Hockey Central

Writing and Broadcasting

Today's extensive electronic-age media coverage of hockey ia a far cry from the days of the scribes who chronicled the game's early eras. The sport has been covered in the press from almost the first time someone on skates took a stick in his hand and chased a small object around a sheet of ice.

Historians trace hockey's roots back to a game called "ice hurley," which was introduced in Nova Scotia by Irish immigrants in the early 1800s. It was a field game in Ireland, and became a game played on ice when the early participants in the sport found themselves confronted by the long, cold winters in Canada.

In 1829 a reporter for the Colonial Patriot in Pictou, Nove Scotia, made reference to the game of hurley, calling it "break-skins," which led to pickup games being called "shinny." News of the game began to spread, albeit with different names such as 'wicket' and 'ricket.' The first time the game was written about in the United States may have been in the Boston Evening Gazette, November 5, 1859, when a reporter who had visited Nova Scotia referred to the game of "rocket" as a favorit on-ice winter pastime in the area. The name 'hockey' gradually evolved and seemed standard by the year 1863 when a newspaper reported: "...ten months after her marriage, the Princess of Wales rose abruptly from watching her husband play ice hockey and rushed home and delivered a son."

When the first organized indoor hockey game was played between students from McGill University at Montreal's Victoria Rink on March 3, 1875, local and out-of-town newspapers had reporters on the scene. There was a fight in the game, with the reporter from the Daily British Whig of Kingston, Ontario writing how "...lady spectators fled in confusion..." when the battle was taking place.

Among the earliest transmissions of the story of a hockey game occurred on December 30, 1896 when the Montreal Victorias played the Winnipeg Victorias for the Stanley Cup. The game was played in Winnipeg and ongoing reports were transmitted by telegraph back to Montreal. The play-by-play was then posted on bulletin boards set up at the Victoria Rink and in the ballroom on the Windsor Hotel. The telegraph transmission of important hockey games continued for many years. Fans of a team playing out of town would gather on the street in front of the local telegraph office, or newspaper, to await the news. In many cases it was relayed to them by someone who would come out of the telegraph office and bellow the latest information through a megaphone. When the Winnipeg Monarchs defeated the Melville Millionaires for the Allan Cup and the senior hockey championship of Canada in 1915, the final game was played in Melville. A report in a Winnipeg newspaper the next day told of the scene in that city while the game was going on: "Winnipeg went wild with joy when the news was flashed over the wires. Thousands took advantage of the bulletin service to follow the progress of the game which was being played hundreds of miles away. The cheering kept up for hours after the happy news was flashed that the Monarchs had won."

Newspaper reporters had the field all to themselves in those days and became proficient in describing the game, play-by-play style, for their readers. Here's an example from that 1915 Winnipeg-Melville Allan Cup championship game: "Referee Caldwell faced the puck off at 8:35. Mullins secured and passed back to Harry Mackenzie, who gave to Billy and a rush was started for the Monarch goal. Bowman tested Murray with a low shot..." And on it went, a printed play-by-play of the entire game.

The intrepid scibes of that era have to be admired for their skill at reporting the game in that fashion and for their colorful descriptions of what they were watching. They worked, of course, without benefit of television replays, which are a boon today not only for analysts in the broadcast booth but for the print reporters at the game who can look up from their computers to check the slow motion replay. Coverage in the Regina Leader of a 1922 game in the Western Canada Hockey League included this description of the hectic finish: "As the minutes went by the Calgary team attacked like famished tigers but they could not break through the local defense. The Regina team shot the puck to the other end to gain time but, try as they might, Calgary could not break through the cordon of athletes which stood in front of the Regina net."

Other descriptive phrases in that 1922 game report included: "Regina attacked with vehemence," said "Laird stopped a hot one." It was mentioned that a dispute over a penalty was "settled amicably." Readers were informed that a Regina rush, "foozled at the Calgary defense."

The first man to broadcast a hockey game in the radio was Pete Parker, who called a Western Canada Hockey League game in Regina between the Regina Capitals and the Edmonton Eskimos on March 14, 1923. Eight days later a newspaper reporter for the Toronto Star, Foster Hewitt, was on the air in Toronto broadcasting an Ontario Hockey Association game between Toronto Parkdale and Kitchener for a radio station owned by his employer.

A few years later Hewitt was broadcasting NHL games of the Toronto St. Pats from the Mutual Street Arena. By November 12, 1931 the Toronto team had been renamed the Maple Leafs and Hewitt broadcast the first game played at a brand new Maple Leaf Gardens. That same night a Montreal Canadiens game was heard on the radio for the first time via a French language broadcast from the Montreal Forum as the Canadiens played the New York Rangers. Home games of the Montreal Maroons were also broadcast starting that season, in English. All of this was the forerunner to Hockey Night in Canada.

The first radio network started up January 1, 1933 when a network of 20 stations began carrying Saturday night games from both Toronto and Montreal (in English). At season's end that number had risen to 33 with an estimated audience of more than one million people. Surveys showed that 72 percent of all radios in Canada were turned to a hockey broadcast on a Saturday night.

Hewitt and the others who were handling play-by-play were on their own. Color commentators had yet to arrive. Hewitt faced his first major test doing a game that began at 8:30 on the night of April 3, 1933 and ended at 1:45 in the morning, April 4. It was a playoff game between Toronto and the Boston Bruins which lasted 164 minutes and 47 seconds before Toronto's Ken Doraty scored the sudden-death winning goal on Boston goaltender Tiny Thompson in the fifth minute of the sixth overtime period. Hewitt called the entire game by himself and admitted afterward he had broadcast the last hour "in a daze," hardly knowing what he was saying.

