National Post, October 8, 2002
Players and sponsors may come and go and the occasional contract dispute may flare up, but a few things about Hockey Night in Canada remain constant. Fights, of course. And its theme; it’s been called the country’s other national anthem. Even people who don’t know the difference between a puck and a penalty box can sing it. It’s such an integral part of life in this country that many people assume it’s just always been there in the public domain, like air. And that surprises Dolores Claman, its composer.
“Questions were arising as to who even wrote it,” she said. “It’s hysterical to say, ‘I wrote it,’ and have people say, ‘Are you sure?’”
But she is and she did. Dolores Claman was one of the founders of Toronto jingle house Quartet Productions in the 1960s, following a graduate fellowship at New York’s Juilliard School of Music and composing music for ballet and musicals (Timber!! was her first, Mr. Scrooge one of her most acclaimed). She wrote countless hours of music for commercials, movies and more. In 1967, she wrote the anthem “A Place to Stand” for the Ontario government’s pavilion in Expo.
Despite the Hockey Night in Canada theme’s popularity, it’s never been commercially available. There have been bootlegs and other unauthorized versions, but nothing legitimate, at least not until last week. That was when Claman came back to Canada from England, where she lives now, to record the definitive version of the piece in its entirety for commercial release.
Like a lot of important cultural touchstones, the theme began modestly, as another assignment for a very busy jingle writer.
“We’d done a lot of work for the MacLaren advertising agency,” she said. “MacLaren was working on the graphics for the opening for Hockey Night in Canada. They wanted a theme.”
Instructions were minimal. “Just, ‘like an adventure theme,’” Claman recalled being told when she asked what kind of music was required. “From a composer’s perspective, that’s the best.”
She had never played hockey when she got that assignment. She still hasn’t. “I thought of all those guys with all their gear on — very macho, very fast, like gladiators. I thought it should be very grand, with a lot of dynamics and excitement and machismo attached. I wanted to give that feeling.”
The first thing she got, she said, was that opening riff — “dunt-da-DUNT-da-dunt” — the rhythmic pulse that runs all the way through the composition. She built the entire piece on that kernel.
“I’m good at big melody; melodies with big spaces in them, big leaps. That’s what they tell me, anyway.” And her heroic swing-time march has plenty of those.
Trumpeter Guido Basso showed up to record the new, definitive version. He’s played on every version of the tune, including its inaugural recording in 1968. “It’s not technically demanding,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to play.”
At the initial 1968 session, Basso said, most of the musicians figured the number would last a season or two, not more than three decades. “But each agency wanted to re-record it with their own studio and their own people and change it a little.” But the melody stayed the same, and Claman always held the copyright, which led to this newest version.
Nine years ago, music copyright specialist John Ciccone tracked her down for clearance to use the theme. “I had no idea there were unauthorized versions of it,” she said. There have always been inquiries about the rights to the theme for everything from wedding marches to graduation ceremonies, bar mitzvahs and more. One man wanted to play the theme to encourage his wife during labor.
Initially, Ciccone and Claman figured they’d meet that demand by tracking down the 1968 master, sweetening it, cleaning it up sonically and putting it out on CD. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be found.
“It’s in a vault or lost or destroyed,” Claman said. “I have a snippet of tape, John was able to find a few other bits and pieces of it. But the master can’t be found. One morning I woke up and thought, ‘Why don’t we just record it again from scratch?’ The original was an eight-track recording. The technology’s so much better now anyway, it just made sense.” The arrangement was pieced together by Rick Wilkins, who reconstructed it by listening to those snippets of tape and writing new charts.
Once that decision was made, there was never any question about cutting the piece anywhere but Canada. “You’d have to have Canadian musicians,” Claman said. “Nobody else would have the feel or know how it was supposed to sound, no matter how technically proficient they might be.”
The session was booked for a studio on Mutual Street in Toronto, coincidentally in the same building that housed one of the first offices of Claman’s jingle company in the 1960s.
“When I got called for that, I would’ve done it for free,” Joan Watson, who plays French horn, says of being booked for the new Hockey Night in Canada recording session. “To me, it was history-making. I grew up with that tune, and where I grew up in northern Manitoba, hearing that music linked us to the rest of the country. So to do that remake with Dolores Claman right there — it was just incredible. I was thrilled to bits. I wore a hockey sweater, and all the legends were there — Guido Basso and some of the other guys on the original session.
“It probably helped that we all knew it from the original, because they were trying to get that feel. I think I know that tune in my cells. It’s just part of being Canadian.”
After years of working with often jaded session musicians fazed by nothing, Claman was surprised by the players at the recording of the theme’s definitive version. “After we were done, I went into the studio to thank them all — they were just superb. They applauded me. That’s the first time in my life that’s ever happened. I was so moved.”