Monday January 25th, 2016

On a Monday night last January, during a road trip to Toronto, Carolina Hurricanes forward Brad Malone went on a quest for a towel. To be clear, Malone wasn’t looking for just any ordinary locker room rag to clean away sweat. He wanted the iconic towel that is recognizable to every Canadian hockey fan. The one emblazoned with the broadcast’s logo and draped around the necks of interviewees at intermission. He wanted the white Hockey Night in Canada towel. “He said he was going after it,” teammate Jeff Skinner says.

This was a bold mission. Interviews, and therefore towels, usually went to standouts from the previous period. Malone, on the other hand, had scored only his second goal of the season two nights prior in Ottawa. The fourth-liner was, in fact, among the more unlikely candidates for getting a towel, until he punched back a juicy rebound and raised his fist in celebration, maybe even to signal for his reward.

“He doesn’t score that often,” Skinner says, setting up the gut punch. “Then someone else ended up getting the towel.”

At the time, Skinner wasn't well-versed in the towel’s tradition, but Malone’s plight lingered with the Toronto native. So when the Hurricanes later hosted the rare Hockey Night in Canada game in Raleigh and Skinner got a towel himself, he gifted it to Malone. “That’s when I learned about the towel and the significance,” Skinner says. “He earned it. He got robbed.”

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For so many children of the Dominion, Hockey Night in Canada is “appointment viewing,” says Scott Oake. As the ice-level reporter for Sportsnet, the Rogers-owned channel that took over broadcasting rights from CBC two season sago, Oake is therefore “like the keeper off the towel, like the guy who carries the Stanley Cup around.” But what kid pays attention to a towel, especially when the person beneath it plays in the National Hockey League? Who cares about cloth while an idol talks on the screen?

Adults who still remember those days, apparently. 

“That’s why it’s a dream come true when you get here,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson says. “You spend so many days with your imagination growing up, wanting to be there, that it’s pretty cool when you get to be a part of it and get to see the towel in person.”

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey remembers high school parties screeching to a halt whenever intermission arrived. Music off. TV to full blast. Everyone silent, listening to Don Cherry’s Coach’s Corner segment, then the intermission interview. “Three minutes later, boom, party’s back on,” Quincey says.

As for the towel? Quincey never really noticed it until he reached the NHL. He still remembers his first Hockey Night in Canada interview. He didn’t know players could keep their towel. He gave it to his parents. They still have it at home.

“I think it was, like, holy s--- I’ve made it,” Quincey says.

As far back as John Shannon remembers, there were always towels. The first incarnation appeared under former executive producer Ron Harrison and were sponsored by an old linen company called Wabasso, Shannon says. This made for a tricky situation. On the one hand, the towels were free. On the other hand, they featured a logo most associated with bedding. “It wasn’t really indicative of what a few of us thought Hockey Night in Canada stood for,” Shannon says.

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The way Shannon, a former HNIC executive producer, tells its history, the towel first moved toward its iconic state after the 1994-95 lockout ended, as the broadcast searched for better branding. “We wanted Hockey Night in Canada all over the place,” Shannon says. And since each intermission interviewee received the same two things—bottled water to drink and a towel to wipe his face—Shannon smacked the HNIC logo right on the thing present in every shot. “While simultaneously ending the practice of paying players a modest sum for the interview segments ($75 or so, Shannon says), the broadcast offered a token for their troubles.

“We had a merchandise person that I’d say, ‘I need 500 white towels and I want to put this logo on them,” Shannon says. “He came up with a price and I said let’s do it. It was great money spent.”

At first, players ditched the towel like it belonged in the laundry, hurling it back to whichever associate producer stood nearby. “No, no,” they were told. “You can keep it.” Some would. Others ignored the offer. “But by the time the playoffs took place in 1995,” Shannon says, “the players weren’t only wanting the towel, but they wanted to be interviewed to get the towel.” On several occasions, public relations officials have approached Shannon asking for another towel, alleging that the player lost it. They often left disappointed. Broadcast rule holds that only three towels are brought to the rink each night—no extras.

Buzz quickly spread. At rink level, Oake found himself fielding offers from players hoping for a score. “You get the towel, you got me,” they would say. One asked Oake for his autograph. A few requested towels to give their fathers, though were often rebuffed out of the desire to maintain exclusivity. (For this reason, towels aren’t sold to the general public either.) Others earned theirs on merit. “I think Eric Lindros ended up with enough for a bathrobe,” Oake says. “He quite liked getting the towels. He said he used them in the boat house at his cottage.”

During the 1998 Stanley Cup Final, Capitals star Adam Oates asked longtime HNIC producer Kathy Broderick if she could send a towel to his friend, a professional golfer in Canada. Broderick hemmed and hawed but eventually agreed. The golfer, it turned out, was Mike Weir, who went on to win the 2003 Masters. “As a jock, you get spoiled and you get a lot of cool trinkets, and to have that with the logo on it is a really cool thing,” Oates says. “It’s the emblem. It’s something you grew up your whole life watching.”

The specific origins, though, are in dispute. Though Shannon recalled the HNIC-branded towel debuting on the first post-lockout telecast, Broderick checked the archives and couldn’t find one on-air until Nov. 28, 1998, when the Maple Leafs hosted the Senators. But she also found two forms of HNIC towels used during the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons. 

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Over the years, the towel’s design has morphed as the logo and brand changed, and so has the stitching. Sponsors like Molson and Labatt appear on some. “There’s different variations of the white towel,” Shannon says. “Most say ‘Hockey Night in Canada on CBC’ or just ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ Some have the blue stick and the puck. But to this day, there’s a HNIC logo around everybody’s shoulders when they get interviewed on a Saturday night.”

One year, Shannon recalls, the broadcast received “pushback” from the NHL, which wanted a Gatorade logo on the towel. The answer was a flat no. “It’s not a sponsorship issue,” Shannon says. “It’s part of the tradition of the show.”

Eric Staal keeps his towels at his offseason home in Canada. Stamkos stashes his in a game room. Jordan Tootoo took his back to his parents’ house in Nunavut, the Inuit region where he grew up. “They’ve got a little shrine of all their trophies and collectible things, jerseys and stuff,” Tootoo says. And one towel.

Other players find more practical purposes in their keepsakes. Stars forward Jason Spezza, formerly of the Senators, keeps a few in his pool room in Toronto, in case someone needs to dry off. Mike Cammalleri accumulated plenty during six seasons with Canadian clubs, so he uses the towels in the bathroom of the gym at his summer home. “I should keep one nice, huh?” he asks. “I probably will. I’ll probably put it aside and keep it all nice.”

When Brad May received his first towel, he made sure to find a safe stowing spot. Rather than dropping it into his equipment bag inside the locker room, he marched into the dry-change room and hid it in his suitcase. “It was a sacred towel,” says May, now retired and working for the Sabres broadcast crew. “It was cool and it was mine. I wasn’t giving it up.”

May had plenty more chances across five seasons with the Canucks, a luxury not afforded to Toronto native Daniel Winnik during the early stages of his career. “That was like a running joke for me in Phoenix,” he says. “I always had great games on Hockey Night in Canada. Always. I’d get a goal, two goals, I’d always have points, no matter what. And I never got a freaking interview, ever.” Not even during his second season, when he snapped a 29-game goal drought with two goals against Calgary—one in the first period, another in the second.

Two nights later, still stinging from the snub, Winnik got a consolation prize from the Coyotes’ local television crew at his next home game: A Fox Sports Arizona towel.

It just wasn’t the same.

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