Canadian Sports Program

Hockey 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 fiscal stability.

Throughout 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.

Financial 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

Over 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


Dryden, Steve. "Harry Neale's Off-Ice Gag Lines and Punch Lines." The Hockey News (Toronto) 25 November 1994.

Duplacey, James, and Joseph Romain. Toronto Maple Leafs: Images of Glory. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1990.

Hockey Hall of Fame Magazine: Inaugural Issue Toronto: St. Clair Group Investments, 1993.

Young, Scott. The Boys of Saturday Night. Toronto: Macmillan,1990.


See also Canadian Programming in English; Canadian Programming in French; Sports and Television