Hockey Night in Canada: A Brief History


Hockey Night in Canada: A Brief History
Feb 20, 2018

It’s a typical Saturday evening in February of 2015 at Hockey Central studio in Toronto, and Don Cherry isn’t happy. The NHL coach-turned-TV host, who for nearly half a century has been the focal personality of Canadian television’s hallmark sports talk show, Hockey Night in Canada, is addressing one of the most contentious aspects of the game today: fighting among players.

Cherry, an old-school hockey man, thinks a decline in fighting would derail the game. He sees evidence of it already.

Looking unusually dressed-down in a navy blue blazer and white tie – he’s been known to sport suits decorated with snowmen, pink roses, and skulls (for Halloween), to name a few – Cherry laments the effort led by younger-generation “nerds” to discourage the long tradition of on-ice fights. In his view, fighting is an inherent part of hockey, and any attempt to step away from it would only leave star players more vulnerable to injury, without designated “fighter” teammates around to protect them.

Now, he argues, due to a crackdown on fighting, more stars are getting hurt. “You saw what happened, because they listened to nerds,” he rants.

Cherry, who first joined Hockey Night in Canada in 1980 as the host of his now-legendary analysis segment, “Coach’s Corner,” is seen by millions of Canadians as a national icon. Known for his flamboyant dress, sharp analysis and blunt opinions, he and his show have become, for many, synonymous with the rich tradition of Canada’s national sport.

Several generations have grown up listening to Cherry’s insights on Saturday nights – for most of these years, alongside co-host Ron MacLean – and serious and casual fans alike see him as a pioneering advocate and champion of the sport. For many up-and-coming players, he’s been an idol.

Fans watch the big screen as Hockey Night in Canada analysts Don Cherry and Ron MacLean break down a 2013 playoff game between the Maple Leafs and Bruins. (Photo by Katie Thebeau, presented under Creative Commons license.)

“Don Cherry and Ron MacLean are heroes of mine, because you grow up watching and hearing what they have to say,” said Washington Capitals forward and Calgary native Jay Beagle. “So that show, obviously, is iconic in Canada.”

But Cherry isn’t without his critics. He’s been called out by some not only for his abrasive on-air manner and old-fashioned views on issues like fighting, but also for controversial comments on women and minorities which have occasionally gotten him into trouble. (In a recent New York Times profile, he boastingly compared himself to Donald Trump.)

Nevertheless, Cherry – with all his virtues and shortcomings – represents the essence of what Hockey Night in Canada has come to be: a mainstay in Canadian popular culture, for decades the lifeblood of sports coverage for kids growing up with the game – but one which is perhaps still figuring out its role among a new generation.

“I think the older generation cares more,” said Stephen Whyno, a hockey writer for The Associated Press who spent several years covering the NHL in Toronto. “But I think younger people still watch Hockey Night in Canada.”

Over its 66-year history as a television program, Hockey Night in Canada has become a staple of the Canadian TV diet, the go-to Saturday night program highlighting the best of Canada’s national pastime.

“There’s no U.S. equivalent to this. It’s their national sport,” explained Whyno. “Imagine football, basketball, baseball all put into one.”

“Growing up, since I was four or five years old, Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday was the biggest deal for us,” said Capitals defenceman Madison Bowey, who hails from Winnipeg. “All we did on Saturday was I’d skate in the backyard, and watch hockey all day. So it’s pretty special.”

Though Hockey Night in Canadafirst aired on television in 1952, the show’s radio presence dates back decades earlier. In 1923, Foster Hewitt – a college boxing champion and the son of the Toronto Daily Star’s sports editor – seized on an early opportunity to call play-by-play for one of the NHL’s first radio-broadcast games.

Sports broadcaster Foster Hewitt, shown in his office in 1945, became the voice of Hockey Night in Canada soon after its start in 1923 and turned the program into a must-hear event over the next few decades. (Photo by Gordon W. Powley.)

In the years that followed, Hewitt would become a legend across Canada, a pioneering figure and standard-setter in the world of hockey broadcasting.

