Remembering Red Fisher, a humble influence and friend

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

The first time that Red Fisher talked to me was in Miami, which was still a relatively new stop on the NHL circuit back in June ’96 and far removed from the axis of the Original Six that Red worked when he filed his first story from a Canadiens game at the Forum for the Montreal Star in 1955.

It was outside a hotel on the beach the morning after the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs and I was performing community service, herding a bunch of reporters who had partied through the night and into breakfast and loading them into my rental car to get them to the airport in time for their flights home. Yes, I had drawn the short straw.

By the time the last of the reporters slumped in the back seat, the car was fully redolent of tequila and lime juice, so I rolled down the window and gasped, somewhat for air but also because Red Fisher was standing there.

“See you next season, Gare,” he said.

I had sat in the same press box as Red a few dozen times at that point and I had always presumed that Red didn’t know my name or, in the unlikely event he happened to overhear it, couldn’t give a damn. (“Damn” is a word offered here as a placeholder for a much stronger epithet.) And of course, I would never have gone up to him in the press box or the lounge or anywhere at all and introduced myself. He famously didn’t speak to rookies in the dressing room, not even if the 20-year-old were Guy Lafleur. The same inter-personal embargo applied within our trade and if you thought it was laced with a level of contempt you wouldn’t have been the first to pick it up.

I said something like “Take care, Red” or “Hummana-Hummana-Hummana,” and then accidentally and absent-mindedly put the pedal down like Big Daddy Don Garlits, laying rubber and almost taking out a team of valets. Which is to say, I was completely flummoxed by a friendly word from the dean of hockey writers. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt legit in the trade but that was closest I’ll ever get.

Red’s accounts of games of the great Canadiens teams of the 50s, 60s and 70s weren’t just accounts of history but were history standing alone, at least if you worked in the sports-writing trade. He had been not just a witness to great moments in the game but also the worthiest candidate to translate every heroic turn into words on the pulpy page.

Red, born Saul Fisher, would have bristled at such “Godding up” of anybody, player, suit or scribe. Not that he lacked a strong sense of self but to him heroes lived away from the playground of pro sports.

*

I’ve spent a few hours trying to process the death of Red, which was announced Friday afternoon. It’s an exercise in memory, so better to throw it down on paper before one more brain cell withers and dies. I’ve outlived more than a few influences and friends. He was a former who became a latter.

I once spent a day shadowing Red, which I’m sure few did. When I asked him about it, a few months after he bade me farewell in Miami, I fully expected he’d brush me off. He agreed but he seemed positively flummoxed that somehow I thought that he was a story. I told him that you can’t really tell the story of the Canadiens without him being in the mix. And if you can’t properly tell the story of the Canadiens then you can’t properly tell the story of a few things, including Montreal and the NHL.

And back then there was friction between Red and Rejean Tremblay, roughly his analogue on the Francophone side of the Canadiens media. It was being floated out there that Red had somehow been part of a conspiracy with Anglophone players in the dressing room that got Jacques Demers fired the season before, which would make great TV but was absurd on its face. That was going to be my hook.

“It’s a Two Solitudes thing I’m looking at Red, but I’m going to focus more on you, the One Solitude,” I said. Let’s say he agreed to go along while being completely baffled for my reasons.

I met Red at the Molson Centre that day — if it had only been the Forum it would have been so much better. Over coffee he gave me the significant biographical details, how his father had sold shoes, how the family had lived in the back of the store. I told him that my father was an auto mechanic and that I was glad that we lived off-site. Which was my way of saying: I’m not really up to writing his life story — it’s more the stuff that Richler or Bellow or Singer or somebody could have written. His experience was of another time and another place unlike my own.

He talked about working at age 70 when he didn’t need to — by all accounts, Red had invested wisely and was rich beyond the ken of your average newspaperman. He downplayed it. He was in the rhythm of the game, the rhythm of the job. He hadn’t lost anything at all in his writing. At all. He was deep in his 60s when he had won a National Newspaper Award for a piece about Toe Blake’s last years living with Alzheimer’s. Why stop?

Red wasn’t a reluctant quote, but he was allergic to hyperbole. When another network had dispatched a camera to seek Fisher’s comment following Demers’s firing and also general manager Serge Savard’s, a host gave a huge build-up to the earth-shaking events in the Canadiens’ organization and Red, stone-faced, said: “It’s just another day in Montreal.”

Perspective. It’s just hockey.

When it came to the important things, Red was, like his copy, succinct. As I wrote back then:

At 70, he is working at a pace that would weary anyone half his age. He has no time for many things: banal quotes, unfounded rumours, lies, grudges. What does he want? “The truth,” he said. How does he want to be thought of? “Fair,” he said.

The hard-hearted in our trade will tell you a writer is not supposed to care what his subjects think about the final piece. I do more than occasionally but never more than I did when that story ran. A huge sigh of relief was heaved when he told me that he liked it, though he wasn’t sure exactly what it was — he said he had read it in photocopied clips and wondered if he had shuffled the pages out of order. I told him, “I get that all time.” I was sure he was looking for a way to opt out of this position of involuntary mentor.

*

We talked a lot over the years. At the last game at the Forum. At the last game at the Boston Garden. At the last game at Maple Leaf Gardens. I sat beside him after Game 6 in ’99 and told him, “Yeah, Red, Hull’s skate was in the crease.”

I remember he was having computer issues in the Final one year and I helped him out — which, those who know me will tell you, is the single funniest thing I’ll ever type. I’ll treasure every moment. I remember working at a U.S. outfit for a few years and pitching them on a story about this writer who had covered the Canadiens (never “the Habs,” per Red) for more than 50 years. Couldn’t convince the editors. A Third, Rather Enormous, Completely Oblivious Solitude, I guess. Mostly I wanted to write that piece because the first one was such fun and it would have been a great excuse to spend another day with Red.

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I’ll cut ahead to the last time I spoke to Red. I had tried to meet up with him in Montreal in the years since but when he walked away from the game and his job, he walked away without a backward look.

I was working on a book about Bobby Hull that came out in 2011 and Red agreed to empty his notebook for me over coffee in the Gazette’s newsroom, which he only occasionally darkened around that time. Red had a few great stories about Hull and was incredibly generous with his time, just as he had been back in ‘96. Still, I was there as much to talk to him as for expressed research purposes.

I started somewhat late in the game but I’ve made a point in not just reading the great writers but also reaching out and talking to them, including: iconic Canadian novelist Morley Callaghan, legendary sportswriter W.C. Heinz, the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell, and Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfront. And yeah, Red. Red more than others because his work cut so close to home.

Red told me a story that took my breath away, one that made me re-examine everything. When I say “everything,” I don’t just mean everything about Red but everything about what we do.

For a few years, he had talked about walking away from the game. He said that it was hard on his wife, Tillie. He told me that, one day a few years before, she had been out of the house and then come home … and never left the house since. She never told him what had happened. No reason given. No clues.

As much as I knew Red, how much did I know him at all not to have known this? How much can any of us know anyone else, even those we’re closest to? Everyone is a mystery to others, just as Red’s wife remained a mystery to him.

When Red retired I sent him a note, included here below.

Tillie died 10 days before Red. You haven’t read this far to think this was a coincidence.

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