TORONTO - Hockey fans called a major penalty against the CBC Thursday as the national broadcaster seemed prepared to do away with the Hockey Night in Canada theme - a beloved 40-year-old musical institution as familiar to Canadians as the country's national anthem.
"CBC won't get away with that," said Mary Quigley of Cape Breton, N.S., outside the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. "The Canadian people won't let them get away with that."
Websites carrying news of the possible separation of the hockey anthem from Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts quickly got e-mails from people passionate about the theme.
Online petitions were launched. Some fans of the song shared anecdotes.
"In 1990 my son stood up in a crowded restaurant in Tokyo, Japan and 'sang' the Hockey Night in Canada theme," commented a reader on the CBC website carrying the story. "Before he had completed four bars he was joined by various other Canadians he did not know."
Reports that the theme might be benched next year came when the agency that represents the song's composer said Thursday that the CBC will no longer use the familiar hockey anthem.
But the head of CBC Sports says the song hasn't been shelved yet.
"Our negotiations continue and if we can do a deal for the theme that's reasonable for both sides, we'll do it," said CBC Sports executive director Scott Moore in an interview. "It's a great theme. If we can't, then we have an alternate direction that we're excited about and that I think will create controversy and create excitement amongst Canadians."
"But certainly our first choice would be to keep the theme as it is."
The licence agreement CBC had with composer Dolores Claman ended with this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, which wrapped up Wednesday night.
John Ciccone, whose company Copyright Music & Visuals controls use of the song, said he was given a deadline of noon Wednesday to reach a new agreement. Ciccone said the CBC sent him an e-mail later in the afternoon telling him they would not renew the contract.
"We looked at it every different way we could," he said. "Whatever it takes, let's try and come up with something."
Moore said that he was scheduled to speak with Ciccone later Thursday.
It didn't take long for a public outcry to gather steam over the possibility of a theme change. The story immediately became a hot topic at the water cooler, on radio phone-in shows - some politicians even weighed in with their reaction.
"The Hockey Night in Canada theme - you hear it everywhere," said Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. "Even during the summer, you get to a barbecue in rural Alberta and somebody strikes it up after a good (version) of O Canada. And it's going to disappear and it's been with us for years and years."
For many people, the song is wrapped up in hockey days gone by.
"It just brings back memories of Ward Cornell and all those other guys that brought Hockey Night in Canada to us," said Gary Fiering, who said in Toronto that the song reminds him of watching hockey in the 1970s and '80s. "It is our national anthem."
But the idea of change doesn't bother everyone.
Elizabeth Richards said in Toronto that while she remembers hearing the song as a little girl, she thinks the theme song might need a postmodern edge.
News websites had hundreds of readers weighing in and discussing the cultural significance of the theme.
Moore of CBC Sports said he thinks it is great that people are passionate about the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts.
"While we want to keep what is a great musical theme, we can't do it at all costs, we can't do it with a cloud hanging over our head," he said.
Moore said one option would be to launch a nationwide contest for musicians to submit themes for consideration.
It cost the public broadcaster about $500 every time it used the theme, but Ciccone doesn't think the issue is money. One of the ideas Ciccone said he offered involved maintaining the same contract for two years, then increasing the rates by about 15 per cent, an increase he calls an industry standard.
Claman could not be reached for comment but released a statement on the website hockeytheme.com.
"I am saddened by the decision of the CBC to drop the Hockey Night in Canada theme after our lengthy history together. I nevertheless respect its right to move in a new direction."
Claman wrote the song in 1968 after it was commissioned by McLaren Advertising. The company was looking for something big, adventurous and brave to go with the broadcast.
Despite going through numerous rearrangements, the jingle has become one of Canada's most recognized tunes.
Claman has written about 2,000 jingles over her career. She is also credited with writing the Ontario theme "A Place To Stand," which she co-wrote with her husband Richard Morris in 1967.