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Canada's passion for grass-roots hockey fuels HDIC

by Dan Rosen
The theme for this year's Tim Horton's Hockey Day in Canada presented by CBC immediately struck a chord with broadcaster Jim Hughson.

"When they first called me and asked me what contribution I wanted to make this year I asked them what the theme was?" Hughson, who calls games for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, told "They said, 'Rivalries,' and I said, 'Well, I'll do a story on the Flyers and Canucks, and that has nothing to do with Philadelphia and Vancouver.' "

CBC's ninth annual Hockey Day in Canada -- which the network honors with close to 14 hours of coverage Saturday, as well as a special edition of Hockey Night in Canada on Thursday -- is a celebration of the frozen game from the grass-roots level up.

The NHL Network, in the United States, will simulcast CBC's 13-plus hours of coverage Saturday, beginning at noon ET.

It's about the passion these small communities across Canada have for hockey. This year, it focuses on the hockey rivalries within those communities and Hughson knows one of them quite well.

"The Dawson Creek Canucks against the Fort St. John Flyers was a huge rivalry," said Hughson, who grew up in Fort St. John, B.C. "The rivalry between the senior teams spilled over into everything else -- into minor hockey, school sports, girlfriends, tidily-winks, you name it. We grew up in that environment without even paying attention to the National Hockey League. That's what this show will celebrate, the rivalries. They are everywhere in Canada and they have been everywhere since everyone had rinks."

When CBC invented Hockey Day in Canada nine years ago, the producers did so with the idea of giving all 10 provinces and three territories a chance to host the event.

This year, Campbellton, N.B. is the lucky town. The bi-lingual community of about 8,000 is located in northern New Brunswick on the Restigouche River across from Pointe-a-la-Croix, QC.

Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens and Calgary Flames Hall of Fame broadcaster Peter Maher are both from Campbellton.

"We went to three or four communities around Campbellton and did a survey and presented a local group with what we call the host guidelines," Joel Darling, the Director of Production for CBC Sports, told "Each of the communities were interested, but at different levels."

Campbellton was picked because it has Olympic-sized rinks and a junior team that will play Saturday night. Local organizers were able to tie Hockey Day in Canada into their annual winter festival. The town even built an outdoor rink on the banks of the Restigouche, where CBC host Ron MacLean will broadcast from Saturday afternoon.

"It is also tied into Plaster Rock, N.B., where the World Pond Hockey Championship is," Darling said, adding that MacLean and Kelly Hrudey will broadcast Thursday night from Plaster Rock. "It has become a province-wide event."

The backdrop for Hockey Day in Canada is, of course, the three All-Canadian NHL games played Saturday between Canada's six teams, beginning at 3 p.m. ET.

CBC, though, goes live at noon as MacLean begins to weave the rivalries theme into a broadcast that includes many features and special guests, most notably former NHLers Wendel Clark and Willie O'Ree and Paul Kelly of the NHL Players' Association.

The broadcast includes spots from five satellite locations.

"It is required viewing in Canada," said Hughson, who will be in Toronto for Mats Sundin's return to the Air Canada Center on Saturday night.

Don't expect much in the way of rumors and debates Saturday. On Hockey Day in Canada, those HNIC staples give way to a party in honor of the game.

"Many times somebody will ask the question, 'Why don't you discuss some of the meteor issues that are part of the League today, whether it's hitting, head shots, concussions or fighting?'" Darling said. "We deal with those issues every Saturday night, so this is a chance for us to really celebrate the game and how it is such an important part of people's lives."

Part of the beauty of Hockey Day in Canada is CBC brings the NHL and some of Canada's most famous personalities -- including MacLean and Don Cherry -- into the small communities where for the rest of the year the NHL is, as Hughson says, "just a television show."

"People have seen on TV games at the Bell Centre or Air Canada Centre for years and years and years, but now suddenly Wendel Clark is teaching their kid in a clinic," Darling said. "The Stanley Cup is suddenly in their town for a couple of days and all of Canada knows this is the place that is the host location for the day."

Hughson stressed how much this year's rivalry theme will hit home throughout the country.

"One of the reasons the game is so strong in this country is at the grass-roots level there have been great teams and great rivalries all over our country for years and years and years," Hughson said. "So, even before we had six NHL teams, every town had a team. There were senior leagues and junior leagues all over the country and people flocked to the local rink and jammed them every night to watch the games. People have grown up with those rivalries and their teams and then they watch the National Hockey League."

Like with any broadcast of this magnitude, CBC has to clear numerous obstacles. Darling said the network organizers and local organizers have been talking on weekly conference calls since September.

Weather is always a concern, especially this year as MacLean plans to host the show on the outdoor rink. It's not supposed to snow Saturday in Campbellton, but snow, wind and a high of minus-4 Celsius are in Thursday's forecast for Plaster Rock.

MacLean, along with some production staff, will have to travel from Plaster Rock to Campbellton on Thursday night, but it shouldn't be as bad as it has been in past years.

"I remember when we were in Iqaluit (capital of Canadian territory of Nunavut) and it was minus-70 with the wind chill and we lasted about six minutes (outside)," MacLean said. "All the cables in our cameras contracted and snapped, so we weren't able to stay outdoors. Last year in Winkler (Manitoba) was no walk in the park either. It was really cold; but that obviously just reflects the authentic feel for the game."

Hockey Day is more than just what happens on the ice or live on television.

There are school visits and a Friday night banquet, which Darling said sold out in no time. NHL alumni like Clark and O'Ree conduct on-ice clinics for all the local children.

CBC will also broadcast its morning and afternoon radio programs from Campbellton and the newscasts will come live from the small town Thursday and Friday.

"The games are important, but it's the Hockey Day in Canada celebration that tells all the stories of so many different kinds of Canadians of all ages and both sexes and what the game really means to them," Hrudey told "Everybody's story seems to be unique and special unto itself and that is what makes the day so interesting."

The Canadian teams are also involved.

For example, this year the Oilers will bring 15 children and four chaperones from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories down to Edmonton on Friday. The contingent will watch the Oilers and Flames practice Saturday morning, tour Rexall Place, skate on the arena ice and attend the game as guests of the Oilers.

"It's a classic example of other things that do happen to add to hockey day," Darling said. "We're just trying to grow the game and to get more people to play it and ultimately more people to watch it."

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