Hockey's Theme Song Fiasco

It didn't exactly scream "hit." The demo version someone plinked out on a piano for Ralph Mellanby and a handful of corporate sponsors back in 1967 sounded clunky and uninspiring - a sort of slow sister to the William Tell Overture. But Mellanby, a hotshot young director of what Canadians would soon know as Hockey Night in Canada, imagined the piece with full orchestration. And he heard virtue. "I was the only one," he now says, checking off the list of big-name sponsors who would need convincing before they gave the composition the green light. "Molson didn't like it. Imperial Oil didn't like it. Ford didn't like it at all."

But the composer was Dolores CLAMAN, a 39-year-old jingle-writer who had gained minor fame for penning the theme for Ontario's pavilion at EXPO '67 in Montreal. For the past six months, schoolchildren across the province had been singing its "Ontari-ari-ari-o" motif, and if the theme she'd written for HOCKEY inspired half that response, Mellanby figured it could open his show for two, possibly three seasons. In the TV world, that is a long and happy life.

Forty-one years later, those "dunt-da dunt-da-dunts" are burned into the national consciousness - an on-air calling card that has brought the CBC more recognition than Peter Mansbridge or its "exploding 'c' " logo. High-school bands play it from sheet music. It is consistently among the 50 top-selling cellphone ring tones in the country. David Mills, a professor of Canadian history, recalls a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a lone Canadian at Oktoberfest in Munich, rising to his feet and singing a few dunt-dah-dahs for the benefit of the beer-hall crowd. Soon a dozen or so of the Canuck's countrymen scattered around the tent had joined in, roaring out the notes to the bemusement of their European drinking mates. "For anyone under the age of 50, it is the one song that they remember," says Mills. "The song comes on, and that means the hockey game is about to start on Saturday night."

It is the sort of response - emotive, spiritual, Pavlovian - that money can't buy. So hockey fans can be forgiven a moment of slack-jawed amazement this week upon learning that someone had, well, bought it. The news came Monday by way of a CTV press release announcing that the privately owned network had acquired full rights to Claman's piece after negotiations between her and the CBC collapsed. Rick Brace, CTV's president of revenue, business planning and sports, declined to say how much the network paid. But insiders say Claman, now 80 and living in London, received upwards of $2.5 million, having refused a $1-million offer from the public broadcaster late last week.

For CTV, the move was a no-brainer: the network's sports channel TSN, along with its French-language service RDS, had spent years trying to build the sort of affinity with viewers that Claman's song epitomizes. "This theme is part of the fabric of the country," Brace told Maclean's following the announcment. "It's an institution, and any time you can engage your audience on that level you do it. That's how you build a brand."

Why the CBC would let it slip away is a puzzle for the ages. After years of trading on the cultural significance of its broadcast, the corporation appeared determined last week to jettison the hymn that called their fans to communion. On Friday, executives breezily announced a $100,000 contest to come up with a new theme, as if 41 years of tradition could be replaced in a summer jingle-off. A barrage of 1,500 calls and emails from angry viewers gave them pause, and on Monday they announced they wished to reopen talks with the help of a mediator. Yet, in words and in actions, CBC managers rejected the notion that the soul of the broadcast could be tied up in a few bars of music. "What Hockey Night in Canada is really about is hockey," Scott Moore, the executive director of CBC Sports, told one reporter. "Everything else is just window dressing."

As repudiations go, it couldn't be clearer. And Claman, for one, sees it as part of a bigger picture. "I think they've lost the pulse of the public emotion," she said in an interview with Maclean's, noting the outpouring of support from fans of the song on blogs, on radio call-in shows and in letters to the editor. "Of course it's about hockey. But sometimes a thing takes on a life of its own, and I think that's what has happened in this case."

While Claman was speaking strictly from her own experience, she has put her finger on a problem that is increasingly obvious to Hockey Night viewers. For years, the Saturday night juggernaut has been wobbling on its pedestal, stalled in the ratings, leaking talent to rival networks, fighting tooth-and-nail for NHL broadcast rights. As the pressure has risen, the show's masters at CBC have responded precipitously, often demonstrating a shocking ignorance of what drew people to their product in the first place.

