SANTANNA: NHL relies on some monkey business to draw fans

Kaitlin Santanna

“It’s so easy, a monkey could do it.”

Professional sports broadcasters and journalists pride themselves on their ability to predict postseason outcomes. The week before the playoffs begin, sports media outlets dedicate hours of programming and inches of print space towards conversations about who is believed to become the newest league champion.

For the past six years, however, this process has become so simple in the National Hockey League that a monkey can do it. One specific monkey, actually. Her name is Maggie, and she is a type of monkey called a macaque.

Maggie made her foray onto the professional broadcasting scene in 2003. It was during this spring over six years ago that the Sports Network, Canada’s ESPN equivalent, decided they needed to spice up their NHL prediction show. Since the NHL playoffs are TSN’s pride and joy, the station’s producers put their thinking caps on to come up with something new and inventive. Someone lightheartedly suggested, “Why don’t we do something random like a monkey spinning a wheel?” As in many brainstorming sessions, this joke became reality, and Maggie was just the critter to make it possible.

Maggie, the crab-loving primate, was drafted from her usual habitat at the zoo in Bowmanville, Ontario, into TSN’s prediction broadcast team that same year. The macaque spins a carnival-style wheel that is divided into sections, each team in a series representing half the wheel. For example, one of this year’s wheels would contain alternating logos of the Flyers and the Penguins. Maggie then spins the wheel and stops it when it lands on her selection to win the best-of-seven series.

As tenured professionals struggle through their notes attempting to choose a winner for a series, Maggie has successfully predicted the playoffs in this manner for a majority of her years on the broadcasting team. The monkey gained instant fame in her first year of picking playoff winners due to her immediate success in foreseeing upsets. While the TSN panel unanimously favored Detroit, Maggie picked Anaheim to knock off the talented Wings.

Despite all odds, the then-Mighty Ducks upset not only the Wings, but the Stars and the Wild as well. Maggie correctly chose the Ducks to win every series. Despite the fact that Anaheim was the seventh seed, they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the New Jersey Devils in seven games.

Maggie’s mystical ability to predict the Ducks’ success despite their underdog status may be entirely due to chance, but she gained international success. The Los Angles Times put a picture of TSN’s “prognosticating primate” on their front page in 2003. News of Maggie’s predicting abilities spread everywhere from Australia to Seattle.

Maggie’s popularity even led her to be featured in a TSN show named “The Ape-rentice,” a parody of the popular reality television show “The Apprentice.” “The Ape-rentice” featured Maggie making her selections and the panel of experts discussing the picks for the upcoming playoff round.

Although Maggie has made headlines from predicting upsets such as the 2003 Anaheim scenario, her record over the past five years is what the laws of probability suggest: slightly above average. Her overall record is 40-35, with her best season coming in 2006 when she went nine for 15.

Her record may be average, but the macaque usually fairs the same or better than her TSN human counterparts. In her first two seasons, Maggie lost to three panelists, tied two and defeated one. In 2006, she finished first out of a panel made up of hockey experts including Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire. Despite her successes, however, Maggie has yet to predict the Stanley Cup Champion in her nearly half a decade of picks.

One might think this charade of a monkey spinning a wheel and becoming a nation’s resident animal hockey expert will be short lived. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the ’05-’06 season, a TSN poll discovered that 74 percent of viewers wanted Maggie back for another season of prognosticating. Like many other celebrities of our time, Maggie has extended her electronic personal network to the world of Facebook and Twitter, where she updates her opinions of the current playoff round on a regular basis.

All of this international fame and pressure of predicting NHL playoff series on a worldwide scale is a lot of stress on a furry primate. Maggie, now nearing 21 years of age, has announced that this will be her final playoff season with TSN, with plans of entering retirement as soon as the Stanley Cup Champion is named.

Despite the fact that the monkey prophet is passing her heyday, her picks so far for the first round of this year’s playoffs have been quite successful. Perhaps this is the year when Maggie correctly chooses the overall champion.

While appointing a wheel-spinning monkey as the NHL guru of selections is slightly ridiculous, it is a reminder of the joy that the playoffs should bring. Instead of stressing over brackets and playoff pools, the challenge of predicting what’s going to happen in an event that possesses such high volatility is as random as it is entertaining.

The fact that a primate has on occasion been more successful in her picks than a panel of seasoned veteran reporters should be testament to that.

Whether Maggie can predict another upset reminiscent of 2003 or correctly name her first Stanley Cup Champion is yet to be determined, but surely this simian psychic will remain in the hearts of hockey lovers for many years to come.