by Rick Brace
In the mid-1950s, the idea of a 24-hour television network dedicated solely to sports was unimaginable. Even the iconic Hockey Night in Canada was joined in the middle of the second period of the game being covered.
As a teenager from Pilot Mound, Manitoba, Gordon Craig’s biggest concern was getting an education and finding a decent job. He was determined that his current role, working on a construction crew and paving highways would not become a lifelong vocation. With the encouragement of his parents, he enrolled at United College transferring after one year to the University of Manitoba, majoring in Geology. It took only six months for ‘Gordy’ to realize that the only rocks of interest to him were found at the local curling club.
By 1954, the CBC had come to Manitoba and through a family connection Gordon managed to find a job in the mailroom. This was to become the ‘TSN Turning Point’ in Gordon’s life. Quickly he advanced from delivering mail to hanging lights in the studios to working the camera as part of the CFL crew. It was here he decided that sports television was his true passion as he moved to director, producer and eventually to Toronto where he became the Head of Sports for CBC.
In 1962, Gordon championed the first live broadcast of the Brier, followed six years later by the first televised World Curling Championships. It was his vision and determination that put curling on the map in Canada and made the sport a TV favourite.
One of Canada’s proudest moments came in 1976 when Montreal hosted the Olympic Summer Games. As Executive Producer of CBC’s coverage, Gordon joined the fight to finally convince senior management that CBC must go wall-to-wall with Olympic programming, breaking only for news. This revolutionary move was to become the standard for all future Olympic coverage. It also planted the seed that grew into a visionary idea. Why not develop a 24-hour sports television service for Canada? After all, specialty television had just launched in the United States and was getting some traction.
In the early 1980s, Gordon left CBC to pursue his dream. All he needed to do was find a company with a love of sports, deep pockets and convince them that in a country one-tenth the size of the U.S. with a relatively miniscule number of cabled homes, his idea would work. It was Peter Widdrington, then Chairman and CEO of Labatt, who gave him the chance.
On September 1, 1984, TSN was born. Television sports coverage was immediately revolutionized in this country. First as a pay service and later moving to basic, TSN rapidly grew and became the anchor for the growth of cable in Canada. In 1988, TSN received international acclaim as the first cable specialty service to carry the Olympic games, with 115 hours of coverage from Calgary.
TSN had grown from a service that depended on niche sports for its survival to a network that delivered the most comprehensive schedule of major league events available anywhere on television. Cable had also grown. Gordon recognized that sitting still and resting on his laurels was not good enough. And so in the mid-1990s, he launched Discovery Channel in Canada and RDS, providing Francophone Canadians with their own 24-hour sports service. This was supported with a mobile television company known as Dome Productions, with all companies falling under the newly dubbed ‘NetStar Communications’ umbrella.
After selling NetStar to CTV Inc. in 2000, Gordon decided to retire. He left a legacy of the most popular and profitable specialty services in the country. His vision provided the base for the transformation of television and viewing habits in this country. He is applauded by his peers, respected by his competitors and recognized by all as the pioneer of specialty television in Canada.
Last September, at a private celebration for TSN’s 20th anniversary, I asked Gordon if he was enjoying retirement. He said, “it’s terrific, but in all honesty I miss the action.”
We’d welcome him back!