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.
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.