HNIC Could Face Uncertain Future.

CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada has long been a staple on Canadian TV, but several factors could threaten its future.

For Canadian hockey fans, CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada has been a part of the culture for decades, starting on radio in 1931, then on television since 1952.

For most of that period, Hockey Night In Canada was the only place for Canadians, on a national level, to get their hockey fix, first with simply one game per week during the regular season, expanding in recent years to doubleheader coverage (one game involving an Eastern Canadian team, followed by one involving a Western Canadian club) on Saturday nights, including pre-and post-game analysis and features.

Its annual “Hockey Day in Canada” event, usually held in February and featuring games played by all Canadian teams, has also been a very popular feature, with program stars Ron McLean and Don Cherry hosting from a different small-town Canadian location each year.

And of course, their coverage always expanded during the playoffs, especially whenever Canadian teams were involved, their telecasts dominating CBC’s prime time from April to mid-June.

The rise of cable since the 1980s brought about the birth of TSN (the Canadian equivalent of ESPN) in 1984, and Sportsnet in 1998, which over the years have been challengers to HNiC’s dominance, showing regional coverage of Canadian teams in regular season games throughout the week, as well as regular and post-season coverage of non-Canadian teams up to the Stanley Cup Final.

That led to concerns in recent years of Hockey Night in Canada being moved to another broadcaster, such as CTV, which owns TSN. That seems unlikely, however, as a rival network would have to pay CBC for the rights to the Hockey Night in Canada name.

Despite the rise of the cable sports networks, Hockey Night in Canada continued to have strong ratings in recent years, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but there are some troubling factors which could have an impact upon upon the show’s long-term future.

Gone are the days when major league baseball, Canadian pro football and the Summer and Winter Olympics Games were the domain of CBC. While the network offers up soccer coverage, including that of the FIFA World Cup, the loss of those other sports have raised questions in recent years over the future of the network’s sports coverage.

While CBC’s current contract with the NHL lasts until the end of the 2013-14 season, it is expected CTV could make a serious push for the exclusive broadcast rights of Canadian-based NHL teams, which would then be televised on TSN.

In 2007, CBC successfully outbid CTV for full broadcast rights of all Canadian NHL teams , but the market has changed since then, and CBC could find it very difficult in three years time to top CTV.

The aging of Hockey Night’s top on-screen personalities could also become a potential problem.

While McLean and Cherry remain Hockey Night’s most recognizable faces, they’re also getting older, especially Cherry, who will be 80 when the show’s current contract expires in 2014.

After over 30 years in his Coach’s Corner segment, Cherry probably doesn’t have many years left. His famously booming voice has been cracking in recent years, and his diatribes tend to be more rambling than usual, suggesting age is catching up with him.

Hockey Night, to its credit, by 2008 finally acknowledged the need to lighten the workload of 70-something play-by-play man Bob Cole and shifted the bulk of its national telecast and Stanley Cup Final coverage to former Vancouver Canucks play-by-play man Jim Hughson, who is in his mid-fifties.

That role however could’ve been filled by Chris Cuthbert, who’d been groomed as Cole’s eventual replacement but was lost to TSN over a contract dispute in 2005.

This summer, the show lost Jeff Marek- co-host of the intermission segment “I-Desk” and host of their radio programme on Sirius – to Sportsnet, while popular insider Pierre LeBrun moved to TSN, joining what was already considered the best team of hockey analysts on television, led by Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger.

Hockey Night’s second intermission “Satellite Hotstove” featuring analysts both in-house and via satellite feed, at one time was one of the better features to get in-depth analysis of NHL news and rumors.

Nowadays, most of what they’re reporting has already been done by TSN, Sportsnet or the internet, becoming a rehash of what’s already well-known to most knowledgeable hockey fans. That’s not the fault of the analysts, which used to include LeBrun, but rather the fact the show was usually telecast on one night per week during the regular season, whereas the other outlets provide fans with regular updates via their television coverage, and up-to-the-minute reports via their websites.

Hockey Night has improved their website in recent years, but their on-line coverage often seems to still lag behind that of TSN and Sportnet.

Adding insult to injury, in 2008, CBC decided not to retain the rights to the show’s popular theme music, often referred to as “Canada’s second national anthem“. It was promptly snapped up by CTV, which now uses it as the official theme for its NHL games.

Prior to cable, satellite and streaming video, CBC was the only source for reliable, albeit limited, NHL hockey in Canada. Over the past twenty years, however, Canadian hockey fans can now watch multiple games daily by a variety of providers. They have more choices, and often those choices are every bit as good, or better, as the coverage provided by Hockey Night.

