Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 41
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

‘Hockey Night in Canada’ a big part of game’s culture

Shawna Gawreluck could barely believe her kids’ reactions earlier this month when the unmistakable Don Cherry appeared on one of the many television screens at a Boston Pizza in St. Albert, Canada, where they were eating dinner.

Cherry was wearing “some sort of white suit with flags or something on it,” Gawreluck said. Her two teenagers laughed and asked their mother who he was.

“My children didn’t know him,” said Gawreluck, who describes herself as a northern Alberta girl who supports the Edmonton Oilers. “As soon as Canadians of a certain age hear that voice, they know exactly who it is. He’s so distinctive.”

Don Cherry (left) and Ron MacLean work a game as part of NHL Kraft Hockeyville in West Shore, British Columbia.

To use a U.S. example, think of Howard Cosell during “Monday Night Football’s” heyday. Then imagine that heyday lasting for nearly four decades. Cherry’s show, “Hockey Night in Canada,” has been a big part of Canadian culture for more than 60 years, which is why Gawreluck was surprised that her kids didn’t recognize the show’s most recognizable face.

“Hockey Night in Canada” has been a part of Canadian television since the 1950s, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. started producing an NHL game of the week. By the mid-1970s, CBC added a Wednesday night telecast. Cherry has been part of CBC’s NHL telecasts since 1981 and has become one of the most recognizable faces on Canadian TV.

In 2014, the NHL’s Canadian TV contract moved to Rogers, ending a nearly 60-year run on CBC. Rogers kept the “Hockey Night in Canada” brand and signed Cherry through next year. While the two St. Albert teenagers may not have recognized the show’s biggest star — and its TV ratings dropped close to 20 percent last season, according to numerous media reports — it retains its importance in Canada.

It often creates controversies that dominate headlines north of the border. In 2008, many longtime fans were outraged when CBC lost the rights to the show’s theme song, “The Hockey Theme,” causing producers to come up with a new one. Hockey fans still talk about the old theme song.

There was a similar outcry in 2014 when Rogers replaced longtime “Hockey Night in Canada” host Ron MacLean with George Stroumboulopoulos. MacLean returned as the full-time host last year.

“The show’s brand is still strong, which is why you see so much controversy,” said Steve McAllister, former managing editor of Yahoo Sports, who now owns McAllister Sports Consulting. McAllister grew up in eastern Ontario and supports the Maple Leafs. “There’s still an awful lot of chatter around ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’”

Seth Palansky, a communications executive with Caesars Interactive Entertainment, described “Hockey Night in Canada” as a big part of his childhood.

“Don Cherry was the original Howard Stern — you either loved him or hated him, but you had to tune in to see what he was going to say next,” said Palansky, who grew up in Toronto and supports the Maple Leafs. “The only reason to miss a telecast was because you were actually at the game. It was the only program my parents let me stay up late to watch, so that made it even more special — or tells you just how special it was.”