Long-time Montreal Canadiens reporter Red Fisher dead at 91

Red Fisher covered the Montreal Canadiens for almost six decades. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — Legendary hockey writer Red Fisher had his idiosyncrasies.

He didn’t talk to rookies because he felt they hadn’t yet earned the right to talk. He never called the Montreal Canadiens the Habs because he worried the diminutive of the word habitants might be demeaning to French-Canadians.

But Fisher, who died Friday at 91, was also a larger than life character who broke major stories and covered the biggest events in hockey and occasionally other sports over six decades as a writer and sports editor at the Montreal Star and Montreal Gazette.

His first hockey assignment on March 17, 1955 turned out to be the Richard Riot, when violence that began at the Montreal Forum over the controversial suspension of Maurice (Rocket) Richard for hitting an official spilled into the streets.

He covered Canadiens teams that won five Stanley Cups in a row in the 1950s as well as dynasty teams in the 1960s and 1970s. His coverage of the 1972 Summit Series between NHL players and the Soviet national team was particularly memorable.

"Everyone respected him," said long-time hockey broadcaster Ron Reusch, who had Fisher as his analyst at Canadiens games. "He basically ran the media here.

"And it wasn’t just Montreal. He had contacts all over the league. He got scoops on things going on in Chicago that their local writers didn’t have. He was unbelievable."

Fisher retired at age 85 in 2012. By then he appeared to be fed up with the modern media world of tight controls on access to players and rumours floated daily on social media.

He hated rumours. In his 1994 memoire "Hockey, Heros And Me," Fisher wrote that rumours were "distasteful and often harmful."

He also wanted to spent more time with his wife Tillie, who the Gazette reported died on Jan. 9 at age 90.

"For over 50 years, in his beloved Montreal, Red Fisher was unrivalled in hockey journalism — the authoritative English voice of news about the Canadiens and the National Hockey League," commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "Red had a remarkable passion for the sport and a remarkable compassion for the men who played it.

"Red’s words were important because nobody knew the game or the players or the executives better. In addition to being a master storyteller, on a personal level, he was a friend and counsellor."

Fisher was often seen as curmudgeonly and foul-tempered, but he was also a no-nonsense reporter who broke scores of stories and seemed to know everything that was going on in Montreal and around the league. He was an insider before "insider" became a sports media job description.

One of his biggest scoops in the 1970s was getting a hold of a secret report by then-league president Clarence Campbell to the team owners and governors, which boasted that salary payouts were down and revenues up around the league. Fisher wrote a five-part series exposing the imbalance.

In his book, he recalled that Campbell suspected Fisher’s good friend, St. Louis Blues owner Sid Solomon Jr., of leaking the document. When Solomon asked Fisher to sign an affidavit denying that he gave him the report, Fisher refused.

"Why not?" asked Solomon.

"Because you know you gave it to me," said Fisher.

After that series, Fisher suspected league intervention cost him his intermission spot on Hockey Night in Canada called The Fisher Report.

He also had a falling out with the Hockey Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1985, when it downgraded media inductees from its Honoured Members status. He even demanded that his portrait be taken down at the Bell Centre media lounge.

Fisher once said he was offered the job of general manager of the Blues when they entered the NHL as an expansion club in 1967, but turned it down.

He certainly knew enough about hockey to do the work. Long before analytics, Fisher collected his own statistics, which he mostly kept to himself. Players who saw what he called his "book" said the information was far more detailed than that offered by the league.

As a writer, he had favourite phrases he used repeatedly. Once, forward Rejean Houle referred to linemate Marc Tradif as "my great and good friend." After that, great and good friend appeared in many stories. So did the opening line "roll these numbers around your tongue."

But Fisher in his heyday was a poignant and entertaining writer. Reusch said many suspected his writing would diminish when the Star, an afternoon paper, folded in 1979 and he had to write to morning deadlines at the Gazette. But Fisher didn’t miss a beat.

"He was not only a great newspaperman, he was a great writer," said Reusch.

Fisher was close to the players. Former scoring star Dickie Moore was a friend. In the 1950s, he even went through a humiliating initiation to the team led by The Rocket, who afterwards said "You’re one of us now."

He was also a good friend of Glen Sather, a former Canadiens player who went on to build the Edmonton Oilers dynasty before taking over the New York Rangers.

Another he considered a friend was Don Cherry, even if the bombastic TV commentator blamed him for being fired as coach of the Bruins after Fisher quoted his complaint that Boston lost a playoff series because management was too cheap to travel by charter flight.

Fisher, son of a Montreal shoe shop owner, was named to the Order of Canada on Dec. 29. He was inducted to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. The Professional Hockey Writers Association named its trophy for beat writer of the year the Red Fisher Award in 2016.

Fisher is survived by his children Ian and Cheryl and a grandchild.

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