SPECIAL FEATURE: Blittner’s Blue Line – 70 Years of Hockey Night In Canada (On TV)
By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
Later this year, on October 11, 2022, to be exact, the iconic Hockey Night in Canada program will celebrate 70-years of being on television. Here in the United States we have never seen a sports program – the Super Bowl is an event, not a program – that has had the type of staying power and level of cultural integration that Hockey Night in Canada has had north of the border.
To celebrate this upcoming milestone we left no stone unturned and chatted with a number of HNIC personalities. Ron MacLean, Jim Robson, Dick Irvin Jr., John Shannon, Rick Ball, John Bartlett and Sean Reynolds comprise our list of special guests; each of who has spent years molding their craft. Most importantly, they all bring unique insights into the storied program.
And part of those insights is trying to answer the question, “why has Hockey Night in Canada been able to become so intertwined in Canadian culture?”
As Ron MacLean put it, “I think one of the advantages is, Saturday night, in the United States, programmers have surrendered Saturday night, because people are out and about doing things. That’s kind of the night out. And, obviously, the weather in America is better in most places than in Canada, from I’d say November to March. For lack of an opportunity to be outdoors and enjoying things, although we do ski and skate, we tend to be huddled up against the cold, by a fireplace, on our couch, on a Saturday night. It’s a perfect night for TV in Canada. When the tradition of Saturday night became a hockey night and you really see generations, you see moms and sons, dads, and daughters, it really kind of fell naturally.”
MacLean really hits it on the head there, but we’ll get back to that particular question shortly. Right now, let’s start to peel back the many layers of the Hockey Night in Canada program.
“For me, bonding on the road is maybe the best part,” Reynolds said. “The cream really rises to the top at HNIC. And that applies to their character as well. From my experience, my colleagues are invested in my success and so, the times away from the rink aren’t just social experiences, but learning opportunities as well. It truly is a team dynamic.”
Speaking of that “team dynamic” there is nobody who was more responsible for fostering the betterment of the team than Shannon.
For many years John Shannon was the Producer of HNIC, as such, one of his main responsibilities was to mold the on-air talent into a coherent crew.
“That’s part of a producer’s job, to manage; just like how a coach would manage players individually,” explained Shannon. “You manage announcers individually, but the key thing is to be in constant communication. You may only work with a guy on a Saturday night, but you better be talking to him on Monday, Wednesday and Friday as well. It’s not a case of he’s left alone, does his thing on Saturdays and you never talk to him.”
“It becomes a constant ebb and flow of communication,” Shannon continued. “Whether it’s feedback or whether it’s information or production philosophy. Certainly, from my perspective, how you managed people was making sure you were transparent with them. They understood where they were. They felt how important they were, that we felt how important they were and made sure they felt they were contributing to the show, more than just doing their announcing job on a Saturday night.”
While Shannon and the other Producers have certainly done this part of their jobs well, the responsibility of nurturing the on-air talent is not solely on their shoulders. It’s on the talent too.
“It’s important that the veterans act like Captains or Alternate Captains,” said Ron MacLean, “and see to it that the person who’s breaking in has their spot on the telecast. As the saying goes, ‘the power in each of us comes from all of us.’ And we all kind of recognize the grace, the opportunity that Hockey Night, as a brand, gave us. We feel very committed, individually, to our role and carrying our weight. But none of us confuses the fact that Hockey Night in Canada was good with or without us. When you get framed by that sort of window sill and framing, you know you will look good because of it as much as because of you.”
Those are wise words and an important mentality to have. Plus, it’s always helpful when the talent and the production crew are able to share certain responsibilities. As a result of that type of commitment and the communication aspect mentioned by Shannon, the various HNIC personalities became like a family. And it wasn’t just them. It was everybody involved with the broadcast. “It’s all about friendships and loyalties,” Shannon said. “If you can create friendships and loyalties, you work together much better.”
“From my personal experience, I work with a lot of different people,” Reynolds chimed in. “Some crews are fairly static so they have built in routines and an extremely deep understanding of how to work with each other. Personally, I work with a constantly rotating crew of Producers, Directors, Announcers and technical staff. But there are advantages in that as well. New people bring new ideas and different ways of telling stories. And that’s the one constant, no matter who you work with. Everyone is invested in telling really good stories and I believe that’s the secret sauce to making HNIC special. The broadcast is presented in terms of telling a really good story and hockey rarely leaves us lacking material to present.”
