Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: Hockey Night in Canada (2012)

By Michael McKinley

There's just something magical in the concept and execution of the television program, "Hockey Night in Canada."

There's no real equivalent in the United States, a place where most of the romance of sports broadcasting probably is associated with baseball radio broadcasters. HNIC is a national broadcast, and thus is a share experience across this giant broadcast.

Hockey means so much to our neighbors to the north, and one of the reasons has been the top-notch broadcasts (radio and television version over the years) of games. It's a distinctly Canadian image - families gathered in the den on a Saturday night to watch a National Hockey League game together.

That sort of tradition makes it easy to think of commemorative books and programs when anniversaries and milestones roll along. Thus, the CBC in Canada cranked out this tribute to the program on the occasion of 60 years of programs ... although "Hockey Night in Canada" also tips its hat, or at least its toque, to the program's radio origins.

Sixty isn't one of those numbers that ranks with 25, 50, 75 or 100 when it comes to the major anniversaries as these things go. But 60 is a familiar number for hockey, since regulation games last that long in minutes. So author Michael McKinley takes us through 60 small topics for each chapter, with a foreword by veteran host Ron MacLean and an epilogue. McKinley has worked on several big projects over the years, in book and film form, so the story is in quite good hands here.

Thus the reader sails through a variety of hockey- and broadcasting-related events, never stopping too long to get bogged down. As you'd expect, there are articles on the famous players of the era - like Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. Some big games come up too, like the Canada-USSR series of 1972 and the first outdoor game. The announcers get some glory here too. There's Danny Gallivan, of course, and Bob Cole. Dick Irvin and Howie Meeker. Don Cherry and Jim Robson.

But there are enough little charming facts thrown in that really make the book work. There was Murray Westgate, who played an Esso service station attendant in commercials. The woman who wrote the theme to the program gets to have her story told. And I'll bet you didn't know that instant replay on sports broadcasts was invented for HNIC. Some good, rare pictures pop up along the way that add to the charm. There's even a little criticism thrown in of broadcasting standards from back in the day that now seem somewhere between outdated and archaic.

As of this writing the book is four years old, and there have been some management changes to the show's operations recently. I don't get to watch it any more, so it's hard to know if the present-day show is worthy of admiration. I'd hope so; tradition means something. This fine look back at the program ought to tell American readers an idea what the fuss is all about. As for Canadian hockey fans who watched much of those 60 years of broadcasting, there's no doubt that this will strike a chord in their hearts - and might just be a five-star keeper.

Four stars

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