Dick Irvin and Danny Gallivan made up what many believe to be hockey’s finest two-man announcing team ever paired.
MONTREAL — Beyond where it appears in a variety of books still thumbed and old VHS tapes still enjoyed — my VCR has been kept largely for them — the Hockey Night in Canada logo appears on three items in my home:
A 50th anniversary magnet stuck on a filing cabinet, and a tattered, well-loved hoodie and ball cap I was sent as thanks for discussing the Canadiens many times on Hockey Night in Canada satellite radio programs.
It occurred to me on Tuesday that these three logos are on the brink of having historic value, a dramatically changed broadcasting landscape suddenly sending Hockey Night in Canada out to skate a pond that hasn’t yet fully frozen.
Some will say HNIC long ago passed its best-before date. Those critics will tell you the CBC staple has been left behind by sharper on-air talent and the slicker production of newer kids on the TV block.
But fans of Hockey Night, and there remain many, will argue that they enjoy the comfort factor of an institution that began on radio 21 years before the first game flickered into view on television in 1952, warmed by the familiarity of voices that have been living-room guests for, in some cases, going on four decades.
Whether you love it or hate it, or simply turn it on because of the teams featured, a matchup that intrigues or even old habit, Hockey Night in Canada — as we know it — changed forever this week when Rogers Communications, with its Sportsnet branding, signed a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal with the NHL for broadcast and digital-platform rights coast-to-coast.
In French, Rogers will subcontract to its partner, TVA Sports, which notably snatches the Quebec-fabric Canadiens from RDS for a minimum of 22 so-called national games plus the playoffs next season; 60 so-called regional games now hang in the balance of upcoming negotiation with the Habs.
Canadiens fans have been in panic mode since the bombshell announcement on Tuesday, some saying that TVA is not available to them because of geography or cable/satellite packaging. A horror almost unspoken is that every Habs game might not be available for viewing in this era of mass communication.
And even with every game viewable, additional TV subscription or package enhancement at a cost as yet unknown isn’t sitting well.
Hockey Night in Canada will continue on CBC for another four years of Saturday nights. It’s essentially a table scrap thrown to the network, Rogers producing the telecast and dictating all about it while pocketing revenues.
The CBC sugar-coats its bitter rights loss, meanwhile, by saying the incoming dollars weren’t as plentiful as some believed.
Rogers might keep the Hockey Night name, which is synonymous with the game in this country. Or, it might trash it for labelling of its own.
If this week has taught us anything, it’s that even the most storied institutions in this land are not impervious to corporate shakeup, what we believed to be bedrock beneath our feet in fact only as solid as sand.
Watching games on maybe a dozen networks, whose coverage blankets the continent, today’s fan enjoys technological advances that offer every angle of play in super-slow-motion, high-definition replay, called by skilled, sometimes encyclopedic announcers.
But fans are not wrapped in the layers and textures of words spun by the late Danny Gallivan, who on Hockey Night in Canada for years with analyst Dick Irvin Jr. brought Canadiens games into our living rooms in colours more vivid than the images on our sets.
Hockey Night began as a radio broadcast on Nov. 12, 1931, Foster Hewitt calling Toronto’s 2-1 loss to Chicago in Maple Leaf Gardens. It would be 21 years before television viewers would see an NHL game, and as popular as the notion is that the game featured Toronto, described by Hewitt, it was in fact the Canadiens vs. Detroit at the Forum on Oct. 11, 1952, a match called in French on Radio-Canada by René Lecavalier.
Montreal beat the Red Wings 2-1 on the first La soirée du hockey match, future Habs Hall of Famer Elmer Lach scoring the first goal in hockey’s first televised game.
Find a little of Lecavalier on the Internet and you’ll understand why, to more than a generation, he was a kindly French professor. The erstwhile war correspondent and cultural commentator called Canadiens play-by-play with an economy of words and a grace of speech in beautiful French.
If you didn’t speak a word of the language, you were fluently bilingual when you listened to Lecavalier — as you would be years later on the same network with the wonderful Richard Garneau.
“He would describe what was happening,” the great Canadien Jean Béliveau said at Lecavalier’s funeral in 1999, “and for days afterward the people would still see it in their minds.”
Gérald Renaud, a 24-year-old newspaperman with Ottawa’s Le Droit, was tapped in 1952 by CBC in Montreal to produce local sports programming.
In his 2012 book Hockey Night in Canada: 60 Seasons, author Michael McKinley wrote of Renaud mapping out his camera positions for hockey with a closed-circuit table-tennis game, something he believed matched the speed of the Canadiens.
Renaud ultimately decided to use three cameras at the Forum to marry images to Lecavalier’s words, all positioned between the blue lines — the first two would capture medium- and wide-angle views, the third used for close-ups.
It wasn’t until four years later that Renaud added a fourth camera near the Zamboni entrance at ice-level to capture action around the nets.
Three weeks after Lecavalier had broadcast the Canadiens-Red Wings game, Hewitt called a Maple Leafs game on TV, television a phenomenon in Canada that was barely a month old. A clunky, tubes-glowing black-and-white set went for $429, a nice slice of a worker’s $3,500 average annual wage.
Seven months later, Gallivan was calling English play-by-play of the Canadiens on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, before long creating his delightful expressions that would become part of the game’s lexicon.
In time, Gallivan would be joined by Irvin, making up what many believe to be hockey’s finest two-man announcing team ever paired.
Hockey, the NHL will tell you, has never been healthier. Financially, with little contradiction, this is true.
The game’s landscape continues to evolve, the radical changes in multi-platform communications bringing the sport to more fans than ever before.
It might be years before this viewing jury renders a verdict on Tuesday’s ground-shaking announcement about where and how they will watch hockey.
But this much is certain: every fan, and every announcer, director, producer, technician and cable-puller, is in debt to Hockey Night in Canada, the brand that since the dawn of television has stitched the sport into a comfortable quilt that has warmed our long winters.
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