Over the years – decades really – there have been a number of changes to HNIC broadcasts. For the first decade-plus of its television life, the broadcasts were done in black and white. Those broadcasts were also incomplete games. You see, Hockey Night in Canada used to join games in progress; usually around the start of the second period. After many years, that changed; the games would be joined earlier and earlier. Nowadays there’s a whole pre-game show before the game even starts and not a minute of the action is missed; unless you step away from your television set.
Other changes have also taken place over the years. Replays weren’t shown at first, particularly those of fights.
“I’m not a technical kind of a guy at all,” Dick Irvin Jr. said. “I came in and did the color. And when I started, they would use very, very few replays. And they never replayed a fight. It was, ‘you don’t replay the fights. That’s a bad part of hockey. We’re not allowed to do that.’”
“So two guys would’ve fought and you’d show it (live), but then you wouldn’t replay it,” continued Irvin. “And I will never forget, one night, I was doing a game in Montreal between Vancouver and Montreal and two very tough hockey players got into one hell of a fight. It didn’t last too long, but it was really good. So that’s fine. The fight was over. They went to the penalty box and I’m kind of doing this and that. Then, I looked up at the monitor, the fight was being replayed and I’m supposed to comment on it. I’m saying ‘what the hell is going on.’ So anyway, I commented on it. After the game, I went to my Producer and I said, ‘What the hell was that?’ He said, ‘it was too good a fight. We had to show it.’ So, from then on, they showed the fights.”
Another change Irvin noted was how HNIC started to bring in more colorful personalities as announcers. “Hockey Night in Canada got to be more of a personality show than it had been before,” explained Irvin. “And two names stand out. Don Cherry and Howie Meeker. They changed the approach to what was said on the show. Basically, guys like me, we were wimps. And these guys, they just sat there and said what they said.”
Those “colorful personalities” helped make many on the HNIC crew into larger than life icons. However, if you look back to the pre-TV days of HNIC, you’ll find the largest icon of them all – Foster Hewitt.
For an example of how famed Hewitt was, here’s a story from Irvin about The Dean of Hockey Broadcasting.
“The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings took a barnstorming trip around 1930. They went out west on a train to play a series of exhibition games in small Canadian cities after the season was over. They would advertise what cities the teams would come to. And the cities where they weren’t gonna play a game, they would advertise that the teams would get off the train and be on the platform in the train station so people could come down and see them in person for the first time in their life.
“And that’s what happened, except, the biggest crowd gathered around a man named Foster Hewitt, who was the broadcaster of Hockey Night in Canada, out of Toronto. He was, without question, the biggest celebrity on that train because he had been the radio broadcaster. The radio version of Hockey Night in Canada was very important to this country (Canada). And that’s when Toronto Maple Leaf management said, ‘wait a minute, we got something going here.’”
The fact the team’s radio broadcaster drew more of a crowd than the players is testament enough of how important Hewitt was to hockey. And over the years, many have tried to live up to the standard he set. For many broadcasters, the standard of excellence Hewitt set is one of the things that helped distinguish the experience of announcing a regional broadcast versus that of working one for Hockey Night in Canada.
“I think it was a humbling experience (regarding joining HNIC),” John Bartlett said. “It was an important moment in the sense of understanding that you’ve now gotta raise your game to that level; that expected level that was set by everyone before you who wore the blue blazer.”
“It was very special, not just to be doing Vancouver games,” Jim Robson explained. “But I especially enjoyed it when I got the opportunity to do playoff games and non-Vancouver games. I used to go to Toronto in the late-70s and early-80s to do Saturday night games on Hockey Night in Canada. There I was doing a national, coast-to-coast telecast and a non-Vancouver game so I could prove I was a competent broadcaster and not just a cheerleader for one team. It was very special to wear a Hockey Night in Canada blazer and do those games.”
