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Throwback Thursday: NHL's Landmark TV Deal with CBS Goes Live

CBS struck a historic TV deal with the NHL in 1956, and a year later became the first cable provider to broadcast a nationally televised hockey game in the United States. The media landscape has changed a great deal since.
Photo via Wiki Commons, circa 1960

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We, the National Hockey League, in conjunction with the Columbia Broadcasting System, are controlling the transmission." Alright, so that's not how CBS began its first NHL broadcast, 60 years ago today—that's plucked from the introduction of the 1960s science fiction show The Outer Limits.


The NHL didn't need an eerie cold open that day because the programming was already significant enough on its own. In broadcasting the Saturday afternoon game between the Chicago Black Hawks (stylized as two words until 1986) and the New York Rangers, it marked the first time that an NHL contest was televised from coast to coast in the United States.

Five years earlier, hockey was beamed into the homes of Canadians for the first time when Rene Lecavalier called the French play-by-play for a game between the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 11, 1952. Less than a month later, when the Maple Leafs hosted the Bruins, Foster Hewitt made his television debut as he called the first English-language broadcast of a hockey game in Canada. By this point, Canadians were no strangers to Hewitt's voice, he had been calling Leafs games for radio from high atop his gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens since the Great Depression.

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So when CBS-TV and the league struck a 10-game television agreement in the 1956 offseason, it was big news. It signalled the first TV network coverage of hockey in the United States. Beginning on Jan. 5, 1957, CBS would televise 10 games that season, all played on Saturday afternoon. Two of the telecasts would be emanating from New York, with the remaining games coming from Boston, Detroit, and Chicago—the NHL's other US cities.


Screengrab via New York Times, 1957

Simply put, hockey on the tube in the United States was a big deal for the sport. The country had a population of over 171 millionin 1957, and within a year it's estimated that 83 percent of households owned a television set. While Canada may have been the first to televise a hockey game, there's simply no comparison between the size of the markets and their potential reach. When Hewitt called that Bruins-Leafs game in 1952, Canada's population was just shy of 15 million and television had only arrived in the country two months earlier. At the time, only 146,000 Canadians owned a television set. Although the number of receivers in Canada steadily increased, reaching 1.2 million by late 1954, that's nothing compared to the television phenomenon that was well underway in the United States.

But back to the game in question. Aside from the broadcasting implications, it was also significant for the Rangers because it was the first time that the Blueshirts played an afternoon game at Madison Square Garden. Matinee games were nothing new to the NHL, but this just happened to be the first one to hit Broadway. Coverage of the contests was also notable because they were to be uncensored. But according to the New York Times, all this meant was that, "the camera will be permitted to focus on any stick-swinging or fistic activities on the ice or sidelines. Such televised coverage is not permitted in the National Football League."


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The game proved to be an easy win for the Rangers. The Blueshirts opened the scoring in the first period and then potted the game winner at the tailend of the second frame. Chicago got on the scoresheet 44 seconds into the final stanza, but the damage had already been done. Although the Black Hawks kept it a one-goal game for most of that period, the Rangers scored two quick goals, 20 seconds apart, in the final minute to put the game out of reach.

While 9,853 fans were in attendance for the game, there were countless viewers watching the drama unfold from the comfort of their living rooms. With the contest being transmitted on more than 100 stations as far south and west as New Orleans and Los Angeles, respectively, there would have been no shortage of people tuning in to catch some afternoon hockey. Chicago defenceman Pierre Pilote recalled in his biography that he remembered, "Friends from Fort Erie were happy that Saturday afternoon because they could watch the game on the Buffalo station."

Plenty of hockey connoisseurs were undoubtedly thrilled with such access, but that particular game wouldn't have necessarily been the one you'd want to use to indoctrinate neophyte fans. Although there was a good handful of goals and twice as many penalties called, the matchup had reportedly lacked the speed, action, and heavy body checking that had become synonymous with the NHL. While league president Clarence Campbell, who was in attendance that game, called it a "pretty good show," it may not have lived up to its "uncensored" billing with promises of fisticuffs and donnybrooks.