The first sign of trouble came during the network's 2002 contract dispute with Ron MacLean, the genial host and straight man to Don Cherry's one-man circus. Taken aback by MacLean's reported demand for a $400,000 annual salary, the Mother Corp. drew a line in the sand, preparing for the eventuality he would leave. When word leaked to the media, all hell broke loose: fans from across the country wrote letters and emails demanding that the quirky yet knowledgeable MacLean be retained, and CBC was forced to climb down, signing MacLean for a reported $450,000. Yet two years after the MacLean crisis passed, another on-air favourite, Chris Cuthbert, received his walking papers on the grounds that the NHL lockout made him dispensible. Cuthbert's departure raised nothing like the furor over MacLean's contract dispute, but it did point to a serious lack of planning. Viewers and hockey insiders alike viewed him as the heir apparent to Hockey Night's aging play-by-play man Bob Cole, and weren't surprised when he quickly signed with TSN. That Cuthbert could double as a football play-by-play man made the decision look even worse.

The moves the CBC has made have done little to improve the show's ratings, which have stagnated or fallen at a time when countrywide interest in hockey has surged. Ten seasons ago, an average of 1.1 million people would tune in to the first game of Hockey Night's Saturday double-header; in 2007-08, that number stood at just 1.17 million, which is actually 94,000 fewer than watched five seasons ago. Playoff ratings have waxed and waned, depending on whether Canadian teams are active in late rounds. But the average audience for the 2008 playoffs was 1.3 million, down nine per cent from last year when the Ottawa Senators played the Anaheim Ducks in the finals. That the numbers have flatlined at a time when the NHL is coming off three straight years of record attendance isn't exactly heartening. Nor is the fact that TSN has seen its audience grow 32 per cent in the last five seasons, according to the NHL. In fact, the week before it scooped up the theme song, the network signed a new six-year deal with the league that will see it telecast 70 games in the regular season, all of them involving Canadian teams.

Then there's the regional thing - a growing conviction that the CBC's desire to draw viewers in southern Ontario results in force-feedings of the Toronto Maple Leafs to the entire national audience. Even an all-Canadian matchup between the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames might give way on Saturday night, note critics, if there's a Toronto-Atlanta game available. The effect has been to erode the game's mythic position as a force bringing the country together. "We perceive it to be pro-Leafs and anti-Canadiens," says Montreal Gazette columnist Mike Boone, who writes a fan blog on the newspaper's website, Habsinsideout.com. "It doesn't take long in a tavern discussion to get people going on Hockey Night and [Don] Cherry." That Cherry openly states his support for Toronto has long irked Montreal fans, but their aversion for the telecast reached new heights this year, when the talented Habs became the hottest team in the league yet the Toronto Maple Leafs - settled in their familiar place near the bottom of the rankings - remained the stars of Hockey Night.

CBC added more Montreal games, and covered the team's two-round playoff run. Moore even posted a response on the CBC website headlined, "We love Montreal. We really do." - a damage-control move that Boone dismisses as "slamming the barn door when the horse was in the next county." The statistics bear him out: during the playoffs, French-language RDS twice topped CBC's countrywide viewership, meaning a good many Anglos outside Quebec were watching the game in a language they don't understand.

Montreal isn't the only place where the natives are getting restless. "I believe the early game on Hockey Night in Canada is overly weighted in Toronto, mainly because of the time zone and mainly because Ontario's so big and mainly because Ontario hockey fans really do have a large vote in the size and the economic viability of Hockey Night in Canada," says Patrick LaForge, the president of the Edmonton Oilers. But just as fans in Montreal have turned to RDS, fans in the West have turned to other regional broadcasters like Rogers Sportsnet for their hockey fix. Sportsnet, for instance, is becoming an increasingly popular destination for fans of the Vancouver Canucks.

To be sure, Hockey Night's contemporary producers operate in an environment whose complexities dwarf those of the late '60s, when the show moved from a patchwork of telecasts to a regular weekend program. As the NHL spread to other markets across the country, as regional stations bought broadcast rights, as cable sports channels horned in on their territory, the challenge of keeping a distinctly national feel have grown. To his credit, Mellanby foresaw those challenges, and insisted that the show have its own distinctive trappings - "the theme, the jackets, the crests, all that stuff," he recalls.

None of those trappings has proven more important than Claman's song, which Mellanby and executives at McLaren Advertising, the private company that produced Hockey Night in those days, chose over four competing compositions. Neither he nor Claman expected it to last more than a few years. And while Mellanby was in favour of offering Claman $15,000 to release her claim to it, no one else seemed worried about future licensing disputes. "In those days, you just got paid a fee for writing the thing," says Claman. "I was really dumb. So for about 24 years the song was completely unlicensed."

That changed in the early 1980s, when Claman met John Ciccone, the agent who represents her to this day, and who could see that the theme was a potential money-maker. As a songwriter, Claman still held copyright on the tune, and Ciccone suggested she seek a licensing agreement from CBC, the first of three deals that would eventually pay her $500 every time the song aired on CBC, with ancillary payments for other uses. The deal, according to CBC, was worth $65,000 to Claman last year, not counting separate agreements for use of the song she made with other parties.