“I got to do the sixth game (in 1980) when Bob Nystrom scored in overtime to win the Islanders first Stanley Cup,” Robson continued. “That was an exciting moment for me, even though it wasn’t involving the team I generally broadcast games for. But I knew quite a few of the players on those two teams and knew the coaches. It was a great thing to be there in New York when the Islanders won their first Cup and have a young man, Bob Nystrom, who I knew, score the winning goal. That was a highly memorable moment and I wouldn’t have got it if it wasn’t for Hockey Night in Canada.”
Indeed, that was a special moment, not just for Robson, but for all of Long Island. And just like that moment has been forever ingrained in the lives of Islanders fans, so too has the program of HNIC been ingrained in the lives of Canadians everywhere.
“I always attest, Saturday night is something special and I always treat it differently,” John Bartlett said. “Think of Saturday night for a kid, a youngster watching. It doesn’t matter what the standings are for his favorite team that night. He just wants to watch his team play, see his favorite player play and cheer them on. On a Saturday night, on Hockey Night in Canada, there’s no school tomorrow, on Sunday. It’s the only game of the week that his parents will probably let him or her stay up to watch the entire thing.
“So it becomes a special moment,” Bartlett continued. “On a weeknight game, you’re not gonna get to stay up when you have school the next day. But on a Saturday night, your parents might say, ‘all right, you can watch this game.’ And you’re glued to it. You’re connected to it.It’s part of your love affair with the game. I really think that’s part of the many reasons Hockey Night in Canada means so much to so many; because it’s been part of their lives. It’s been passed down through generations, from childhood. And, for others, it’s a way that they’ve connected with being Canadian.
“Maybe there are families who immigrated from other countries and they wanted to find a way to connect with their neighbors. Kids who would then grow up with these families, they wanted to connect with their friends and they connected through hockey. You connect through Hockey Night in Canada on a Saturday night. It has so many different layers where I think it really is intertwined with the fabric of how people have grown up in Canada with the sport of hockey.”
John Shannon explained that, “there was a point in the last 60-years that if you put the logos of the NHL, the teams and the Hockey Night in Canada logo (in front of people), I would think the brand awareness and brand acceptance of Hockey Night in Canada might have been higher than the NHL and the teams. It was constant. Hockey Night in Canada was always perceived as being 100% Canadian and there was a great source of pride in that. That was something Canadians could look at and say, ‘we do that better than Monday Night Football. And we do that better than Major League Baseball’s Game of The Week on NBC.’ For most Canadians, there was a real sense of pride in the Canadian creation of Hockey Night in Canada.”
That sense of pride is a big reason why Hockey Night in Canada has been able to, not only remain relevant over the many decades, but also be such a driving force in Canadian culture. More than anything else, it’s really a legacy thing. A tradition if you will.
“It goes back,” Rick Ball began, “obviously, even long before I was aware of hockey as a child. There’s such a legacy dating back to the days when not every game was on TV. I mean, you would have to wait for Saturday to come to see your team play. It really made it a special show. Combine that with all of the great broadcasters who worked on it and were a huge part of why it became so iconic. It just became the night that the nation sat down and watched hockey. It really was a unifying part of Canadian culture. The show was a big part of the reason why hockey became so, I mean, it was already obviously very popular in Canada, but a big part of the reason why it became such a part of our identity was the fact that people sat down nationwide on the very same night, every week and watched the NHL.
“The thing about the Canadian sports landscape that’s different than it is in the United States is that it’s so dominated by hockey,” Ball continued. “In the United States, the NFL is a juggernaut. You’ve got Major League Baseball. You have the NBA. You have the National Hockey League. You have college sports; all different types that are hugely popular. So there’s a lot more options for sports fans. If you draw your attention to Canada, we’ve got the Blue Jays who’ve won a couple World Series. The Raptors have won an NBA championship, but they’re not close to where hockey is. It’s really a one sport country in terms of the largest number of people interested in watching that sport.”
Ask most any Canadian and they’ll proudly state that hockey is their sport. Other sports are nice, but hockey is a way of life. It may as well be its own religion. And Hockey Night in Canada has fostered that sentiment for many generations. So, next time you turn on your television set on a Saturday night and see those iconic blue blazers, just remember one thing. You’re watching something much, much bigger than a regular hockey game and that’s because it’s Hockey Night in Canada.