FEBRUARY 25, 1940: HOCKEY’S FIRST TELECAST
by John Halligan
The date passes
quietly, as it always does, without notice or ado. It will no
doubt do so again this year,
when February 25 marks the 64th anniversary of hockey’s first
televised game. The year was 1940, the Rangers versus the Montreal
Canadiens at the “old” (or third) Madison Square Garden.
Sports on television are so pervasive
and taken for granted nowadays that it is hard to believe there
was once a time when “visual
radio” was scoffed at, ridiculed and given little chance
of making any significant impact with the general public.
We marvel today at the way ABC, ESPN,
MSG Network, Fox Sports and others bring NHL games into our
homes, complete with multiple
cameras, replays, and countless innovations that make the world’s
most exciting game even more exciting.
The first game ever televised was done with only one camera
in a fixed position. The game probably attracted no more than
a few hundred viewers, and garnered zero rating points. There
were only about 300 television receivers in the New York area.
Television manufacturers donated most of the sets to newspaper
editors, critics, and advertising executives.
Some sets were purchased (the price
was a hefty $660 apiece) by tavern owners. Viewers had to huddle
directly in front of
the set, because the screen only measured seven inches across,
and certainly couldn’t be viewed from any distance.
The Rangers defeated Montreal that
night by a score of 6-2. It was actually the third televised
sporting event to appear
on TV. Nine months earlier, the great Bill Stern called a college
baseball game between Princeton and Columbia at New York’s
Baker Field. The night before the Rangers game, on February 24,
the National AAU Track and Field championships were aired from
All of the events were carried on W2XBS, the experimental station
of the National Broadcasting Company, then the leader in commercial
The play-by-play announcer for the
first hockey telecast was Skip Walz, a noted amateur athlete
of the 1930s who had also
done public address work for Manhattan College football and Brooklyn
Dodgers baseball. For the sports telecasts, he called himself “Bill
Allen,” because, he noted years later, “it seemed
to roll off the tongue better.”
There was little or no attention given by the press to the presence
of television at the historic game. Newspapers (there were eleven
of them in New York City at the time) viewed TV (and radio as
well) as a rival that could threaten circulation. Some publishers
insisted that W2XBS pay advertising rates if it wanted to see
its schedule in print. Television listings as we know them today
were still decades away.
At the time of the first televised game, the Rangers and the
Boston Bruins were locked in a heated battle for first place
in the seven-team NHL. The Bruins eventually finished first by
Television, quite obviously, agreed with the New York Rangers.
They went on to win the 1940 Stanley Cup!
On radio as well, the Rangers proved to be pioneers in the National
Hockey League. They were the first NHL team, starting in 1926,
to put portions of their games on radio, pre-dating by a single
season the fabled broadcasts of Foster Hewitt in Toronto.
Madison Square Garden, the Rangers
home, purchased a radio station, and called it WMSG. As a general
rule, hockey fans had either
to stumble upon the broadcasts or learn of them by word of mouth,
since the station’s frequency on the AM dial (FM hadn’t
even been invented yet) changed often and newspapers treated
the “new” medium with great disdain.
The voice of WMSG was a “hockey man”—Jack
Filman, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, who was known for his
rapid-fire staccato, play-by-play delivery.
“Filman made ‘the world’s fastest game’ seem
even faster,” recalled Bill Cook, the Rangers’ first
team captain. Although how Cook would know that remains a puzzle,
since he (Cook) was working when Filman was working, and tape
recorders hadn’t even been invented at the time.
Through the years, the Rangers have boasted a cornucopia of
some of the greatest announcers in New York history. There were
Marty Glickman, Bert Lee, Ward Wilson, Bud Palmer, Win Elliot,
Spencer Ross, Sal Marchiano, Bill Mazer, Jim Gordon, Bill Chadwick,
Mike Emrick, Tim Ryan, Howie Rose, Sal Messina, Marv Albert,
Kenny Albert, Sam Rosen and John Davidson among others.
And for a single season, 1959-60,
Winnipeg-born Monty Hall of Let’s Make A Deal television fame, was a Rangers’ radio
John Halligan currently serves as Director of Communications
and Special Projects for the National Hockey League after spending
24 years with the New York Rangers as Public Relations Director,
Business Manager and Vice President of Communications.