Night in Canada is one of sports broadcasting's longest-running
and most groundbreaking programs. The contractual foundation for
the series was established on an Ontario golf course in 1929 with
a handshake between Toronto Maple Leafs boss Conn Smythe and advertising
agency owner Jack MacLaren. The agreement granted MacLaren and his
General Motors client the radio rights to Leafs games once
Maple Leaf Gardens had been built. The inaugural General Motors
Hockey Broadcast subsequently aired on 12 November 1931, soon
after the Gardens was completed, with Foster Hewitt calling a Leafs/Chicago
Black Hawks match-up. That same night, a Montreal contest between
the Canadiens and the New York Rangers was also transmitted. By
the start of 1933, a 20-station hook-up relayed broadcasts in English
from both Toronto and Montreal. A telephone survey estimated the
combined per-game audience at just under a million-- in a country
of less than ten million people; many of whom did not even own radio
sets. A coast-to-coast ad hoc network for the program was in place
by the end of the 1933-34 season.
In 1936-37, Imperial Oil (another MacLaren client) replaced General
Motors when GM of Canada's new president, freshly transferred from
the United States, declared that he "did not believe hockey would
sell cars." Meanwhile, on 1 January 1937, the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation (CBC) was launched as a public network and assumed national
carriage of the program. Sometime thereafter, the series began to
be identified as Hockey Night in Canada.
HNIC's first publicly televised game originated from Montreal
on 11 October 1952. The initial Toronto telecast followed on 1 November.
The Toronto broadcasts were supervised by George Retzlaff, a 30-year-old
technical director from Winnipeg who had just finished his CBC cameraman's
training when he was named head of CBC Sports and producer of HNIC.
Retzlaff's flair for cogent camera angles and sensitivity to the
sound factors of a telecast proved to be vital assets in his new
job. Meanwhile, Gerald Renaud, a 24-year-old newspaper sports editor
from Ottawa, taught himself television and secured the job of Montreal
sports producer. Renaud remarled, "The basic principle for the camera
positions I wanted to have was an ideal seat from which to watch
the game." HNIC broadcasts originally utilized three overhead
cameras. In 1956, Renaud introduced a fourth "goal camera" at ice
level to catch the action around one of the nets. This was a natural
extension of his daring method for shooting a game and pioneered
a tighter, more adventurous school of hockey directing. Toronto's
Retzlaff was an innovator as well. Anticipating the video tape replay,
he experimentally used a new "hot processor" in 1955-56 to develop
a kinescope (film) recording of a goal within thirty seconds for
"almost instant" replay. Separately, and in their own ways, Retzlaff
and Renaud taught telecasters how to convey the hockey drama. In
these early years, Retzlaff was also a master at keeping both the
CBC and MacLaren Advertising happy; an essential factor in HNIC's
the 1950s, the national feed game alternated weekly between Toronto
and Montreal with the opposite game downgraded to regional status
for airing in Ontario or Quebec respectively. Because there was
no real liaison between the two units, tensions and differences
in coverage styles developed. In 1966 therefore, Ted Hough (whose
MacLaren vice presidency made him administrative head of HNIC)
hired TV football director Ralph Mellanby to be executive producer
of all HNIC telecasts. To make the coverage more interesting,
Mellanby began by requiring staff to ledger every stoppage in play
and justify what the production featured during each stoppage. He
introduced dramatic scripted openings to sell the personality of
each particular game in the same way that teasers were used in entertainment
series. Mellanby also brought in directional microphones to catch
the sounds of crunching bodies and richocheting pucks and (once
colorcasting began after a March, 1965 test) put the home team in
white uniforms so that succeeding weeks' matches would benefit from
the changing hues of different visitors' bright road jerseys.
For many years, the television production of HNIC dovetailed
with the radio coverage. Thus, the series aired on Saturday evenings
(with some regional Wednesday games continuing into the 1970s) until
Stanley Cup Playoff time when coverage could be almost nightly.
However, because of CBC scheduling constraints, the early telecasts
did not begin until 9:00 PM -- the middle of the games' second period.
In 1963-64, sign-on was moved up to 8:30 (near the first period's
end) and in 1967-68, an 8:00 start inaugurated full-game coverage.
In 1995, a Saturday doubleheader pattern began that featured two
regional matches at 7:30 followed by a 10:30 nationwide feed from
a western venue.
aspects of the series also evolved. In 1958, the Molson family bought
controlling interest in the Montreal Canadiens and used this as
leverage to acquire part of the HNIC sponsorship for their Molson
Breweries. By 1963, their sponsorship share equalled that of Imperial
Oil. Ford of Canada also came aboard, initially to air "cover" commercials
in provinces where beer advertising was prohibited. Imperial Oil
pulled out of partner sponsorship in 1976 as oil shortages made
advertising redundant. (But it left behind the post-game ritual
of picking the "three stars" -- a practice begun to promote Imperial's
"Three Star" brand of gas.) The CBC then assumed Imperial's equity,
creating a struggle for control with MacLaren's Canadian Sports
Network; the entity that actually produced HNIC. Ultimately,
Molson chose to eliminate the MacLaren middleman, setting the stage
for a 1988 Molson/CBC pact that kept the series out of the hands
of eager independent network CTV, and officially retitled it Molson
Hockey Night in Canada on CBC. The CBC thereby solidified its
technical and transmission control of the series with Molson subsidiary
Molstar Communications strengthening its role as the proprietary
producer and holder of exclusive contracts with the key on-air personalities.
Hockey Night in Canada
the years, HNIC's air talent have been among the most famous
people in Canada. Pioneering sportscaster Foster Hewitt was joined
by son Bill when television coverage was added. Once HNIC outgrew
radio/TV simulcasts, the elder Hewitt let his son handle the bulk
of the TV side while he concentrated on his first love, radio. Foster
Hewitt's ability to not only call a play, but also anticipate where
it was going, set the standard for the HNIC personalities
who followed. Among these are Bob Cole, who replaced the ailing
Bill Hewitt in 1973. Cole's style is to build his voice in a compelling
series of plateaus as a play develops to its climax. Former Vancouver
and Detroit coach Harry Neale is a droll color man who gathers and
invents a huge inventory of pithy lines for insertion into future
games. ("'Turnovers in your own end are like ex-wives. The more
you have, the more they cost you.'") Dick Irvin Jr., whose father
coached both the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens to Stanley Cups,
imbues the broadcasts with a genteel sense of heritage. And commentator
and ex-coach Don Cherry is a volatile legend unto himself. Together
with adroit foil and master punster Ron MacLean, Cherry's between-periods
Coach's Corner often attracts more audience than the game
itself as he rails against the "pukes" and "LA-LA land sissies"
who would outlaw on-ice fighting and draws blustery, unfavorable
comparisons between European players and "good Canadian boys who
play hockey the way it's supposed to be played."
Peter B. Orlik
Steve. "Harry Neale's Off-Ice Gag Lines and Punch Lines." The
Hockey News (Toronto) 25 November 1994.
James, and Joseph Romain. Toronto Maple Leafs: Images of Glory.
Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1990.
Hall of Fame Magazine: Inaugural Issue Toronto: St. Clair Group
Scott. The Boys of Saturday Night. Toronto: Macmillan,1990.
Programming in English; Canadian
Programming in French; Sports