Monday, 11 June 2007

The Pokecheck Professor

Where you have you been for the last 25 years? If you're Peter Puck, you've been in hibernation. That is, until 2008. Starting next season on both Hockey Night in Canada and the NHL on NBC, you'll be able to see Peter Puck, the star of television intermissions in the 1970s, once again. As big as Don Cherry is now on Hockey Night in Canada, Peter Puck was huge for CBC and NBC in the 1970s. And with hockey knowledge in the United States at an all-time low, a wisecracking, skating, talking puck may help draw fans in, especially of the younger generation. Peter Puck is your man.

He'd start his segment the same way each week: "Howdy fans, Peter Puck here to lay some facts on you about hockey - the world's fastest team sport."

Brian McFarlane, the son of Hardy Boys author Leslie McFarlane, was working for NBC in the early 1970s. The Canadian sportscaster and author was asked by his boss at NBC to come up with a way to educate people in hockey. McFarlane's idea was Peter Puck, although the name was created by Joe Barbera, president of Hanna-Barbera Cartoon Studios who helped create the look of Peter Puck.

"When I was with NBC in 1973, my boss, Scotty Connell, decided that our intermission features needed to be more instructional in nature," McFarlane said. "He called Joe Barbera out at Hanna-Barbera, and said, 'We need a little animated character to describe hockey.' They asked me to send Hanna-Barbera some of my literature on hockey, some of my books, and describe what an offside is and icing and that sort of thing."

For two years on the NBC NHL Game of the Week, and five more on Hockey Night in Canada, Peter Puck educated and entertained the home audience, keeping viewers glued to their seats as the wisecracking puck would talk about equipment, icings, and offsides.

"NBC brought in a lot of sportscasters and sportswriters from the Southern markets to take them to a hockey game, their first NHL hockey game for most of them," said McFarlane, "and NBC showed them Peter Puck before the game. There were 2, 3, 4 episodes on offsides and icings and what the referee does. It was very successful. And I used to introduce Peter on those shows, and soon people referred to me as 'Peter Puck's father,' and wherever I went, some people would kid around and ask me, 'Mr. Puck, how's your son Peter?'"

The concept of each episode was that Peter was involved in a fast-paced hockey game until he noticed the viewers at home watching the action. Peter would then speak to the viewers about all sorts of hockey-related terms and rules. NHL players and highlights were used to illustrate Peter's lessons. In one memorable episode, Peter Puck showed the audience a three-on-two breakaway used by the Detroit Red Wings' "Production Line" of Sid Abel, Gordie Howe, and Ted Lindsay. Another classic episode, "The Story of the Stanley Cup," described the champion chalice and some of the famous contests played for it.

In being that Peter Puck was a cartoon, kids would be instantly drawn to the information. Adults could understand the information as well as the entire explanation was kept at a high-level of intellectualism. It wasn't long after Peter Puck's debut that kids who had never watched hockey knew an off-side from a two-line pass.

While McFarlane wrote the pieces and introduced Peter Puck on NBC and CBC, the voice of Peter Puck was actually a man by the name of Ronnie Schell. Schell did a myriad of voices for Hanna-Barbara Studios throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Peter Puck lasted for only nine episodes on NBC. Since creating new animated episodes would have cost upwards of $200,000 for a series, McFarlane experimented with some different ideas during Peter's appearances on Hockey Night in Canada. One such idea was the mixing of existing animation with archival hockey footage.

"I didn't have much of a budget," McFarlane commented, "so I would have Peter skip across the screen for 30 seconds, and say, 'I'm going to tell you a story from my hockey history book,' and then I'd go to the videotape and have Peter's voice do the voiceover, and some famous Stanley Cup game footage would air while Peter described it. Then he'd say, 'That's it. Join me for another story from my hockey history book.' That was a very inexpensive way to keep Peter going for a while."

For as long as Peter Puck has been out of hockey circles, teams keep asking McFarlane for permission to use him on their scoreboards. The NHL's Boston Bruins used Peter in their inaugural season at the FleetCenter, while the AHL's Syracuse Crunch have rebroadcast classic Peter Puck episodes during their televised games.

"I get a call at least once a week from somebody, whether it's the new team in Charlotte or some team in Texas or the midwest, saying 'Who is this Peter Puck?" McFarlane joked. "'Someone said we should phone you and see if we can't use Peter Puck on our arena scoreboard.'"

Well, Peter will be a fixture for hockey once again this season. A line of Peter Puck apparel is hitting store shelves and an undisclosed national financial institution has secured a three-year deal in which Peter will be its official "spokespuck". McFarlane has teamed up with Segal Licensing to produce all sorts of merchandise, and a television idea is not far behind.

Stuart Pollock, the president of Segal Licensing, said there's been interest from various broadcasters in a half-hour television program. Ronnie Schell, however, would be replaced with a younger actor.

"We think there's unlimited potential," Pollock said. "We think it will grow as the kids grow."

Keith McIntyre, the president of K.Mac & Associates Marketing, said he can see how Peter Puck will appeal to guys in their 40s who grew up with the character. But he said it will be harder to make him appeal to kids, who are more likely to play hockey on Xbox than to watch the game on TV.

"From a nostalgic point of view, it would get my attention," said McIntyre, 46. "From a kid's point of view, I think it will be a lot more challenging to be relevant."

In any case, the NHL should get its act together and start making this Peter Puck revival part of their marketing strategy. There is no limit to this kind of marketing, especially when there is zero marketing being noticed in the Southern United States.

Here are a few small clips I could find of Peter Puck. I think this is a great idea.

Peter discusses the game of hockey a little.

Peter discusses the mystique of the Stanley Cup.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Anonymous said...

I must of course give props to my alma mater by pointing out that Brian McFarlane is also a St. Lawrence grad :) He played for the Skating Saints and is a member of the SLU Athletic Hall of Fame

Jibblescribbits said...

Very cool stuff. Usually I don't like little gimmicks like this, but Since the whole point of that bad NBC deal is to cultivate new hockey fans, this seems like a good addition to that goal.

P. G. Crawford said...

To hear the late Scotty Connell describe his actual conversation with the actual cartoonist assigned to create "something," for NBC - by those over at Hanna Barbara - was classic.
Thankfully I was blessed to be the one who heard exactly what happened, when it happened and how it happened direct from the horses mouth back in 1987 - 1988.