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Montreal sports writer Red Fisher has retired after 58 years. Oh the changes he saw in hockey over the decades. (The Canadian Press)
Montreal sports writer Red Fisher has retired after 58 years. Oh the changes he saw in hockey over the decades. (The Canadian Press)

KEN DRYDEN

Hockey’s good critic retires after 58 years Add to ...

More than 20 years ago when Red Fisher turned 65, many wondered if he’d retire. He had covered the Montreal Canadiens for 38 years during which time the team had won 16 Stanley Cups. But the Canadiens were no longer a great team and hadn’t been for several years, and had just one great player on its roster to write about, goalie Patrick Roy. When Red didn’t retire, and when he didn’t retire in the years that followed, I stopped thinking he might. So recently when I got the news, I was surprised.

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There shouldn’t be surprise when someone retires at 85. Yet some things seem always to have been and so always will be. Even for those living in Montreal and old enough to have followed the Canadiens before 1955, I doubt they remember it wasn’t Red Fisher they were reading, either in the Montreal Star when he began or, later, The Gazette. Game after game – through 70-game seasons and 82-game seasons; through two rounds of Stanley Cup playoffs, then three, now four; through seasons that ended in April and now end in June. From six teams to 30 teams; from a time when 100 per cent of the NHL’s players were Canadian and the Canadiens were indisputably the best. From when players were 5 foot 10 and 180 pounds, didn’t wear helmets or masks, and played two minutes, not 35 seconds, each time they hit the ice. From when a ticket cost what meat loaf and mashed potatoes cost at a local diner and players were paid like teachers and bus drivers and might live next door.

Red has lived through all this. (I call him “Red” here because he’s “Red” to anyone who knows him or knows of him; he’s “Red Fisher” to those who don’t; and he’s “Fisher” to no one). More difficult, he found something interesting to say day after day, rarely sounding bored or jaded even through the inevitable dog days of any season, of any career, of any life, and without getting himself stuck in the past where nobody’s like the Rocket, Béliveau and Lafleur and never will be.

Other journalists lived and died by the scoop. Red’s scoop was in being smarter than anyone else.

Red can be prickly. He likes to sound arrogant, though he rarely wrote that way. One time he got his comeuppance. He was reviewing Hockey Night in Moscow, a book about the 1972 Summit Series. He had good things to say about it but was disturbed by its large number of typos. The name of a former Chicago Black Hawks star was written as “Max Benley.” “That’s Bentley, Frank,” Red thundered at the author in his review. Unfortunately the author’s name was “Jack.” I thought this was hysterical – the insufferable Red caught at being insufferable – and I couldn’t wait to see him. No one had pointed out his error. I read it out to him and laughed. He has never forgotten. In his funny, cranky way, he has never forgiven.

He likes to sound cranky because he knew he was good enough and old enough to get away with it; and he likes to be cranky. But nobody can write with the freshness he did for over half a century and be truly cranky. It was his schtick. It backfired on him a bit in recent years. The best way to deal with him – for Red’s sake and for everyone else’s – was to laugh at his crankiness, to get him to laugh at himself, which if you pushed him hard enough he would – crankily. But in these later seasons he travelled with the team less often, the players and other journalists didn’t know him as well, and certainly not well enough to challenge the legend he had become – which made it even harder for them to get beyond, and for him to escape, the role he’d created for himself.

But most importantly, he was the best. It might be only a game he reported, but how he reported it wasn’t only anything. He owed it to his readers and, at the risk of sounding naive, he owed it to hockey to put all that he’d learned in those more than 5,000 games he would come to watch into everything he wrote. And he owed it to himself. He is Red Fisher. During the Canadiens’ championship years of the late 1970s, before we’d head onto the ice for a decisive playoff game, to ease the tension one player or another would say: “We gotta play it. We might as well win it.” Red’s duty, he knew, day after day was the same: “I gotta write it. I might as well do it right.”

Teams win once for sometimes random reasons. Teams win often over many years because there’s a need to win. It comes from players, coaches, managers and owners pushing, supporting, learning from each other; developing an appetite together. It comes from fans. It weakens first in players, coaches, managers and owners. They move on in their lives. It weakens last in fans.

Red spoke to the players, coaches and the rest, but most importantly he spoke to the fans. He made them smarter; they made us better. He was the keeper of the standard. He’d never let us forget the purpose of what we were doing. He’d never let us forget the best that was in us – as a player, as a team; in a game and a sport. Okay, we were lousy, but we won. So I blew that shot. It happens to everyone. That didn’t impress him. He judged you against the present, made you compete against the past and challenged you to redefine the future. He haunted you.

When I was playing poorly, pretending I wasn’t, and hoping no one would notice, Red noticed. Before a time when every game was televised, Red was also the colour commentator on radio. For road games, my wife, Lynda, listening at home always believed that as Red was speaking to the thousands of others, he was speaking directly to her. He was letting her know – the goal Ken let in that you couldn’t see really was bad. Be warned. That’s the mood that will be arriving home tonight. When finally I couldn’t find my own answers to my slump I’d wait for the morning paper and wonder what Red said. I’d argue with what he wrote; I resented what he wrote. I couldn’t escape what he wrote.

Everybody needs a good critic. Broadway theatre is better than Buffalo or Calgary theatre in important measure because of the historical memory, the standards and expectations of the good critic. A good critic won’t stand for less; in time, his or her audience won’t either. A good political critic or sports critic has the same effect. When that challenging level of criticism isn’t there, we all lose.

It’s harder for a good critic to be heard today. There are many more voices – mainstream news and sports, all-sports, all-business, all-politics and opinion channels; bloggers. The volume is louder; the tone nastier. Commentary is often abusive without being clarifying, its purpose to punish not improve. For those who are the subjects of the criticism, it’s harder to listen. For an individual, it hurts too much. For a sports, theatre or political producer, it puts at risk all that they’ve invested. They fight back with promotion and spin, and things get muddier.

“The play’s the thing,” Prince Hamlet said, but today everything that can be made the thing is the thing. Red loved to be noticed. He loved to be the best. He loved to deliver the sharp, cutting phrase. But he knew that the game was the thing. The Canadiens were the thing. He mattered but he was not the thing. He knew it was his purpose to make the next game better.

The local voice matters, the voice we don’t always agree with but that we turn to when we just don’t know. Red will not be writing any more, but what he did for 58 years is stuck in our heads. He was the good critic.

I wonder what Red thinks.

 

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