Clark W. Davey, a man who, as managing editor of Toronto's Globe
and Mail, turned his dance critic into the Beijing
correspondent, had a similar brainstorm as the publisher of The
Gazette in Montreal in the autumn of 1984, a bold stroke that
could have left a mark on the newspaper business in the same way
stick-swinging Marty McSorley left his mark on Donald Brashear.
Davey was thinking of dropping Red Fisher as the Canadiens beat
writer and replacing him with the woman who had been covering
amateur sports. Fisher, the boss confided to some people around
the newsroom, had lost his fastball, a precipitous and
metaphorically mixed judgment considering that a few weeks later
Fisher broke the biggest Montreal sports story of the
decade--Quebecois idol Guy Lafleur's shocking retirement. When
Fisher broke the story, Davey backed down. No one since has had
the temerity to question Fisher's stuff.
Fisher is 75. He could be retired, annoying his wife, Tillie, at
home or coming into the office as an occasional columnist to
hurl editorial lightning bolts from the perspective of a man who
has covered the NHL for 46 years. Neither a sedentary lifestyle
nor the thought of being a hockey writer emeritus appeals to
him. Fisher, a two-time winner of the National Newspaper Award
for sportswriting in Canada, is a beat guy. He trudges to catch
7 a.m. flights, covers practices, writes running copy on
deadline--everything that makes beat reporting a young man's game.
There have been stretches as a sports editor and as a columnist,
but ultimately they were adjuncts to the grunt work. He takes the
odd night off, although he still covers roughly two thirds of
Montreal's road games and all its home games, and writes a
must-read Saturday notes column called "The Red Line."
Considering that he drops about 25 pounds every summer by
exercising three hours a day, pushing away from the dinner table
and laying off Chivas Regal as he trains for the coming season
with the resolve of a rookie, his notes column should be retitled
"The Thin Red Line." Says Fisher, "I'm going to do this thing
until I get it right."
Fisher doesn't talk to rookies. This is the most famous of his
policies, one he adopted a year into the beat when he figured
out he couldn't learn anything from a novice--even a novice
coach. A few weeks after the Canadiens had hired Alain Vigneault
in May 1997, he called Fisher at home. "Mr. Fisher, Alain
Vigneault," the coach said. "I know you don't talk to rookies,
but I thought we could have lunch and discuss the team." Fisher
replied, "I'm on holidays. See you in September."
Fisher, whose well-rehearsed curmudgeon act masks an abiding
sweetness, admits to violating his policy twice. The first time
was in 1971 for the great Lafleur. The second was 15 years later
for Patrick Roy, though not until that year's playoffs, when the
kid goalie was about to lead Montreal to a Stanley Cup, one of
the Canadiens' 17 that Fisher has covered. He walked into the
dressing room, waving a stat sheet that listed Roy's fabulous
goals-against average and asked the rookie if he was surprised
that the number was so low. Roy replied that he was lucky to have
good defensemen in front of him, that they were letting him see
shots and clearing the rebounds--all the dull, politic things
rookies usually say. Fisher left. Turning to another journalist,
Roy said, "I'm not surprised by my goals-against average. I'm
surprised he talked to me."
Another Fisher policy is that when he does chat with players, he
expects them to provide an insight or an anecdote. He detests
platitudes even more than underdone toast. After Montreal won at
Madison Square Garden to take a two-games-to-none lead over the
New York Rangers in the first round of the 1996 playoffs, Fisher
buttonholed Canadiens wing Mark Recchi, one of his go-to guys at
the time. Recchi didn't deliver his usual bons mots but recited
from his script about the hardworking Rangers until Fisher had
had his fill. "Enough of your damn cliches," said Fisher, heading
for the dressing room door. "I'm out of here."
"But Red," said Recchi, hockey pants around his ankles as he
waddled after the writer, "what do you want me to say?"
Fisher, who's in the media wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, was
offered the general manager's job three decades ago by the St.
Louis Blues, but he turned it down, figuring he was made for the
long haul of the sports page, not the revolving door of the
hockey executive. Fisher could see the big picture even then, and
that vision remains evident in his writing. There's a narrative
to a typically stylized Fisher game story, a beginning, middle
and end that don't bog down in who-scored-how. He prefers to tell
He's a beat guy, and if somewhere along the line he became a
hockey-writing icon, what do you want him to say?