That Toronto-Boston game was the longest ever played until then but Hewitt lost that particular broadcasting record three years later. On the opening night of the 1936 playoffs the Montreal Maroons and the Detroit Red Wings struggled through 176 minutes and 30 seconds of playing time at the Forum before Detroit's Mud Bruneteau scored the winning goal on Maroons goaltender Lorne Chabot. (Chabot had been the winning goaltender for Toronto in the 1933 marathon against Boston.) Unlike Hewitt, Charlie Harwood had help in the broadcast booth that night. A writer for the Montreal Herald, Elmer Ferguson, was working beside him doing color commentary.

Prior to televison, hockey on the radio continued to captivate listeners across Canada via the descriptions of Foster Hewitt in Toronto and Charlie Harwood, Doug Smith and Michel Normandin in Montreal. At the same time, American-based teams were starting to air games described by other hockey broadcasting pioneers, including Bob Elson and Lloyd Pettit in Chicago, Bert Lee in New York, Fred Cusick in Boston and Budd Lynch in Detroit.

Television arrived on the hockey scene in Canada in 1952. That spring a closed-circuit telecast of one game of the Memorial Cup series for the junior championship of Canada was arranged in Toronto, with Foster Hewitt calling the play. On October 9, 1952 the first regular season NHL telecast originated from the Montreal Forum as the Canadiens opened the season against the Chicago Blackhawks. Rene Lecavelier, a French-language broadcasting legend in Montreal, handled the play-by-play on Radio Canada. Later that season another legend, Danny Gallivan, would begin broadcasting in English lauguage telecasts from the Montreal Forum on CBC-TV.

The Toronto Maple Leafs made their television debut when they played the Boston Bruins at Maple Leafs Gardens on November 1, 1952. Foster Hewitt was the announcer with his son Bill Hewitt taking over on the radio. It wasn't long before the younger Hewitt assumed more of a role on the telecasts while his father continued to work the radio games.

Similar to what happened in radio, the American-based NHL teams began televising their games on a local basis. The CBS network introduced hockey nationally with a "Game of the Week" package that began during the 1959-60 season. The broadcasters were Fred Cusick of Boston and a Canadian, Brian McFarlane, who would go on to a long career as a broadcaster, writer and hockey historian in his native country. Over the years regular network TV coverage in the United States has been sporadic. While there has never been anything comparable to Hockey Night in Canada in the United States, TV coverage on a national basis is broadening. In 1994 Fox Broadcasting signed a five-year, $50 million contract to televise NHL games. Its package begins with the All-Star Game in January and runs through to the end of the Stanley Cup finals. Many NHL teams also have cable-TV coverage of their games, home and away. Sports networks such as ESPN in the United States and TSN and RDS in Canada carry an entensive package of NHL games on a national basis.

The advent of television has meant a change in the way newspaper reporters do their job. There now is not as much play-by-play coverage of the games in print and more in the way of analysis, interviews and off-ice stories. Like the broadcasters, today's newspaper reporters owe a debt of gratitude to those who went before them. American writers who made their mark over the years included Leo Monohan, Fran Rosa and Tom Fitzgeralds of Boston, Jim Burchard, Hugh Delano and Al Laney of New York, Ted Damata of the Chicago Tribune and Lewis Walter of Detroit.

Writers who are voted into the media section of the Hockey Hall of Fame receive the Elmer Ferguson Award, named in honor of the long time Montreal sportswriter. Other Canadian writers who made significant contributions include: Milt Dunnell, Red Burnett, Jim Vipond and Jim Proudfoot of Toronto and Charles Mayer, Baz O'Meara, Andy O'Brien, Dink Carroll andMarcel Desjardins of Montreal. Montreal's Red Fisher and the prolific hockey writer and historian, Stan Fischler of New York are veteran journalists who are still covering the game. The Hockey News, a weekly publication started on a small scale in the NHL's Montreal office in the late 1940s, is now a widely read international hockey institution.

As hockey has expanded, so has the media coverage of the game. The traveling entourage of NHL teams now usually includes representatives from all major newspapers in the team's cities, plus crews to broadcast the game on radio and televison. The media crush on dressing rooms after games, especially during the Stanley Cup playoffs, is unlike anything experienced by players and coaches when the league was smaller and the thirst for stories not as avid. The 1998 All-Star Game in Vancouver was covered by 800 journalists from all over the world.

Hockey Night in Canada on CBC-TV, still a national institution, now televises as many as three games early each Saturday evening during the regular season, plus a later game originating from the West Coast to complete a double-header. In the playoffs the CBC might carry at least one game every night during the five or six weeks leading up to the finals.

Today's fans expect and receive instant coverage both on the air and in print. Modern-day telecasts with their multitude of camera angles and replays are a far cry from the early 1950s when two or three cameras covered the game in black and white. Dozens of games are available on TV every week via satellite. Reporters at games use state-of-the-art computers that are hooked up directly from the press box in the arena to their newspaper back home.

The internet is now in play with up-to-the-minute information on leagues, teams and players available to fans who can surf the net. In 1998 the NHL's own wed site, (www.nhl.com) was experiencing more than one million hits a day. It has all come a long way since the early days of the game when fans gathered on street corners awaiting news of a big game clicked to them over the miles by telegraph operators. Those involved way back then had no way of knowing they were pioneering the kind of media coverage which blankets the hockey world today.