The Man Behind The Hockey Night in Canada Epic Montages
From Cohen to the Hip, from the Habs to the Leafs. From Arcade Fire to Blue Rodeo, from the Original Six to the independent Canadian band that brought it as hard as any, he’s covered all the greats. Tim Thompson boasts a catalogue of work that has been the subject of articles in Sports Illustrated, CBS sports, the Montreal Gazette, the National Post and even DeadSpin. For those who may not know Tim Thompson by name, rest assured, if you are a Canadian reading this piece then he’s reached you.
Born and raised in Toronto, the former professional hockey player turned independent filmmaker, whose career we’ll let him help explain, became a familiar name in most Canadian households through his work at the nation’s most beloved telecast, Hockey Night In Canada. Up until this year, Thompson was responsible for the opening montages at HNIC heralded in the stories above. His creations have sown their seeds in the memory of the common man. He took the moments of ice level, live intensity and scored them to spirit-infused song or narration. We witnessed it week after week, and what developed was a volume of work that will forever be a part of our Canadian history. I knew Tim Thompson’s segments were special to us all, but I didn’t understand how many he connected with. Tim Thompson has a distinct gift, and the eyes on the TV screen felt like they were receiving a distinct gift. There are few precious things in this world you can’t tag with a monetary value. What Thompson allowed hockey lovers to experience slips gracefully into the categories of priceless and cherished. Canada likes to think of ourselves as a compassionate country, a caring kind with a razor sharp intelligence about us. Our breed has a place deeper inside than the dwellers of other countries, and it can only be visited through heartfelt inspiration. Tim Thompson took us to those places, every week at 7pm Eastern Standard time.
As for the wide spread recognition of the montage pieces Thompson so meticulously and passionately pieced together, it’s something you first have to put into perspective. How many behind the scenes producers of television segments like his have ever been acknowledged, let alone lauded with such adulation, praise and genuine love.
It was my hope for not only fans of Tim’s work, but hockey fans in general to get to know the man behind the epic openings to an iconic program. It is with great pride that I share with you the words and thoughts of Tim Thompson, a Canadian icon in his own right, and certainly to his peers.
Jude: You know all about kicking something off right, Tim, so how about we go ahead and do the same here. Let’s talk puck. Tell me about how you became a player. Junior, University, then a fun time in pro, a stay at home defenseman you were described as a guy willing to block a shot or do whatever it took. What were the influences that shaped not only the player, but the hockey fan as well?
Tim: My Dad was always a coach of my teams when I played house league growing up in the North Toronto Hockey Association. He taught me how to skate and introduced me to the game and how to play. He was easily the best coach I ever had. I had lots of good coaches though as I moved into more competitive hockey and was lucky enough to make it all the way to the O.H.L in Niagara Falls, to then win a Canadian championship with the University of Guelph, then to spend a year of professional hockey in New Mexico of all places. But I grew up in Toronto, so for me and my brother Pat, as kids, it was all about the Leafs. We used to go to a bunch of games every year. My Dad got these tickets from work. Two in the reds and then there were two in the golds, right behind the Leafs bench in Maple Leaf Gardens. You had to walk right through their bench to get to them. That was something! In 1985, I went to a game against Buffalo. This rookie wearing #17 scored four goals and hit everything in sight. From that night on, I was enamored with Wendel Clark. To me, his style of play was everything. Honest and uncompromising. All you could hope for in a player. It broke my heart when they traded him. How do you trade your heart and soul? I could never understand that. I haven’t really had the same connection with them since that happened.
J:You still manage to put the gear on from time to time?
T:I don’t play that much anymore. When I retired, I played a lot around Toronto in beer leagues and what not. Eric Lindros is a great friend of mine from high school. He was back in Toronto during the 1999-2000 season, and again during the 2004-05 lockout. We rented ice a few times a week at North Toronto Arena – the best rink in the city – and the rink we grew up playing at. It was a blast. We’d do a bunch of drills and then play 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 depending on who came out. We called ourselves the Scabs as a joke. I got out of pro hockey in my early 20’s. The NHL wasn’t in my future, so I moved on, but here I was skating with Eric Lindros, Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Steve Thomas…it was awesome!
Currently, I’m a member of a team called the Morningstars. We play in a league in Parkdale in downtown Toronto and the players are mostly indie musicians, filmmakers, TV people. Dave Bidini was a co-founder of the team, and invited me to join a few years ago. Most games are on Saturday’s, so it’s been tough to get out. But it’s lots of fun. Great parties and such after the games, and I’ve met a lot of incredibly interesting and talented people. But I don’t play a whole lot these days. Busy with other things, but I certainly get the itch to play still. I don’t think it every leaves you.
