Hockey Night in Canada

Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) is a weekly Saturday night broadcast of National Hockey League (NHL) games. It is Canada’s longest-running television program and the Guinness World Record holder as the longest-running TV sports program. It was first broadcast on the radio in Montreal and Toronto as General Motors Hockey Broadcast on 12 November 1931, with play-by-play by iconic sports broadcaster Foster Hewitt. The first televised airing of HNIC — one of Canada’s earliest television broadcasts — was on 11 October 1952. The program was produced by the CBC from 1936 until 2013, when the rights to broadcast NHL games were acquired by Rogers Communications. A staple of Canadian television for more than half a century, HNIC has long been the country’s highest-rated series. It regularly averaged more than 2 million viewers for decades. Recent seasons have averaged around 1.3 million viewers per episode. The theme music is seen by many as Canada’s second national anthem. The series has won 21 Gemini Awards and three Canadian Screen Awards.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The CBC logo that was used from 1940 to 1958.

(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Radio Origins: General Motors Hockey Broadcast (1931–52)

The first radio transmission of a hockey game in Canada was on 8 February 1923 on station CFCA, which was owned and operated by the Toronto Star. On 16 February 1923, Foster Hewitt, the son of Toronto Star sports editor W.E. Hewitt, made his broadcast debut for CFCA. Hewitt called a senior amateur hockey game between the Toronto Argonauts (not the CFL football team) and the Kitchener Greenshirts. It was on this night that he first said his famous line, “He shoots, he scores!”

Following the growing popularity of professional hockey and the early success of the CFCA broadcasts, sponsors were eager to attach their brand to the growing medium. In 1931, General Motors agreed to pay $500 per game to broadcast NHL games on radio across a handful of Ontario-based stations. General Motors Hockey Broadcast, the earliest iteration of what would become Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC), made its radio debut on 12 November 1931, with Hewitt broadcasting live from the first-ever game at Maple Leaf Gardens. (Hewitt’s famous introduction to each broadcast — “Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland” — opens the show to this day.)

The debut broadcast of General Motors Hockey is estimated to have reached 100,000 listeners. The program became a popular Saturday-night staple during the NHL season. Broadcaster Gordon Calder was the show’s first host. Hewitt provided the play-by-play alongside colour commentator and former Ottawa Senators goaltender Percy LeSueur. During intermissions, listeners were treated to the sounds of the Luigi Romanelli Orchestra in Toronto.

Within two years, the listenership for General Motors Hockey Broadcast had risen to an estimated audience of 2.5 million. The program added stations in Montreal to its network and began broadcasting both Montreal Canadiens and Montreal Maroons games in addition to Toronto Maple Leafs games. A telephone survey conducted in Montreal during a hockey broadcast on 3 February 1934 showed that 74 per cent of all radio listeners were tuned in to General Motors Hockey Broadcast.


In total, the show produced 51 broadcasts during the 1933–34 season: 29 Maple Leafs games, 10 Canadiens games and 12 Maroons games. Hewitt handled the Toronto games while two separate crews were assigned to the respective Montreal teams. The Canadiens broadcasts were in French while the Maroons games were in English.

Imperial Oil inherited sponsorship naming rights ahead of the 1934–35 season, and The Imperial Esso Hockey Broadcast took to the airwaves on Saturday nights. In 1936, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was founded and took over the broadcasts, bringing Saturday night hockey to a wider national audience ( see also Founding of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). The program was renamed Hockey Night in Canada, a title coined by Foster Hewitt.

HNIC remained on CBC Radio until 1965, but by then the program had been reaching audiences via a newer medium.

Development of HNIC on Television

In September 1952, the CBC provided the first televised images broadcast in Canada. Hockey, which had already been televised in London, England, and New York City as far back as 1938, would soon transform the burgeoning Canadian TV landscape.

However, leading figures in the game had mixed feelings about televised hockey, despite the success of HNIC’s radio broadcasts. NHL President Clarence Campbell was a vocal opponent, fearing that HNIC would threaten ticket sales in the key Montreal and Toronto markets. Campbell also expressed concerns over the ability of television cameras to effectively capture the action on the ice. He told The Hockey News in 1949 that the “fast end-to-end rushes, the skillful, attractive features of the game are most difficult to portray because of TV’s limited field of view. This is not a proper representation of the overall action, and certainly can’t be doing the game any good.”

Toronto Maple Leafs president Conn Smythe echoed Campbell’s sentiment. After watching a transmission of a Memorial Cup game from Maple Leaf Gardens in April 1952, which served as a test for the earliest HNIC broadcasts, Smythe said, “If that’s what hockey looks like on television, then the people of Toronto won’t be seeing it.” But Smythe also saw television’s potential to reach a national audience and help grow the game. So, too, did the group of prospective advertisers and CBC executives who were granted access to the test broadcast and had particularly enjoyed Foster Hewitt’s call of the game.


