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Saturday, January 20, 2018
Red Fisher Dies @ 91
Red Fisher, the chronicler and the conscience of Montreal hockey whose career touched seven decades, died on Friday at age 91.
Fisher started on the Canadiens beat in 1955 in the era of train travel and finished it in 2012 when reporters tweeted the lines at morning skates. The man knew how to make an entrance: the first game he covered was the Richard Riot, that singular marriage of hockey, sociology and, ultimately, mythology that has marked Quebec for generations. Fisher was the link to the most glorious of the Canadiens teams and covered 17 of their record 24 Stanley Cups. Along the way, the journalist who was believed to be the longest-serving beat man covering the major North American leagues collected three National Newspaper Awards and thousands of tales, entertaining readers and often ennobling hockey.
Fisher received one of Canada’s highest civilian honours on Dec. 29, 2017, when he was named a member of the Order of Canada “for his contributions to sports journalism, notably for his iconic coverage of the Montreal Canadiens hockey franchise.”
“He was the best of his time,” Canadiens Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden wrote in an email, “and his time lasted a very long time.”
Although he was prominent on Hockey Night in Canada with The Fisher Report and worked as a colour analyst on Canadiens broadcasts, Fisher was better known for the written than the spoken word. He was a distinctive writer, often bypassing the who-what-where-why journalism conventions for something as informative but more stylish, punctuated with tics and flourishes that hardened into an inimitable style. Among his catchphrases: “My great and good friend.” “Nobody died.” “Take a deep breath and hold it.” His deadline game stories were not newspaper-y, but 800-word novellas, replete with heroes, villains and plot. The gift for narrative and analysis made him the definitive voice on hockey’s heritage franchise at the Montreal Star and for 33 years, at the Gazette.
“There were a lot of intelligent people in the (media) business, but he was one of the most astute,” New York Rangers president Glen Sather said. “He was intelligent, analytical.”
“When things would go wrong for the team or for me, I would search for answers,” Dryden wrote. “If I couldn’t find them, I would say to myself: ‘I wonder what Red thinks’ and wait for the next day’s paper. I never did that with anyone else.”
Fisher could be finicky. He preferred corner hotel rooms on the road. He liked his soup scalding, his toast burnt, his Chivas with a few rocks and his quotes meaty. He steadfastly refused to refer to the Canadiens in print as the “Habs,” one of several unwritten Red Rules. But after filing on deadline he would call the Gazette sports desk to check on his story, greeting the editor who answered the phone with, “Habs in?” Once, when winger Mark Recchi failed to deliver after a post-game playoff victory over the New York Rangers, Fisher spun on his heels and headed toward the dressing room, theatrically muttering, “Clichés, clichés, clichés.” Hockey pants around his ankles, Recchi hobbled after him, asking: “But Red, what did you want me to say?”
Fisher wanted a good tale, a nugget that might illuminate a play or a game. Even as reporting became more breathless in the Internet age, Fisher remained circumspect. “He liked the story but hated the rumour,” Sather said. In his 1994 memoirs, Hockey, Heroes and Me, Fisher wrote his favourite four-letter word was “fair.” He would leave cheap shots and bons mots to others, not that he avoided the clever and cutting when the situation demanded. During the 1970s when Scotty Bowman was stonewalling an injury to Montreal’s first-line centre, Fisher wrote: “Jacques Lemaire is doubtful for tonight’s game with what Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman describes as an upset stomach. The pain, however, has gone all the way up to his slightly separated shoulder.”
“Red covered several thousand games in his career,” Dryden wrote. “How many ways are there to say that the Rocket is ‘fiery,’ Béliveau ‘regal,’ Plante ‘eccentric and brilliant’? What can you write day after day about Lafleur, Robinson, Gainey and Roy? About Blake and Bowman? Red had every right to have been a been there-done that person, but he wasn’t. He watched every game with open eyes, because he knew that what he was doing wasn’t about him. He knew that if a game was being played, it mattered. If players were playing it, they mattered. If fans were watching it, they mattered. If readers were reading his story, they mattered. And if he was writing it, he mattered. Red took the game, the Canadiens, his readers and himself very seriously.”
While game stories and columns were his staples, Fisher wrote some memorable features that were fuelled by empathy and a firm grasp of the human condition. His tender stories about Laura Gainey, swept out to sea on her tall ship off the coast of Nova Scotia in 2006, a frail Toe Blake and the death of Hall of Fame winger and close friend Dickie Moore in 2015 belied his painstakingly cultivated image as a curmudgeon. At times he could be — to appropriate one of his literary locutions — cranky with gusts to crotchety. But for Fisher respect and friendship were precious commodities, slowly earned and not freely bestowed.
“I met Red first in Stockholm at the World Hockey Championships in 1969,” Dryden wrote. “I was twenty-one; he was forty-two. I thought he was sixty. He was imperious. He was Red Fisher. He observed; he reported; he pronounced. He loved being the best because he could act like the best. He could be cantankerous and crusty. He could be intimidating. He could avoid suffering the fools he had no time for. But if you didn’t fall for his act, Red was funny, smart and endlessly great company.”
“The players liked Red because he was from the old era,” said Steve Shutt, the star left winger on the dynastic Canadiens of the 1970s who later worked with Fisher on CJAD broadcasts. “He came from a time when the players and reporters were attached, riding the trains together. He was viewed almost as part of the team.”