Hockey fans 30 and younger have grown up used to having more than just one option, especially one which, during the regular season, can usually only be seen on Saturday nights.

And while Hockey Night can point with pride to their high ratings this past year, especially during the playoffs, it’s not a stretch to assume TSN or Sportsnet would’ve enjoyed similar ratings success had they carried the entire playoffs, including coverage of a Stanley Cup Final involving a Canadian-based team.

Hockey Night in Canada isn’t without its strengths. Cherry’s Coach’s Corner segment remains popular and entertaining. Hughson is among the top play-by-play men in the business. Their pre-game and post-game shows rank among the best, as does the program’s overall production values.

Former NHL goalie Kelly Hrudey has quietly earned a name for himself as one of the more respected analysts in pro hockey. Elliotte Friedman, who hosts “The Headliner” segment as well as conducts in-game interviews, has been a solid addition to their lineup, and his weekly “30 Thoughts” blog on their website has quickly gained popularity among hockey fans.

No other hockey program can set the stage for a big game or series, or sum up an entire post-season, like Hockey Night.

But given the rising competition from cable, evolution of sports coverage, the loss of key on-air personalities and the aging of others, it remains to be seen how much longer Saturday night will remain Hockey Night in Canada on CBC.

15 Comments

  1. It will be a bidding war between CTV Bell Globe Media and Rogers.

    It’s ironic though as CTV owned both of them at one time and now they are competitive rivals even though up until a few years ago they were still working from the same building.

    CBC for many, many years has been in debt and it has been badly managed. It’s time that CBC divests itself of non-news departments such as sports as an example of one of them and do what it has always done well and that is the NEWS and only the NEWS!

    CTV has surpassed the CBC because it got with the times but CBC is still stuck in the past.

  2. I couldnt agree more with the above comment. It wouldnt suprise me if you see TSN (or more likely Sportsnet) take a run to sign Elliot Friedman away from HNIC. He can be at times dry, but he has a sound knowledge of the background of the business of hockey.

  3. Get rid of those bums Milbury and Stock and they will immediately gain some ratings.

  4. CBC does a very poor job of news, as well, and should be privatised or shut down. Everything about CBC is from another era, now we have competition.

  5. HNIC has a brand with enduring value. That said, I think CBC can and will be creative with thier bid when 2014 comes around.

    As with the last Olympic bid, the CBC can not make an irresponsible (read clearly money-losing) run at the rights but they could team up with Sportsnet to make a joint bid for the Saturday night and regional rights. CBC gets the primary games on Saturday night, with the broadcasts from other regions (say the Jets game) running on one of the Sportsnets while the Corp runs the Leafs on the main network. Sportsnet’s regional games would get the HNIC logo, theme (the new one is not bad and already is developing its own brand-value), and drop-ins from CBC personalities during the game and during intermissions. They would also have a platform for a longer lead-in and lead-out for games on Sportsnet that is missing on the CBC.

    There would seem to be a lot of familiar faces on the Sportsnet side as far as the CBC goes and neither see each other as the true rival – they are both targetting and being targetted by TSN/CTV/Bell Media. Seems like a match made in TV/Media heaven.

  6. Can’t deny the passion for the game from the likes of Ron & Don but the show lacks the punch and
    locker room high jinx of a TSN telicast. If HNIC is to stay beyond it’s present contract, it has to get trendy. Cherry has long been a welcome fixture in Canadian hockey culture but everything comes to an end. McClean might be a candidate for one of the leages commities. His in-depth analisys on the interworkings of the NHL, altough insightfull, leaves many veiwers surfing between periods. Great opening montages for those play-off games. Keep that guy.

  7. The article raises some good points, but it’s premise of the demise of HNIC is based on a lot of assumptions and subjective opinion. There really isn’t any other broadcast that is as polished and enjoyable to watch as HNIC is. TSN does a good job but it still has work to do in many areas to catch HNIC. Bob Cole is a legend, and it will be sad when he does his last game, but Hughson does a good job. Glenn Healey is not my favorite, but he is a guy who previously worked at a rival network who CBC brought in, so it works both ways. Another important aspect is the ability to watch the games for free (Online, Over The Air HD), so it does maintain that exclusive feel where everyone can watch, and not just those who have the TSN Cable pack. Anyway, HNIC is solid, and will probably be around for decades to come.

