Remembering hockey night in Branch
I have been a Montreal Canadiens fan since the 1950s, when Sherriff ’s Jelly Powder was promoting its dessert by adding small, round, plastic-framed hockey pictures to the packages.
Those were the days of the original six NHL teams.
In a small community like Branch, it might just as well have been two teams. If you were not a Habs supporter, in most cases, you cheered for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I say “in most cases” because there was an exception to the Montreal versus Toronto following.
I can still picture my great-uncle Peter Willy Nash and his wife Aunt Maggie Mae sitting close to their big RCA Victor radio, waiting for Foster Hewitt’s “Hello, Canada, and hockey fans …”
If the famous Gordie Howe and his Detroit Red Wings were playing, you had better not speak, sneeze, cough or even shuffle your feet for the next couple of hours. A faded photo of a youthful Howe smiled down from the kitchen wallpaper where it hung in the company of the Blessed Virgin, the Sacred Heart and Pope Pius XII.
I have no idea how this lovely couple began their love affair with the Red Wings or with hockey, for that matter. I do know that their familiarity with the game and the players was amazing. As hockey fans go, these people were ahead of their time.
A noisy house
Our radio was a Rogers Majestic and it sat atop a large Eveready battery with “the cat with nine lives” symbol portrayed smartly on the side. On winter Saturday nights, our kitchen daybed would be filled with hockey patrons who listened, cheered and often argued when opinions clashed.
With the wind whistling outside and a baby or two crying, there were times when our house on the hill was as noisy as Maple Leaf Gardens. More often than not, our rough communication system completely let us down and through the static you couldn’t tel l if Rocket Richard or Frank Mahovlich had scored.
My gentle father, when his patience had worn thin, might say, “As sure as God made little apples, ye won’t be listening to hockey here next Saturday night.” He never kept his threat, however, and the next Saturday night found us again all lined off on the daybed waiting excitedly for the call from Foster Hewitt.
In the early 1960s, Hockey Night in Canada came to Branch, big time. The parish provided the local hall with a black and white television and for a small fee, the use of its generator (or Dynamo, as we called it). Throw in one large antenna and you would think that everything would run fine and dandy. Not so.
Television reception in Branch left much to be desired. There were times when Boom Boom Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau were nothing more than ghostly figures on a snowy screen.
Fumbling for reception
At playoff time, a group of hockeycrazed young men would work zealously, often in freezing weather conditions, on the rooftop of the parish hall, twisting the antenna every which way.
From the doorway and the windows and inside the building, another group would be shouting directions to them.
“Turn it towards the church! No, towards the cove! Go up a bit! Bring it down! Good! We have a picture now! No wait! It’s all snow again! Hold it there! It’s clear again!”
I would go on home to supper feeling confident that these dedicated devotees would not give up until they had exhausted every attempt to bring some semblance of “Hockey Night in Canada” to our little fishing village.
Thanks to satellite dishes, cable companies and the like, today I can watch this great Canadian event in high definition on a perfect colour screen. With the help of instant replays, expert analysis and several sports stations, I miss nothing.
Truth be told, I’d trade all this if I could one more time see the Montreal Canadiens hoist Lord Stanley on a snowy screen, from the discomfort of a hard bench in a cold building. The excitement, camaraderie, rivalry and sheer enjoyment of the whole experience will stay with me forever.
And, oh yes, as the playoffs loom on the NHL horizon, “Go, Canadiens, go!”