It is one of the most famous television programs in Canadian history. Its original theme was called the unofficial national anthem of Canada. It is Hockey Night in Canada and for almost 100 years, it has been an important and vital part of Canadian culture.
The origin of Hockey Night Canada dates back to Feb. 8, 1929 when Norman Albert announced the third period of play at the Toronto Arena Gardens on CFCA. He would only broadcast the third period so that people will still go to the games.
One month later, a young man named Foster Hewitt took over the broadcasting duties and the program would be broadcast as General Motors Hockey Broadcast. This program began to broadcast Toronto Maple Leaf games out of Maple Leaf Gardens beginning on opening night for the new arena, Nov. 12, 1931. These games were broadcast over the Canadian National Railway Network. It was on the first broadcast that Hewitt would the line that became famous, “he shoots, he scores!” The first General Motors Hockey Broadcast reached an estimated 100,000 listeners.
Within two years of launching, General Motors Hockey Broadcast was reaching 2.5 million listeners as stations began to be added. In a telephone survey done during a hockey broadcast on Feb. 3, 1934 found that 74 per cent of all radio listeners tuned into the hockey broadcast.
Through the 1933-34 season, the show broadcast 51 shows, consisting of 29 Maple Leaf games, 10 Canadiens games and 12 Maroons games.
Beginning in the 1934-35 season, General Motors Hockey Broadcast was replaced with the Imperial Oil Hockey Broadcast.
The Imperial Oil Hockey Broadcast would broadcast typically starting in the second period, once again to not discourage people from going to the games.
The North Bay Nugget would say of the Snyder family who listened to the broadcasts, quote:
“Saturday Night Hockey broadcasts always finds the two boys glued right tight to the Snyder family radio and their dad says that when King Clancy goes tearing down the ice, there is just no holding Jack.”
A couple months back, I did an episode on the birth of the CBC. Before there was the CBC though, there was the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, created by the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett.
After his government lost the 1935 election, the Liberals and William Lyon Mackenzie King came to power. With the new government, there came a new broadcaster.
When the CBC was created, the name of the program would change to Hockey Night in Canada, which was coined by Hewitt himself. This new version of the program was hosted by Gord Calder, with play-by-play by Foster Hewitt, and colour commentary by Percy Lesueur as part of the program’s Hot Stove League, which discussed issues within hockey. Lesueur was a veteran hockey player, having played for the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Shamrocks from 1906 to 1916 as a goalie where he would began to use a catcher’s glove with extra padding to catch the puck, and gauntlet gloves to protect his forearms. He would eventually be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.
As the program expanded, Doug Smith and Elmer Ferguson handled the English broadcasts of the Maroons, while Rene Lecavalier called the Canadiens games in French. When the Maroons folded in 1938, Smith and Ferguson began to broadcast the Canadiens games in English, opening up a whole new fan base for the club.
In 1952, Hockey Night in Canada decided to make the jump to CBC Television.
The Windsor Star reported quote:
“Imperial Oil plans to sponsor television of NHL games in Toronto when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation introduces TV in Canada next fall. The voice you will hear as commentator will be that of the same many you have been listening to for years, Foster Hewitt.”
From this point until 1964, the telecast followed the lead of the radio broadcast, with broadcasts beginning at 9 p.m. with games joined already in progress. The leading figures in hockey were not happy about television and had concerns that it would have a negative impact on ticket sales. Clarence Campbell, the president of the NHL, was heavily against television broadcasts. He also felt that television could not capture the action on the ice properly. In 1949, he would say quote:
“Fast end-to-end rushes, the skillful, attractive features of the game, are most difficult to portray because of TV’s limited field of view. This is not a proper representation of the overall action, and certainly can’t be doing the game any good.”
Conn Smythe, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, felt the same. After watching a special broadcast for CBC executives of the Memorial Cup game from Maple Leaf Gardens in April 1952 on a television, he would say quote:
“If that’s what hockey looks like on television, then the people of Toronto won’t be seeing it.”
Of course, Smythe was also a skilled businessman and he saw that television would grow the game and its audience, which meant more money for his team. He would say years later quote:
“They used to say radio would kill us but the novelty wore and pretty soon radio was interesting thousands of people in hockey who’d never given the game much thought. I’m sure it will be the same with television. The fans will be sold on it because it is a great game and they won’t be satisfied to stay home, but will turn out to the rinks.”
The plan was for the 1952-53 season to be the first broadcast on television. Smythe asked $100 per game in advertising fees, which is incredibly low. Today that would only amount to $1,000.
Within a year though, Hockey Night in Canada was proving to be a massive success and advertising rights would cost $150,000 for a three year contract. By the 1960s, the cost was $21,000 per game.
Gerald Renaud and George Retzlaff were put in charge of overseeing the broadcasts. They tried several different methods of capturing the action before settling on a three-camera setup. One camera was able to capture the length of the ice, a second camera was a medium distance from the ice and the third camera handled close-ups of players and faceoffs. This system was used in the first Hockey Night in Canada televised game and would become the standard from that point on.
