Hockey Night in Canada: The Last Days

With each passing game of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, the final episode of Hockey Night in Canada loomed closer. My imagination ran wild with a tornado of scenarios as to where I would be and whom I would be with when the cup was awarded and HNIC, as we’ve come to know and love it, passed into the dark arena of history. Wearing nothing but a towel in the locker room lounge of the gym I belong to on a full-moon Friday the 13th while helping a completely nude senior citizen to his walker was not one of them. Imagination does have limits.

As a production of the publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Hockey Night in Canada was ours. Depending on how you look at it, the show was either stolen from us by Rogers Communications or given away by lazy CBC execs without the guts to captain a corporation that has fallen on hard times. Does the CBC still deserve our tax dollars? Is the Harper government intentionally cash-starving our public broadcaster into extinction? There are many opinions and much has been written about the current woes of our nation’s voice, so you can form an opinion elsewhere. In the end, it really doesn’t matter — Saturday night will never be the same. The show will return in the fall when a new NHL season begins, but I won’t be there to see it.

Hockey has an odd sense of values when honouring tradition. It seems that every year there are new rules, new ways to end the game, and new jerseys with logos that make a mockery of time-tested design. The NHL’s greedy dismissal of the CBC’s 83-year claim to covering hockey action in Canada, however, might be their biggest gaffe yet. Although the league existed some 17 years without a broadcast deal from our public broadcaster, it was the editorial voice of our government’s tax dollars that helped contextualize the men who played hockey as heroes, the assembled crowds as tradition, and the action as our game. Will that kind of heritage be safely transported into the future by a privately owned cellular telephone company with a $5.2 billion cheque in its pocket? If the answer proves to be no, then the argument could be made that on the evening of Friday the 13th, 2014, under a full moon, hockey in Canada died.

Anyone who cared knew the end was nigh since November of 2013, when Rogers Communications announced that it had won the exclusive rights to the CBC’s bread and butter. The reality of what had transpired didn’t really set in though until mid-May, when the weather turned to spring and the start of the 2014 playoffs was about to get underway. Then, Rogers let their first editorial decision at the helm of Hockey Night in Canada drop like a bomb: George Stroumboulopoulos would host the show.

By the time HNIC’s funeral had a foreseeable future, my interest in hockey had waned to a near non-existent state. The exorbitant prices, the lackadaisical look of the Canucks when they were mid-third and down by a goal — all of it took its toll. Plus, having grown up in Winnipeg in the ’70s, I was never able to make the transition to helmeted players after watching Randy Carlyle’s macho facial expressions as he commanded his way down the ice and Guy Lafleur’s hair billowing in the wind as women swooned behind the glass when he came to town with the Nordiques.

I also harboured a quiet resentment for the game from my experiences trying to play it. Suburban outdoor rinks were early dividing grounds for winners and losers. I was dealt a vision of my future each time a more athletic boy would blast by my feeble ankles with the puck on his stick, sending me crashing to the ice. There was no reprieve in the warmth of summer, either. One hot afternoon, at a friend’s pool party, the entire A-line of my high school hockey team decided to throw me in the pool for showing up fully clothed and looking, according to them, like Rick Astley. Determined to show the guys it didn’t bother me any, I arrived again in fresh threads and was quickly reacquainted with the pool once more.

Despite my awkwardness in the face of sport, I loved a good show, and Hockey Night in Canada was one of the best. The unpredictability of life was always offset by its record-setting regularity, allowing one to recoil into the comfort of familiarity when needed. Its trumpeting horns signalled Saturday evening like nothing else. The era of the show I watched would be teed up by the poetic musings of Ron MacLean, followed by the action of the game dispatched with the rising and falling cadence of Bob Cole or Jim Hughson, then contextualized after the first period with the take-no-shit authority and spectacle of Don Cherry. Hockey Night in Canada pioneered the way sporting events were televised. It invented instant replay. It placed phrases such as “He shoots, he scores” into the national catchphrase canon. Simply put, it was irreplaceable.

The cracks in forever started to form as early as 2008, when the CBC was picked clean of the theme song that it had been using to announce the start of HNIC for 40 years. Penned by a jingle writer named Dolores Claman in 1968, the arrangement went on to be called our second national anthem. And despite the fact that Dolores was in her 80′s, she wanted a piece of the action. Just to prove she meant business, she sold the rights of her song to CTV, where it languishes today, the horns silenced forever with cash stuffed into their bells. It seemed that not even the elderly had respect for tradition in the face of money. Having to watch the beginning of Hockey Night in Canada sans The Hockey Theme was a constant reminder of all that was wrong in the world. So I didn’t.