  8. Not mentioned is the attempt by HNIC to be ‘controversial” by adding lowbrows Milbury and Stock to the mix.

    Isn’t the Cherry/McLean nonsense enough?

    The contribution of Milbury and Stock are paramount to adding a Jerry Springer segment every game! What’s next? staged studio brawls between Milbury and Stock when they disagree (at least on script)?

    Milbury’s presence on HNIC stinks of Cherry finding work for one of his out of work ex Goons at the expense of the taxpayer!

    Lastly what on earth is the people’s broadcaster saying when they have to hire an American; Milbury to analyze the national sport in Canada? Aren’t there sufficient Canadians which satisfy the controversy and moronic comments requirements of HNIC?

  9. Just change some names and this article could be about Monday Night Football. Al Michaels is getting a bit old…ESPN could grab the TV rights….etc., etc.

  10. Gone are the days of the great Danny Gallivan and Dick Irwin combo. Why not let Ron MacLean host a panel with Kelly Hrudey and Elliot Friedman and a guy like Roenick or Barnaby to liven things up? Do it a bit more TSN style. Hrudey is great with the electronic board to disect plays as well. “Hometeam” Healey has to go. and personally I don’t have much time for Jim Hughson either. I grew up listening to Gallivan, then Bob Cole but I think his eyes are getting bad. He makes a lot of mistakes now. CBC lost big when Cuthbert left. I have great memories of CBC HNIC, and watched it a lot with my father over the years but it’s pretty telling when I had to watch NBC’s coverage of the cup finals to avoid Hughson,Simpson,and Hometeamer. Doc Emerick is a classic.

  11. I agree with Roy.One Dion Cherry is more than enough without adding clones like PJ Stock and Mike Milbury.Also HNIC is more than over due to take a pill and get rid of its Torontocentric bias.This is a team that has not made the playoffs post lockout and is in no danger of doing so in the near future.Much…Much too much time is devoted to shilling for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment during the telecasts

  12. Danny Gallivan and Dick Irvin as well as Rene Lecavalier and Gilles Tremblay are the benchmarks for hockey telecast excellence!

    The present HNIC lineup is a poor attempt at humor by the CBC with the exceptions of Elliot Friedman, Kelly Hrudey and Cassey Campbell.

    The HNIC sewer is blocked and desperately requires a “media enema”!

  13. HNIC was the best but it also had no competition for too long. While some of the statements about the shows merits were true at one time, most are no longer true. TSN delivers the best hockey shows and is well deserving of the opportunity to bring us nightly hockey coast to coast. I look forward to that.

  14. Each NHL team plays 80+ games a year and with 7 Canadian teams that makes 560 games that CBC, TSN and Sportsnet can air. The lions share of the games goes to both Sportsnet and TSN while the CBC generally airs 2-3 hockey games every Saturday night. If TSN or Sportsnet was to get an exclusive contract with the NHL to air Canadian games, it would be a huge blow to the game.

    There has been a relationship between the CBC and the NHL for over 70 years and I cannot see the NHL kicking CBC and HNIC to the curb. Likewise, I cannot see CBC NOT having NHL hockey every Saturday night. While television has changed, I feel the CBC has been the only network in Canada out of the big three to push the envelope in how it connects with the audience. Streaming the games online and having the option to watch a game in a different region online is something that I have utilized and makes the consumer feel respected.

    It is this type of thinking and delivery that would go along the wayside if TSN or Sportsnet was to get exclusive coverage to the Canadian NHL games. Competition is important and I think if one network was to have all the balls, we would lose the creativity that exists in the Canadian markets.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think all three networks have strengths and weaknesses but I think that if the NHL wants the game to grow in Canada, it is best if the coverage is spread to all three of the Canadian networks.

  15. More than likely you will see Hockey Night in Canada demise on CBC when the contract is up. In my opinion CTV (owned by Bell Media) is the front runner in snagging the National Over the Air Contracts in Canada. The reason is due to the success of TSN (owned by Bell Media) in the broadcasts of NHL on TSN, as well the gain of a monopoly in National Broadcasts for the NHL in Canada, and the finance to outbid CBC. For these reasons the NHL will probably drop CBC in light of the Bell Media’s lucrative success in promoting the NHL through TSN as well the finance that Bell Media has at their disposal, and the reduction in hiring another broadcast crew since Bell Media already has their own. This is similar to America where NBC (owned by NBCUniversal) has snagged the National Cable rights in America via Versus (owned by NBCUniversal), thus generating a monopoly in NHL viewership for National Broadcasts.