J:Your montages found the pulse of our Canadian society, no matter what era or genre the song choice may be coming from. It’s crystal clear that music of all natures hit home for you. How has that relationship been cultivated?
T:I grew up on steady diet of mixed tapes on car rides to our cottage and to my grandparent’s homes listening to Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Elvis, the Beatles, Springsteen, among many others. Music is a big thing for my family. We went to lots of concerts and my Dad has a HUGE music collection. Tons of vinyl dating back to the 50’s, tons of CD’s and live concert DVD’s. My parents exposed us to a lot of culture – music, theatre, movies etc. growing up. I’m beyond grateful for that. The first concert I ever saw was the Jackson 5 reunion tour at Exhibition Stadium. It was pouring rain, it was a huge spectacle, an amazing concert. Something about live music just hit me. I’ve been going to concerts like crazy ever since. As I grew up, I’ve always had a varied and diverse taste in music.
When I hit university, Canadian music took over in a big way. I don’t think that was calculated, it was just the music that I loved and made the most impact. When I got into my TV and film career, I started to meet a lot of musicians in Toronto. I was intrigued by their lives. That led to my first feature length documentary, a film called “Born To It” about the lives of five independent singer/songwriters in Toronto, and the roads they travel to sustain their artistic existence. So music has and will always be an integral part of my life.
J:How difficult can it be to pinpoint a song and the clips to match? Do you agonize over these decisions?
T:The song selection was always the most difficult, yet most enjoyable and rewarding part for me. Finding the right song, to fit the right situation wasn’t easy. First off, all of the songs had to be legally cleared, so it wasn’t like I could just use any song I wanted. It was a process that never slept. I was devouring music, listening all the time. The work never stopped and was going on in the back of my mind all the time. Searching for the perfect soundtrack to tell the story of whatever piece was next. There were some times when the song didn’t appear until the day before or the day of. That led to some quick jockeying to get the rights. But somehow, the song always presented itself. I tried to balance things too, so there’d be a diverse collection of styles and artists used.
One of the things I’m most proud of was to get a lot of Canadian indie music on Hockey Night In Canada. There are so many fantastically talented musicians in Canada that don’t get anywhere near the recognition for their work that they should. I’m immersed in the indie music world and met all these amazing artists and found all these incredible songs for openings that worked perfectly. To be honoured enough to work with their music and give them some exposure on national TV and some money for their song at the same time, was something I really loved and was very passionate about. A lot of these artists are as good as any musician out there, worthy of any stage in the world, yet really struggle to make a living. I fought a lot of battles with my bosses over this. They were more into getting internationally known bands or top 40 type songs on there, but I was adamant that we should be looking more at the quality of the song and how it worked for the piece, rather than who wrote or played it. And I stand fully behind every song I ever used. I often said I don’t care if someone sells out the Air Canada Centre or plays to 20 people at a bar on Queen Street. If it’s a genuine and honest song, and it works for the piece, that’s all I cared about. I truly mean it though when I say it was a real honour to work with such talented musicians.
And it wasn’t always actual songs. I had done quite a few voiceover type pieces with Ron MacLean. He’s a huge music lover too, and quite honestly a genius. When we’d do a voiceover piece, I’d email him about the theme or the tone of it and what I was thinking. He’d watch it a few hours before show time and off the cuff, come up with these incredible lines. It’s was inspiring to watch him do this. One of my favourite pieces was with Jay Baruchel. He came in and narrated lines from the Hugh MacLennan novel ‘Two Solitudes’ (link) when he was involved in Canada Reads. We made this really cool piece that had four parts to it. I had worked with him on a few Hockey Night In Canada things before, and to watch him work in the voiceover booth, reading his lines, was incredible. I have a huge amount of respect for him and what he’s doing. Once again, it was a true honour to work with and to get to know him.
J:Alright, so now you’ve got a choice of song or narration nailed down. What unfolds after that? It feels to the viewer that you’re prepared to bleed for your art. How much of you goes into it? Because it sure feels like you are all in.
T:I labour over every single frame of video and audio of every single piece. I do treat each one like a piece of art. Not to sound pretentious or anything, but that’s how much these meant to me. From finding the songs and editing them down to the time I was given, to pouring over all the hockey footage, to finding the “metaphor shots” – the nature and scenery type visuals – the whole process was done meticulously. Sometimes a piece was built around one lyric, or one play that happened in a game and built from there. Other times there was a natural order to it all. Each one was different and challenging and that to me was the beauty of them, to make something unique and cool to begin each show with, and to get the viewer ready for what was to come.
