares to head into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Cutler's job has been eliminated and his duties will be assumed by Rob Corte, who is now in charge of all live events and studio production.

``This change comes as part of our bigger company restructuring, which was announced at the end of January,"  Rogers spokesperson Andrea Goldstein wrote in an e-mail.  ``While this has been a tough year with Canadian NHL teams out of playoff contention early, our commitment to the NHL has never been stronger.  There is no correlation between today’s change and our NHL deal.  

``While changes are difficult, today’s restructure puts Sportsnet in a position for continued success as we remain focused on delivering industry-leading content and innovation across all platforms."

Reaction in the business was basically disbelief that Cutler would be axed and confusion as to why such a move would be made on the eve of the playoffs. But Rogers has been cutting costs and staff lately, so changes weren't entirely unexpected.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters and fans in Toronto on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. Nearly 500 regular season games will air in Canada as part of the blockbuster 12-year agreement between Rogers Communications and the NHL. That's a jump of more than 400 per cent from the number of games shown during the regular season on the CBC, which currently holds the broadcast rights. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters and fans in Toronto on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. Nearly 500 regular season games will air in Canada as part of the blockbuster 12-year agreement between Rogers Communications and the NHL. That's a jump of more than 400 per cent from the number of games shown during the regular season on the CBC, which currently holds the broadcast rights. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

Cutler was named senior vice-president of NHL production shortly after Rogers signed a 12-year, $5.2 billion deal to control national NHL rights for 12 years. He is considered one of the most experienced hockey production people in the business and has held top positions with Sportsnet, Canada's Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium and the NHL Network as well as working as a hockey producer for Fox, NBC and TSN.

While it's not hard to imagine that somebody had to take the fall after Hockey Night In Canada ratings have dropped 30 per cent in the first two years under Rogers, the timing seems odd. Changing captains heading into the most crucial part of the season is fraught with danger.

One source said the move wouldn't do much for staff morale, which is already flagging in light of the poor ratings.

If Rogers felt it needed a change in the way it presented games, the start of a new season would have been a more logical time to do it.

But, after investing so much money in cornering the NHL market, it's likely Rogers had to make moves.

According to sources who asked to remain anonymous, Cutler and Sportsnet president Scott Moore didn't always see eye-to-eye on how the game should be presented, but it wasn't anything unusual in a business where clashing visions are common. The pair have worked together many times in the past and was Moore's first hockey boss when Sportsnet launched in 1998.

Another likened the move to an under-performing baseball team firing the manager to satisfy the fans.

But the main reason for the drop in ratings has had little to do with production values or the personnel changes instituted by Rogers. While they may play a role, the biggest factor has been the poor performances of the country's ratings drivers: the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks.

The fact that no Canadian team will make the playoffs, something that hasn't happened in 46 years, certainly hasn't helped.

Admittedly, many of the changes that took place under Cutler did not go over well with many fans. George Stromboulopoulos, who replaced Ron MacLean as Saturday night host, has yet to hit his stride and seldom fares well on online hockey boards.

The same goes for many of the Rogers people who moved into between-periods roles. Fans were also quite vocal when Rogers chose to let montage producer Tim Thompson go.

But with the exception of Thompson and MacLean, none of the CBC people who remained are exactly fan favourites.