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Hockey DayBruce Rainnie: My first time on Hockey Night in Canada

Posted: Monday, January 30, 2012 | 03:31 PM

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Ken Dryden in his glory days, long before he met Bruce Rainnie! (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Ken Dryden in his glory days, long before he met Bruce Rainnie! (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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If you're a broadcaster in Canada, and you have even the faintest interest in sports, then there is one program, and really ONLY one, that you truly yearn to work for.  And when that day finally comes, after you've wondered for years if it ever will - well, you're not likely to forget a single detail. For me, the date was February 9, 2002, the place was Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the teams were the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, and the stage was, of course, Hockey Night in Canada. But before I share with you the particulars of that day, a bit of back-story...
If you are a broadcaster in Canada, and you have even the faintest interest in sports, then there is one program, and really ONLY one, that you truly yearn to work for.  And when that day finally comes, after you've wondered for years if it ever will - well, you're not likely to forget a single detail. For me, the date was February 9, 2002, the place was Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the teams were the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, and the stage was, of course, Hockey Night in Canada. But before I share with you the particulars of that day, a bit of back-story...

In January 2002, Windsor, Nova Scotia was the host town for CBC's annual special day-long broadcast, Hockey Day in Canada. I was given a fairly significant on-air role that day, and reported from various events in and around the Windsor area. I also had the opportunity to spend a good chunk of the afternoon with Ron MacLean and Don Cherry. I had met Ron before and knew him a little, but this was my first extended time in the presence of "Grapes". And oh how we jelled! 

"You know, Mr. Cherry," I said, "I have to agree with you - Bobby Orr was the best to ever play the game."

Wasn't he a beauty? The greatest, boy, the greatest...Parry Sound...Bobby Orr...the best, I tell ya', THE BEST!!"

"But you know," I continued, "my favourite player growing up was Guy Lafleur. Did you like him?"

"Like him?" he replied, "Did I like him? That S.O.B. cost me two Stanley Cups. But I loved Guy - never complained, never whined. Thurso, Quebec - hair flyin' in the wind...great fella, GREAT FELLA!"

And on and on it went for the better part of an hour. What tremendous and undeniable rapport we had! By the end of our conversation, I was convinced we had laid the groundwork for a potentially meaningful and enduring "bromance" (more on this in a moment).

At the very end of the day, when the marathon broadcast had concluded, everyone gathered in a private room for a small celebration. I was enjoying some broccoli and dip when Hockey Night producer Joel Darling made his way through a throng of people and asked to speak with me for a moment.

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"You did a really nice job today," he said.

"Oh, thanks Joel," I replied. "It was a lot of fun to be involved with this."

 "Listen," he said. "I was wondering - what are you doing on Saturday, February 9th?"

"Well, it's strange that you ask, but I have tickets that day to see Billy Joel and Elton John together at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Should be an awesome concert..."

 "Oh, well that's too bad. Because I was going to ask you if you wanted to work on Hockey Night in Canada that day. Montreal is playing in Toronto."

(Silence... More silence... Extended silence... Then...)

 "Well, I'd love to, but these tickets were really hard to get, and I've really been looking forward to this show. Billy Joel is one of my all-time favourite musicians."

(More silence, as Joel just stares at me...)

 "I suppose I could see this concert time some other time, though."

(Joel starts to slowly nod his head...)

 "I suppose I could actually give the tickets to my Mom and Dad as a sort of unplanned gift."
 (Joel continues to nod...)

 "I guess I really shouldn't pass up this opportunity. After all, who knows when it will come again?"

 (Joel still nodding...)

 "More to the point, who knows if it will come again?"

(Joel nodding vigorously now...)

 "You know, after giving it some thought, I think I'd like to work on Hockey Night in Canada on February 9th."

Joel stops nodding. "That's a wise decision, Bruce. Glad we were able to make it happen." (For the record, elapsed time for this complete flip-flop was at most 15 seconds. That has to be some sort of record...)

Which leads us to the particulars promised back in paragraph #1. 

It was an afternoon matchup at Air Canada Centre, and it was my first time ever in that building to see a hockey game. I'll never forget the feeling walking inside to get my media credentials and then walking downstairs to the Hockey Night in Canada studio.  I remember unpacking my briefcase, organizing some notes on the desk, and thinking, "How could this get any more surreal?" That question was answered mere moments later when a voice from the doorway said, "Hey, I hear you're making your debut on Hockey Night in Canada today. I just wanted to wish you good luck."

Looking up, I was stunned to suddenly be making eye contact with Toronto Maple Leaf President and Hockey Hall of Fame goalie, Ken Dryden. 

 "Thanks, Mr. Dryden," I stammered, extending my hand. "It sure is nice to meet you. And thanks so much for dropping by."

 "Not a problem," he said. "What exactly are you doing on the show today?"

 A good question, and I'll tell you now what I told him then. My job that day was to work as rinkside reporter. Ron MacLean was actually in Salt Lake City preparing for the 2002 Winter Olympics, but he was still able to host the broadcast "via satellite". My job to find out who was playing, who was injured, and to interview players during the intermissions and after the game.
 