The first game to be broadcast on television was a game between the Montreal Canadiens and the defending champion Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 11, 1952. The game ended in a 2-1 victory for Montreal in front of a hometown crowd at the Montreal Forum.
The English-language debut for Hockey Night in Canada on television happened on Nov. 1, 1952, in a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins from Maple Leaf Gardens. The broadcast started one hour after the opening faceoff.
The only surviving footage from that first season of Hockey Night in Canada on television was the Leafs home game on March 21, 1953 when they defeated the New York Rangers 5-0.
A Hot Stove segments was introduced this season as well, which featured comedy segments as well as George Feyer drawing caricatures and cartoons on a giant easel to illustrate commercials and hockey related stories.
The original hot stove was a hold over from radio but by 1957, it was clear that it didn’t work on television. That year, the Hot Stove was reworked with hosts Scott Young, Wes McKnight and Tom Foley doing player interviews.
I won’t say that Hockey Night in Canada caused an explosion in television buying in Canada, but I will say that it definitely played at least a part. By 1954, the number of televisions in Canadian homes was increasing by 50,000 per month and 77 per cent of those televisions tuned into Hockey Night in Canada.
In 1955, instant replay was pioneered on a Hockey Night broadcast, something that had never been done before.
On Nov. 22, 1957, a special Friday broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada occurred when the Soviet hockey team played at Maple Leaf Gardens against the Whitby Dunlops, who had won the Allan Cup that year. Both teams wore dark uniforms so it was hard to know who was in control of the puck. The Dunlops would win the game 7-2.
On Jan. 23, 1958, the first coast-to-cast broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada occurred. The game was between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers.
The Kingston Whig-Standard wrote quote:
“Can you visualize an undertaking of this magnitude: Call for a hockey night across Canada in every centre having an ice surface and facilities for hockey and spectators, participating.”
Later that year, on Oct. 11, Foster Hewitt turned the play-by-play reins over to his son Bill. Foster would remain on as a colour commentator for three years and then he went back to radio in 1961-62. He would return once more to do play-by-play when Team Canada took on the Russians in the iconic Summit Series.
The Vancouver Sun wrote about his retirement quote:
“The voice had the bladed tension of a poised hockey stick. It sent Charlie Conacher and Joe Primeau and Busher Jackson and Red Horner skating up and down the kid’s imagination. They were the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Leafs were the kids club. They were heroes moving in a golden haze that seemed to turn their sweaty uniforms pure white. One made them swoop vividly through the microphone into living rooms across the land. Foster Hewitt was the man behind the voice behind the mic.”
As for Bill Hewitt, he would be the voice of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the next 20 years until 1981 when a blood infection forced him to retire. Bill Hewitt had actually broadcast a game when he was eight-years-old in 1936 on what his father called Young Canada Night. This tradition would continue through the years and at one point, Bill’s son Bruce would broadcast a few minutes of the third period in games in the 1960s. When Bill broadcast his last game in 1981, that ended over 50 years of tradition of a Hewitt broadcasting a game in Canada. Bob Cole would take over the national broadcasts from Toronto at that point.
In 1964, lead times were moved up to 8:30 so that games could be joined in the first period. It was not until 1968 that regular season games were shown in their entirety.
In 1966, Macleans would write about hockey on television, quote:
“The higher you get in any hockey rink, the slower the game looks. Some of the excitement goes. Television, by cutting back and forth from long-shot to close-up, is the perfect compromise. You get to see everything. And with instant playback, you get to see some things twice.”
In 1967, all Hockey Night in Canada games began to broadcast in colour, starting in the playoffs of that year.
For decades, Hockey Night in Canada was the most popular show on Canadian television, averaging over two million viewers a broadcast consistently. In 1969, 6.2 million people watched Boston take on Montreal in the Stanley Cup playoffs. All the way up until the 1990s, the show led the ratings with the 1994 Stanley Cup Final between Vancouver and New York averaging five million viewers. After that, ratings began to slowly fall but remained relatively steady. Viewership was always high with a Canadian team in the playoffs, but fell drastically after the Canadian team was eliminated. In 2016, with no Canadian team in the playoffs, viewership was only 700,000 per game.
When colour came to Hockey Night in Canada, it changed the game itself. New lighting was added to the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens so that the picture was enhanced and players had to adjust to the brighter arenas, with some placing burned cork under their eyes to deal with the light reflecting off the ice.
In 1968, The Hockey Theme was commissioned. Composed by Dolores Claman and orchestrated by Jerry Toth, it would become an integral part of Hockey Night in Canada, and Canada’s second national anthem
The theme was a fixture of the show until 2008 when an agreement on the licence renewal could not be reached. The CBC offered $1 million for perpetual rights to the theme, but Copyright Music was asking for $2.5 million to $3 million. The rights were bought by CTV, who used it in their TSN and RDS sports channels. A new theme would be created for Hockey Night in Canada but it was just not the same.
