Clark W. Davey, a man I 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 sports-writing 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 clich�s," 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 why.
He's a beat guy, and if somewhere along the line he became a hockey-writing icon, what do you want him to say?