It's been a long, painful wait, but hockey fans will finally be getting their Saturday night routine back. After a nearly four-month-long lockout, the NHL triumphantly returns on Saturday, January 19th, and so does CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada," which will be kicking off its 60th year with an opening day triple-header.
Yes, hockey's back, and the CBC is clearly ready to reclaim Saturday night, opening a media event for the iconic show's anniversary season with a "Hockey Night in Canada" highlight reel that would melt even the most jaded fan's heart. And even though many Canadians may still be feeling burnt by the long delay, the broadcaster hopes to win those fans back with a packed 49-game slate and a host of special plans and big changes.
"This year, as part of our 60th anniversary, we'll be taking 'HNIC' on the road to all seven of the [Canadian] NHL cities," said Julie Bristow, Executive Director of Studio and Unscripted Programming for the network, during the Thursday press conference. "We'll be producing a 'HNIC' concert series, and the 60th season will culminate in a star-studded special celebrating our milestone year. [There's] lots to look forward to."
That includes a double dose of Don Cherry, who, in addition to his usual Coach's Corner segment, will return to offer additional commentary after the first period of Game Two of the weekly double-header. His broadcasting partner Ron MacLean joked, "Just to make sure we subject Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg audiences to Don a second time in the night."
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The duo will also be traveling across Canada this season, and the cross-country roadshow was all Don's idea, according to MacLean: "To his credit, it's not easy to travel, because he goes into an airport like Santa Claus, signing autographs and posing for photographs, but he recognized that it would be a healthy thing for the teams in Canada if we got the show on the road a little bit."
It's all part of a broader mandate to give back to fans who've waited so long for the sport to return. The changes also include a new-look studio team to take viewers from the pre-game show through to the end of the second game. Hosted by MacLean, the "Studio 42 Crew" will feature Glenn Healy, P.J. Stock, Kevin Weekes, and Elliotte Friedman, with Andi Petrillo manning the Chevrolet I-Desk, a new segment focused on increasing the show's interactive element.
Asked what fans can expect from the revamped broacast team, Stock said, "One subject, but four different opinions. Including Ron, a fifth one. Everyone's pretty opinionated, and strong and confident in their opinion, so it'll be interesting. We'll be kicking each other sometimes under the desk, but it'll be really good content."
The I-Desk, meanwhile -- along with a new feature called 2nd Screen -- is part of the show's enhanced technological presence, allowing fans to log in from their smartphones, tablets and computers (and later this winter, their XBoxes) in order to interact with live in-game features. Said Petrillo, "As much as we're doing hard-hitting hockey news and analyzing hockey, there's a fun element with the fans and allowing them to be a part of [the show]."
That ranges from offering viewers the chance to win weekly prizes by participating in trivia contests and making in-game predictions, to relaying their pictures, stories and opinions on the broadcast. Petrillo explained, "'Hockey Night in Canada' is such an iconic brand, we're going to respect that, but it feels great to now involve the viewer and put them on a show they've been watching and supporting for years."
It's all part of reflecting the modern reality of how fans interact with their favourite sport, evolving the brand, and giving a voice to those who may have felt disenfranchised during the lockout. "Ultimately, everyone wants to feel valued," said Weekes. "This is a means where we're able to say, 'Hey, listen, your voice matters.' You could be in Summerside, P.E.I., yeah, you're not in Studio 42, or geographically you may not be in Toronto or Vancouver, but you know what? We hear you, we feel you, we see you."
That fan-focus will extend throughout the 60th season, with plans for a special CBC concert series, starting with Simple Plan performing outside the Bell Centre this Saturday night. And the season-long celebration will culminate in a special year-end blowout.
But when it comes down to it, the biggest seller for fans will be the game itself, with a schedule that includes ten Original Six pairings, rivalry games and heated conference matchups. "The most important thing you can give them is a game they want to watch, and we're gonna have a lot of games that people are gonna want to watch," said Friedman. "I don't want to say there was anything good about the lockout, because there was nothing good about it."
But, he contends, every game aired on "Hockey Night" this year will be meaningful. "It used to be, you're in the middle of February and you've seen these two teams play a few times already, and you say, 'Oh God, what am I going to say about this game?' It's not going to happen this year. There's always going to be something on the line."
Healey echoed that sentiment, saying, "An 82-game season comes down to the last weekend, the last day, the last game to see who's in, to see who's out. With 48, this will be March Madness. This will be an incredible race wire-to-wire." And even though he thinks the fans have every right to be angry with the lengthy layoff, Healey said, "It's up to the players now to paint the canvas. And if it's exciting and the races are good, you will see fans come back."
"The funny part of the lockout is absence makes the heart grow fonder," said MacLean, who remained optimistic that Canadians will embrace the game's return. "I think the fans will be at a fever pitch come Saturday."
Indeed, for most hockey fans, the most exciting part of "Hockey Night in Canada"'s 60th season seems to be that it's finally happening.
"Players aside, logos aside, GMs, owners, everything aside, it's the game of hockey that they'll come out and support," said Petrillo. "Do they feel frustrated and upset? For sure, that's 100 percent real. But this is still their game."
"Hockey Night In Canada" starts up at 3:00 p.m. EST on January 19 on CBC with the Ottawa Senators facing off against Winnipeg.