Hockey is rarely out of the headlines here, whether it’s disputes over players’ salaries, fighting on the ice, concussions, dubious remarks from DonCherry, fighting again… The big story of the moment, which for a while there even displaced Rob Ford from the top spot, is the news that Rogers Communications has secured the Canadian broadcast rights to screen all National Hockey League (NHL) hockey games as from the 2014-15 season.
This is the largest ever media rights deal for the NHL and is set to last for a staggeringly long time period of 12 years; of course accompanied by a suitably high price tag: $5.2 billion. Rogers, not surprisingly, is calling the deal a “game-changer.” Fans will have a wider choice of games to watch and potentially more flexibility in terms of how they view, with live streaming, tablet and cell phone options in the mix.
The one question everyone was asking though is what will happen to CBC’s Hockey night in Canada. Even though I’m completely oblivious to hockey most of the time, I know the show is considered an institution. As someone who became used to Sky poaching all her favourite sports from the BBC, I can certainly sympathise with hockey fans who think they might not be able to afford to view coverage of games in the future.
The good news, for the moment at least, is that the brand will live on via a “sub-licensing” agreement between Rogers and the CBC. This means that Hockey Night in Canada will continue to be aired on the CBC, as well as Rogers channels; but after more than 60 years at the helm, the CBC will give up producing duties to Rogers. The jury’s still out on whether Ron and Don will be presenting, but I can’t imagine Rogers wanting to lose those familiar faces.
The story inspired me to dig up a piece I wrote back in 2006, not long after moving here.
Ice hockey, always known as hockey, is one of Canada’s major pastimes, whether playing it, watching a live game or perhaps more often watching it on the big screen TV in the bar or the basement. It’s also one of Canada’s two national sports. The other one, bizarrely, is lacrosse, which is most associated in my mind with Enid Blyton boarding school books, and certainly doesn’t seem to be a hot topic of conversation round here.
If you’ve never been to see a hockey game live, give it a try. The speed will take your breath away, and even if the rules of hockey are a mystery (which they still were to me, even after my young neighbours had tried to explain them), you can always enjoy the violence that breaks out at very regular intervals, even in junior level hockey. Canadians are generally so polite and civilised, so perhaps hockey is the outlet for all their pent-up aggression.
Two of Canada’s most revered hockey players are Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. Bobby Orr is from Parry Sound in Ontario, just a few hours south of here, and has his own Hall of Fame there- with lots of hockey memorabilia and mementos. So I’d heard of him long before I ever saw a hockey game. Wayne Gretsky (otherwise known as “The Great One”) retired in 1999, after receiving numerous awards and accolades during his twenty-year career.
CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, hosted by Ron Maclean, has been a Saturday night fixture in the TV schedules since 1952, typically gaining over a million viewers on Saturday nights. The exception to this was the NHL lockout during the 2004-5 season, resulting from a dispute over player’s salaries. Prior to the lockout, 75% of revenues went towards player salaries, with the average salary a mind-boggling $1.8 million a season!
The lockout caused anguish to hockey fans, forced to find something else to do on a Saturday night, and problems for parents dealing with children and teenagers, bored without their favourite sport to watch. It also left CBC with a dilemma: just what would replace the hockey on a Saturday night? In the event, they opted for “Movie Night in Canada,” hosted by… Ron Maclean! Perhaps hoping that the audience wouldn’t spot the difference.
The lockout also had a huge financial impact, from the CBC itself and hockey merchandisers, through to street entertainers and hotdog sellers. Statistics Canada estimates that the monthly cost to Canada’s GDP was at least $20 million.
The lockout doesn’t seem to have dented hockey’s popularity though. ‘”Grassroots” hockey seems to be thriving, with many young players devoted to the game. Their parents seem to be equally passionate in supporting their offspring, forking out hundreds of dollars to buy new kit and equipment every few years, and happily driving off to spend weekends and holidays at tournaments.
And back to today…
I’m embarrassed to say my knowledge of hockey has increased by zero since I wrote that piece. But I’m considering signing up for cable TV ahead of the winter Olympics (too much rock by my house = no free TV channels) so there’s still hope for me yet. Perhaps 2014 will be the year I finally educate myself about Canadian sports and resign my status as Hockey dunce.