Saturday Night Hockey / Hockey Night in Canada in Radio
According to the General Motors Hockey Broadcast News published in May 1934 by General Motors Products of Canada limited, the first GM Hockey Broadcast took place in November 1931 and was heard on a few Ontario stations, with a Montreal station being added in the latter part of the season. The combined power of the Ontario stations totaled 600 watts. Two years later, the number of stations had swollen to 33, with an estimated aggregate of 40,000 watts.
The guesstimated audience for the 1931 debut was 100,000 listeners. The broadcast of March 30, 1934, in Canada alone was variously estimated all the way from 2,500,000 to 3,000,000.
The total number of broadcasts the first season was 30 – all of the Leafs games, including 3 away from home.
In the 1932-33 season, all games involving Montreal teams played in Toronto were carried by a Montreal station. Later, in response to dealer demand, a coast to coast network was devised, bringing the total number of stations to 20. 41 games were broadcast, 40 of which involved the Leafs, and ten were away from home.
The 1933-34 season introduced GM’s first Quebec coverage with a 5-station hookup for the Canadiens’ and Maroons’ games, involving two teams of 3 announcers. The Canadiens’ games were broadcast entirely in French and the Maroons’ in English. By the end of February ’34, the three networks had carried a total of 33 regular games. At the end of the 3rd season, 51 broadcasts were chalked-up — 29 Leaf games, 10 Canadiens and 12 Maroons.
The fledgling national network carried 14 games in 1932-33 and 32 games in 1933-34.
From the beginning of its sponsorship, General Motors received constant pressure from dealers across Canada for the broadcasts to be brought to their local stations. GM added stations where requests seemed justified and line costs were not prohibitive. Some stations offered to carry them for free.
Said the Hockey Broadcast News “when GM went on the air with a full schedule of Toronto home games, this was entirely a new venture in broadcast advertising. But when the broadcasts proved their value in two successive seasons over a national network, as well as in Ontario, they were no longer considered an experiment”.
Hockey Broadcast News reported that a telephone survey conducted in Montreal on February 3. 1934 during 90 minutes of a game revealed that of all the people found at home and using their radio sets, 74% were listening to the GM Hockey Broadcast and only 26% to all other radio stations combined.
Old timers will remember that for several years the radio broadcasts started at 9 pm Eastern time and the second period was usually underway. The late start of the broadcasts was said to be due to the hockey clubs’ feelings that if the complete game were to be covered, hockey fans might be tempted to stay home rather than to come to the rink and buy a ticket.
Yet, after pioneering the sponsorship of the Saturday night hockey broadcasts and obviously proud of their achievement, General Motors did not renew for the 1934-35 season. Imperial Oil was quick to take over.
“Hockey Night in Canada” was the derivative of “The General Motors Hockey Broadcast” and its successor in 1934, “The Imperial Esso Hockey Broadcast”. The MacLaren Advertising Agency gained a new client when it acquired the radio broadcasting rights to the Toronto Maple Leaf home games played on Saturday nights at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, and sold the sponsorship to General Motors. MacLaren’s chose the radio stations that carried the broadcasts and set-up a network to connect them. Initially, with CFRB as the key station, the network included other stations in southern Ontario and Montreal, and later grew to reach Canadians from coast to coast.
The host of the General Motors Hockey Broadcasts was Gordon Calder. The play-by-play announcer was Foster Hewitt; his colour man was Perc Lesueur, the great goal-keeper of the legendary Ottawa Senators who introduced the “shots-on-goal” tally. ‘The Hot Stove League” was still years away, and between periods, radio listeners were entertained by the Luigi Romanelli Orchestra playing for dancers at Toronto’s Silver Slipper. When the CBC began operating in the fall of 1936, MacLaren’s had to use the CBC’s network.
CFRB was not a CBC Network station, but for a number of years, the broadcasts were heard over both CBL and CFRB in Toronto.
In the continuing quest to keep listeners interested between periods of the game, it was determined that a ‘tie-in’ with the intermissions to the game action was important. This led to the formation of the ‘Hot Stove League’. Hockey authorities of the time providing discussions and arguments that made them as popular as Foster Hewitt who called the game action. Original members of the Hot Stove included Bobby Hewitson, Court Benson, Wes McKnight, Harold Cotton and Elmer Ferguson.
During the second world war, the Imperial Oil hockey broadcasts played a huge role in uplifting the spirits of the Canadian forces overseas. In the early 1940s the Saturday night hockey broadcasts called by Foster Hewitt were recorded in their entirety on oversized phonograph records and then later condensed at the CBC studios into a half-hour broadcast. In narrative form, events leading up to the game were pieced together with actual excerpts of the recorded broadcast. This recording, which contained the very best of the previous night’s broadcast, was then transmitted by wireless to London early the next day, when transmission was at its best. The B.B.C would then cut its own set of records from the transmission. On the Sunday afternoon, the hockey broadcast was aired during the BBC Forces Program to the servicemen and the British public as well.
In due course, The Imperial Esso Hockey Broadcast became Hockey Night in Canada – a concept that was carried over when the games began to be televised in the 50s.
The radio tradition of Hockey Night in Canada continued after the advent of television. NHL games heard on radio on Saturday nights were sometimes simulcast along with the television broadcast. The ‘Sunday Night NHL Hockey’ became a staple among listeners from the 1950s into the 1970s, and notable broadcasting names such as Bob Cole made their debut on this program.
Concurrent with television coverage, National Hockey League teams continued to have their own local radio coverage of their games, home and away. And in an extension of the HNIC brand on television, the CBC in 2007 announced the launching of a Hockey Night in Canada show on Sirius Satellite Radio. This HNIC Radio talk show, hosted by Jeff Marek, would be heard across North America and would feature updates and opinions by regular Hockey Night in Canada personalities including the colourful Don Cherry, a mainstay of the television version.
On Tuesday November 26th 2014, the National Hockey League and Rogers Communications announced jointly that Rogers had concluded an agreement with the NHL to acquire Canadian national television and radio rights to all NHL games, including the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Stanley Cup Final, as well as on all of its other platforms in all languages. The agreement would be for a twelve year period, concluding with the end of the 2025-26 season.
In addition to its exclusive rights for all playoff and Cup Final games, Rogers would have exclusive rights to special events such as future NHL All-Star Games and NHL Drafts.
The agreement also guaranteed there would be no further regionalization of games or local blackouts. Rogers would have three exclusive windows to broadcast any game involving a Canadian team — Wednesday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday nights. Fans would have the ability to watch any of those games regardless of geographical location within Canada.
As part of the agreement, CBC would continue to broadcast Hockey Night in Canada for at least the next four seasons, but Rogers would control the production and execution, including editorial content and on-air talent. Rogers would also earn the revenue from those broadcasts.
CBC would not receive any revenue from Hockey Night in Canada, but it would not have to spend any of its public dollars toward broadcasting it. The Stanley Cup Final would be broadcast on CBC.
TSN would continue with its regional coverage of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens.
J. Lyman Potts – January, 2002
Updated by Paul Patskou – 2007
Updated by Pip Wedge – March, 2014