'Hockey Night' features flicks instead of sticks

Ron MacLean pointed to the shiner under his left eye, the product of a broken nose suffered in a beer league game.

"Eighteen years working with Don Cherry and I came out unscathed," he said. "A month of the lockout and look at me."

Since 1987, MacLean has been the high-profile host of "Hockey Night in Canada," for decades not just Canada's top sports television property but its top TV show, period. In the United States, there is no single equivalent, certainly not for hockey, and probably not for sport outside, perhaps, of "Monday Night Football."

MacLean is best known for his role as sidekick to the flamboyant, irascible Cherry on Coach's Corner, which airs during the first period every Saturday night. Cherry is the undisputed star, but MacLean is popular enough that when he was locked in a contract dispute two years ago, it touched off a national debate over his future.

On Saturday night for the third weekend in a row, however, MacLean wasn't stationed at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, or the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary or at Ottawa's Corel Centre to begin another "Hockey Night in Canada" doubleheader on the CBC, Canada's national, government-funded broadcaster.

Instead, MacLean and his battered beak were at the Jubilee Recreation Centre in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, the hockey heartland of the country and the home, interestingly, of Calgary Flames defenseman Mike Commodore, one of a handful of NHL players to have recently taken a contrary position to that of the NHL Players' Association in their labor fight with the NHL.

As two minor teams battled behind him, MacLean spoke not of hockey, however, but of movies.

After all, "Hockey Night in Canada" has been anchored on Saturday nights since 1952, and even longer as a radio program. It had to come up with something to broadcast in that Saturday night time slot with the NHL having locked out its players indefinitely.

It could have aired classic NHL games, or perhaps even its own "Making the Cut," a reality-based TV show started this year showing ordinary hockey players trying to impress the likes of Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan and land a tryout with a minor professional squad.

Don't laugh. Keenan has signed a handful to play in the system of the Florida Panthers.

But rather than staying with hockey, the CBC opted to go with movies, and not even hockey movies. Try American movies, and not all of them easily definable as classics.

In the first week, from the newly-christened Dave Andreychuk Arena in Hamilton, Ontario, MacLean introduced "Dinosaur" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

On Saturday, the night before Halloween, "Movie Night in Canada" offered up a triple bill featuring "Monsters Inc.," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and Mel Brooks' zany "Young Frankenstein."

(What the obsession is with Harrison Ford's fictional treasure hunter and the Canadian public, I couldn't possibly explain to you.)

As he introduced "Monsters Inc.," an animated film about the fear children have of creatures lurking in their closets, MacLean quoted former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's famous line about the government having no place in the bedrooms of the nation.


Then, MacLean said, "From Fort Saskatchewan to behind closed doors, please enjoy Monsters Inc."

Instead of the theme to "Hockey Night in Canada," a tune most Canadians could whistle in a jiffy if you asked them, viewers then heard Disney's "When You Wish Upon a Star," cementing the fact Canada's peculiar obsession with chasing a puck on frozen water is being forced to find entertainment through other means these days.

Interestingly, however, the CBC has not experienced a major loss of audience by switching to movies from hockey. The audiences have been roughly the same, drawing about 1.8 million sets of eyeballs on a weekly basis to about 2.1 million viewers for an NHL doubleheader.

"This says nothing," says CBC programming head Slawko Klymkiw. "We have movies that families can watch, but you can't ever replace the brand value of NHL hockey. It isn't just about the numbers it gets, it's a remarkably penetrating brand in the hearts and minds of Canadians.

"Nothing replaces the NHL."

The country's two all-sports networks, TSN and Sportsnet, also broadcast NHL games and have had to find substitutes. TSN has aired classic NHL games, like Wayne Gretzky's last game with the Edmonton Oilers, and programs like the World Series of Poker. TSN is also the rights holder to the World Junior Championships set for Grand Forks, N.D., this year, a tournament that is held during the Christmas season and annually draws big television numbers.

Sportsnet, meanwhile, enjoyed big numbers with the baseball playoffs, and now is broadcasting games from the American Hockey League to try and lure viewers.

At the CBC, while MacLean hosts the movies, Cherry sits chafing at home without work. Ditto for Bob Cole, for years the No. 1 play-by-play voice of "Hockey Night in Canada," who hasn't called a game since the World Cup final between Canada and Finland on Sept. 14.
Former Vancouver GM Brian Burke worked for "Hockey Night" during the World Cup, but at the conclusion of that event moved to TSN because the CBC had no work for him.

For a country that often frets about U.S. content on Canadian airwaves, the CBC's decision to air Hollywood films in place of original Canadian programming has already attracted some criticism, although it's clear it is simply a desperate attempt to hold some viewers and thus advertising dollars in the absence of "Hockey Night," a huge moneymaker for the CBC.

Using MacLean, who has no significant background in non-sports broadcasting, is just a way to make an association between the time slot and hockey, as if the CBC is telling its viewers to hold tight until everything returns to normal again. This is a program with tremendous history in the country, a show that was big even in the days during the 1950s and 1960s when, because of CBC programming commitments, the broadcast didn't commence until the second period across most of the country.

MacLean's black eye, of course, was a fitting symbol to the damage many see being done to the NHL as the owners and players bicker about splitting $2 billion in annual revenues.

Hockey or movies -- in Canada, it's all show biz.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.