Sixty-one years ago this month, radio broadcaster Foster Hewitt climbed up a dizzying set of stairs above the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens, sat down at his familiar microphone and called out his usual greeting: "Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States!"
But this time was different: On Nov. 1, 1952, as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins faced off, Mr. Hewitt made history by hosting the first English-language broadcast of a hockey game on Canadian television. The CBC-TV network was less than two months old, but someone there had a way with a brand. They called it Hockey Night in Canada, and it is now the longest-running TV broadcast in Canadian history.
"It's our date night with the country," said Michael McKinley, the author of the commemorative book Hockey Night in Canada: 60 Seasons.
But on Tuesday, when private broadcasting giant Rogers Media announced it had scored a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal for the TV and digital rights to all national Canadian hockey games, viewers across the country lamented the impending loss of the beloved CBC broadcast at the end of the current season.
Except that, rather than going away, the Hockey Night in Canada brand may be on the verge of becoming a monster. And its evolution sketched out on Tuesday by Rogers and NHL executives gives a simultaneously thrilling and stomach-churning portrait of the future of television, where viewers – likely paying for the privilege – will be able to access the exact content they want, on the devices of their choosing.
"You've seen the broadcasting media environment change so dramatically over the last few years. Nobody's exactly sure what the world is going to look like over the next decade," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, during a news conference at Rogers headquarters. "So we wanted a relationship where we and our partner would have the flexibility to move among platforms because people, particularly of varying ages, are consuming their entertainment differently than they ever did before, and differently by age."
With its telecom and cable businesses serving millions of Canadians, Rogers Communications Inc., the parent company of Rogers Media, seems well positioned to spread its new hockey content across multiple platforms beyond traditional linear TV.
As technologies develop, the league "may be looking at things in the course of this deal that don't currently exist," Mr. Bettman said.
While that sounds promising, it also foretells the likely end of a national experience, a weekly pause when millions of Canadians still gather around the electronic hearth from coast to coast for the communal joy of victory – and, all too often, the agony of defeat. (Here's looking at you, Leafs fans.) CBC's long-running, second-period intermission show, known as the Hockey Night in Canada Hotstove, is a nod to the stoves where amateur players would gather together to warm themselves during games played on remote rinks, surrounded by the elements.
Currently, CBC's prime-time Eastern broadcast regularly pulls more than two million viewers, while the later game featuring a team based in the West brings in about one million. But those figures can be dwarfed if a Canadian team is in the hunt for Stanley Cup glory: The seventh game of the Leafs-Bruins matchup during last season's playoffs attracted a whopping 5.1 million viewers, according to the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement.
With Rogers broadcasting as many as seven games on one night, all under the Hockey Night in Canada brand, those numbers could quickly become a thing of the past.
"No matter where you are in Canada, you can flip between games," said Mr. Bettman, explaining that Rogers might conceivably put hockey on many of its regional Sportsnet cable channels – to be made accessible for a fee across the country – as well as its City TV network and the CBC. In a single household, then, one person watching on a traditional TV set might catch a Leafs game on CBC, while someone else could watch the Sportsnet One broadcast of an Ottawa Senators game on an iPad, and another watches a Winnipeg Jets game on the Sportsnet East website.
"If one game gets out of hand and another goes into overtime, you can watch that one," he explained. "We're going to give our fans more options than they've ever had."
Still, if the proposed changes have traditionalists lamenting, Mr. McKinley cautioned against sentiment. "The whole show has been about change," he said, noting that Hockey Night in Canada not only introduced a number of early technological innovations that spread across the industry – such as instant replay and the roving hand-held camera – it also broke ground by being the first broadcast to feature a female host, Helen Hutchinson, in 1973.
In fact, he said, Rogers taking control of the HNIC broadcast echoes the program's origins under a private company owned by the MacLaren Advertising agency. CBC did not own the Hockey Night in Canada brand outright until it purchased it from Molstar Communications in 1994.
The current deal between CBC and Rogers, which does not involve an exchange of any cash payment, runs for four years. Wherever it goes after that – Rogers Media president Keith Pelley said he would like to see it last beyond the initial deal – Mr. McKinley said the HNIC brand has transcended the CBC. If it leaves the public broadcaster, "I think it will appear somewhere else in the same time slot, because it's just too much a part of the national psychological fabric," he said. "Saturday nights are orchestrated around the broadcasts. From guys in bars, to kids with their parents in front of the TV, to social engagements."
He added: "It created something that we want. We want it, so we watch it, and it will disappear when we don't want it any more."