How Alex Trebek Almost Became Host of Hockey Night in Canada

The host of North America's most popular game show was a tuft of facial hair away from becoming the host of Canada's most popular (hockey) game show.
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If not for the small thatch of facial hair that became his signature, there’s a good chance the only Jeopardy! that would have been part of Alex Trebek’s television career was when Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series went into overtime. And he would have spent his career talking about who won the Jennings Trophy instead of presiding over Ken Jennings and his 74 consecutive wins on the iconic game show.

The year was 1971 and Hockey Night in Canada had just fired Ward Cornell and was looking for a younger and more dynamic replacement. The way former executive producer Ralph Mellanby tells it, five candidates made the short list. One of them was Dave Hodge, who ultimately got the job and hosted the show for 16 years. Another was Trebek, who had joined the CBC after graduating from the University of Ottawa and was best known for hosting a high school game show called Reach for the Top. He had also hosted broadcasts of horse racing and figure skating. “We wanted to get younger and more vibrant,” Mellanby said. “And one of the guys I got from Ottawa was Alex Trebek. He was doing some sports and other things. I really liked Trebek.”

Mellanby said he was in the office of his boss, Ted Hough, the former president of the Canadian Sports Network, which produced Hockey Night. As Hough and Mellanby watched the audition tapes of the five finalists, the more Mellanby wanted Trebek to fill the chair. But he was overruled by his boss, who had a strict rule that immediately eliminated Trebek from the running. “We’re watching (Trebek’s) audition and I said, ‘Ted, that’s the guy I really want,’ ” Mellanby said. “And he said, ‘We’re not hiring him. We don’t hire guys with moustaches!’ So I hired Dave Hodge.”

Mellanby can’t quite recall why the network simply didn’t ask Trebek to shave off his moustache. It must have been fate. After all, Hodge was an outstanding host of the show from 1971 until his tenure ended in 1987 on a controversial note. On March 14, 1987, CBC was televising the end of a regional broadcast of a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens on the national network after the Toronto Maple Leafs game had ended early. The game was tied at the end of the third period, but CBC executives decided to cut away from the game everywhere in the country outside Quebec rather than broadcast the overtime. “The Flyers and Canadiens have us in suspense,” Hodge told his audience, “and we’ll remain that way until we can find out somehow who won this game or who’s responsible for the way we do things around here.” Hodge then flipped his pen and signed off, the quit as the host of the show. Ron MacLean took the job and, with the exception of an ill-fated two-season experiment with George Stroumboulopoulos, has held the job ever since.

It’s hard to imagine Trebek ever flipping his pen in disgust over an overtime game being bumped, but it’s almost impossible to imagine Jeopardy! without Trebek as the host. But with Trebek’s death of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80, that is the reality. Had Trebek hosted Hockey Night, he almost certainly would have been incredible, but it would have deprived a huge market of an enormous talent. And even though Trebek took his talents to Los Angeles, he never lost touch with his Canadian and hockey roots. He hosted one of the segments of The NHL 100, a gala that was held at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles in 2017 to celebrate the NHL’s top 100 players of all-time. In 2019, just months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, Trebek presented the Hart Trophy to Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. And in early October, Trebek announced the Ottawa Senators choice of Tim Stutzle with the third overall pick using the Jeopardy! format.

Sunday was a difficult day for Mellanby. He and Trebek had become good friends over the years. And the same day Trebek died, he also lost longtime Hockey Night in Canada analyst Howie Meeker. “I talked to (Trebek) on the phone about two months ago and wished him well,” Mellanby said. “I finally told him the story and he didn’t know it. And he said, ‘That is a great story, Ralph. I finally shaved off the moustache.’ He said, ‘I want to thank you for not hiring me. I went to California.’ ”

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