Remembering “Hockey Night in Canada”
I didn’t watch the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup last night. If you had told me 50 years ago that I would miss a Stanley Cup final some day, I would have laughed in your face. Back then, I wouldn’t miss the weekly “Hockey Night in Canada” telecast for anything.
And when I lived in Toronto, I went to see the Leafs in person every chance I got.
But I guess I was different back then. Or maybe it’s hockey that’s changed.
When I immigrated to Canada in 1957, hockey was not just a sport but an art. I quickly became a fan – as who wasn’t? No real Canadian missed “Hockey Night in Canada” in those days.
You probably aren’t old enough to remember the Rocket (pictured above) and his younger brother – the Richards of les Canadiens. But I’m sure you’ve heard of them. They were artists as well as athletes. Watching them maneuver the puck across the rink was like attending the ballet. Only more thriling – much more thrilling. And they were not alone. Remember Bobby Hull? Allan Stanley? Frank Mahovlich? Gordie Howe? Bobby Hull? Bobby Orr? Phil Esposito?
I sat across a desk from Phil’ Esposito’s sister when we were both editors at the Sault Ste. Marie Star. How’s that for a memory?
That was in 1959, when Phil’s brother Tony was also an NHL star. Tony was part of a long line of incredible NHL goalkeepers that started with Jacques Plante, Montreal’s “masked man.”
And before that, I lived in Timmins, Allan Stanley’s hometown, next door to South Porcupine, where Mahovlich was from. With about 30,000 people living in the area, you can imagine how easy and natural it was to run into their folks at the store. We even caught a glimpse of the stars themselves when they came home for a visit, as they often did.
Hockey was as much a part of our lives as fishing in the summer, bowling in the winter, or dancing the polka at the Rod and Gun Club on special occasions.
But over the years, I moved around – back to Jamaica for a while, back to Canada, back to Jamaica, then to Florida…
And there were those months I spent overseas on assignment for The Telegram.
Meanwhile, hockey was changing.
When I first went to Canada, we watched hockey on our black-and-white screens once a week – on Saturday night. And, as I remember it, we only got to see the last two periods. The first period was not telecast.
Back then, the NHL consisted of only six teams and about 120 players. And teams could bind a player for life, so fans could be sure he would always be on their side . You can imagine how intense our loyalty was under those conditions. And what teams they were! If you missed those Glory Days I don’t know how to describe them for you.
The Montreal Canadiens made 10 consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup finals, winning the last five, and the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs dominated the ’60s.
Today I don’t know how many NHL teams there are. And I don’t care.
Too many, anyway.
And they’re mostly American… Whoever heard of Los Angeles fielding an ice hockey team? Or Florida? Those places don’t even get ice in the winter. It’s like Jamaica competing in that bobsled race, as far as I’m concerned.
And the artistry of hockey has been replaced by thuggery. Now, fans aren’t happy unless they see blood on the ice.
Perhaps I missed a great game last night.
But I doubt it.