Plans for CBC TV broadcasts of HNIC beginning in the 1952–53 NHL season were underway. Imperial Oil remained the program’s primary sponsor, but in the first season, Smythe only asked $100 per game in advertising fees. Within a year, however, as HNIC proved to be a massive success, the advertising rights ballooned to $150,000 for a three-year contract, and, within a decade, as much as $21,000 per game.

A pair of producers, Gerald Renaud in Montreal and George Retzlaff in Toronto, were hired to oversee the earliest HNIC broadcasts. Renaud experimented with a three-camera operation: one camera captured the full-length of the ice, with another medium-distance and a third for close-ups of players and face-offs. Renaud tested the setup by recording Ping-Pong matches. The three-camera system was implemented for the first HNIC televised game and has since become the standard.

HNIC French and English Premieres

The first televised hockey broadcast in Canada was Hockey Night in Canada’s television debut. It took place on 11 October 1952 from the Montreal Forum. In a rematch of the prior season’s Stanley Cup Finals, the game featured Gordie Howe and the defending champion Detroit Red Wings against Maurice Richard and the hometown Montreal Canadiens. The game, a 2–1 Montreal victory, was broadcast in French and called by René Lecavalier.

HNIC made its English-language debut with a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins at Maple Leaf Gardens on 1 November 1952. The game hit the airwaves at 9:30 p.m. ET, one hour after the opening faceoff.

The popularity of HNIC on television was immediate. By 1954, when the number of television sets in Canadian homes was increasing by an estimated 50,000 each month, HNIC was the nation’s top-rated show. In Montreal on Saturday nights, 77 per cent of all televisions were tuned in to the Canadiens game. In 1957, the CBC began broadcasting HNIC to audiences all across the country.


Ratings

A staple of Canadian television for more than half a century, HNIC has long been the country’s highest-rated TV series. It regularly averaged more than 2 million viewers for decades. In his book Sport and Politics in Canada, Donald Macintosh writes, “In the mid-1960s, the Nielsen TV ratings consistently showed that the Saturday night hockey telecasts were the most popular programs in Canada… In 1969, 6.2 million Canadians watched the Stanley Cup finals between Boston and Montreal.” In their ironically titled 1972 study The Death of Hockey, Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane write, “Hockey Night in Canada really is hockey night in Canada. We schedule our lives around it.”

According to Horace Newcomb’s Encyclopedia of Television, HNIC was “a consistent ratings winner right up to the mid-1990s.” For example, the seventh and deciding game of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals between the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers drew nearly 5 million viewers. After that, the ratings dipped but remained relatively stable for the next 20 years. In the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, first-round games between the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators averaged 3.2 million viewers. However, by the third round, when all Canadian teams were eliminated, viewership fell by 61 per cent.

The situation only worsened the following year. When the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs began in April, there were no Canadian teams involved for the first time since 1969. As a result, HNIC viewership plummeted to an average of 721,000 per game. The 2016–17 season opened strong, with the season premiere averaging 2.3 million viewers — the highest season debut since 2013 and a 10 per cent increase over the 2015 season premiere. However, the 2016–17 season overall saw a ratings dip of 20 per cent. Since then, regular season games have averaged around 1.3 million viewers per episode.


Innovations

Over the years, Hockey Night in Canada was a breeding ground for several innovations in live sports broadcasting. Producer George Retzlaff was credited with inventing instant replay in 1955 using a technique involving a hot processor that allowed him to show goal replays. However, it would be another decade, when CBC staffer Ty Lemberg improved the technique, until instant replay became a regular feature on HNIC.

On 24 March 1965, a game between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs became the first hockey game broadcast in colour. By the start of the 1966–67 season, all HNIC games were broadcast in colour, with new lighting added to the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens to enhance the picture. Players were forced to adjust to the brighter arenas, with some placing burned cork under their eyes to help with light reflecting off the ice.

Other innovations include the “Hot Stove” segment that aired between periods. Carried over from the program’s radio days, the segment featured commentators from across the country debating various aspects of the game. The “Hot Stove” segment was revived as “Satellite Hot Stove” in January 1995.

HNIC has also produced telecasts in several languages, including Inuktitut, Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog and Punjabi. CBC began producing a Punjabi edition of HNIC in time for the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, with broadcaster Harnarayan Singh calling the action. Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition was cancelled by the CBC in 2011 but was quickly brought back following protests.


Coach’s Corner

In addition to the “Hot Stove” segment, HNIC has featured countless other segments that aired during the intermissions between periods. Standouts include the “Hockey Quiz” featuring Wayne and Shuster’s Johnny Wayne and the popular “Peter Puck” cartoons of the 1970s starring an animated puck that taught viewers about the game.

However, no recurring segment has been as popular or impactful as “Coach’s Corner.” The segment presents Don Cherry (former Boston Bruins head coach and Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 1976) as a commentator of the game being broadcast and of the NHL in general.