Knowing that I wanted to write about the final episode of Hockey Night in Canada gave coming back to hockey a purpose. As Montreal started to climb its way through the playoff ranks, the game seemed exciting. Tuning in to Don, Ron, Kelly Hrudey, and Scott Oake again was like coming back home — for a funeral, maybe, but familiar and fun, nonetheless.

Earlier versions of this essay read like a Molson Canadian commercial, where I’m the star. Montreal would win in overtime against LA in game seven. With the Stanley Cup secured in Canada for the first time since 1993, hockey would depreciate in the national consciousness and Hockey Night in Canada would no longer be needed. This would send Rogers into bankruptcy after sinking $5 billion into TV rights for something the public didn’t want anymore.

Once Montreal’s elimination foiled that edition, my fantasies were revised into an Original Six team winning the cup. I imagined the New York Rangers coming back from the brink of elimination to win a game seven while I stood in the electronics department at London Drugs passing out rolls of toilet paper from the 24 pack I had just purchased to weeping customers. Ron MacLean and Don Cherry hugged at center ice.

By the time Los Angeles was up three games to none over New York in the finals, my dedication to watching the last episode of Hockey Night in Canada was challenged by having to watch two American teams decide the fate of something that was supposedly Canadian. In short: I was getting sloppy in my commitment. Maybe I just thought it would go on forever as the final five games of the Stanley Cup became interstitials mixed into the vortex of the activities of day-to-day life: Don Cherry, wearing a faux silver stainless steel-looking jacket as I downed a pound of chicken wings at a pub on my way to a speaking engagement organized by Douglas Coupland. Scott Oake, looking serious, yelling into the ear of LA’s Captain, Dustin Brown, on a huge, flat LCD screen I could see from within one of the houses I walked by on my way home from work. The worried look of Ron MacLean’s raised eyebrows coming from a screen situated on top of a piano at the back of a restaurant I ate at with friends for a birthday dinner (the sound muted in favour of the Rolling Stones). Another bar, Don Cherry dancing in Times Square. Another restaurant, Don Cherry in a black and cherry jacket. Another King’s victory being recapped on the radio in the back seat of a cab. The Rangers celebrating their only victory in a photo on the cover of the morning paper’s Sports section.

Then it happened.

Coming out of the shower at the gym, I could hear the familiar sounds of Hockey Night in Canada’s Jim Hughson calling the action of game five while it was locked in a 2-2 tie in overtime. Instead of getting dressed, I headed straight into the TV area of the locker room in a towel. There, one of my fellow gym members was already entrenched in the final throes of how I had come to know hockey for most of my life. I never did catch the name of my viewing partner, my witness to the end, and I doubt I’ll ever see him again, but Armageddons are like that.

He must have been at least 80, with a thin layer of grey hair parted to the side. Frail, with a walker resting in front of him and three bottles of prescription drugs on the table beside him. I find that most of the older men at the gym are always in full-disclosure mode — shuffling along, without clothes, without a care in the world, helped along by walkers, canes, or crutches. Withering bodies on display for all to see. Warning beacons to the young of what is to come.

During the commercial breaks he tried to introduce himself to me, but I couldn’t quite understand his gravelly, incoherent voice. Instead, the half hour we spent together was peppered by his unprovoked barking at the screen: “Bobby Probert!” “Satan’s eyes!” “That ice was like hell had frozen over!” Or just, “The fear!” I didn’t have the will to tell him that Probert had been dead since 2010.

As the game progressed into another overtime, we both sat quietly watching the Los Angeles fans roar, the 14:43 mark arrive, and a rebound off the New York goalie slide straight onto the stick of LA’s Alec Martinez, who quickly shoved it into the back of the net. It was all over.

As the celebrations unfolded on TV, my viewing partner began to rise to his walker, leaving his towel to fall to the floor and me to recoil in horror as he froze mid-way through his journey. A protuberance of flesh hung from his back end, pulled by gravity back to the chair he had just left. As Ron MacLean cued a nine-minute final montage of Hockey Night in Canada by describing how the show took fellow Canadians through every corner of the country and beyond, I jumped into action and helped my fellow Canadian to his walker. Finally, just as I had imagined, I was arm-in-arm with another Canadian to give an emotional goodbye to the game we loved and the show that brought it to us. It would have been nice to be clothed, but this was not a moment for modesty. As we stood there in the locker room, the TV in front of us and our white gym towels below us, MacLean stated that Hockey Night in Canada was always there, “from hockey’s beginnings to the very end.” This was the end.

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Roy Madison is a recently divorced, semi-retired broadcaster and sportswriter who eats sandwiches, lives in a hotel, and hosts a legendary card game on Wednesdays.

  • Fred

    HNIC is still free. Keep whining and put a free-to-air antenna up and enjoy.