It was Nov. 22, 2003, and we were drinking on the job.
The occasion was the original Heritage Classic in Edmonton, and the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers were playing football-field hockey on a minus-23 day.
Red Fisher sat front row and centre in the Commonwealth Stadium press box, his laptop closed in front of him, and a bottle of Chivas Regal flanked by his own styrofoam cup and a small stack for friends. Drinking is prohibited in NHL press boxes, and in all my years I have never seen a scribe arrive with a bottle of whiskey and cups.
But Red did exactly that on that frigid, Northern Alberta day, and I recall sipping on that Chivas and kibitzing about that faraway, first-of-the-outdoor-games thinking, “This is a story I’ll tell again one day.”
Sadly, that day has arrived in a fashion never dreamed of that cold November day.
Saul (Red) Fisher died Friday in Montreal at the age of 91. The father of Canadian hockey writing, whose very first NHL game produced the Richard Riots (on March 17, 1955) has passed.
He was at the table when the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association was formed in ’67, and had Red had his way, the PHWA offices would have resided at Crotchety St. and Curmudgeon Ave., so salty was our favourite old scribe.
Or, should we say, faux crotchety. The outer shell, it was thick. The man underneath, which some of us were lucky to mine now and again, was soft and sentimental.
Red was a link to a time when hockey writers wore fedoras, smoked cigars and rode on the same trains as the teams did. When they were an NHL club’s written voice, not like today’s communications department full of kids paid to tell fans what the team wants them to hear.
He would describe a defence pairing that was below the expected Canadiens standards as “Rigor on the left side, Mortis on the right,” and never, ever spoke with rookies. He didn’t deal in rumours, and they were the Canadiens, in print.
Never the Habs.
Michael Farber, the award-winning Montreal writer who worked next to Fisher at the Montreal Gazette for many of Fisher’s 33 years there, wrote in today’s Gazette of Fisher’s ability to hop over the boards of game coverage, and skate a shift or two on the personal side of the game.
“His tender stories about Laura Gainey, swept out to sea on her tall ship off the coast of Nova Scotia in 2006, a frail Toe Blake and the death of Hall of Fame winger and close friend Dickie Moore in 2015 belied his painstakingly cultivated image as a curmudgeon,” penned Farber. “At times he could be — to appropriate one of his literary locutions — cranky with gusts to crotchety. But for Fisher, respect and friendship were precious commodities, slowly earned and not freely bestowed.”
Red wrote actively until 2012, and sporadically until a couple of years ago. He had the Order of Canada bestowed upon him, and the Elmer Ferguson Award as well, though a prolonged spat with the Hockey Hall of Fame dampened that relationship somewhat.
Annually, he would receive card No. 1 in a PHWA that today includes 307 Members, one of a tiny group of remaining hockey writers who could claim to have covered the Original Six.
Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, the ’72 Series, the dynasty Islanders, The Gretzky Oilers, the fall of hockey’s Iron Curtain that saw so many Russian greats end up in NHL uniforms… Red covered it all, and did so with a style that can’t be matched.
As a younger writer out West, when the Canadiens were scheduled for a visit one would request “an audience” with Red. That constituted a timid phone call to talk about injuries and line combinations (there was no internet, remember), all of which Red was more than happy to discuss with a kid he’d scarcely heard of.
He was big, but never a big shot.
Then, booned by 10 minutes on the phone with this legend, I’d say, “Is there anything you need to know about the Oilers?”
“No,” he’d say flatly. “I’ll call Slats.”
Godspeed, Red. We’ll have a Chivas for you tonight.