Hockey Day finds its 'perfect stage'

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:25 AM ET

Excuse tiny Nelson, B.C., if it feels like the centre of the hockey universe tomorrow.

The town of 10,000 in southeastern B.C. owes a fair chunk of its heritage in the sport to the legendary Patrick family, a rich history it will happily share with a nation as home base for this year's Hockey Day in Canada celebrations.

Thousands of folks across this hockey-mad nation will join in the fun as part of a "celebration of the game" that seems to grow in stature with each passing year. Surely, it is much more than the simple idea two former CBC Sports executives, Alan Clark and John Shannon, spawned in 2000 on a rink beside the public broadcaster's headquarters in Toronto, with a tripleheader of games involving the six Canadian NHL teams as its centrepiece (more than 13 straight hours of televised hockey in all).

"When we go in there on the Wednesday (before Hockey Day), it's not all about being on the air from 12 o'clock Eastern until the end of the late game," said Joel Darling, Hockey Night in Canada's executive producer. "It's about the (hockey) clinics, it's about the online auction, it's about the banquet that happens there ... It's about making this a huge event for that town."

CBC will also have live remotes in Tignish, P.E.I., at St. Michael's College in Toronto, and in Whitehorse, Regina and Camrose, Alta., where Scott Oake and Kelly Hrudey will be hosts for the day (including After Hours).

In Nelson, Ron MacLean and Don Cherry will be the toast of the town, along with CBC's Cassie Campbell, Scott Morrison and Dick Irvin.

While the three NHL games -- Ottawa-Montreal at 2 p.m., Vancouver-Toronto at 7 p.m., and Edmonton-Calgary at 10 p.m. -- will draw the bulk of the day's audience, the numbers for two feature-driven segments suggest there's a place in Canadians' hearts for the warm and fuzzy stuff.

CBC drew 298,000 for the early 'Celebrating the Game' segment, which begins at noon ET, a year ago -- up 9% over 2004. Some 466,000 tuned in for the second half at 5 p.m., an 11% increase.

"The numbers have gone up from year to year, because of the (growing) awareness of Hockey Day," said Darling.

This year, it crosses another cultural divide -- Telelatino will simulcast the Canucks-Leafs game, with soccer voice Alf De Blasis providing the first-ever Italian commentary for an HNIC game.

Contrast all of this to the U.S., where Sam Flood, NBC's NHL producer, talked this week about "a sport that gets lost at times." In an effort to pump up the NHL's presence, NBC has increased its coverage from six weekend windows to nine. Though it's only available on nbc.com, a pre-game show is a new addition. And Brett Hull has been added to the studio crew to liven things up.

If only they had it as easy as the CBC, which will soon start fielding feature story ideas for next year's show -- not to mention pleas from all over the country to bring the big show to their town.

This year, though, it's Nelson's turn to bask in the glow.

"It's going to be just an unbelievable setting ... one of the prettiest we've ever had," said MacLean.

"It's a perfect stage."

GOLDEN THOUGHTS: Brett Hull has heard the comparisons. But the newest addition to NBC's NHL studio show has no plans to emulate Charles Barkley, the outspoken analyst on TNT's NBA panel. Well, not exactly. "Although we're of the same vein in saying how we feel, I'm going to be me and when there's something to be said, it's going to be said," said Hull, always one of the most quotable NHLers. "Whether someone's going to be upset about it or someone's going to feel real good about it." He got a good start during a conference call Wednesday. Hull on the NHL schedule: "It's asinine." On the New Jersey Devils: "The most boring team on earth." On all-star vote darling Rory Fitzpatrick: "He's lucky to be in the league."

GETTING CONNECTED: A quick, admittedly early review of Sportsnet Connected, the new-style sports highlights show that replaced Sportsnet News this week. Love the new set and the faster pace, don't mind the more casual look the anchors now sport. Fight of the night, I can do without. And the less seen from drunkathletes.com and websites of their ilk, the better.

AROUND THE DIAL: TSN and RDS announced yesterday they've inked a multi-year deal to broadcast NASCAR Busch Series races. All 35 Busch races will air on TSN, all in high-definition format. Included is the inaugural Montreal series event Aug. 4 ... Rogers TV offers coverage of four curling events to its Ontario customers this month, starting with the finals of the Pepsi Juniors in Brockville on Sunday at 2 p.m. ... Sunday's Eagles-Giants NFL wild-card game produced an 18.2 rating for Fox, the top number for a sports event in the U.S. since Super Bowl XL on ABC.


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