In the 1950s, television became the new frontier. After two decades of radio broadcasts covering hockey games, in 1952 audiences finally could watch their favorite teams and players without going to the arena. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired the first French-language Montreal broadcast on October 11 and the first English-language Toronto broadcast on November 1. Hockey Night in Canada had come to the small screen.
Opinions divided over whether televising games seemed like a good idea. Back in 1949, NHL President Clarence Campbell thought that television would limit the view and reduce game attendance. On the other hand, Conn Smythe, then president of Maple Leaf Gardens, felt that television would help advertise and draw attention to the games. As a compromise, CBC decided to begin the Saturday broadcasts about halfway through the games.
In Montreal, Gerald Renaud and Rene Lecavalier led the way. Renaud, a print sports editor, had taught himself the production side and became the producer. His concept was to position the cameras as if the audience had the “ideal seat from which to watch the game.” The on-air commentator, Lecavalier, had experience as a radio war correspondent. For that first game on October 11, 1952, the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings 2-1, and part of the first telecast has been preserved. The Canadiens went on to win the Stanley Cup that year, and Elmer Lach’s televised overtime goal also survived.
For the English broadcast in Toronto, the producer, George Retzlaff, a technical director, also understood the importance of finding the “best seat in the house” camera views. He’d just finished cameraman’s training, and he had a “flair for cogent camera angles and sensitivity to the sound factors of a telecast.” He later invented the instant replay. Long-time radio host of Hockey Night in Canada, Foster Hewitt, made the switch to television to give the play-by-play. He probably had the most experience since he’d been studying how to telecast hockey from the earliest experiments. He became well-known for the opening line, “Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States” and phrases such as “He shoots, he scores.” The first Toronto episode aired November 1, 1952, when the Toronto Maple Leafs won the game against the Boston Bruins 3-2. The Bruins went on to lose the finals to the Canadiens. Sadly, the only Toronto footage that survived from that first season was the last game at Maple Leaf Gardens, when the Leafs shut out the New York Rangers 5-0.
Hockey Night in Canada led many fans to purchase television sets. As the most consistently watched television program, Hockey Night in Canada often topped the ratings. The program has aired every season but for the 2004-05 lockout and has expanded its coverage to match the expanding number of Canadian NHL franchises. Having passed its 60th anniversary, Hockey Night in Canada continues on as the world’s longest-running sports show.