Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hockey Night in Canada

The Hat Trick is very excited that the NHL season has begun, even if the Red Wings lost their home opener against the Maple Leafs 3-2. As I blogged in an earlier post, there was a lot of emotion at the beginning of the game due to the raising of the banner commemorating Detroit's 11th Stanley Cup victory…plus the fact that the Stanley Cup was in "The House" that night. The Cup also went through some other amusing activities involving the aging rock group Def Leppard.

Tonight…Saturday night to be specific…is the first broadcast for the 2008-2009 hockey season of "Hockey Night In Canada", a staple of hockey for a boy growing up in Michigan. Hockey Night in Canada is produced by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) and blows away most of the other hockey-related sports programming coming out of the United States…not a surprise given that hockey is the national pastime of Canada. Hockey Night in Canada began as a radio program in 1931, albeit with a different name. In 1952 the CBC began broadcasting Hockey Night in Canada on television, with the first color games being broadcast in 1966.

The format for Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) is simple…they broadcast a game in the Eastern time zone, usual starting at 7:00pm. Since it is the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the game always includes a Canadian team, and in many cases, the showcase game will include two Canadian teams playing each other…the Toronto Maple Leafs taking on the Montreal Canadiens is always a great match-up. Following the game in the East, a game in the West usually starts around 10:00pm in the East and, once again, features at least one Canadian team from the Mountain or Western time zone. The addition of the second game didn't begin until 1988 when Wayne Gretsky ("The Great One") began playing for the Los Angeles Kings and this allowed Canadian viewers to see more of him after his glory years with the Edmonton Oilers. The second game only took place when a Canadian team visited Los Angeles and didn't become a regular staple until 1995.

One highlight of HNIC is without a doubt "Coach's Corner" with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean. Don Cherry is a unique guy…with some of the most interesting suits you can imagine. Don Cherry is a former coach of the Boston Bruins and provides tremendous color analysis to all the games going on in the NHL. Until I started watching Don Cherry on CBC I never knew that Canadians referred to former Red Wings Captain Steve Yzerman (who's #19 sweater the Hat Trick still wears proudly to Red Wings games) as "Stevie Y"…he was always "Yzerman" to the U.S. broadcast crews and to many Michiganders as "The Captain" reflecting Yzerman's ongoing leadership of the team as Red Wings captain. Frankly, I find the announcers from the CBC to be so much more interesting compared with announcers on Versus and NBC that broadcast NHL games. I guess it's the fact that it is the country's most popular sport compared with it's increasing decline in the United States. If you every get a chance to see a hockey game broadcast by CBC it is worth watching…and if you get to see Don Cherry then it is a bonus night indeed!

Hockey Night in Canada also has a hold on the Hat Trick for sentimental reasons. Growing up in Detroit in an era as cable was just becoming mainstream, your main TV choices were, like most other U.S. cities, the three major broadcast networks (this was before the advent of FOX) and generally two other independent stations featuring sit-com reruns…in the case of Detroit it was Channel 50 and Channel 20 with Channel 62 available but mostly focused on religious and local access programming (ironically Channel 62 is now the CBS affiliate in Detroit…how things change!). However, in Detroit you could also get Channel 9, the CBC affiliate from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. Generally one wouldn't generally watch Channel 9 except to get HNIC on Saturday night, especially when the Red Wings were playing a Canadian NHL team. Sometimes you would stay loyal to the home channel for the actual game but during intermission you immediately changed to Channel 9 so you could get the HNIC crew, especially Don Cherry. Lots of times in bars (the Hat Trick discovered this as he got older) they would show the CBC broadcast instead of the local broadcast. During the playoffs, when both CBC and U.S. stations were broadcasting the NHL playoffs I can't remember a time when Channel 9 wasn't on so we could get CBC. In one memorable example, the Hat Trick went to a local watering hole with the Hat Trick's best friend (since 6th grade, no less) to watch the NHL All Star game in January of 1996. This was during the time when FOX Sports had the broadcast rights to NHL games and used the All Star game to debut the "FOX Trak" which was a puck that had electronics within the puck that allowed viewers to track the puck. The idea was to make the NHL more "watchable" on television, a frequent complaint of some viewers of the game. Well, that cold night in Detroit the reaction to the "FOX Trak" was loud and vocal in this watering hole…"turn it off"…and Channel 9 was immediately put on to watching HNIC to broadcast the All Star game.

After looking back at all that I have written…I had planned a quick, short post when I first started writing…I realize that Hockey Night in Canada is one of the fond memories of childhood and growing up that I still can hold onto. While I've been in Washington, DC for many, many years I've never thought of myself as a local like many of my colleagues who have come to Washington from different parts of the country. The Hat Trick loves football, in addition to hockey, and yet cannot warm up to the Washington Redskins even though the 'Skins have a rich history and loyal following among Washingtonians…for my Detroit readers the Redskins is the top team in DC much like the Red Wings are the top team in Detroit. I guess that Hockey Night in Canada is a way for me to stay connected to what I still feel is my home and my roots…feelings I will probably never have for Washington. While you can never live in the past, sometimes having things that remind you of the past are good…they keep you grounded in where you came from which might help provide you direction in where you want to go. For the Hat Trick, Hockey Night in Canada provides some of those positive memories…keeping me grounded (hopefully) and reminding me of the past and the place and the people that I have come from in my life.

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