Fisher, raised near The Main where his father, Sam, who had emigrated from Russia (via several years in Scotland), repaired and sold second-hand shoes, started on the Canadiens beat at a time when reporters were practically embedded with their teams. Indeed, Fisher might have been the last working journalist to be initiated by the Canadiens in the old-time hockey way. Now, NHL rookies are merely stuck with outrageous tabs after dinners, but Fisher, like the players of decades ago, received rougher treatment. He was stripped naked, bound to a massage table and shaved by Maurice Richard, dressed in a surgeon’s cap and a white lab coat, who, Fisher would later write, growled: “Welcome to the family.”
Fisher earned his place in the family not because the Canadiens initially paid for transportation, hotels and $10 in meal money — a practice The Star discontinued in 1963 when Fisher and Blake, the coach, had a confrontation over the policy — but through his work. Although he became synonymous with the Canadiens in the minds of readers across the country, he bristled when he was perceived as being too closely aligned to the team. Fisher had a policy of not speaking to rookies, probably the most famous Red Rule. When the 36-year-old Alain Vigneault was hired to coach the Canadiens in May 1997, he telephoned Fisher and said: “Mr. Fisher, I know you don’t talk to rookies, but I’d like to have lunch this summer to discuss our team.” The choice of the word “our” was the solecism. “No, thanks,” Fisher told Vigneault. “See you in training camp.”
“Red had our trust,” Shutt said. “We would tell him stuff that would help fill out the story because he knew what to write and what not to. Red would always interview players by himself” — this was another of the Red Rules; Fisher despised pack journalism — “because if another reporter was around, the players would go all corporate. If the Journal de Montréal heard some of the stuff we trusted Red with, it would be front page every day.
“Red never was out for the big scoop, although that didn’t mean he didn’t get them.”
Perhaps the most sensational came in 1970. Fisher obtained a financial report presented by NHL president Clarence Campbell to the Board of Governors that stated: “Even though our return to the players last season was at an all-time low, our profits were at an all-time high.” Fisher wrote a five-part series about player salaries and benefits, a sensation that netted him the first of his National Newspaper Awards. The series, which embarrassed the NHL, also cost Fisher a regular slot on Hockey Night in Canada intermissions.
Fourteen years later, Fisher broke another story, one — indirectly at least — that might have had an even more significant effect on his career.
In 1984, a senior Gazette executive was mulling removing Fisher from the Canadiens beat and replacing him with a writer who specialized in Olympic sports. “I think Red’s losing his fastball,” the executive confided to a newspaper staffer.
The idea was utter folly. Fisher knew where the hockey bodies were buried; most other reporters were unaware anyone was missing. Fisher infrequently attended the actual Canadiens practices because there was no need. He would go to the Forum before the skates, troll the changing area behind the dressing room for stories and quietly depart before other journalists arrived. A few weeks after the Gazette executive mused about shaking up the beat, Fisher shook up Montreal and the NHL by reporting Guy Lafleur would announce his retirement, the resounding Montreal sports scoop of the decade.
The story killed any talk of Fisher’s fastball. Fisher, who vowed to keep working “until I get it right,” had plenty of zip for another 28 years, during which he would win two more National Newspaper Awards and a career achievement award from Sports Media Canada. He was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
Fisher worked until he was 85. He did not let go of anything lightly, whether it was his career or a feud with the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 1985, he won the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for distinguished hockey writing given by the Hall, receiving a blazer that designated him as an Honoured Member. Almost two decades later, Bill Hay, then chairman of the Hall of Fame, essentially downgraded the writer and broadcaster categories; the winners of the Elmer Ferguson and Foster Hewitt Memorial Awards were to be considered “media honourees” and not members. Fisher, who had served on the Hall of Fame selection committee from 1985 through 2003, severed ties with the Hall. He requested his photograph in the media lounge at the Bell Centre, where it hung with other Hall-recognized media members, be removed. Fisher never made his peace with the Hall of Fame nor did he bother to camouflage his bitterness at the perceived slight.
“A travesty what Hay did to Red,” Sather said.
Sather was one of Fisher’s closest friends in hockey, perhaps the only man who could put anything over on him. His most famous prank involved research Fisher had done at the Canadian Pacific Railway museum in Montreal for Sather, who, with partners, had purchased Storm Mountain Lodge, built by the railway in 1922, near Banff. The amount of work and the recompense for the time always remained in dispute — in jest, Sather wondered what Fisher wanted for his efforts and Fisher, who collected western art, asked in all seriousness for an Indian painting — but the punch line was not. After various cheque-is-in-the-mail burlesques — Sather said the painting had been returned because of an incorrect address — the Edmonton Oilers general manager told Fisher he would present the painting at the draft in Montreal. Sather invited journalists and team officials to his hotel suite, gave a laudatory speech about his newspaper friend and then removed the black crepe from the picture on the easel in the room. There in a full headdress was an enlarged photograph of former NHL defenceman and Oilers scout Jim Neilson, who is half Cree, pretending to paint the side of house.
Voilà. An Indian, painting.
No one laughed louder and longer than Fisher.
In February 2016, the Professional Hockey Writers Association, of which Fisher was a founder, asked permission to name an annual award for beat writing in his honour. Fisher demurred. (He was at odds with the PHWA after it did not back him vigorously enough in his feud with the Hall of Fame.) After several minutes of arm-twisting from an intermediary, Fisher relented. “But,” he said, “make sure you tell them I don’t give a damn” — that’s paraphrasing slightly — “one way or another.”
Tillie, Fisher’s wife of 69 years died on Jan. 9, 2018, at age 90.
Fisher is survived by children Ian and Cheryl, and grandson Ryan.