What "Hockey Night in Canada" means to... Canada.
Canadians famously love ice hockey, but there’s one puck tradition that’s united us from “coat to coast” since 1931—Hockey Night in Canada.
It may be hard to understand the historical significance in our modern telecommunications landscape, where satellites and internet streams make every NHL game available not just on your TV but your phone. But originally, Hockey Night in Canada was a radio program that made it possible for all of Canada to hear game. The family would crowd around the radio. The radio announcer Foster Hewitt, who coined the immortal phrase “he shoots, he scores!” described the play-by-play action with such panache his name is still famous today. If Canadian’s can name a radio personality from before WWII, it’s Foster Hewitt.
Then games were broadcast live on television in black and white, and HNIC entered a new era. There were still only six teams in the NHL, and two were Canadian—the fabled Toronto Maple Leafs and “Les Glorieux” Montreal Canadiens. English-speaking Canadian fans mostly followed the Leafs, while French-speakers sided with the Habs. And actually, the players themselves got drafted to teams according to what province they were from! The Canadiens got the dibs on players from Quebec. Canadians cheered for opposing sides, but Hockey Night in Canada was the cultural touchstone bringing the game into everybody’s living room.
But even after the emergence of cable TV and satellites, Hockey Night in Canada has connected Canadians to the game in a really basic yet profound way.
In the 90s, before digital cable, any TV could pick up the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Canada’s public broadcaster which aired HNIC) by simply connecting a basic antenna. Even a coat hanger would do it! In this way, every Canadian with a TV could watch teams from the country play puck, even if they didn’t have cable. Forget a modem or a satellite connection, so long as you had a generator to power the TV you could be in an off-grid cabin in the woods and watch Saturday night hockey.
As the league grew, Canadian cities got NHL teams and they were featured as much as possible on HNIC—now there were two games every Saturday, a 7:00 and 9:30 game, usually featuring Canadian match ups. In addition to the regular season broadcast, Hockey Night in Canada covers most playoff games. Fans outside Toronto gripe that HNIC is biased towards the Leafs, who get selected almost weekly for every 7pm Saturday game. They have a point.
Years ago Hockey Night in Canada developed certain recurring features which became iconic. First, the legendary theme song. Now HNIC no longer owns the rights to it, so it plays before a competing network’s hockey feed, and they composed a new theme song. Canada was in uproar when it happened a few years ago, but they have mostly forgotten about it by now.
The famous segment “Coach’s Corner” is a two-man panel discussion which since 1986 has featured two legends in Canadian puck talk: Ron Maclean, a regularly functioning adult, and also Don Cherry. Cherry requires some explanation: After a long stint playing in the minors he had a one-game NHL career. After this, he coached the Boston Bruins in the 70s for five seasons. He is famous for several things: promoting tough players who grind and fight; wearing obscenely, unimaginably flamboyant suits; his nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies; his keen eye for hockey.
Cherry is a beloved but controversial conservative firebrand who supports fighting in the concussion era and promotes military causes. He created the annual video series of NHL highlights and fights entitled “Rock ‘em Sock ‘em,” a peak into his worldview. He’s 83 years-old now: his on-air tics are very susceptible to internet mockery. But however Canadians think about him, everyone knows who he is and he sets off passion.
People who have lived in the country for years grew up with Hockey Night in Canada, and for newcomers, watching it can be a quick way to feel a main pulse of the country. Canada has grown, and now the Hockey Night in Canada feed is presented in three languages: English, French and Punjabi.
What was once a radio show, then a black-and-white TV broadcast, has changed with the times. But its essence remains, and it has never wavered in its core function: giving hockey to all Canadians from “coast to coast.”