“If Foster Hewitt hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him,” wrote Michael McKinley in his 2012 book, Hockey Night in Canada: 60 Seasons. “But instead, he invented himself, and intersected with history in a way that allowed him to make history himself.”

By the late 1930s, Hewitt had become a household name, and his weekly Saturday-night program – now broadcast by the newly-formed Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) – was growing into a must-hear national event.

Listeners were hooked from the start with Hewitt’s famous introduction to his broadcast: “Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland!”

Paul Stewart, a former NHL player and referee, said Hewitt’s broadcasts helped hockey reach new audiences across Canada and beyond. “They became fans of the game through Foster Hewitt,” said Stewart, whose grandfather, Bill Stewart, was also a referee — as well as a coach of the Chicago Blackhawks — in the early decades of the NHL.

In 1952, Hewitt helped lead the program’s transition to television, calling play-by-play for the first widely broadcast English-language TV airing of a hockey game on November 1 of that year, between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. (René Lecavalier had called the first French television broadcast several weeks earlier, between the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings.)

Hewitt remained at the helm of the broadcast calls until 1958, when his son, Billy, took the reins, which he would hold until the early 1980s.

Over the latter half of the 20th century, the program would grow into must-see TV, and oversee a number of journalistic milestones, including the invention of instant replay in 1955, and the first color broadcast of the Stanley Cup final in 1967.

Hockey Night in Canada also witnessed and reported on major sporting and cultural events, including the formation of a players’ union in 1957, Willie O’Ree becoming the first black player in the NHL in 1958 (though they didn’t interview him until three years later), the Montreal Canadiens’ epic 1975 tie with USSR-champion Red Army during the height of the Cold War, and Helen Hutchinson becoming the show’s first female reporter later that decade, which paved the way for later reporters like Cassie Campbell.

Hockey Night in Canada is an institution,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “Generations of hockey fans have gathered in front of the TV for Hockey Night In Canada, and the sense of the history is unmistakable.”

(It should be noted that as Hockey Night in Canada grew up, there was also a French sister broadcast through CBC’s French-language service, Radio-Canada. This show, called La Soirée du Hockey, lasted on a national scale from the days of radio through its final television broadcast in 2004.)

As the years progressed, different features came and went from Hockey Night in Canada, while others remained constant. Early efforts to fill the time between games and periods included the “Hot Stove League” spots of the 1950s – an adaptation from radio of pundits having a casual chat about hockey around a wood stove between commercials – and the “Peter Puck” cartoon series of the 1970s.

In 1980, a new era began when Cherry, at the time a frustrated forty-something coach of the rock-bottom Colorado Rockies, picked up a side gig as an intermission analyst on Hockey Night in Canada during the playoffs.

“It’s immediately clear that Cherry has keen insight into the game, and a broad sense of hockey history, much of it personal,” recalled McKinley in Hockey Night in Canada: 60 Seasons.

“He wasn’t a very good coach, but he became a great analyst,” Whyno said of Cherry. (Though he endured a miserable tenure with the Rockies, Cherry had previously found brief success as coach of the Boston Bruins, guiding them to two Stanley Cup finals.)

What would follow in the years to come would be the rise of what’s grown to be the trademark segment of Hockey Night in Canada: “Coach’s Corner,” which Cherry and MacLean have hosted together since the mid-1980s. (MacLean, who also hosts some pre-game talk shows and other parts of the program, was briefly let go in 2014, but returned two years later.)

“Coach’s Corner,” which airs after the first period of Hockey Night in Canada games, and features Cherry and MacLean dissecting plays and news of the week, has become nearly as ingrained in the fabric of Canadian popular culture as the sport itself, both for its entertaining personalities and for its serious analysis of the game.

“Those guys are kind of the standard bearers,” Whyno said of Cherry and MacLean. “People
tune in to watch them at the first intermission.”

“What’s interesting is during the game, people may turn the sound down,” Stewart said. “But in between periods – and especially in the press rooms – everybody’s quiet when Cherry talks.”

Cherry himself has evolved into a kind of cult hero, as famous for his intelligent hockey insight as for eyebrow-raising attire.

