Canada: A People's History was an unprecedented undertaking for the CBC.
Canada: A People's History was an unprecedented undertaking for the CBC. Not only did the sweeping 17-episode, 30-hour series require the English and French arms of broadcaster to work closely together – something they were definitely not in the habit of doing – but the price tag was $25 million. That’s a lot for anyone, state-funded or not.
But if the decision to go ahead with the project was uncharacteristically bold, the payoff was uncharacteristically large. The series was a huge critical and ratings hit when it aired in 2000 and 2001 – and not just by history lesson standards. Even the DVD and accompanying book sold remarkably well (less so the coasters and playing cards). More importantly, the series got credit for winning the CBC an increase in its funding after years of cutbacks and belt-tightening.
Naturally, the awards ceremonies over, the first question to be asked at CBC was, “What can we do for a follow-up act.” Given the unifying force of our national game, there was probably never any serious debate. And so this fall we have the somewhat more modest but nonetheless ambitious Hockey: A People’s History.
The ten-part series, premiering Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m., is also the baby of CBC veteran Mark Starowicz, who was the executive producer of the first People’s History.
Borrowing from Baseball, Ken Burns’ epic PBS ode to the United States’s national game, a diverse group of “philosophers” are tapped to share their perspectives and unique insights. They run the gamut from legends such as Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur to relative unknowns like hockey poet Richard Harrison. But, where Burns mostly relied on archival footage and newsreels to tell his tale, Hockey often enlivens its chapters with meticulously staged re-enactments, as the original People’s History did.
The result is a sprawling warts-and-all history that pays homage to the great game while daring to expose the darker side of a sport rife with sexism and financial exploitation, among other shortcomings.
“This is more than the story of a sport,” says Starowicz. “This is a story of a people. This is a tale of the human spirit, of miners turning into gladiators, a story of rogues and roughnecks, pirates and lords, dreamers and champions.”
1) Creation Myths
While not quite on par with Stonehenge, the birth of hockey is mired in mystery. This is the story of how the game of hockey made its home in Canada in the late 1800s.
2) The Money Game
The professional game is born as working-class men like Didier “Cannonball” Pitre, Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, and Edouard “Newsy” Lalonde take to the ice and millionaire team owners promote the sport to the Canadian population.
3) Empires on Ice
During WWI, women’s leagues emerge in central Canada, and papers report crowds swelling to numbers as large as 3,000 coming out to see the women play. After the war Conn Smythe’s Leafs and Leo Dandurand’s Habs are molded into powerhouse franchises.
4) The People’s Game
Hockey becomes Canada’s national pastime during the depression. The Conacher brothers, King Clancy and Ace Bailey become household names thanks to radio and on the grassroots level pond and street hockey flourish.
5) A National Obsession
Hockey Night in Canada begins broadcasting on television in 1952, and a tough-as-nails kid from Saskatchewan named Gordie Howe and a rocket fast goal machine from Quebec named Maurice Richard give hockey its first icons.
6) The Golden Age
Honing in on the fierce rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs that was at a fever pitch in the 1960s when the two teams combined for nine out of ten Stanley Cups.
7) Soul of A Nation
The 70s brings the Canada-Russia Summit-series and the birth of the Philadelphia Flyers who earn the nickname “The Broad Street Bullies” after their rock’em sock’em brand of hockey which later permeates throughout the league.
8) Hope and Betrayal
The 1980s are all about #99, Brantford, Ontario’s Wayne Gretzky. The “Great One’s” phenomenal finesse and skills elevate the game to a brand-new level and his sportsmanship and boy-next-door qualities endear him to the nation. When Edmonton trades him to Los Angeles in 1988 Canadians are crushed.
9) Winter of Discontent
Gretzky arrives in La La land and teams begin to sprout up all over the southern U.S. Hockey’s explosive growth spurt hurts small market Canadian franchises who are moved to bigger and richer American cities.
10) Reclaiming the Game
In the late 1990s Canada’s dominance in the game appears to be crumbling with European powers again flexing their muscles, but in the new millenium the Canadians prove they still have it with both men’s and women’s teams striking gold at Salt Lake City.
AIR DATES on CBC
Sunday, September 17: Episode One and Two - 8 to 10 p.m. (local)
Sunday, September 24: Episode Three and Four - 8 to 10 p.m. (local)
Sunday, October 1: Episode Five and Six - 8 to 10 p.m. (local)
Sunday, October 8: Episode Seven and Eight - 8 to 10 p.m. (local)
Sunday, October 15: Episode Nine and Ten - 8 to 10 p.m. (local)
American Hockey fans, you can buy the DVD which will be released during the Christmas shopping season and will likely be advertised on CBC.ca.
This article first ran in the September issue of Bell T.V. Magazine
Copyright © Mike Dojc 2006
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