The Canadian media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years – this also applies to the iconic Hockey Night in Canada.
Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) has been airing on television since 1952 and is the longest-running weekly sports program on the planet and is an institution in Canadian culture.
As a constant source of entertainment for over half a century, HNIC has helped Canadians forge a sense of national unity. However, in recent years HNIC’s impact has waned with the departure of the iconic, albeit controversial Don Cherry, compounded by changes in ownership and how Canadians consume sports. In order to stay relevant through these modern times, HNIC will need to evolve to the new societal climate or risk fading away into the history books.
A “fabric of the country”
The importance of HNIC really arose out of the lack of alternatives. If you were a hockey fan during the early days of television in Canada, you could get your fix exclusively on Saturdays. Every week, this program tied the game together with people from across the nation.
Canadian Sports Journalist and Author, Scott Morrison believes that HNIC has long been a “fabric of the country.”
He continued saying that “It’s been an institution in the country because back in the day and even before I was born, it was the only show in town. The only game you got on television was on a Saturday night.”
As a member of the Canadian sports media since the 1980s, Scott Morrison has spent 20 years as a sports columnist and editor with the Toronto Sun. He also has experience as an on-air personality, and managing editor with Sportsnet, Canadian Broadcast Cooperation (CBC), and HNIC. These experiences make Scott an excellent source to convey the impact that HNIC has held throughout the years.
This program has been a mainstay in the lives of countless citizens from coast-to-coast. This was especially true before the age of social media.
For a time, watching HNIC was just a part of what being a Canadian entailed for many individuals. “Saturday was what a lot of Canadians grew up with. My vintage and older, and some younger than me too. That was the night. You looked forward to Saturday. You planned your week around it and you hunkered together as a family and you watched.” Scott explained.
During the 1963-64 NHL season, live broadcasts began to be aired on Wednesdays. However, Saturday nights would still be the only day of the week that held the exclusive moniker of ‘Hockey Night in Canada’.
For the better part of two decades, either the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadians would be the star of the show each Saturday evening. In the present day, these teams are arguably the two most well-known sports franchises in Canada’s history. As the only Canadian cities with NHL teams until 1970, they became attractions during HNIC.
Five new Canadian clubs joined the NHL during the 1970s and early 80s as the league expanded. This created new rivalries and variety in terms of matchups that could play out each weekend.
Thanks to the CBC and HNIC, hockey truly became Canada’s game during the twentieth century.
Canadians enjoyed Saturdays in part due to the antics of Former NHL Coach, Don Cherry during his weekly segment that began in 1982. Coach’s Corner would feature Cherry aggressively discussing various hockey highlights and news from the week with co-host Ron Maclean. Although he was released in 2019 for inappropriate remarks on-air, Cherry was fiercely nationalistic and he would commonly pay tribute to Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP officers during his segments.
These teams and on-air personalities made a large effort to use Canada as a main focal point. As a nation made up of countless individual cultures, HNIC was a media product that people could collectively identify with.
Bigger than a single night
“The essence of every broadcast for many years has remained the same for many years, just some of the faces and the voices have changed.” Morrison continued. “I think the basis of it is still the same. The game is the game.”
More emphasis placed on the game means that the program should, in theory, be timeless. As long as the rules and the basic structure of the sport remain the same, fans will still tune in.
Although people still have an appetite for NHL action, there are now 32 teams in the league and many different ways in which fans can tune in.
“The numbers are still big on a Saturday night, viewer-wise.” However, he added “You’ve got the ability to watch your team every game they play. So it doesn’t have to be a marquee game on a Saturday night.”
Because of this additional exposure CBC and Sportsnet have taken extra measures to ensure that Canadians continue to connect and unite through Hockey throughout recent decades. These broadcasters have partnered with various sponsors in order to air various special Canadian events throughout the season.
Kraft Hockeyville, Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada, and Rogers Hometown Hockey are all prime examples of this phenomenon.
Now an annual event, Kraft Hockeyville was instituted in 2006 and is heavily promoted on HNIC. Using a polling system to determine a winner, one small community in Canada is given $250,000 to put towards arena repairs. The winner also gets to host an NHL exhibiiton game in their upgraded arena.
Kraft Hockeyville has reinforced a love for the game and brought together so many communities across Canada. The final community to host the event before the pandemic began was Renous, New Brunswick in 2019.
This rural local service district of less than 700 was stricken by several tragedies in the region leading up to their campaign for Kraft Hockeyville. To honour the legacy of Thomas Dunn, a 14-year old boy from Blackville (a village near Renous) who passed away during the previous summer, the people of Renous and surrounding areas banded together in order to bring Kraft Hockeyville to their region.
An extended family member of Dunn reached out to Renous residents, Nancy Hallihan-Sturgeon and Zachary Hallihan to organize the committee. As co-chairs, the pair were hoping to gain the support of about 25 people. They created a Facebook group to help organize the campaign – by the morning, approximately a thousand people had joined this undertaking. That group is still active today and has over 11,000 members.
The community was very active on social media and two hashtags, T6 and NeverDunn trended on Twitter thanks to the national interaction. Nancy observed as the movement “Took on a life of its own.”
Nancy’s main priority was to contribute to “Thomas’s memorial to pay respect for him and his family first.” She wanted to give Renous and surrounding communities a positive focus after such losses.
She was amazed at the level of collaboration that hosting this event brought out of people. “So many in the same place with the same common goal, with the same interest and no feelings ever got hurt.” She continued “The big win was the sense of community, a sense of family, beyond DNA. That connection, that collaboration, that delegation.”
The whole province rallied together. “Every arena in New Brunswick had computers set up with voting stations.” The togetherness was astounding. “When you can extend that ideal of a family, to a whole province, to a whole region, then across Canada”
Nancy called the impact that Kraft Hockeyville had on Renous “longlasting” the event really united Renous. Overall she felt that “The win was the people, and how we came together,” she continued “and [how they] continue to be strong in their commitment to the arena.”
Through Hockeyville, the game of hockey really has united Canadians from coast-to-coast.
Although Morrison was adamant that the game preserving the integrity of the game was most important to the future success of hockey he recognizes that the atmosphere is changing in regards to the technology used.
“The world of tv and broadcasting is going to be wildly different in the next while.” he said “In the States and Canada, they’re putting a lot of money, a lot of resources, a lot of research into the streaming side of it.”
He believes that HNIC has lost the exclusivity that it once held. “Going forward it’s probably going to lose more of that luster because you’ve got so much cable cutting going on. You know, kids of your age are finding different ways to watch games.” “They’re not watching on a Saturday night TV, they’re watching on computers, phones, and streaming services.”
Currently, Rogers seems to be keeping up with current trends. The ‘Sportsnet NOW’ app allows fans to stream HNIC games from anywhere as long as they have an internet connection and subscription to the service.
One glaring issue, in Morrison’s view, is how the NHL allows HNIC and other programs present their games. “For whatever reason, the NHL/hockey has retained a bit of a vanilla image. If they’re gonna keep up, they’re gonna have to change that and let people see them (the players) as human beings”
The biggest hurdle moving forward is the need “To get diverse and make the game affordable, and get the next generation of kids of all denominations exposed good and loving it and playing it”
HNIC and the NHL will need to continue to maintain the integrity of the sport going forward as they have continued to do since 1952. However, inclusivity to newcomers and exposure of their current athletes are crucial steps that need to be taken to ensure the longevity of both the NHL and HNIC.
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