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The wait is over; HNIC returns Thursday

by Dave Lozo
Long-suffering fans from British Columbia to Newfoundland will park themselves in front of their television sets Thursday night for the start of the NHL season when Hockey Night in Canada debuts with the Maple Leafs hosting the Canadiens at 7 p.m. ET and Canucks paying a visit to the Flames at 10 p.m. ET.

A summer without hockey will finally end for a country that lives, breathes, eats and sleeps with the game. And for those rabid Canadians, the broadcast they've been turning to since 1952 is Hockey Night in Canada.

Whether you've missed Don Cherry sticking it to a player who isn't getting the job done, the insights of analysts like Kelly Hrudey and Mike Milbury, or just the meaningful hockey games that are the hallmarks of Canadian matchups, it's all coming back for another season starting Thursday.

For those involved with the show, they know how lucky they are.

"It's a privilege to work for what is an institution in Canada and has been for nearly 60 years now," said Milbury, who joined the show before the start of last season. "They have such a passion for it and such a commitment to it. The focus of Canada and the focus of CBC -- it's all hockey. And you can feel it when you get into the studio from the beginning and the resources that are invested."

Hrudey joined HNIC in 1995 after 15 years in the NHL as a goaltender with the New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. He amassed 271 career victories and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 with the Kings. But nothing he did in his professional career could have prepared him for his initiation into his new role as broadcaster.

"When I first joined Hockey Night in 1995, I had no experience whatsoever. I was not familiar with the terminology or anything whatsoever about it," Hrudey said. "It was by far the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever gone through."

"I was lousy, and I knew I was lousy. I couldn't get over the fact that I'd grown up in Edmonton watching Hockey Night in Canada my whole life and now that same music I was familiar with was being piped into my ear. But I was lucky that I was taught with all these great people and just the experience that they had and the constant reminders to stay positive, and those sorts of things really went along way for me. "

Eventually Hrudey worked past the fear and pressure that came with entering a new field, one where the eyes of a nation were on him and hanging on his every word. Today, he's reached the point where his high-profile position with HNIC has turned him into a bit of a broadcasting celebrity in Canada.

Hrudey admits that not everything he hears from fans is positive, but he's learned to take that sort of thing in stride.

"It's very much like being a player," Hrudey said. "If you're a high-profile player, you have to get used to people saying things to you that are their honest opinions, but you have to accept it without taking it to heart."

The newest member of the HNIC team is recently retired goaltender Kevin Weekes, who will also work for the NHL Network this season. Weekes spent parts of 11 seasons with the Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.

Unlike Hrudey, the newcomer to the broadcasting business has no worries about joining Canada's most-watched hockey show. "There's no pressure like playing in the net," Weekes said. But the 34-year-old knows how special it is to be apart of HNIC.

"Hockey Night in Canada was my introduction to the game through TV," said Weekes. "My parents immigrated here from Barbados, so watching TV was how we became familiar with the game. I was able to follow my heroes. I was able to follow Grant Fuhr, who was the guy who paved the way for me to be in this position today. I'd feel connected to the game.

"To have the opportunity to work on this network is a huge honor and certainly something I'm very, very proud of."

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