MONTREAL — Red Fisher’s funeral was 40 minutes long and it evoked more laughter than tears. We can’t say for sure, but based on what his friends told us we think the man would’ve approved.
"If we had thrown him a party, he’d have liked it," said Fisher’s long-time colleague at Montreal newspapers Star and Gazette Pat Hickey. "But Red wasn’t much for sentimentality."
That much has been made clear since the godfather of hockey writing bid us adieu last Friday at age 91.
Fisher won three national newspaper awards and was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The tributes that have been pouring in from all corners of the world since he passed all detail his accomplishments and speak glowingly of the exemplary work he did covering the sport for over 55 years.
But it was Fisher’s son Ian who offered insight into Red the family man on Wednesday, calling him a proud father to he and his sister Cheryl, and revering his devotion to their mother Tillie, who had passed just 10 days prior to Fisher.
"The image I will forever carry of our father is a moment captured of a picture taken years ago somewhere in Europe. He’s dancing with our mother on a street without cars, to the music of a 10-person jazz band, with one dozen curious onlookers standing behind that band. His left hand is gently raising her right hand to the height of the shoulder and they are smiling at each other. I would like to think that’s where [they] are, together somewhere today," said Ian Fisher.
Roughly 150 people were in attendance at Paperman & Sons to hear his eulogy.
The Montreal Canadiens were well represented. Hall of Famers Ken Dryden and Serge Savard were there, as were former player and general manager Rejean Houle, former enforcer Chris Nilan and former defenceman Rick Green. Former team president Ronald Corey, current vice president of media relations Donald Beauchamp and long-time Canadiens Dr. David Mulder were also present.
We had a chance to speak with Savard and Houle before the ceremony got underway, and we also caught up with Hickey and colleagues Michael Farber and Mitch Melnick.
Serge Savard, Montreal Canadiens
SN: What do you remember fondly about Red?
Savard: Red, as you know, started in the ‘50s, and I came to the Montreal Canadiens in ‘66-‘67 and obviously he didn’t talk to me my first couple of years. He never wanted to talk to rookies, but he became a very close person to me. He was a friend. He travelled with us, and then when I became general manager I got him his Chivas Regal back in the press box. There’s so many stories about him. He was very well respected all across the league and by management and by coaches. He was a great person. He was good for the game. He had his own way of writing articles and he never knocked down the athletes really. He had his own way of telling athletes they didn’t perform as they should.
SN: Is there one story that comes to mind about him?
Savard: Red was pretty unique, and probably one of the greatest stories came before my time. In the ‘50s, reporters were travelling and were getting meal money, and the team covered the expenses of all the reporters in those days. For a month or two [former Canadiens coach] Toe Blake was not talking to Red Fisher, and Toe Blake had all those envelopes he was handing to the press and to the players as well — maybe six or seven bucks for meal money. Toe Blake was having a press conference one day and Red was standing 10, 15 feet away and listening to what Toe was saying, and Toe grabbed one envelope and said, ‘Red, is that what you’re waiting for?’ And starting from that day, Red went back to the office and said, ‘If you don’t pay my own way, I won’t travel with the team anymore.’ He’s the guy who started that and all the papers and reporters paid their own way after that.
Rejean Houle, Montreal Canadiens
SN: What was your experience with Red when you were playing?
Houle: The relationship was very good. I had a lot of confidence in Red and he always gave me a lot of good tips that helped me stay in the league.
SN: What about when you were general manager?
Houle: I tried to stay away from the media when I was GM. But the conversations were always straight with Red — there was no grey area. He cut through to the meat. You can see how big of a personality he was when you read all the tributes that have come in since he died. He was special.
Michael Farber, Sports Illustrated
SN: What stands out most about your experience with Red?
Farber: I think it was being a witness to his greatness, and the respect he received, and listening to his stories because Red was a fabulous raconteur. He was part of that tradition of sports writing where it was based not on numbers or analytics but on stories. This is the most human form of communication. I’ve said this before, but you can go back to cave paintings — this is how we communicate to each other, through stories. This was why Red mattered so much — because he could tell stories. Back when I worked with him at the Gazette I could listen forever. Stories about boxing and Eddie Quinn, a Montreal boxing, wrestling promoter, and just listening to Red talk about where the profession had come from, and to be a small part of that continuum and that maybe I could somehow tell stories as well as Red.
SN: How long did it take before you thought you had transitioned from colleague to friend?
Farber: It took a few years. Red didn’t suffer fools like me easily but eventually he did. And once you were Red’s friend, you were Red’s friend and that was a good thing to be.
Red was always wonderfully positive and supportive of me, and he was my hall pass. I’m doing a feature on Gordie Howe with Hartford and Gordie Howe doesn’t know me, but oh ‘I’m with Red, I’m with the band.’
I got bumped on a flight with the Whalers to Philly, and Gordie got off the flight with me and we sat in the Hartford airport and talked for two and a half hours and got on a flight later to Philly. None of that happens if I wasn’t Red’s guy, if I didn’t work with Red…
Pat Hickey, Montreal Gazette
SN: How do you think Red would’ve reacted to this outpouring since he’s passed?
I wrote a long column after he retired, just a couple of days later, and he called me up and said, ‘I want to thank you for writing my obituary.’
I think he appreciated that I had some good things about him because I had a lot of respect for the guy. He was a great friend. We shared interest in thrillers and mysteries and stuff like that, and every time I finished a book I’d give it to him. We had a lot of good times.
Mitch Melnick, TSN Radio
SN: What did it mean to you to have Red as a guest on your show?
Melnick: It wasn’t so much spending time on the air. I spent a lot of time on the air with Red. We used to do a show every Monday night on CJAD together and we used to do the Hockey Hot Stove on Saturday nights before the game with people like Red, Dick Irvin and Danny Gallivan. You could imagine what that was like for me. The most meaningful aspect of a relationship with Red Fisher to me was, pretty early on in the early-90s, believe it or not there was not a daily sports talk show on in Montreal for a brief period of time. After Ted Tevan and I tried, and tried, and tried, I finally convinced people to do it, and to have Red mention in his column that I had the stuff to do it meant so much more than any ratings point in my lifetime. To have that kind of stamp of approval opened up doors. If Red Fisher thought you were worthy of mention, then you had kind of made it. That was one of the highlights of my career.
SN: What do you think of the way people have celebrated his life since last Friday?
Melnick: He was an extended member of the family like radio voices, play-by-play voices of your favourite team, broadcasters you grew up watching on television over the years like we’ve lost with Dick Enberg most recently, with Keith Jackson.
But, specifically, there was a time for a lot of us when it was a source of pride [for Montrealers] to have the greatest hockey history and greatest franchise in the history of the National Hockey League, and the guy spending the most time reporting on them was the best hockey writer in the history of the National Hockey League. He wasn’t just the longest-serving beat writer in the history of the NHL; he was the best. He was the best and he was one of us. Even the people in the hockey communities in New York and Boston and Toronto, Detroit and Chicago would acknowledge it: Red Fisher was the greatest hockey writer in the history of the sport. That’s a hell of a legacy to leave and we’re proud of it.