The pact has never sat well with CBC, says Mellanby, who worked on and off at Hockey Night for 21 years. Three producers who succeeded him have called him wondering why the corporation is still stuck with it, he says. "I'm with the CBC on this one," he says. "At 80 years old, she is a very lucky lady to be still making money from that song." But if the Mother Corp. is frustrated, it may be because Ciccone showed better foresight than they did. Since 1998, the year CBC and Claman's team entered their current licensing agreement, "Internet downloading, file sharing, and mobile ring tones have all become important," says University of Ottawa professor Jeremy De Beer, who teaches digital music law. "Not only did the technology not exist 10 years ago, business models and the licensing strategies didn't either." As Ciccone puts it: "The song started to develop wings of its own. The CBC were resentful they couldn't control it."

Ring tones have driven a particularly sharp wedge between the two sides, resulting in a 2004 lawsuit that formed the backdrop of the recent negotiations. According to the $2.5-million suit, Ciccone's company Copyright Music and Visuals was approached in 2002 by Bell Mobility, which was anxious to turn the hockey song into a ring tone. Ciccone in turn approached the CBC, which he says shot him down - unless the phone company agreed to buy "several hundred thousands of dollars" in advertising time, it couldn't use the name Hockey Night in Canada in its promotion of the ring tones. This despite the broadcaster's admission that it had repeatedly used the song in breach of its agreement, having sold its broadcasts in Japan, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom without paying Claman. The song was eventually licensed as a ring tone - Bell Canada has offered it since 2006. But by then their professional relationship "began to go off the rails," Ciccone says. The CBC has filed a statement of defence against the lawsuit, denying most of Claman's claims, and the case remains unresolved.

Given all of the bad blood between the two sides, the question now is whether it made sense for the CBC to sever its ties with Claman for good. While he did not return repeated requests for interviews from Maclean's, Moore suggested in other interviews that Claman wanted to end the marriage as badly as the broadcaster. "We're probably going to be accused of bungling this," he said. "But I don't know if a deal was ever possible." He also argued that the song's value hung squarely on its connection to the CBC, which has six more years left on its current broadcast agreement with the NHL. "Every time it's played," he said, "people are going to think about our broadcast on Saturday night."

Perhaps for a short time. But the CBC's stranglehold on hockey no longer looks so impregnable. TSN and RDS actually broadcast more games during the regular season than the CBC, while rights to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver - a potentially colossal event in the hockey world - rest with CTV and Rogers Inc. In Canada, it's worth noting, each of those games will begin with Claman's famous theme, doing much to bind the tune to its new home on the private network.

More disturbing still for the CBC is the comfort level among influential hockey types with the idea of hearing "dunt-da dunt-da-dunt" on TSN. "As long as the song is played somewhere, that's the main thing," says Johnny Bower, the legendary Leafs goalie who led Toronto to three consecutive Stanley Cups in the 1960s. "That's the key: the song will still have something to do with hockey." Paul Henderson, whose game-winning goal against the Russians in the dying seconds of the 1972 Summit Series made him a national hero for life, rejects the idea that the song needs the CBC, or vice versa. "Things have changed, and things change all the time," he says. "My attitude is: they dropped the song. Get over it. Let's move on. I wouldn't be a bit surprised that two years from now, they'll be saying, 'Geez, I'm glad we didn't stay with that old one because this new one is so much better.' "

Some, like Dave "Tiger" Williams, openly tip their hat to CTV, predicting that the public will quickly move on. "I think they pulled off an incredible manoeuvre," says the former tough guy with the Maple Leafs and Canucks. "Twenty years from now, I guarantee you - and I'll bet my house on it - that people will associate that song with hockey. They won't say CBC." Phil Esposito, the former Boston Bruins star and now radio broadcaster for the Tampa Bay Lightning, outright mocks fans who lament the CBC's loss of an iconic tune. "It's a song, man. I've got my favourite song and you've got your favourite song. If that's their favourite song, well, maybe they should watch TSN next year."

Noticeably absent in all of this are predictions of Hockey Night's imminent demise: Cherry did not resign from Coach's Corner; MacLean isn't following his show's famous song to a rival network. But with the stroke of a pen something has undoubtedly changed, marking a shift in mindset that the public broadcaster ignores at its peril. "CBC doesn't have a lock on hockey in this country and hockey needs to grow and mature and move - and the theme song along with it," is how LaForge, the Oilers' president, sums it up. "It's not taken away from Canadians, it's just changed. It may be in a different form somewhere else. It may be in a better form."

Maclean's June 23, 2008