“Coach’s Corner” made its HNIC debut during the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs. Initially, the segment aired during the second intermission and featured Cherry alone using video highlights to illustrate his observations. Soon he was joined by HNIC host Dave Hodge. In 1987, Ron MacLean, previously a sports anchor in Alberta, stepped into the role. Also that year, “Coach’s Corner” was moved to the first intermission, where it is believed the segment at times drew more viewers than the games themselves. MacLean also assumed host duties on HNIC and earned seven Gemini Awards in the role. In 2015, “Coach’s Corner” was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.


Theme Song

Until 1968, HNIC opened with Esso’s “Happy Motoring,” a nod to chief sponsor Imperial Oil that was also featured in the company’s radio and TV commercials. Heading into the 1968–69 season, HNIC producers sought to commission a new theme song. The task fell to Dolores Claman, a Vancouver-born composer and accomplished jingle writer. She wrote “The Hockey Theme” while imagining “Roman gladiators on skates.” The iconic opening five notes materializing quickly in her head. “The song wasn’t hard to do,” Claman told the Globe and Mail in 2008.

“The Hockey Theme” became synonymous with hockey and with Canada for multiple generations of Canadians. “The Hockey Theme” became so popular that it is widely considered Canada’s second national anthem. It was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.

On 4 June 2008, the song became the centre of a national controversy when Claman’s publishers claimed the CBC had declined to renew the rights to the song ( see Hockey Theme Song Fiasco). As the CBC searched for a new theme, rival broadcaster CTV purchased the rights to the song, which it then used on TSN’s regional hockey broadcasts.


Rogers Purchases NHL Rights

On 26 November 2013, it was announced that Rogers Communications had purchased national Canadian broadcast rights to all NHL games for 12 years at a cost of CAD$5.2 billion. In a press release, the league called it “one of the largest media rights deals in Canadian history, including the largest-ever sports-media rights agreement.”

A four-year sublicensing agreement was made between Rogers and the CBC, ensuring Hockey Night in Canada remained on the public broadcaster. However, the program would now air not only on CBC but also on the Rogers-owned channels CityTV and Sportsnet. On 19 December 2017, the CBC and Rogers announced a new seven-year agreement to broadcast HNIC “on CBC and across all Rogers Media platforms.” The deal expires following the 2025–26 NHL season, coinciding with the close of the Rogers deal.

On 10 March 2014, in the first and biggest shakeup since acquiring HNIC, Rogers announced popular television personality George Stroumboulopoulos would take over as the show’s host. He replaced Ron MacLean, who had occupied the role since 1987 and remained as host of “Coach’s Corner.”

Stroumboulopoulos, who had spent the previous ten years as a talk show host for CBC, was hired to court younger viewers. However, following a two-year stretch of low ratings that coincided with poor performances from the Canadian NHL teams, Stroumboulopoulos was removed as host n 27 June 2016. Ron MacLean was reinstated.


Hosts

  • Wes McKnight (1952–58)
  • Ted Darling (1955–70)
  • Ward Cornell (1958–71)
  • Jack Dennett (1959–75)
  • Frank Selke Jr. (1960–65)
  • Brian McFarlane (1964–91)
  • Bill Good Jr. (1970–78)
  • Mike Anscombe (1970–72)
  • Dave Hodge (1971–87)
  • Dave Reynolds (1972–76)
  • Dick Irvin Jr. (1976–99)
  • Steve Armitage (1978–2014)
  • Ron MacLean (1986–2014, 2016–)
  • George Stroumboulopoulos (2014–16)
  • David Amber (2016–)

Awards

Gemini Awards

  • Best Sports Program or Series (Larry Isaac, Mark Askin, Ron Harrison), 1992
  • Best Sportscaster/Anchor (Ron MacLean), 1992, 1994, 1998
  • Best Live Sporting Event (Paul Graham, Joel Darling, Dan Bjarnason), 2002
  • Best Host or Interviewer in a Sports Program or Sportscast (Scott Oake), 2003
  • Best Sports Program or Series (Joel Darling, Chris Irwin, Sherali Najak), 2004
  • Best Live Sporting Event (Sherali Najak, Joel Darling), 2007
  • Best Direction in a Live Sporting Event (Ron Forsythe), 2007, 2009
  • Best Host or Interviewer in a Sports Program or Sportscast (Ron MacLean), 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008
  • Best Studio Analyst (Kelly Hrudey), 2007
  • Best Sports Play-by-Play or Analyst (Bob Cole), 2007
  • Best Sports Feature Segment (Jennifer Barr), 2008
  • Best Live Sporting Event (Brian Spear, Doug Walton, Sherali Najak), 2008
  • Best Sports Analysis or Commentary Program, Series or Segment (Sherali Najak, Brian Spear), 2008
  • Best Sports Play-by-Play Announcer (Don Wittman), 2008
  • Best Live Sporting Event (Sherali Najak, Brian Spear, Trevor Pilling), 2011
  • Best Sports Reporting (Elliotte Friedman), 2011

Canadian Screen Awards

  • Direction in a Live Sporting Event (Ron Forsythe), 2013
  • Sports Play-by-Play Announcer (Jim Hughson), 2014
  • Sports Hosts in a Sports Program or Series (Ron MacLean), 2015