Hockey Night in Canada is the longest-running sports program in history.
No nation is as connected to one sport as Canada is to hockey, and no sports show has ever been as important to so many as HNIC. From Medicine Hat to Mississauga and from Kitchener to Kamloops, Saturdays are sacred hockey nights in Canada. Four decades older than Monday Night Football and considerably more entertaining, Hockey Night connects Canadians in the game they watch together. Airing first on radio and later on television, HNIC has been broadcasting Saturday night games from the National Hockey League for 89 years.
Saturday NHL broadcasts began on the CNR Radio network in 1931. Owned and operated by the Canadian National Railway, CNR was the first national radio network in North America. Designed to provide in-route entertainment and information for its passengers, CNR Radio gave way to the Canadian Broadcasting Company in the mid-1930s. The CBC trademarked the HNIC brand in 1972.
Initially airing only a single game weekly, the modern incarnation of HNIC delivers a weekly double-header. The first game starts at 7:00 p.m. [ET] and typically originates in Eastern Canada, often featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs. Game two airs at 10 and generally involves one of the three teams from Western Canada. The broadcast opens with a pregame show at 6:30 p.m. and features various segments during intermissions and between games, along with player interviews and happenings from around the NHL.
“Hello, Canada — and hockey fans in the United States”
During the time HNIC was on radio, it was broadcast over several powerful CBC clear-channel stations whose nighttime signals reached much of the northern United States. The games had a loyal American following, especially in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New York, all of which had Original Six NHL franchises. The radio voice of Hockey Night was the legendary Foster Hewitt who, for more than 30 years, called the action from high atop Maple Leaf Gardens. Hewitt, who gave name to Hockey Night in Canada, helped grow the game through his insightful and enthusiastic narration. His famous phrase, “He shoots! He scores!” became familiar to fans from coast to coast. Hewitt set the standard for hockey broadcasting, landing in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1965 and receiving the Canadian Order of Merit in 1972.
Hockey Night in Canada began airing Saturday nights on CBC Television in 1952. The first national television telecast took place November 1, with Toronto skating to a 3-2 victory over the visiting Boston Bruins. In 1965, a Wednesday night game was added, and was broadcast on CTV. The majority of Ontario and Western Canada heard the Leafs games, while Quebec and Eastern Canada heard the Canadiens on La Soiree du hockey — the French-language version of HNIC [delivered masterfully by Danny Gallivan and Rene Lecavalier].
HNIC has contributed several technology breakthroughs during its time on television. Instant replay made its debut on Hockey Night in 1955, when CBC director George Retzlaff made a kinescope recording of a goal and replayed it to the audience seconds later. The powerful brand launched its first color telecast during the 1967 Stanley Cup playoffs, and regular season games were not broadcast in their entirety until the following season when the NHL expanded to a dozen teams.
Hockey Night is steeped in traditions, from the Hot Stove Lounge to the Three Stars of the Game selection. After opening with composer Howard Cable’s “Saturday’s Game” theme song for 16 years, the show switched to a new opener in 1968. “The Hockey Theme” quickly became known as Canada’s second national anthem, but when the CBC couldn’t reach an agreement with the song’s publishers in 2008, “Canadian Gold” became the theme song on HNIC.
Peter Puck, a series of three-minute animated shorts aimed at educating viewers on the nuances of the game, were regular between-period features on HNIC in the 1970s.
Perhaps the greatest Hockey Night tradition was the iconic blue blazers. Worn not just by the announcers but the show’s entire production staff, the baby blue jackets became the symbol of Saturday night. Patterned after the yellow jackets worn by the Monday Night Football crew on NFL telecasts, the blue blazer became a powerful part of the HNIC brand and was the greatest uniform in hockey.
Foster Hewitt handled play-by-play on television until 1958, when he handed the microphone over to his son, Bill. Beginning in the early 1970s, the great Bob Cole — brandishing his signature call of “Ohhhhhhhh, baby!” — served as the television voice of HNIC for the early games, while Jim Robson called games from Western Canada in the later time slot. Several of the game’s sharpest minds have handled color duties for Hockey Night, including Keith Dancy, John Davidson and Dick Irvin. Perhaps the most famous is Howie Meeker, the squeaky-voiced analyst whose “stop it right there” command would freeze the screen while Meeker would use the telestrator to teach viewers the finer points of the game.
Since 1981, Coach’s Corner has been the crown jewel of the Hockey Night broadcast. Running during the first intermission, it features long-time master host Ron MacLean with former NHL coach Don Cherry. The man behind the flashiest suits and most controversial hockey comments in the country, Cherry is an icon. Voted number 7 [three spots ahead of Wayne Gretzky] in a 2004 The Greatest Canadian poll, “Grapes”, who has little use for European-born players and is an advocate of the NHL’s rough, old-school style of play, always speaks his mind.
On April 6, 2019, Hockey Night in Canada – the longest-running program in the history of radio and television — concluded its 89thconsecutive season.
During the first 40 years of HNIC, the only NHL teams north of the border were the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. Since Toronto was the only English-speaking city of the two, the CBC featured the Leafs nearly every Saturday, creating the largest and most loyal fan base in the NHL. In 1970, the Vancouver Canucks joined the league and by 1980, four more Canadian teams – Edmonton, Quebec, Winnipeg and Calgary – had joined the NHL. Because they were perennial contenders, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames were featured frequently in the 80s. Conversely, the Quebec Nordiques, who had a very small English-speaking fanbase, were rarely broadcast, and never from Quebec City.
For over a quarter-century, the title sponsor of HNIC was Imperial Oil of Canada. When the program first aired on television in 1952, actor Murray Westgate – the Esso Man — became Canada’s first TV pitchman. More popular than the players on the ice, Westgate, for nearly two decades, extolled the virtues of Imperial Oil in live 90-second commercials. His catchphrase, “Happy motoring,” reached two million viewers each Saturday, remarkable for a country of about 14.5 million at the time.
Hockey Night in Canada has been the heartbeat of a nation for nearly 90 years. For generations, Canadians have rallied around their national game on Saturday nights. First on radio, where Foster Hewitt would begin his broadcast at the start of the second period [so as not to affect ticket sales at the gate], and later on television. Since migrating to TV in the early 50s, fans in the Great White North have gathered in their living rooms or at the local pub to take in one of their nation’s most iconic institutions. Today, HNIC is a seven-hour TV doubleheader.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the HNIC franchise received an accolade of the highest order in 2006. That season, NBC launched Football Night in America, an 80-minute run-up to Sunday night NFL football. The longest-running sports program on television gave rise to the most successful, as FNA has been the top-rated program on American television every year since 2011. Beginning in the 2014-15 season, Toronto-based Rogers Communications secured exclusive national broadcast rights for Hockey Night. Rogers inked a deal to keep HNIC on CBC until at least 2026. In the 2015-16 season, Hockey Night was the most-watched program in Canada every Saturday night, reaching 18 million viewers, or half of the country’s population.