J:When I first approached you about this story my idea was to celebrate the man who gave us chills on Saturday Nights leading us into the nation’s most important program. It was without knowledge that since Rogers had taken over they made a decision to go another direction with the openings at HNIC. Can you touch on what’s transpired this year?
T:It’s really difficult this day and age to cut through all the white noise out there. It really is an age, in many respects, of ‘here today, gone later today’. I have lots of friends who are artists of all kinds – musicians, painters, writers, actors. The digital revolution has made some things a lot easier (for instance making things has become more affordable, or getting word out etc.) but at the same time there is SO much of everything, that the big challenge or question is, once you’ve reached people, how do you keep their attention, and cut through that white noise. The HNIC openings seemed to do that. They reached people. They made an impact. People made sure they watched them. And people seemed to love them.
[quote font=”0″ font_size=”20″ arrow=”yes”]”…the big challenge or question is, once you’ve reached people, how do you keep their attention, and cut through that white noise. The HNIC openings seemed to do that. They reached people. They made an impact. People made sure they watched them. And people seemed to love them.”[/quote]
J:You recently brought your montage work back to pay homage to Jean Beliveau in what was one of the most touching pieces many have laid eyes on. Let’s talk about that piece in particular. It was embraced and saluted throughout hockey and our country. That must have felt special to do a life montage worthy of a man so extraordinary and inspirational. Is there a pressure to get it right knowing how he was adored? Or did it come together naturally?
T:Number 4, Jean Beliveau was something I felt compelled to make. Even though my work wasn’t being used this year, that doesn’t mean my mind has just shut off. I had to do something for Mr. Beliveau. I had a lot of footage on hard drives from years past, and I just went home, sat in my edit suite and went to work. He was such a unique man, an extraordinary human being, and one of the greatest players to ever play. So there was definitely pressure to make sure it was special. But at the same time, it came together really organically. I had read that ‘La boheme’ was Mr. Beliveau’s favourite opera, and of course it had to be Montreal’s other royalty in Leonard Cohen singing for him. I had found the music and it flowed from there.
Last year’s playoffs were quite something for me, being able to make all the pieces for the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff run. There’s just something incredible and magical about that franchise. My Dad is from Montreal. His Dad was an incredible hockey player who spent some time with the Montreal Maroons. He ended up playing in a league there with a lot of ex-Habs and Maroons. My Dad has these amazing stories of going to games at the Montreal Forum and sitting in the gondola, a few feet from where Danny Gallivan was calling games. He was also there the night of the Richard Riot. Magical stuff. During last year’s playoffs, Michel Therien requested my openings to show the team in pre-game meetings. That blew my mind. So, Montreal is a special place for me. There’s a strong connection with my Dad, my Brother, and I over hockey. This is what I think it means when people refer to hockey in Canada as more than a game. Not a marketing campaign for beer companies or what have you. It’s the connection you feel with family and friends and strangers. It connects us to our past, to our families, to our cities, to our country. So, of course I had to do something to honour Mr. Beliveau. I worked on it for two days straight. I didn’t know how people would react, but I knew I was incredibly happy with it. I finished it, posted it online and tweeted it out. I wasn’t excepting what followed. The reaction was beyond overwhelming. It absolutely floored me. Such beautiful sentiment in people’s reaction. But in the end, it was simply done to honour this wonderful man.
J:I’ve been moved to tears one week, and the next have my adrenaline raised to max levels. Both while watching your montages unveil on the national stage. That sentiment is echoed by the viewer’s your pieces have reached. When you watch it at 7pm with all of us, how are you reacting? Are you right there with the rest of Canada as we go the though the range of emotions your openers stir up for us?
T:I’m definitely along for the ride. I’m always nervous before a piece airs. It feels like it did before playing a big game, that same uneasiness. I’m letting something out to the world, something that means a lot to me. As Gord Downie said “You’re nervous because it means something.” For sure I get the feels from them. Big games or during the playoffs, you just know when something works really well. When you’re editing, you see every frame of it over and over and over, so when you finish, if you still get all the feelings, then you know it’s a job you can be proud of. I think if you’re not totally invested in what you’re doing, then you get detached. For me, these meant everything, so yeah it’s emotional. I also believed wholeheartedly in every piece, so you put it out there feeling confident in them. In the end, it’s all about honouring the song, the game and the viewer. If you feel comfortable that you accomplished all three, then you can sleep well.
