Country's heirloom reflects on Lightning

The team's appearance on Hockey Night in Canada tonight is a big deal to all of its Canadian players.

Published November 5, 2005

TORONTO - Tonight, at precisely 7 p.m., families will gather around televisions in small Canadian towns on Prince Edward Island, up near the Arctic Circle, out on the Indian reservations and everywhere in between.

Friends will crowd around big-screen TVs in Toronto, and little TVs in Red Deer saloons. Practically every television on in the country will be tuned to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The music comes up and a nation goes silent.

It's Hockey Night in Canada.

"It's our heritage," the Lightning's Marty St. Louis said.

"It's religion," Tampa Bay's Darryl Sydor said.

Tonight, the eyes of Canada will be on the Lightning as it takes on the Maple Leafs in the first non-playoff, primetime Hockey Night in Canada game featuring the Lightning.

"It's on the same terms as Monday Night Football," Lightning forward and Murray Harbour, PEI, native Brad Richards said, "but with a lot more history."

Hockey Night in Canada has aired coast-to-coast every Saturday night during the season since 1952. The legendary theme song, written in 1968 by Dolores Claman, is called Canada's "Second National Anthem." The 7 p.m. game (there is also a late game) is consistently the highest-rated program on Canadian television.

Richards proudly starts humming the catchy theme as Stratford, Ontario, native Tim Taylor, in the next locker, describes the significance of Hockey Night in Canada.

"It's everything," Taylor said. "It's the big night. We play 82 games this season, but you always get a little more pumped when you know you're going to be on."

Taylor started watching it with his dad when he was 4. Richards said the same. So did every Canadian player in the Lightning locker room.

"That's what you do on Saturday night," said Tampa Bay's Rob DiMaio, born in Calgary. "Whether you're out or you're home, it doesn't matter, you're going to see it wherever you are. The voices, the history, it's all there."

The voices have been Canadian legends: Foster Hewitt, Howie Meeker, Harry Neale, Bob Cole, Dick Irvin, Ron MacLean and, of course, Don Cherry.

In the most-watched 10 minutes on Canadian TV, MacLean and Cherry host during the first intermission "Coach's Corner," where the outlandishly dressed and opinionated Cherry, a former NHL coach, might and usually does say anything. With the classy MacLean, whom Canadians consider the face and voice of hockey, throwing out topics, Cherry blasts away, not caring who he offends, criticizes or compliments. It's outrageous, controversial and highly entertaining.

But Canadians take it seriously. When MacLean nearly left the broadcast over a contract dispute three years ago, it became a national story.

During the second intermission, MacLean hosts journalists from around the NHL for a segment called "Satellite Hotstove," a round-table discussion of trade rumors, tidbits and news.

Then, of course, there's the game. Fans in Quebec usually get the Canadiens game. The rest of the country sees the Maple Leafs.

"There's something different about a game on Hockey Night in Canada," Richards said. "You know it's Hockey Night in Canada when the theme song comes on and you hear the voices and you just see the picture."

Lightning rookie Paul Ranger of Whitby, Ontario, is already thinking about his Hockey Night in Canada debut tonight.

"I don't even want to talk about it. I'm getting nervous already," Ranger said with a laugh. "The tradition. Don Cherry. They might mention your name. Wow, it's such a big deal."

For Canadians, it's the biggest deal of all.

"It means every Saturday night, no matter what you were doing, no matter how good-looking your date was, you were watching Hockey Night in Canada," Lightning goalie Sean Burke said. "That's Canada. That's tradition. It's just part of your whole lifestyle. It's hockey."