Six weeks into the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run, I needed a break from the rink. I also needed a column. I also needed to mow the lawn, but that was far easier to ignore than the 5 p.m. Friday copy deadline for my weekly Second Thought.
Deadlines are like dandelions. In fact, if you stare at those two words for a while, you’ll see they are eerily similar. Beat ’em down all you want, deadlines and dandelions grow back at an incredible rate, to the point you can close your eyes at night and hear them sprouting, reaching . . . torturing.
So, weeds and words be damned, I cut a fast path to YouTube and took a trip on the Internet Way Back Machine to the ’70s.
Destination: Peter Puck.
For the unenlightened, Peter Puck was a cartoon character created to engage the non-hockey fan during TV broadcasts. Somewhat surprisingly, Peter Puck became a “Hockey Night in Canada” staple. Of all the hockey gin joints in all the world, it was part of Canada, the country where every pond is frozen year-round, where everyone plays hockey, and even your old Aunt Bea pours herself a beer to watch “HNIC” on Saturday.
So Canada also needed a cartoon character to teach it the game. Really? How many Canadians? Three guys held captive in a curling-stone warehouse in Newfoundland?
Peter’s run in the US was brief. Bruins fans, addicted to their heroes on Channel 38, would have seen him only on the weekend when NBC picked him up for intermissions during the “NHL Game of the Week.”
I neither loved nor hated Peter, figuring, probably like most Bruins fans, that I didn’t need any remedial hockey work. Heck, like everything else, we invented hockey here in the Hub. We had the great Bobby Orr and a couple of Stanley Cups to prove it.
Sure, maybe they needed a puck primer in new NHL cities like St. Louis or Los Angeles or even Philadelphia, where the Broad Street Bullies were making up their own rules. But not here.
Little did I know, they were watching it in Saskatoon, Montreal, Three Rivers, and the Northwest Territories, too. Peter’s reach was far and wide across North America. Not everyone understood the game like those of us among the Causeway cognoscenti.
For what can seem, at least initially, a very complicated game, Peter Puck’s approach was straight and simple. The cartoon character was a puck with eyes and arms and skates. He explained the game’s rules and nuances, breaking it all down in a way that was geared toward kids.
“I won’t say I hated it, but I thought it was infantile,’’ said Dave Reading, 62, who grew up an avid Flyers fan in Philly and moved some 25 years ago to Mount Vernon, Wash. “It seemed like they tried to appeal to such a broad base with it that, at least in my view, they alienated people who already loved the sport.
“I was shocked to find out they watched it in Canada, too.’’
Ronnie Schell, who played opposite Jim Nabors in the popular TV series “Gomer Pyle: USMC,” was one of Peter Puck’s voices. Micky Dolenz, drummer and vocalist for the Monkees, also “voiced’’ it for a while. Hanna-Barbera Productions was the animator and creator right here in the US. Fred Flinstone and Peter Puck were born and raised under the same studio roof.
Primers can be tricky, to teach to the uninitiated while not offending the experts. Imagine dropping, say, an animated Buddy Ballgame into a major league baseball game during an ESPN broadcast. America’s a big country, its population roughly 10 times that of Canada, and I bet a few million of us probably need to learn the rules of America’s pastime, how it’s played (good mornin’, Bobby Valentine).
Buddy Ballgame would be a tough fit with so many A-list viewers in the audience. An A-lister knows all the ins and outs of inside baseball, things like what it means to pitch on the black, where to buy primo pine tar, how Manny Ramirez met his wife. What could Buddy Ballgame tell an A-lister about the infield fly rule?
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, grew up in northern New Jersey and was a big fan of Peter Puck.
“I thought it was a cute concept,’’ Daly recalled. “You’re talking my sweet spot here because I had to be, oh, 9 or 10 years old when it was on NBC. My dad was a big Rangers fan, which is what got me into hockey.
“Then those NBC broadcasts with Tim Ryan, Ted Lindsay, and Howie Meeker . . . all great memories for me, and Peter Puck was a big part of it.’’
In third grade, Daly recalled, Peter Puck’s influence led him to fashion toothbrushes into hockey player-like figures for a school project on dental health. Around the same time, he said, another school assignment led him to write a book, “Henri The Hockey Player,” all because of getting hooked on Peter Puck.
“Not a bad book,’’ said Daly, with no shortage of school pride. “I got a pretty good grade on it. The other kids in class kept saying, ‘Henry The Hockey Player.’ But I’d say, ‘No, it’s pronounced “On-ree,” like Henri Richard.’
“You can see the Peter Puck theme stuck with me, I guess.’’
It’s highly unlikely that Fox’s blazing blue puck and animated robots of the ’90s inspired grammar school projects. In the HDTV world of sports coverage, Peter Puck may be the leather skates and wooden stick of the broadcast industry, but it had its niche. It was simple, effective, memorable fun.
Ken London, for years Channel 38’s producer/director of Bruins telecasts, was thinking of Peter Puck Wednesday night during NBC’s coverage of Game 3, Bruins vs. Penguins.
“Something happened during the game and I expected Eddie O. to give a dumbed-down explanation for the hockey newbies,’’ said London, referring to Ed Olczyk, the NBC color commentator. “But he didn’t, and they rarely do anymore.
“I think NBC finally has identified its audience as hockey fans who have a basic understanding of the rules. We’ve come a long way from the Peter Puck days.”
Peter Puck has left the building, likely never to return. It’s too bad. Today’s big, serious business of sports entertainment could use that kind of smile.