Opinions

Hockey Night in Canada far from over

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Despite the allegations to the contrary, if Ron MacLean departs CBC permanently, it will not serve as the death of Hockey Night in Canada, nor will it be a devastating blow to Canadian culture.

It's undeniable that the Saturday evening staple has been ingrained deep into the Canadian psyche since its October 1952 television debut. And while the personalities associated with the show have always driven its largely undaunted success, they are only a part of the whole, a temporary component of something much more permanent.

Fifty years ago, there was no "Coach's Corner," no Ron and Don. The familiar face was that of Foster Hewitt, and the show's trademark was Hewitt's familiar "Hello, Canada!" Even today, those sights and sounds are still burned in the memories of many Canadians.

Hockey Night in Canada icon Don Cherry didn't enter the scene until 1980. Ron MacLean has seen fewer Saturday nights, joining in 1987. MacLean's departure may mark the end of an era, but that era is only a small chapter in the program's long-running history. Someone else will take his place. Canada will move on.

Like other Canadian cultural artifacts such as the CBC or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Hockey Night in Canada is not the product of one person. It's an institution, and it is this institution--what it stands for, the tradition it carries, the people whose lives it touched--that will remain unscathed, regardless of staff or policy.

It's true, our generation has grown up with MacLean as long as many of us can remember. Any Canadian claiming even a small stake in the hockey arena has witnessed the sport through MacLean's eyes for the better part of 15 years. But this is simply a matter of circumstance. Hockey Night in Canada isn't important because of Ron MacLean. Ron MacLean is important because of Hockey Night in Canada.

If the two sides don't resolve their contract dispute, Canadians tuning into the show next weekend for the first time will know Ron MacLean only as a legend, a story their fathers tell of "the great voice of hockey." MacLean's departure won't be a dire moment for Canadian hockey and it certainly won't be a eulogy for Canadian identity. It will be a turning point that signifies only change. And just as Ron MacLean did a decade-and-a-half earlier, whoever fills the seat next to Don Cherry will be a player in something more entrenched and of far more importance than just one man.

This is not to say that MacLean is entirely expendable. If he departs, there is no question he will be missed. But, just as quickly, he will be replaced and Hockey Night in Canada will remain on a pedestal for another 50 years.

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Aren't we overreacting a bit here? 15 years is a long time, but it's not even one generation. Let us consider the broadcasting career of the legendary Fred Cusick (Hockey Hall of Fame), broadcaster of Boston Bruins games on radio and/or TV from 1956 to 1997. Now THAT'S a long time to broadcast hockey games! From a WSBK-TV38 press release upon Cusick's retirement: "Cusick, a former Northeastern University hockey player, began his career
announcing the Bruins on radio in 1952. Four years later, he called
the ``NHL Game of the Week'' on CBS, becoming the country's first
national hockey broadcaster. He would later win the Lester Patrick
Award, emblematic of special contributions to hockey, and be inducted
into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In Cusick's early days, the black-and-white broadcasts, with no
slow-motion replays, got terrible ratings across the country, but in
hockey-crazed Boston, they were a hit, even outperforming NBC's NBA
package, which consisted of mostly Celtics games, three to one. The
Bruins were mediocre then. The Celtics were winning championships.

After CBS gave up the sport, Cusick became the driving force behind
local television's discovery of the Bruins. It would have happened
eventually, because Bobby Orr was just around the corner. But Cusick
accelerated the process.

During the early '60s, Boston's television programmers cared little
about hockey, rejecting Cusick's premise that there was an enormous
audience waiting to be tapped.

The breakthrough began in 1963 when Channel 9 in Manchester, N.H.,
accepted $250 from the Bruins for an hour of its air time each Sunday
morning at 11, before its regular programming began.

Cusick would drive to Montreal on Saturday nights when the Bruins
played there and the game was on Canadian television. He would pick up
a tape and drive overnight back to Manchester.

The next season, Channel 5 showed films of Saturday night games on
Sunday afternoons. The following year, the new Channel 56 signed on
the Bruins, but it gave up after two seasons, handicapped by a
terrible signal.

The Bruins then were picked up by another new independent, Channel 38,
which had a powerful signal. This coincided with the beginnings of the
Big, Bad Bruins.

The winning, fighting Bruins, led by the magnetic Orr, achieved
ratings on Channel 38 during the next six years that would never be
approached in the regular season by any other Boston team. Cusick was
proven a prophet.

The announcer's career didn't flow as smoothly. He spent two years out
of hockey after Channel 38 picked up the Bruins rights in 1967, but
rejoined the team on radio in 1969 and took over Channel 38's
broadcasts in 1971.

``I didn't set out to set a record for longevity,'' Cusick said in a
recent interview. ``It just worked out that way. If you have good
seats, which I used to have at the Garden, it's the easiest to
announce.

``You don't have to come up with 6,000 stories to fill the gaps, like
in baseball. It's much better if I come to a game with my mind blank
and not with seven things I want to say because I don't get the chance
to say them.''

He preferred to keep himself in the background.

``I just did the game,'' he said. ``I don't stick myself into it. That
is why I have lasted so long. I don't think anybody else has done as
many games. It's been incredible. I have been very lucky doing a job
that thousands of guys would have loved to have done. I have no
complaints.''

In his "retirement", Cusick went on to broadcast 10-15 AHL games per season on the local cable network, retiring for good at the end of the 2003 season at the age of 84. The remarkable thing was he did games involving different AHL clubs each night out in the AHL, and I never heard him miss a player's name! He'll not be forgotten, nor will the NHL of his era.

Canada will find a great replacement for the relatively young Ron, if it comes to that...but maybe Ron should read what old Fred has to say here before he finds his career prematurely over. Think about it, Ron. Once you're gone, you're gone.