“His suits are very much a topic of conversation,” said Whyno. (Indeed, type ‘Don Cherry’ into Google, and ‘Don Cherry suits’ is one of the first hits that comes up.)

“Don Cherry, he’s one of a kind, and a legend,” said Capitals forward Brett Connolly, who hails from British Columbia.

Still, the 84-year- old Cherry remains a controversial figure.

In 2013, he made headlines for suggesting on air that female reporters didn’t belong in male locker rooms, which prompted a furious backlash on Twitter, including angry reactions from prominent female athletes and journalists. He has also been criticized by French broadcasters for language he’s used when talking about French Canadian players.

But Stewart, who said he has gotten to know both commentators well over the years, as both a player and referee, thinks MacLean does a good job of reigning Cherry in when necessary.

“MacLean puts the brakes on, and keeps bringing Cherry back to the middle,” he said.

(Following Cherry’s comments on female journalists, MacLean told the Toronto Sun that while he disagreed with Cherry’s on-air comments, he had known his co-host’s “heart would be in the right place.”)

Today, Cherry and MacLean’s first-period intermission show remains the keynote segment of Hockey Night in Canada, but there are many other reasons to tune in.

Frank Brown, the NHL’s vice president of media relations, said his favorite parts of the program include the pre-game show and the “After Hours” segment, which airs following the second game of the typical two-game lineup. (On Saturdays, Hockey Night in Canada generally broadcasts one early NHL game and one later game, each usually involving at least one Canadian team.)

“The pre-game gives a ‘big deal’ feel,’ Brown explained, adding that it “shows how seriously Hockey Night in Canada takes the responsibility of presenting the games to the nation.”

He continued: “I like the ‘After Hours’ show, because after watching some six consecutive hours, it’s nice to wind down with some post-game conversation and a wrap-up of all the things you’ve seen, and some of the things you may have missed.”

During the second period intermission and post-game, there are often interviews with players and other figures from around the hockey world. Top players from each period are selected and gifted a special Hockey Night in Canada towel, which is a coveted kind of prize.

“It’s an honor for players to wear this towel,” said Whyno. “A lot of guys keep it and frame it.”

Jay Beagle said he framed the first towel he ever got as a player. “Framed it and put it in my basement,” he said. “It was really cool. Watching that growing up… yeah, that’s pretty special.”

Bettman, too, acknowledged the importance of being featured on the show as commissioner. “I remember one interview recently when I was being asked about one of our Canadian franchises: Within about 30 seconds of the conclusion of the interview, the team’s owner called me to discuss what I had said,” he recalled.

Though Hockey Night in Canada remains a fixture among Canadian hockey enthusiasts and likely will for years to come, Whyno thinks its influence is perhaps waning somewhat among a general audience.

“It probably mattered more 10 or 20 years ago than today,” he said. While families historically gathered around their televisions every Saturday to watch, he said, times are changing – both with the coming-of- age of a new generation, and the rise of more channels and digital platforms through which to see games.

Others, however, think that Hockey Night in Canada’s “special programming” could be its key to the future.

Brown, for example, believes that the show’s recent efforts to boost supplemental content will keep viewers tuned in and help draw in a younger, more diverse audience.

These efforts include grassroots fundraisers, as well as Hockey Day in Canada, an annual event started in 2000 that includes about 13 hours of original programming and highlights hockey’s role in current Canadian culture.

A poster highlights a 2013 Hockey Day in Canada matchup. (Graphic by Jackman Chan, presented under Creative Commons license.)

“It provides the opportunity to celebrate the Canadian NHL teams and to spotlight the impact of the sport on individuals and on communities across Canada,” Brown said.

In his mind, these recent programs reflect how much the show’s producers care about the sport’s role in the lives of Canadian people – including those new to the country.

“This storytelling is critically important,” Brown said. “As Canada’s demographics become far more diverse, with more ‘new’ Canadians entering the population from countries where hockey isn’t played – or, at least, isn’t top-of-mind – Hockey Day in Canada provides a ‘point of entry’ for newcomers eager to become familiar with Canadian culture and why the game means so much.”


Mia O’Neill in a graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Master’s program

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