J:When I’ve been talking to people leading up to this they all bring up a particular piece. What’s outstanding is the variance. From person to person, they all have a different piece that has moved them. I won’t ask you to choose a favorite child, but do any of the creative experiences themselves stand out?
T:Too hard to pinpoint one piece. Footsteps means a lot to me. I still get misty eyed when I watch it. Everything came together. Wonderfully eloquent artists waxing poetic about what Hockey Night In Canada means to them. And a Canadian independent band driving it home with their song that inspired the piece. Dear Canada was another one that meant a lot, considering what had just gone done. Getting to work with Neil Young’s music the first time was quite amazing for me. Filming one with my friends in The Lowest Of The Low and their song “Rosy And Grey” was overly special for me. Interspersing live footage of them at Lee’s Palace and paralleling them getting ready for a gig with hockey players getting ready for a game, was a beautiful moment. But honestly, I shouldn’t go down this road, because the body of work as a whole means so much to me, as do the songs I was fortunate enough to work with.
J:I couldn’t agree more with the statement that it’s about the body of work more than any particular piece. So how did this collection become what it is today? We’ve talked about your background in Hockey, and how music and art has shaped your existence. How did you take the game‘s rawest, most intense and even vulnerable moments, capture them visually and find the lyric or note to coincide. You must rely on the hockey player and the artist, two integral parts of yourself, to create these blast-off openers?
T:I guess I have an ability to hear music and understand how it relates to visuals. It’s kind of second nature to me. I see the world in a very cinematic way. I’ll be walking around the city and ideas just come to me. But I’ve always had this ongoing internal soundtrack kind of going. I’ll see something going on – a bird flying through trees or a streetcar passing an intersection or the look on people’s faces when they are out and about going about their lives, and it makes me think of things, of moods or emotions or a certain song. I use close-ups of people’s eyes a lot. I find that you can understand and feel so much about someone by the look in their eyes. It really is a powerful image. And music brings so much out of a visual. It gives it meaning. If eyes are the window to the soul, then perhaps music is the soul of an image. So I suppose if anything, I have an ability to match music with emotion. That’s a tricky thing to do, but to narrow in on a situation, or understand the feeling going on is the key.
J:I know first-hand what your work means to Canadians. Can you put into words what sharing it with all of us means to you?
T:It’s been incredibly surreal, humbling and rewarding. Sometimes you forget how many people are watching. Millions across the country. Big cities and small towns. People spanning generations, all watching the show together. To think that something I made in a small dark edit suite out of my imagination was seen by all of them, to the open the show, it blows my mind. And then for them to have the emotional impact that they have, is just really amazing.
I’ve long said that hockey is such a perfect sport for these films. It really is a game of two solitudes. The beautiful, graceful side meets the darker, physical side, to create this beautiful storm. Incredibly rich fodder for this kind of work. And when you get the right song underneath it, one that captures the feeling of it all, it can transform into really special. It takes you places, with all the feels.
I think the goal of any great art (if there is one) is to make people think or to make them feel. If you’re lucky, you can accomplish both. I’d like to think that the montages have a lot of heart in them, a lot of soul and that’s why maybe they have the impact they do. So yeah, the response has been overwhelming. I’ve had the most incredible messages from all over Canada, across the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia to name a few places. The profound things people have written, of how these pieces have impacted them and the meaning they hold, it’s kind of hard to explain what that’s like for me, but I’m grateful for every single word. It’s really beautiful and inspiring.
Halifax, maybe Canada’s most Canadian city, was the backdrop to HNIC’s production of Hockey Day in Canada this weekend. On days such as these you come to realize that this is who we are. Hockey is as much about a connection to our emotion, to something bigger, than it is anything else. It can be about love, it can be about agony. It can be about ecstasy, and it can be about tragic loss.
In the process of this story and reading back Tim’s words, I’ll readily confess has been one of the more moving experiences of my lifetime. Couple that with Hockey Day being focused in Halifax, a city very much a part of my Cape Breton roots, it naturally shifted me back to a place in time where my first memories of Hockey Night In Canada were born. Saturday nights at my grandparents, with a house full of life and family. I can still remember as plain as day, waiting for Tommy Hunter to wrap up while we all found our spots before puck drop. Then the next day my Dad would take me to the rink, where I’d fill up his team’s water bottles and absorb every ounce of majestic-ness that is commonly found in the dressing rooms across Canada. Every Sunday after a few pops, the conversation would gravitate to what was on everyone’s TV screen the night before, Hockey Night in Canada.
