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In the old days, fighting was prohibited on Hockey Night in Canada - unless Bob Cole happened to be in the room.

Fisticuffs on the ice? Cut to a crowd shot.

The no-fighting on television rule is long gone, because today Hockey Night airs more highlight clips of fights than any comparable telecast.

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To get an idea of how the show's policy has evolved, or devolved, a good start is Ralph Mellanby's new book, Walking With Legends.

Mellanby, the executive director of the show from 1966 to 1986, says technicians in the 1960s were instructed to turn the cameras away when gloves were dropped. (The rule wasn't strictly enforced. Plenty of fights and brawls were aired.)

According to Mellanby, the no-fighting rule was discontinued after Dan Kelly was hired as host of the Montreal broadcast in 1967. Kelly said he didn't want to be associated with a show that wouldn't air the fights.

The next year, fighting was shown, but replays were not, by edict of the sponsors, Molson and Imperial Oil.

But an exception was made in April of 1968, when John Ferguson of the Montreal Canadiens and Ted Green of the Boston Bruins slugged it out in the first period of a playoff game.

Hockey Night, in those days, went on the air 30 minutes after the start of the game and, therefore, missed the fight.

"It's my job on the line," Mellanby quotes himself as saying. "But let's go for it."

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Despite that one exception, the no-replay rule stood for years, apparently because Mellanby felt the CBC would be exposing itself to risk by repeating the scene of two players flailing away.

"I'd learned from a child psychologist that replaying fights was bad because the replay made them seem unreal, like a cartoon, to kids," he writes. "That's all we needed: to be perceived as promoting violence by showing fights in slow motion. We would show the original fight in real time, because it happened, but we would never replay it."

In 1978-79, Don Cherry was coaching the Bruins at the Montreal Forum when Stan Jonathan went toe to toe with Pierre Bouchard of the Habs. Jonathan pounded Bouchard, breaking his nose. No replay was shown. The next time the Bruins were in Montreal, gloves were dropped again, but this time a Canadiens player won the fight.

Mellanby was sitting in the broadcast room with the director and technicians.

"The next thing I know, there was somebody standing behind me with a hold of my shirt," he writes. "Don had come blasting into my control room about 150 feet from the Bruins' bench, screaming, 'I guess you're going to replay that one, eh?' "

A year later, Cherry, fired as the coach of Colorado Rockies, was hired by Mellanby to work on Hockey Night.

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Cherry believes fighting is a necessary part of the game and also a skill and therefore deserves to be showcased.

Was the CBC wrong to turn the cameras away in the 1960s? Of course. Should fights from games earlier in the week be replayed on Cherry's Coach's Corner? It's his show, but unless there is a significant news hook, why?

Hockey Night replays fights now, but it will generally cut away after the first punch.

Mellanby's book, written with Mike Brophy of The Hockey News, is a gossipy, behind-the-scenes look at Hockey Night and its personalities, one of whom, Cole, is described as "something of an eccentric."

Cole wouldn't, and presumably still doesn't, allow anybody to touch him during his play-by-play announcing, perhaps because he unbuckles his belt and has been known to lose his pants.

"Mister, don't ever touch me again," he said once to his young broadcast partner, John Davidson, after Davidson tapped him on the shoulder.

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For a while, Cole wore a toupee. "I was shocked," Mellanby writes. "You don't need that," he told Cole. "I'm trying to look good for TV," Cole said.

Cole, "a little gullible," was ready to punch out Hockey Night host Dave Hodge after Hodge told him, jokingly, he was going to be fired for telling dirty jokes at a banquet. Cole was in tears, then enraged when told it was a joke.

"Once before," Mellanby writes, "he had got into a physical altercation with Rick Briggs-Jude [part of the production team]and I'd reminded him that he had already been told, 'Don't you ever lay a hand on one of our people again, because, if you do, you will be fired.' "

Cole survived to fight another day, and so did fisticuffs on TV.

whouston@globeandmail.com

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