Red Fisher: A half-century-plus and counting on Habs beat

rouge-1.jpgRed Fisher at the Jean Béliveau Gala, Bell Centre, March 29, 2007
Courtesy Bob Fisher (no relation), Montreal Canadiens

A good point made by an Inside/Out reader: why not a story on The Gazette’s Red Fisher, the dean of hockey writers who’s heading into his 53rd season of covering the Canadiens?

Red’s first game was the infamous Richard Riot on March 17, 1955. He’s covered thousands since, and on Oct. 13 will be in the Bell Centre press box, in his seat high above centre ice, to begin yet another season.

The story below appeared on the front page of The Gazette on April 17, 2006, two days after the Canadiens had paid tribute to Red for his 50 years (plus one, counting the lockout) of covering the club.

How can we have a website dedicated to the Canadiens without a look at the writer who has defined the art of sportswriting for at least a couple of generations of fans? Red will hate me for posting this, but you know what? Tough.

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Red Fisher (second from right) good-naturedly heckles Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr., while Canadiens icons Jean Béliveau (far left) and Henri Richard enjoy the moment on April 15, 2006.
Pierre Obendrauf, Gazette

HABS HONOUR FISHER DYNASTY
Owner, president, legends attend; Gazette scribe’s 50 seasons of coverage feted

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette

Red Fisher, the dean of hockey writers on this continent or any other, currently uses a Macintosh iBook G4 laptop computer, featuring wireless capability, a DVD drive and so much memory that it can recall when the Canadiens were a dynasty. Optional installation on its 14-inch display is a tastefully small photo of country singer Shania Twain, wearing a midriff-baring Canadiens jersey.

This computer is slightly higher-tech, though much less beautiful, than what the Canadiens presented to Red in the Salon Jacques Beauchamp an hour before Saturday’s Bell Centre game – an engraved, gold-plated Montblanc Solitaire pen – in honour of his 50 years (plus one) of covering the team.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else,” he said of his career, deeply moved and clearly surprised by a ceremony that the dozens of Montreal media in attendance had known about for weeks.

rouge3.jpgFisher’s first bylined story in the Montreal Star, a colour piece appearing the day after the Richard Riot changed hockey forever: March 18, 1955.

Surely a first: Red had been scooped by every other hockey journalist in this city.

Saturday’s presentation was made by the team’s majority owner, George Gillett Jr., and its president, Pierre Boivin.

They were joined by former captains Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard – Red covered each of their combined 21 Stanley Cups – and alumni association president Rejean Houle, winner of five more Cups and the club’s general manager from 1995-2000.

The five men were among the Canadiens’ six owners, seven presidents, seven GMs and 15 captains since Red was assigned by the Montreal Star to his first game – the historic Maurice Richard riot of March 17, 1955.

That totals 51 seasons, including the lockout of 2004-05, during which his hockey reporting never stopped. Or, at least 2,060 regular-season victories, 1,173 losses, 569 ties and 17 of the Canadiens’ 24 Stanley Cups.

NHL media relations vice-president Frank Brown flew in on Saturday from New York to present a framed award on behalf of the league, the plaque reading, “in honour of five decades of distinguished reporting.”

Also on hand was Red’s longtime broadcasting friend, Dick Irvin, and Canadiens communications VP Donald Beauchamp, whose uncle, the late journalist Jacques Beauchamp, covered the beat and rode the rails with Red in the 1950s.

During the first period Saturday night, the team showed a scoreboard tribute to mark Red’s remarkable career – 4,500-plus games, including exhibitions, playoffs and Stanley Cup finals not involving the Canadiens. A live camera showed him at work in the press gallery, even with no Gazette yesterday and no pressing deadline to meet.

Those of us who needle Red will tell you the Canadiens would more appropriately have given him a quill, a bottle of ink and a few parchment sheets, the writing instruments he used when he began covering hockey.

(Only under his breath Saturday was he saying about the magnificent pen, “Shame it won’t improve the dressing-room clichés.” And sadly, though faithful to personal policy, he never did quote the late 19th-century Governor-General Lord Stanley of Preston, a rookie.)

Four months before he turns 80, Red will be back in his press gallery seat for tomorrow’s regular season-ending game against the New Jersey Devils, and as far into the future as anyone can see. He plans to keep working, as he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Hockey, Heroes, and Me, “until I get it right.”

Which legends of the game and his generations of readers will tell you he did decades ago.

rouge5.jpgFisher with the Hall of Famer to be Bernie Geoffrion.
Red Fisher collection

“Red is the most honest newspaperman I ever met, but he’s still a bloody liar,” said Henri Richard, who then burst into laughter. “Near the end of my playing days, more than 30 years ago, he said to me, ‘Henri, when you retire, I’ll retire.’ “

To Richard, Red grinned and said: “So I lied.”

Béliveau recalled once playing referee between Red and coach Toe Blake, whose high-decibel argument following one game was headed to fisticuffs.

“I heard a lot of noise from Toe’s little room in the Forum,” Béliveau said. “I don’t know what started it, but you know those two – they were going hard at it, getting closer and closer.

“You could always count on Red. I have great respect for his professionalism. You could talk to him without having everything in the paper the next day.”

Dickie Moore had played four seasons with the Canadiens before Red arrived on the beat full time. The two had first met while Moore was a junior Royal and Canadien and Red was learning the trade with the Montreal Standard. Nearly 60 years later, their friendship is unshakable.

“When I was in the doldrums, Red would have a helping word on the trains, in the hotels or during a walk to keep me going,” Moore said. “Sometimes his words were strong, but they were fair, never hurtful. This is why he gained so much respect from the players.

“Because of that, he got close to most of us, which is why he got the scoops. He’s going to go forever. He’s so well appreciated, and he always seems to say the right things.”

On Saturday, with an iBook at Red’s fingertips and a Montblanc in his blazer, a long-ago story of a more primitive writing instrument came to mind.

He relates the 1979 folding of his quarter-century employer, the Montreal Star, of arriving at the Star building as sports editor to find his professional life behind padlocked doors. Red is waved in by editor-in-chief Frank Walker and agrees to work eight more days to help embalm a Montreal institution.

Eight days later, Star publisher Art Wood pays him for just five.

Before the week is out, Red will accept the sports editorship of The Gazette, where he’s been since October 1979. But for now, a three-decade career is seemingly at its end. (Nearly three decades ago, as Henri Richard will remind you.)

You’re hanging on Red’s every word as he relates this one final indignation at the pay window, his voice tight with emotion.

A long pause. Finally:

“So I’m glad I kept those three (expletive) typewriters.”

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Canadiens coach Toe Blake gets a few words of scholarly advice. Toe probably listened.
Red Fisher collection


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