Nevertheless, the televised games proved to be very popular that season. As a result, the NHL and CBS both agreed to renew the television package for 1957-58, increasing the number of games to 21 and beginning the coverage earlier into the season. But there was trouble on the horizon. The newly formed National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) felt that its members should be getting a share of the television revenue. At the time, the additional money generated by the TV deal went into the pockets of the owners of the American clubs, with none finding its way into players' billfolds.

But television was actually the least of the NHLPA's concerns as it attempted to organize. The PA faced significant resistance from the owners and the league's top brass, making it very difficult for the prospect of the association to gain any traction. After failing to gain recognition from the league's owners, the association filed a $3 million civil suit against the NHL in October 1957, on claims that the hockey industry was a monopoly. Taking matters into their own hands, NHL owners used their powers to exact revenge on players who had been instrumental in helping to form the NHLPA. Such was the fate of Red Wings captain and association organizer, Ted Lindsay. He was stripped of his captaincy and then banished to the struggling Black Hawks. But for other players like Gordie Howe, the writing was on the wall. They realized they were outmatched and pushed their Detroit teammates to withdraw from the association. It wasn't long before other teams followed suit and the first incarnation of the NHLPA disbanded. The idea of a player's union wouldn't be revived for another decade.


Meanwhile, CBS and the NHL renewed its television agreement for broadcasts in the 1958-59 season, but ratings started to slide when many affiliated stations, particularly in the southern United States, failed to make room in their schedules for NHL matchups. As a result, the agreement was discontinued after that season.

CBS was given a second chance years later in 1966 when it inked a three-year contract with the NHL, reportedly worth $3.5 million. At the time of the deal, William C. MacPhail, vice-president of CBS TV sports referred to it as, "by far the largest amount ever paid for any sports series other than football or baseball."

Nearly a half century later, we've seen the league agree to other historic deals with NBC and Rogers, worth billions of dollars, for the exclusive rights to broadcast in the United States and Canada. The agreements were transformational. It has changed how the league approaches its distribution of the game and how fans consume it.

But the media landscape has already changed immensely since those deals were first signed in 2011 and 2013, respectively. One of the challenges that the league will continue to face in the coming years is the rise in the number of people who are the cutting the cord and ditching cable altogether. It's certainly been the trend in Canada, where in 2015 there was an 80 percent increase in the number of people who disconnected from traditional television offerings. The trend is certainly tied to the ever growing popularity of streaming options such as Netflix, but organizations like Rogers have already begun recognizing that the worm is turning.

Last year the Canadian media company announced the launch of Sportsnet Now where consumers could stream all six of Sportsnet's television channels, content that was previously only available through cable subscriptions. However, many others are forgoing these options altogether and are getting the same stuff on the sly. As Business Insider put it, "we are living in a golden age of illegal TV streaming," and that's certainly cutting into the world of sports broadcasting, even if the quality is not quite there yet.

But of course, all of this means nothing if viewers simply aren't interested. During the 2016 NHL postseason, to the surprise of many, Canadian viewership had cratered due to the fact that none of the clubs north of the 49th parallel qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1970. Moreover, although the Lightning and Penguins duelled to a pivotal Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final, NBC Sports Net also noted failed ratings throughout that series. Even the NFL, which still reigns supreme in the United States, is not immune from these problems. Earlier this year it was reported that football ratings had taken a nosedive, partly a byproduct of the frenzy swirling around the presidential election, but that wasn't the sole culprit behind the drop off.

Given everything at play right now and how quickly things will change moving forward, the NHL will need to be innovative and think outside the box in how it markets and delivers its content to consumers. In the meantime, the deals with NBC and Rogers are on the books until the next decade, which will give the league plenty of time to get itself in order. By then, a 52-year old Jaromir Jagr will have passed Wayne Gretzky in all-time goal scoring and the Leafs will have broken their Stanley Cup drought several times over. The future looks bright, but for now—#tbt to when the NHL first beamed into television sets in homes across the United States.