Peter Puck: The Pokecheck Professor

Originally published in Animato! in 1997, updated in 2007

The Atlanta Flames hockey game just entered its first intermission period, and the television commentators discussed the early action. Most viewers took that cue to head for the fridge, the bathroom, the wrestling match on another station. A few moments later, the next picture the home audience saw was an animated puck sliding down a cartoon ice surface. “At this time,” the puck said from its orange-colored mouth, “I’m going to talk about timing, equipment, officials and players.”

Then a hockey stick gave the puck a solid slapshot.

“Hey cool it fellas,” the puck piped up, “I got something to say!” Then, as hockey gloves and skates popped out of the puck like legs from a tortoise’s shell, the talking slab of rubber stood up.

“Howdy fans, Peter Puck here to lay some facts on you about hockey – the world’s fastest team sport.”

With those first words, aired in 1973 between periods of an NBC NHL Game of the Week, Peter Puck began a career as hockey’s cartoon entertainer/educator, or as he once described himself, “your ol’ pokecheck professor.”

Brian McFarlane, a longtime broadcaster and one of the main commentators on the Game of the Week, helped create Peter Puck. “When I was with NBC in 1973, my boss, Scotty Connell, decided that our intermission features needed to be more instructional in nature. He called Joe Barbera out at Hanna-Barbera (the cartoon company responsible for The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?), and said, ‘We need a little animated character to describe hockey.’ They asked me to send Hanna-Barbera some of my literature on hockey, some of my books, and describe what an offside is and icing and that sort of thing.”

When they were done, Hanna-Barbera created a talking, skating, wisecracking hockey puck. Joseph Barbera, president of the cartoon studio, gave the character the alliterative nickname of “Peter Puck.” “Joe said to me several months later,” said McFarlane, “‘I just gave him the name Peter Puck. It just popped out of my mouth. We decided, hey, that’s all right, we’ll stick with that.'”

For two years on the NBC NHL Game of the Week (and five more on Hockey Night in Canada), Peter Puck educated and entertained the home audience, keeping them from changing channels during intermissions. “NBC brought in a lot of sportscasters and sportswriters from the Southern markets to take them to a hockey game, their first NHL hockey game for most of them,” said McFarlane, “and NBC showed them Peter Puck before the game, there were 2, 3, 4 episodes on offsides and icings and what the referee does. It was very successful. And I used to introduce Peter on those shows – and soon people referred to me as ‘Peter Puck’s father,’ and wherever I went, some people would kid around and ask me, ‘Mr. Puck, how’s your son Peter?'”

Each episode took place in the middle of a fast-paced animated hockey game. The instant Peter noticed real-live viewers were watching the game, he would say hi, skate up to the camera, and begin describing rules and concepts of hockey. Many times he would use the players and the officials in his hockey game to show how plays are set up, what hand signals are used when describing penalties, and how to differentiate icing from a two-line pass. Within months, kids who wouldn’t know a slapshot from buckshot could correctly cite the offsides and icing rules as easily as singing the preamble to the Constitution.

McFarlane wrote many of the episodes, continuing a literary tradition set by his father, who wrote many of the Hardy Boys novels under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. Although Puck’s body was drawn by Hanna-Barbera artists, his voice actually belonged to actor Ronnie Schell [Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.], who did some voice work for the cartoon studio in the 1970’s.

In one memorable episode, Peter Puck showed the audience a three-on-two breakaway used by the Detroit Red Wings’ “Production Line” (Sid Abel would pass to Gordie Howe at the point, who shot it at the boards, where Ted Lindsay would pick up the rebound and swat it past the goalie). Another classic episode, “The Story of the Stanley Cup,” described the champion chalice and some of the famous contests played for it. A companion episode discusses the sister trophies in the NHL (Hart, Vezina, Lady Byng, etc.).

Meanwhile, both the red-sweatered home team and the blue-jerseyed road team swatted Peter around, often in the middle of his lessons. Sometimes the players apologized for hitting Peter so hard with their slapshot; other times Peter would wise off about the goaltenders and their 1960’s face shields. “Some of the letters people sent me were kind of cute,” said McFarlane. “I used to keep the best letters, because kids would send in a drawing of Peter Puck or make a snowman out of Peter Puck, take a picture of it and send it in. I can remember letters like, ‘Dear Peter, does it hurt when they hit you on your bottom?’ He even got marriage proposals and things of that nature.”

Hanna-Barbera used a process called “limited animation” during the Peter Puck series, essentially reusing the least number of drawings to provide the most amount of information. Diagrammed hockey plays and rules were shown as overhead shots with animated dots and dashed lines. Sometimes the hockey players in the show looked like they were facing each other – the drawings were reversed on one side rather than have to draw two different skaters. Sometimes that caused unintentional incongruities, such as an all-left-handed team versus an all-right-handed team.

During Peter Puck’s tenure on NBC, only nine episodes were ever made. Since creating new animated episodes would have cost upwards of $200,000 for a series, McFarlane tried some novel approaches during Peter’s appearances on Hockey Night in Canada, cutting costs by mixing existing animation with archival hockey footage. “I didn’t have much of a budget, so I would have Peter skip across the screen for 30 seconds, and say, ‘I’m going to tell you a story from my hockey history book,’ and then I’d go to the videotape and have Peter’s voice do the voiceover, and some famous Stanley Cup game footage would air while Peter described it. Then he’d say, ‘That’s it. Join me for another story from my hockey history book.’ That was a very inexpensive way to keep Peter going for a while.”

Peter Puck retired from television in 1980, but McFarlane has kept the character alive. For many years, the wisecracking rubber biscuit has appeared at shopping malls, skate-a-thons, and other public appearances. Also appearing with Peter has been a companion, Penny Puck (actually a Peter Puck costume with a hair bow on top). “Peter goes over terrific. You have to have an escort for him, because kids will grab him by his gloves, or leave sticky fingers on his backside, try to grab his gloves and run away, that sort of thing. Every time there’s an appearance, I always tell the guy in the costume ahead of time to follow some simple rules – when you’re in the costume, you are Peter Puck to all these kids, and Peter doesn’t talk at shows like he talks on TV because he’s shy. So one day I’ve got a guy playing Peter Puck at a mall opening, and the local TV station wants to ask ‘Peter Puck’ a question, so they point a camera at him and say, ‘What’s your name?’ And the guy inside Peter Puck goes, ‘I’m Johnny Smith from St. Catherines! Welcome to the mall!”

Every so often, a hockey team calls McFarlane and asks him about using Peter Puck for their television broadcasts, or in putting him on their video scoreboard. The Boston Bruins want to use Peter in their inaugural season at the FleetCenter; the Syracuse Crunch have rebroadcast classic Peter Puck episodes during their televised games. “I get a call at least once a week from somebody, whether it’s the new team in Charlotte or some team in Texas or the midwest, saying ‘Who is this Peter Puck? Someone said we should phone you and see if we can’t use Peter Puck on our arena scoreboard.'”

Three books – Peter Puck: Love That Hockey Game (1975), Peter Puck and the Stolen Stanley Cup (1980), and Peter Puck’s Greatest Moments in Hockey (1980) – are now collector’s items. Meanwhile, fans hope that one day Peter Puck will lace up his skates once again, ready to entertain and educate hockey fans throughout North America. And as Peter himself would say while skating off into the sunset, “Love that hockey game!”

NOTE: This article was originally written in 1997. In 2007, a DVD series that contained all the original Hanna-Barbera episodes was released. New episodes, featuring a computer-generated Peter Puck, later appeared on YouTube.