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Canada's Big Night In

Understanding Hockey Night in Canada's lasting appeal

By Rui Gomes

Air Canada CenterChildren are outside playing street hockey on a cool Saturday night wearing the jerseys of their favourite players. At 7 p.m they abruptly stop their game and the whole family gathers in the living room around the television set, anticipating the first sounds of Canada's second national anthem. It's hockey night in Canada.

"Hello, Canada!"

Those two words from broadcaster Foster Hewitt pioneered Canadian hockey fans into the age of television in 1952. Since then, what started as a simple idea to bring the game to television, has become a national success for the CBC drawing an average of 1.2 million viewers every Saturday night.

"There are lots of people for whom that was family time," says Russell Field, a University of Toronto professor who teaches a course called Hockey in Canadian Culture.  He says the tradition around Hockey Night in Canada "grew in the depression…when a lot of people across this country for entertainment sat around the radio together."

Producing seven hours of compelling hockey coverage was unthinkable 40 years ago, but now that's exactly what HNIC does Saturday nights on CBC throughout the hockey season.

"We can watch virtually 1,150 of the 1,230 games that are broadcast," says Eric Duhatschek, a Calgary sports columnist who often appears on Hockey Night in Canada's Satellite Hot Stove. "Hockey Night was once a week. I think that, when I was young, is what made it special and created that tradition we now associate with it."

Duhatschek started watching HNIC at the age of nine. "I'd be there frantically wanting to watch Hockey Night but Lawrence Welk would be on from 8 to 9 p.m.," he recalls. "During the commercial, we'd flip over to Hockey Night. I'd see the intro. Find out what the score was. Then we'd have to go back to Lawrence Welk." After suffering through his grandmother's favourite show, he was able to watch HNIC.  His parents, who didn't care for the game, would watch because it was the thing to do.

Even now, with hockey on seven days a week, HNIC is still special to Canadians, partly because the people involved understand their audience.

"The commentators educate and give good analysis but they don't assume the viewers are ignorant," says Anthony Melihen, a communications specialist. "It's a standard that applies to Canadian broadcast-television in general."

Of course, part of the reason people have been tuning in to HNIC all this time is "Coach's Corner" the highest-rated five-minutes on Canadian television. Don Cherry is a bona fide Canadian celebrity if ever there was one.

HNIC is successful in knowing and respecting the history of broadcasting. It refrains from being over-produced and depends on a traditional style that Field says has placed it "at the centerpiece of broadcasting in this country almost since radio was born."

While the American networks try to attract viewers with flashy graphics, HNIC aims to entertain its existing audience.

"Viewers know when it's on," says Sherali Najak, senior producer of the Toronto Maple Leafs broadcasts on HNIC. "People have a passion for this game and Hockey Night in Canada is consistent in how we bring you the game. The faces of who's on the broadcast- the quality of the broadcasters, there's a consistency in that and through consistency comes excellence."

It continues to appeal to a wide range of the population, male and female viewers alike. Many thought ratings would dip after the cancellation of the 2004/2005 season, but Najak says the "average is up a few percentage points," a trend that has continued over the years.

Its popularity results from the passion Canadians have for hockey and the show's ability to broadcast it. It is engrained in the national culture. Many will remember Foster Hewitt's voice shouting, "Henderson has scored for Canada!" as Canada captured the '72 Summit Series, and Bob Cole's dynamic call of Joe Sakic's goal to clinch the Olympic Gold Medal in 2002. Moments like these will continue to inspire broadcasters as well as the Canadian audience, coast to coast.