“Did you hear what Grapes said about Claude Lemieux?!? I’d like to have Lemieux’s jersey draped over his head, feeding him a few short choppy ones.”
“Number 17 will drive somebody clean through the boards one day. Wait for it. And those boys in the Norris better learn to stop dropping the gloves with Wendel. How many beatings is enough!?!”
After a few more pops when the boys got sentimental, you might hear “There will never ever be another 99, boys. Never.”
That tradition continued on, as the water boy that tagged along to the rink years earlier was old enough to lace them up in that same dressing room, with many of the same cast of characters. They still talked about Grapes, still talked Leafs, but there was something all Canada that was part of the room now. And it felt as though it was there all along.
“Can you guys get over the opening? Man, that song hit me right where it counts. Goosebumps, brother. Absolute chills.”
Let’s go ahead and tell the truth here. After all, this is Canada and we are honest as they make them. Along with being forthright, there is a kindness engrained in our soil, so I take no joy in making this proclamation, but it needs to be said. Hockey Night In Canada is on the ropes. The show is like a family member to most of us and I can tell you as truthfully as I am Canadian, there was never an intention to do a story pointing out their recent shortcomings. If that’s what you’re after you won’t have to look hard to find one. The lone purpose of this story was to talk about the wonderful work of Tim Thompson. That ideal took a turn while putting this piece together, when it became more and more painfully obvious that a terrible wrong needs righting. I know Rogers has new ideas and new direction. It’s understandable for a company taking over to want to do things their own way. It is, however, difficult to understand why Rogers wouldn’t continue using Tim’s montages. For me it’s the equivalent of leaving Gretzky on the bench for the shootout in Nagano. You could make an argument for “the great one” not being great on breakaways. I suppose. I’m not entirely sure what argument you could form when deciding to shelf Thompson’s openers. Other than you want to try new things. And that’s fair. The program is now trying to be hip, trying to be progressive and flashy, they are trying to connect. Trying to. Therein lies the problem. In Canada we don’t try to be anything. We be ourselves. That’s what Tim Thompson did, and that’s why we embraced what he put on the screen. Feelings can’t be forced, there’s only one place they come from.
[quote font=”0″ font_size=”20″ arrow=”yes”]”In Canada we don’t try to be anything. We be ourselves. That’s what Tim Thompson did, and that’s why we embraced what he put on the screen. Feelings can’t be forced, there’s only one place they come from.”[/quote]
Before long I’ll be bringing my son along to the rink with me to fill up those water bottles. Is there a chance my boy won’t have that same bond with the show that has meant so, so much to myself and most of us? It brings upon a great sadness in saying this, but I’m in those same dressing room this year, as much or more than I’ve ever been. And when it comes to HNIC, not a word is spoken. At least not a favorable one. The church bells at Hockey Night are clearly broken.
Leonard Cohen, a Canadian who personifies our nation and an artist who has been the soundtrack behind some of Thompson’s most gripping footage said, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Well this weekend during CBC’s production of Hockey Day, light shone through the cracks in those HNIC bells, in the form of Tim Thompson, and they chimed proudly once again. Early in the Hockey Day broadcast, Thompson’s vision was returned to the viewers. By the way the short piece captured the area and the energy of the day, you knew it was Tim. From the choice of artist in Joel Plaskett, a local beloved songster, to the harbour visuals and the moments caught on ice between father and son, there was no mistaken. Whatever had been missing from the broadcast, whether it was the character, the passion, the Canadiana, it was restored in those few minutes.
Hockey Night In Canada has been called upon for leadership in this country for decades. Through its exemplary production and connection to its audience, the show has taken on that role admirably. I can’t help but think that no matter who owns the rights to the program, the brand belongs to the people of the true North strong and free. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the amount of Canadians I’ve spoken to over the past several weeks working on this, and the desire to see Tim Thompson’s montages back on the air has been resoundingly unanimous. I have not come in contact with a single Canadian, not a single one, who holds a personal share in HNIC that does not want this to happen. Will this be another example of Rogers pointing the finger elsewhere and telling the fans what they want, or the beginning of a new leader showing that it’s willing to listen? Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe a people can come together and influence change. I know the power of a nation when it bands together. I’ve seen it. Tim Thompson has shown us how to unite.
The most respected leaders in history have understood its people. We call upon Hockey Night In Canada to be that leader once more.
In Canada, the game of hockey is proof of Canadian spirit. Our music is proof of Canadian soul. Tim Thompson is proof of Canadian heart.
Hockey Night In Canada, it’s time to put your heart back in the lineup. For the opening shift, at 7pm Eastern on the CBC.