Sunday, October 09, 2005

Remembrance Of Games Past

Tonight Canadians got to hear their "second" national anthem - the Hockey Night In Canada theme - for the first time in over a year. There was a great deal fo concern that even with the NHL strike being solved, the CBC lockout would delay the return of Hockey for those viewers who don't have cable or satellite services. The resolution of the lockout last week and an effort on the part of both sides meant that Canadians would hear the "dulcet" tones of Ron McLean, Don Cherry, and the rest of the Hockey Night In Canada crew. Somehow it was fitting that the first game on CBC for most of the country was the Montreal Canadiens against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This rambling entry is a bit of a remembrance for me. As the name of this blog states, I am a child of television and if you're a Canadian, television always meant Hockey Night In Canada. Canadians didn't - and don't - have any trouble deciding what to watch on Saturday nights; it's always been hockey. I was a kid in the time of the misnamed "Original Six" (they can trace their status as "original" to 1926 when the Red Wings, Rangers and Blackhawls were formed and their status as six to 1942 when the New York Americans folded and weren't reinstated after the war), and a particular time of the Original Six. Between 1956 when I was born and 1968, only three teams won the Stanley Cup: the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens, and the Chicago Blackhawks ... and the Blackhawks only won once, in 1961. As often as not it was the Leafs playing the Canadiens for the Cup. It was only suitable since they were literally the only original teams in the league, going back to its formation in 1917.

When I was a kid certain things were certainties. The Rangers and the Bruins stank (sorry little brother but it's true - from 1959 to 1967 then never finished higher than fifth in a six team league and more often than not fifth was something they could only dream about), and the Blackhawks and Red Wings usually weren't quite good enough to beat a Canadian team. We knew that if either the Leafs or Canadiens were playing the Russians who kept beating our amateurs at the Olympics, they'd wipe the ice with them. Canadians always saw either the Leafs or the Canadiens on TV. The games from Montreal were featured Frank Selke Jr. and Danny Gallivan as announcers while the Toronto games were announced by the legendary Foster Hewitt - and later his son Bill Hewitt - with Ward Cornell. Hewitt was probably the greatest announcer in the game, perhaps of all time. He was the first man to broadcast an NHL game on radio (there were a couple of other men who announced games on radio, notably Regina's Peter Parker who broadcast the first complete professional game in 1923 eight days before Hewitt) and was a staple of CBC's radio broadcasts. We almost never saw a complete game. The broadcasts would start about ten minutes into the game, the owners having the belief that people wouldn't come to the games if they could see it for free on TV, which is sort of hard to believe with the black & white TVs of the day. If the game was from Toronto Foster Hewitt would greet us with his classic introduction: "Good evening Canada and hockey fans in the United States" and he'd give the score, if there was one, as part of a summary of the action so far. Selke and Gallivan did something similar from Montreal although they didn't have an introductory line like Hewitt. The first half of the game was sponsored by Imperial Oil-Esso, whose commercials featured actor Murray Westgate as a smiling station attendant, while the second half belonged to Ford Motors. At the end of the game was the Three Star selection, a tradition going back to radio days and a new gasoline from Imperial-Esso called Three Star Gas.

If you were an anglo-Canadian kid of my age you had to have a favourite team, and it was usually either the Leafs or the Canadiens plus whatever team the local hero played for (around here it was Detroit because that's where Gordie Howe played). Kids in Quebec - English or French - had it easy; their team was the Canadiens. Period. Roch Carrier's modern classic The Hockey Sweater explains it perfectly. Kids I knew were usually split. I was a Leafs fan while my cousin Gary - to this day - swears by the Montreal Canadiens. Still we saw the Leafs and Canadiens enough that we knew the players, more than we knew the players on the other teams. Toronto was coached by Punch Imlach, had Johnny Bower in goal, Tim Horton on defence, and players like Red Kelly (who was so popular that he was elected to Parliament twice while he was an active player), George "the Chief" Armstrong, Davey Keon, and Eddie Shack. The coach at Montreal was Hector "Toe" Blake, with Lorne "Gump" Worsley in goal, and players like Henri "The Pocket Rocket" Richard (his big brother was Maurice "The Rocket" Richard who retired in 1960 and I honestly don't remember seeing), Jean Belliveau, Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, Jacque Laperrierre, and Yvan Cournoyer.

My NHL ended in 1968. That was the year of the so-called "first expansion" - which was of course nothing of the sort. There were six new teams in places like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, places which - if we'd been at all interested in the history of the league - we would have learned had had NHL teams before. There were also teams in Los Angeles and Oakland that had been hotbeds of the old Western League but were only major league cities because they had owners with deep pockets (Oakland was owned by Charlie Finley at one point), and Minnesota. The first expansion didn't hurt quality too much but the more the league grew the weaker the product on the ice became. Montreal kept winning the Cup although not nearly are regularly, but the Leafs would only make the playoffs once in the next 25 years. The team's owner Harold Ballard alienated a great many fans with the way he ran the club (just one example: during renovations to Maple Leaf Gardens he ordered the destruction of "The Gondola", the press box that Foster Hewitt had broadcast from despite the fact that the Hockey Hall of Fame wanted to preserve it; when asked, Ballard said that if Hewitt wanted it he should have bought it). The draft, free agency and player salaries meant that money ruled and players went to the teams that could pay. I became a Winnipeg Jets fan because a friend of mine played there until the business side of the League became too important and the team was relocated to Phoenix. I don't watch much hockey anymore and I don't have a team, but tonight's game between Montreal and Toronto brought back the memories.

By the way, Montreal won a barn-burner 5-4. Who knows, I might become interested again.

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