Former Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd likes to tell a story about an interview he did with Guy Lafleur after Lafleur made his comeback with the New York Rangers in 1989. The two spoke for about two hours and as their interview was finishing up, Lafleur asked Todd how Red Fisher was doing. Then Lafleur told Todd a story that perfectly illustrated the kind of power Fisher wielded and the respect he commanded in the hockey world.
“Lafleur said to me, ‘You know, my first year with the Habs, Red doesn’t talk to me,’ ” Todd recalled. “ ‘Second year he talks to me a little bit. Third year, I’m the first guy he wants to see on the first day of camp and I say to myself, Guy Lafleur, you’re gonna be a superstar in this league.’ ”
When we learned on Friday that Red Fisher had died at the age of 91, we had an internal debate at thn.com about whether or not it was something we needed to respond to immediately. After all, as large a personality as Fisher was, he wasn’t a Hall of Fame player. But if there’s anyone in the hockey writing industry deserves to be referred to as a legend, there are probably only two men who fit that profile. One of them is Stan Fischler. The other is Red Fisher, a hockey writer who set the bar so ridiculously high for beat writers that the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association’s annual award to the best beat writer is known as the Red Fisher Award. He worked the beat for more than 50 years, thought to be longer than anyone in any professional sport in North America. Fisher covered 17 Stanley Cup-winning teams for the Montreal Star and later the Gazette, chronicling the careers of 30 players, two GMs and two coaches who are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Less than a month before his death, Fisher was made a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to sports journalism. He transcended his industry and his market and it’s not a stretch to suggest that Red Fisher was the greatest hockey writer who has ever lived.
Fisher covered hockey and the Canadiens from train rides to Twitter and everything in between, starting with the Canadiens in 1955, the year before the greatest team in the history of the game went on to win five straight Stanley Cups. In many ways, he was the conscience of the game. And anyone who ever dealt with Fisher in any capacity always lauded him for his fairness and his ability to put things into unique perspective. “He was the absolute authority in the business,” said Canadiens senior vice-president Donald Beauchamp, who worked with Fisher on a professional level for more than two decades. “I had a tremendous relationship with this man. Personally, I was working with a living legend. At the end of his career, he was in his mid-80s and he was still the best in the business. You would read his work and he was always right on. At the end of the day, Red Fisher was the perfect example of common sense.”
“Red almost never made an error,” Todd said. “And when you consider 50 years of doing this stuff with deadlines, that’s almost impossible. He checked everything and double-checked it. He set a standard for all of us.”
Fisher was unique in that he was close to the team – in fact Beauchamp referred to him as “part of our family” – but he had the integrity to be critical and tough, but fair, when warranted. He gained the trust of the players, who knew that if they said something off the record, that was where it stayed. And he was always on. It was Fisher who broke the story of Lafleur’s retirement and it was erroneously reported that former Canadiens coach Pat Burns had died, Fisher was one of the first people to reach Burns, who was out grocery shopping with his wife. Fisher would often be found on the phone, and it wasn’t always to get information from sources. Almost as often, GMs in the league would call Fisher to seek his counsel.
“He had a kind of power that no one had before and no one will ever have,” Todd said. “I used to sit outside his office and he was on the phone, one after the other. It wasn’t stuff where he was talking to these guys. They were asking his advice. (Phil) Esposito, (Glen) Sather, all day long. You’d hear him cursing somebody out and you’d figure out it was a GM catching hell for some stupid trade that he had made.”
Yes, Fisher could be as cantankerous as he was principled. When the Hockey Hall of Fame changed the designation of Elmer Ferguson Award winners from members to media honorees, he cut all ties with the institution and asked that his photograph be removed from the media lounge at the Bell Centre. Perhaps his most notorious quirk was his insistence on not speaking a word to rookie players, whether they were future superstars or fourth-liners. “He didn’t talk to rookies at work, either,” said Gazette sports editor Stu Cowan, who was hired by Fisher and later became his boss. “He hired me and I don’t think he talked to me for a year.” A good number of rookies were duped by teammates into trying to talk to Fisher, most of whom were usually told to go forth and multiply. One of them was Pierre Mondou, who, on the urging of Larry Robinson, approached Fisher to ask him to write a story about him. Cowan has heard the legendary story many times.
“Mondou goes to the front of the plane and taps Red on the shoulder and gets that look, then taps him on the shoulder again,” Cowan said. “Mondou probably knew about five words of English and said, ‘Mr. Fisher, you write a story about me.’ And Red just said, ‘F— off.’ All the guys at the back of the plane just started roaring. Mondou just put his head down and walked to the back of the plane.”
Fisher was an old-time hockey writer who forged his relationships with players speaking to them one-on-one and later in his career came to abhor what he called “pack journalism” where the team makes a player available and reporters gather around him looking for a quote. Cowan said one time during his career, there was one such scrum around John LeClair, but Fisher refused to participate, instead standing in the background to wait for the crowd to disperse. When it did, Fisher went over to LeClair and tapped him on the shoulder, indicating that LeClair was to move and make room for him. “I’ll never forget John LeClair taking off his equipment and putting it up on the shelves and moving it out of the way so Red could sit beside him,” Cowan said. “I can’t think of any other reporter, now or ever, getting that kind of respect from a player.”
The Canadiens will hold a moment of silence for Fisher prior to their home game against the Boston Bruins Saturday night, but aside from that, plans are incomplete. There will undoubtedly be more tributes to a man who was so revered that he has his own bottle of Chivas Regal stored in the media room, where there was a strict no-alcohol policy, so he could enjoy a nightcap after he filed his story. One thing will definitely change, however. That photo of himself in the Bell Centre media room Fisher asked to be taken down will once again be displayed prominently. “Because,” Beauchamp said, “that’s exactly where it belongs”