 We came on the air at 3:00 p.m. sharp, and about 40 seconds later, Ron threw it to me for my first ever "hit" on Hockey Night in Canada. Standing in the hallway outside of the Leafs' dressing room, my hand was shaky, my voice even shakier, but I gave the injury updates and made it to the end mostly without incident. I concluded with a very clever and creative, "Back to you, Ron."

At this point, I thought I had time to reflect and relax and bask in the glow. After all, according to the script, I wouldn't be appearing again for some 45 minutes, until the first intermission. 

The serenity of the moment was quickly shattered, however, when my floor director, Mike Christiansen, grabbed me by the arm and sternly said, "C'mon, we've got to get back to the studio."

"Why the rush?" I asked.

"Just be quiet and come with me," was his terse reply.

 When we reached the studio, Mike pointed to the chair normally occupied by Ron MacLean and said, "Hurry up and sit down."

Now you'll never guess who was in a chair just a few feet away, getting his makeup done and fixing his vast collar. That's right, none other than the man with whom I so successfully bonded some scant 30 days ago in Nova Scotia, the star of "Coach's Corner", the legend himself, Mr. Don Cherry!

"Hi, Mr. Cherry," I offered. "Remember me? We spent the day together in Windsor about a month ago."

"Hey, how ya' doin'? Yeah, yeah, good to see you again," 
 
"Bruce, I gotta interrupt,' said Mike. "Listen, something got screwed up, and we're coming back from commercial during the anthem. We can't go to ice level for just part of 'O Canada' - that would be disrespectful. So, you're going to have to fill time for about 45 seconds."
 
"OK," I said. " What would you like me to talk about?"

Mike's response was not exactly what I was looking for? "5, 4, 3, 2, 1... Cue!"

Stunned, I looked straight ahead to find the red light on top of the big camera staring back at me. In my ear, I heard the producer say, 'Go, Bruce, you're on!"

With sweat beads instantaneously beginning to crystallize on my brow, I dove headfirst into some seriously uncharted, murky and choppy water...

"Welcome back to Air Canada Centre in Toronto, and a special matinee matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs."
 
An acceptable start, but I still had 40 seconds to go. It's a bit foggy from this point forward, but I do remember next highlighting the two goalies - Jose Theodore of Montreal, who was midway through what would turn out to be an MVP season, and Curtis Joseph of Toronto, who just a week later would be the starting goalie for Team Canada in its first game at the 2002 Olympics. Trouble was, I was speaking so bloody fast that I was hardly chewing up any time at all...

"30 seconds to puck drop, Bruce," came that bothersome voice in my ear.
 
At this point, two things happened. Firstly, big drops of sweat began to fall at about three second intervals from my right eyebrow onto the desk in front of me. Seriously, you can clearly see this on the videotape, and it's hilarious. Secondly, I dug deep into my well of hockey knowledge (in retrospect, way too deep) to fill the remaining time...

"You know, Mats Sundin of the Leafs is having by far his best season in Toronto. As a matter of fact, right now, he's third in league scoring. Now, if he can somehow reach the top position and stay there, he could become the first Leaf since Gordie Drillon in 1938 to win the NHL scoring title. And wouldn't that be something..."
 
I realize now that going back to the late 1930s and bringing up some guy that three-quarters of the audience had never heard of is not the ideal way to set up an important matchup in the early 21st century. But hey, when you're drowning, you'll grasp for anything. Plus, it allowed me to reach the instant where I finally heard the eleven words that were pure magic to my sweat-soaked ears...

"Ten seconds left, you can throw it to the guys upstairs."

Deliverance!

"And so the stage is set for the latest chapter in hockey's most enduring rivalry. To call the action, let's head upstairs to join Bob Cole and Harry Neale."

 And with that, the red light went off and the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. Taking a deep sigh, I buried my face in my hands, shook my head back and forth for at least a minute, and muttered, "Good Lord, what just happened?"

Watching my anguish unfold from his chair just an arm's length away was, you guessed it, Mr. Don Cherry. Reaching out with his right hand, he grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me ever so slightly toward him, looked me square in the eye, and channelling the great Judy GARLAND, uttered words that remain frozen in my memory...

"Ha! I guess you're not in Windsor anymore, Brian!"

 And with that, a swift and sudden end to the budding "bromance"!
Don actually called me "Brian" for the entire rest of the day. And instead of correcting him, I just figured it would be easier to answer to it. Plus, it would make the story better! As a matter of fact, when I got home, I couldn't wait to e-mail Ron MacLean to share with him this case of mistaken identity.

His response came back almost immediately, had me laughing for a good full 10 minutes, and somehow made me feel 100 per cent better about my Hockey Night initiation...

"Remember, Bruce, Don is living proof that you can be a huge success in this country without speaking either of the two official languages."

MacLean is the best!

This story is just one of the many that will be featured in Bruce Rainnie's new book entitled, "Right Place, Right Time: Sidney, Heather, Boomer and Me!" It will be released in late spring by Acorn Press, with all profits going to the P.E.I. Cancer Treatment Centre.

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