In 1974, Helen Hutchinson became the first woman to appear on a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast when she conducted between period interviews.
In 1976, Imperial Oil ended their 40 years of affiliation with Hockey Night in Canada. Molsons and Ford would remain as sponsors.
The Montreal Gazette reported quote:
“In a letter to employees this week, Imperial said it was ending its association with hockey telecasts in Canada at the end of the current season because changes in the composition of the audience which Imperial wants to reach had diminished the effectiveness of advertising on hockey telecasts.”
The 1970s was also the era of Peter Puck, who was an animated puck that explained the rules of hockey and its history.
Until 1970, only two Canadians teams were part of the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was not until the Vancouver Canucks joined the league in 1970-71 that the venues for the program expanded to three. By the end of the 1981 season, four more Canadian teams had joined the league opening up venues for the program in Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg and Calgary.
Throughout the 1980s, Edmonton and Calgary were often broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada as they were two of the best teams in the league, reaching the Stanley Cup Final every year from 1983 to 1990, winning the Stanley Cup all but two times in that stretch.
The 1980s would be a transformative time for the program as competitors started to spring up in Canada, including on CTV. Another change happened when Wayne Gretzky was sold to the Los Angeles Kings, which resulted in Hockey Night in Canada featuring double headers whenever Canadian teams played in Los Angeles. These games were typically joined in progress.
The 1980s were also when hockey lost the man who brought the game to millions of Canadians.
The 1980s was also when one of the most popular segments of Hockey Night in Canada debuted, Coaches Corner. Since the 1960s, Hockey Night in Canada had broadcast its Hot Stove segment and then had other segments airing through intermissions. Coaches Corner would make its debut in the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs, airing with former Boston Bruin coach Don Cherry alone and giving his observations about the game. He would eventually be joined by Dave Hodge, and then in 1987, Alberta sports anchor Ron Maclean was brought in to host the segment with Cherry. The two would become one of the most famous tandems in Canadian history.
Cherry became known for not only his outlandish outfits, but also for being a focus of controversy. Within his first year on Hockey Night in Canada, the CBC was looking to fire him. It was Executive Producer Ralph Mellanby who defended Cherry at the time, feeling that his approach connected well with blue-collar Canadians.
Accusations of bigotry and racism would also follow Cherry for things he said on the show, particularly his criticisms of Swedish, Finnish and Russian players, as well as French Canadians.
In 1996, he would say of female reporters in the locker room quote:
“If you want to be treated like men, then when you do get treated like men, you can’t whine. If you can’t stand the heat, then stay out of the dressing room.”
In 2015, his statement that the Inuit were savages and barbarians for eating seal was met with widespread criticism. He also faced legal action for calling three former NHL enforcers turncoats and hypocrites for coming out against fighting in hockey due to its link with brain injuries. He would later apologize for his comments.
Even with the comments he would occasionally make, Cherry and Coaches Corner remained incredibly popular for decades and in 2015, Coaches Corner received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
I won’t go into much detail for the last 25 years of Hockey Night in Canada but it has been a time of major changes for Hockey Night in Canada.
In 1995, Hockey Night in Canada became a double-header, with an east coast game broadcasting first, followed by a West Coast game.
Cassie Campbell, an Olympic champion hockey player, would become the first female colour commentator on a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast in 2006, subbing in for Harry Neale when he was snowed in at his home in Buffalo.
On Nov. 26, 2013, the NHL announced a 12-year deal with Rogers for Canadian television and digital rights to all broadcasts of NHL games. The CBC was still able to broadcast Hockey Night in Canada but CBC would no longer be producing the show. The last CBC-produced episode of Hockey Night in Canada would air on June 13, 2014 when the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup.
Ron Maclean would state quote:
“We close tonight with what I said back in ’87, [my] first time around at the helm of this broadcast, “Here’s to an endless summer, and here’s to an early fall …” [We] bid you a good Hockey Night, for now.”
The broadcast ended with Queen’s The Show Must Go On, which included highlights from six decades of NHL coverage.
At this point, CBC paid no rights fees to Rogers or the NHL, but Rogers was responsible for advertising sales and production. Hockey Night in Canada was a large source of funds for the CBC, receiving half its total estimated advertising revenue from the broadcasts. As a result, many CBC staff attached to Hockey Night in Canada would lose their jobs.
On Nov. 11, 2019, Cherry was let go from Hockey Night in Canada after comments he made on Nov. 9 about immigrants not wearing poppies, stating quote:
“You people, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that.”
The use of the term “you people” was seen as offensive and seen as an attack on people not born in Canada.
Hockey Night in Canada continues to air, although it is not quite the same program. Despite its changes and new ownership, the role the program had in Canadian culture is undeniable and the hope is we can continue to watch Hockey Night in Canada for years to come.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, The Hockey News, History of Canadian Broadcasting, Wikipedia, Macleans, Windsor Star,