Our game, our land

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

While the NHL's rinks were shrouded in darkness, an 'audacious idea' was coming to light in the minds of two CBC producers.

Viewers will finally get to see the fruits of 30 months of labour guided by Mark Starowicz and Susan Dando this Sunday, when Episode 1 of Hockey: A People's History hits the airwaves at 8 p.m.

The 10-part series is being presented over five consecutive Sundays (two episodes air each week). The ambitious, high-end production -- it's been shot entirely in high-definition format -- traces the origins of hockey (which go back farther than most of us know) all the way to the modern day. It's a project that Starowicz, the mastermind behind the acclaimed Canada: A People's History, and Dando first conceived and began to bring to life during the NHL lockout season of 2004-05.

"We were looking for a single hour to do about hockey," said Dando. "But when we were brainstorming one day, we came out with the audacious idea of trying to do (a history) of hockey, because it hasn't been done before."

Since few books exist detailing early hockey history, hundreds of hours of painstaking research were required.

"We thought we'd swallowed a whale at some times," said Starowicz with a chuckle. "There was only a couple of books that came even close to being a history of hockey, but they're not complete. We didn't realize how much work there was to be done, and we didn't expect to be first to a lot of stories."

Who knew, for example, that drawings of what looked like a hockey faceoff existed during ancient Egyptian times? (even if, as narrator Paul Gross points out in Episode 1, the 'players' were "buck naked.").

There's even proof women's hockey existed near the beginning of the game's origins. The daughter of Lord Stanley, the Governor-General who donated the most famed trophy in sports, played in the first women's game on Rideau Hall's ice rink. His two sons were part of a team called the Rideau Rebels that barnstormed across the land.

It's one of several 'Ottawa stories' you'll see in Episode 1, including the now legendary tale of the Dawson City Nuggets' cross-country trek to wrest the Stanley Cup away from the mighty Ottawa Silver Seven .

"Ottawa was probably the hockey capital in the earliest days," said Starowicz.

The docu-drama melds archival footage with the sort of period re-enactments that marked Canada: A People's History. Scattered throughout are commentary by 'philosophers' such as Wayne Gretzky, Ron MacLean, Don Cherry, Ken Dryden and an assortment of historians.

What comes through, perhaps more loudly than anything, is that Canada and hockey have shared parallel histories, almost from the beginning.

"(Hockey is) a national dialogue," said Starowicz. "It transcends French and English, it transcends region, it transcends class.

"There's not a corner of Canada where hockey isn't a vibrant part of community life ... you start up conversation anywhere with someone about hockey, and they'll talk to you like they've known you for 50 years. It is the collective language of the country. It's actually beyond language."

Added Dando: "Hockey was born around the same time as Canada, as a country, came into existence. The two grew up together ... (the series) is a wonderful way of looking at how our country has developed, and how hockey matched that in many ways."

Two companion books will be released in about three weeks, with a DVD set also available next month. You'll find a wealth of additional material at www.cbc.ca/hockeyhistory.


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