The Magazine

Northern Highlights

When Canadians watch ice hockey, this is what they see.

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
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When the four-month-long National Hockey League (NHL) lockout was resolved this past winter, a collective sigh of relief could be heard—especially in Canada, where ice hockey is viewed as a national pastime that defines a way of life. Hockey stories, legends, and heroes are passed down in an effort to preserve the history and frozen mystique of “our game.”  

Don Cherry, 2007

Don Cherry, 2007

Newscom

Canada’s great sports obsession can be traced back to the 19th century, with the development of pick-up hockey, or “shinny.” Shinny sticks can be made from broken tree branches; rocks, tin cans, or frozen animal excrement suffice as pucks. Montreal, Kingston, and Windsor, Nova Scotia have all laid claim to Canada’s hockey origins, but Windsor may have the best argument: Around 1800, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a student at King’s College, wrote of schoolboys playing “hurley on the ice.”  

The Canadian National Railway radio network started broadcasting Toronto Maple Leafs games on Saturday nights in 1931; in 1933, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission added games from the Montreal Canadiens and Montreal Maroons. In 1936, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) became the permanent home to what radio broadcaster Foster Hewitt famously deemed “Hockey Night in Canada.”

Hockey Night in Canada: 60 Seasons (which refers to the program’s long-running television incarnation) offers a detailed history of this successful branding tool, for neophytes and historians alike. Michael McKinley, a documentary filmmaker and author of hockey books, has a knack for capturing readers’ attention by weaving together intriguing stories, personal viewpoints, and a love of the game. For the millions of North Americans who grew up with hockey, or for those who want to learn more, this volume will hold a cherished position on their bookshelves.

McKinley examines radio’s early days and Foster Hewitt’s legendary career. For nearly 50 years, Hewitt’s “excited nasal tenor” was the voice of Canadian hockey during recaps and live third-period broadcasts, and his  opening line—“Hello, Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland!”—brings back many fond memories. (It’s unclear whether Hewitt came up with the famous quip, “He shoots, he scores!” McKinley says Hewitt “thought he might have .  .  . [and] that’s the way myths begin.”) Canadian broadcasters still pay homage to Hewitt’s pioneering style and larger-than-life radio presence: “If Foster Hewitt hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.”

On October 11, 1952, the CBC started broadcasting hockey on television. Gerald Renaud, a 24-year-old sports editor for Ottawa’s Le Droit, produced Canada’s first televised game, between the Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings, a battle “featuring the sport’s most fabled Number 9s, Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard and Gordie Howe.” Renaud’s strategy was to “place the cameras so that he—and so the viewer—had an ideal seat from which to watch the game.” Three cameras were placed in strategic locations in order to catch wide angle, center ice, and medium shots.

Hockey Night describes all the sights, sounds, and personalities of the hockey world in a lush, conversational style. There is a chapter on Willie O’Ree, who, in 1958, became the first black player in the NHL, “the last of the four major sports leagues to have such a barrier.” McKinley also discusses the Hot Stove League—“featuring hockey experts having a chinwag around a hot stove on a winter night”—and the subsequent decision to switch to player interviews. Short explanations of how commercials developed (thanks to Murray Westgate’s “flair of a magician” in his Happy Motoring ads for Imperial Oil) and how the instantly recognizable theme music was written by Dolores Claman, “who had never seen a professional hockey game,” are the stuff of folklore. 

McKinley also writes about such popular on-air personalities as Howie Meeker, Bob Cole, and Harry Neale, and two chapters are devoted to Don Cherry, the NHL coach-turned-broadcaster known for his “paradoxical combination of .  .  . blunt, Legion Hall-style oratory and his dandyish attire.” Cherry, along with broadcaster Ron MacLean, has hosted the popular “Coach’s Corner” segment for more than half the existence of Hockey Night in Canada.   

In short, Hockey Night offers a wonderful description of the tradition, north of the border, of watching hockey either live in the arena or in the comfort of home. Season after season of televised hockey games is depicted in all its glory—steeped in history, memory, and legend. May the NHL’s next 60 years be as enjoyable as the first 60.

Michael Taube is a writer in Toronto.