When Did Hockey Night In Canada Start? [Answered!]

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Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) is the most famous and longest-running sports event in the country. Every week, millions of fans around the world tune in to watch one of the greatest games ever. Now that the NHL All-Star Game is on hiatus, it’s time to reflect on the rich history of this iconic sporting event. Did you know that HNIC has been on the air for over 70 years and is one of the most popular weekly shows in Canada? To celebrate this milestone, let’s take a look at when did this great hockey show start.

The Early Years

The first season of HNIC was in 1947-48 and was sponsored by the Canadian National Railway. The show was initially aired on the then-newly founded CNR TV in Canada, and was re-branded CTV Sports as a result of the deal. Fans in other countries could see the match live on the BBC, as part of that network’s international coverage of the game. Later, in the 1960s, the show was picked up by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and aired there. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the show reached its peak. This is when Dick Enberg, future Hall of Fame broadcaster and the voice of HNIC for nearly 40 years, called it “the greatest game ever played.”

The Golden Years

Between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, HNIC was dominated by three legendary hockey announcers: Enberg, Stan Fischler, and Don Cherry. During this time, the show really came into its own. From its inception to the late 1980s, the ratings for HNIC regularly reached 1 million viewers in Canada, and it was one of the most popular shows in the country. In 1979, Enberg began his legendary 56-year run as the lead voice of HNIC. It was during this time that the show really started to grow in popularity internationally. In fact, from the 1970s to the late 1980s, the ratings for HNIC in Canada and the United States regularly exceeded those of the popular “Big Three” baseball, basketball, and football games that time shared the TV schedules with.

Recent Years

Since the early 1990s, HNIC has struggled to remain relevant. As the NHL switched to a regular season schedule and the world of sports evolved, the show had to change with it. In 2010, HNIC was in the news after being criticized for referring to Vancouver’s Timmothy Hoskins as “Timmothy Heron.” The show later apologized and said that it was a joke based on the name “Timothy Heron.” The following is an excerpt from the show’s apology: “In a recent segment, we made a joke about the Timmothy Heron incident. Unfortunately, the gag didn’t come off as funny as it was intended. We apologize to Mr. Heron and any other fans who were offended by this. It was not our intent to hurt anyone’s feelings. We are truly sorry.”

While HNIC has maintained a base of loyal fans, its ratings have steadily declined. According to Numeris, the data firm that compiles ratings for Canadian TV shows, the NHL Hockey Night in Canada rating for the week of Dec. 15, 2017, was 227,000 viewers, an 11.5% decrease from the previous week and the lowest rating since the week of March 11, 2017 (228,000 viewers).

It’s safe to say that HNIC is no longer the “greatest game ever played.” But when did it become “a game”? When did it stop being an event and start becoming a TV show? The evolution of sports on TV is a difficult one to assess, as many factors contribute to the popularity of a particular sport on a particular network. However, looking at the data for Canada’s most popular TV shows, it’s interesting to see how hockey has shifted to the sidelines.

What’s The Difference?

To better understand when did hockey become a TV show, let’s compare it to another popular sport that was televised in Canada in the 1940s and 1950s: figure skating. Like hockey, figure skating too began as an event that was only included in the Olympics. In 1948, the first Winter Olympics were held in Grenoble, France, and included figure skating as part of the program. In the decades following the Grenoble Olympics, figure skating became a popular sport in Canada, with over 100,000 people regularly attending competitions. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that figure skating started being shown as part of the weekly TV schedule in Canada. The Dick Button Skate-Off, which was inspired by the figure skating competition and aired Tuesdays on CBC, is widely regarded as one of the greatest shows ever produced in Canada. It is important to note that unlike hockey, figure skating is still quite popular in Canada. Every year, thousands of people attend competitions and many consider it to be the country’s national sport. But as with hockey, figure skating’s days as a major sport in Canada are numbered. While the number of people participating in the sport has increased over the years, the overall quality of the athletes has declined.

Now that we have an idea of when hockey started becoming a TV show and where it came from, let’s examine its immediate evolution.

Early Skating, Later Hockey

The first season of Dick Button’s Skate-Off was in 1952 and, like HNIC, it was initially aired on CBC. The show’s first host was figure skater Johnny Weissmuller. While CBC aired the show for only one season, it continued to be shown across Canada throughout the 1950s. Eventually, in the mid-1950s, CBC stopped airing the show and it was picked up by the CTV networks. Like CBC, CTV mainly focused on news and current events during the 1950s, which is likely why it picked up the Skate-Off. In fact, most of the shows CTV aired during this time were based on current events.

Unlike CBC, which showed mainly figure skating and hosted competitions across the country, CTV mainly showed recreations and re-enactments of famous fights from history. One of CTV’s first major fights re-enacted was the Stanley Cup match between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings. Another memorable show that CTV aired in the early-to-mid 1950s was Panorama, which re-enacted famous scenes from Canadian history. The show lasted only one season but inspired many imitators.

NHL Hockey

It wasn’t until the late 1950s that hockey started becoming a regular part of the Canadian TV schedule. The catalyst was the National Hockey League (NHL), which began play that year and held its inaugural All-Star game that same year. The NHL’s popularity in Canada grew quickly, especially after it expanded to the United States in the 1960s. In fact, many consider it to be Canada’s “sport of the decade” in the 1960s.

The NHL wanted to bring an All-Star game to Canada for a number of years, but it was deemed too expensive to hold the event in the country. However, in 1985, the NHL finally brought its marquee event to the nation it calls home. That year, they held the NHL All-Star game in Ottawa and the game itself was a sell-out. Since then, the NHL All-Star game has been held in Toronto every year.

The Switch To Sports

In the early days of television, live sports were considered the “sport of the future.” This is undoubtedly because they are the most exciting and popular events to watch live. But as with many things in life, the future evolved and eventually live sports lost their appeal. This is especially true for hockey, which is why you don’t often see it on TV anymore. In the 1960s and early 1970s, hockey was at its peak as a sport in Canada. It was regularly featured in the Olympics and was one of the biggest sports leagues in the country. Several iconic players from that era are still considered among the best ever to play the game. But as with many sports, time moved on and TV evolved, forcing hockey to adapt.

While the NHL All-Star game is still played each year, the tournament itself is now contested between exhibition games. This means that the only time fans can really enjoy live hockey is during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Otherwise, the games are played at least two or three weeks after the regular season has ended. The National Hockey League (NHL) has also shifted to a predominantly online platform, making it accessible to fans around the world.

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