Red Fisher has been an NHL reporter with the number one beat in town, covering the Montreal Canadiens, for over half a century. He has been there for 17 of the legendary 24 Stanley Cup championships. The 83-year-old three-time winner of the National Newspaper Award is still exuberant with his zest for sports, above all the NHL, telling story after story about a long-lost era of intelligent athletes and honest journalism and the impact of the Internet on newspapers.
His journey as a reporter really began on the night of the notorious Richard Riot, which he considers as his first step up the proverbial career ladder. That night, March 17 1955, Fisher was at the Pepsi Forum in Montreal. The Canadiens were playing the Detroit Red Wings and team morale was low following the suspension of Habs’ star player Maurice Richard by then NHL President, Clarence Campbell. Fisher said a mob began forming over the game long before it started.
“We could sense it all day. People were starting to gather even at ten, eleven o’clock in the morning for a game that wasn’t going to start till around eight o’clock,” he said.
Halfway through the first period, when Campbell walked in, 15,000 spectators booed and pelted eggs and debris in his general direction.
“I think I was hit with the first egg thrown,” Fisher recalled, “I guess some guy wasn’t aiming at me, it was just a mistake but it ruined my $18 suit for a while.”
Things worsened each time Detroit scored, and at last count, before the riot put an end to the game, the Habs were losing 4-1.
Since he wasn’t yet the official NHL reporter for the Montreal Star (which folded in 1979), Fisher went over to the next block and called the paper to send the right person to cover the riot. When the night editor asked him to go out and circulate in the crowd, Fisher said, “Why don’t YOU go out there are circulate in the crowd? I’m going back in the building.”
Fisher remembers how it all began: a Habs fan slapped Campbell across the face, and then someone threw a teargas bomb. People began retching and crying and screaming, and outside the Forum, cars were being set on fire and overturned.
It’s been a long time since that night, but Fisher’s career is still going strong. As one of the veteran sports reporters of our day, he has seen first-hand the changes that journalism has undergone. When Fisher started his career in the early fifties, there were no women in sports journalism. The first woman he ever saw in a team’s dressing room was The New York Times’ first female sports reporter, Robin Herman, in the 1970’s. After an All-Star game at the Pepsi Forum that night, Fisher recalled, Herman and another female journalist from a French radio station boldly decided they were going down to the team’s dressing room.
While the situation for women in sports reporting has improved, the athletes went on a downwards spiral. Fisher could feel their intelligence gradually waning to the point they’re at now, stuck in a loop of mind-numbing media training.
“”We have to learn from our mistakes, we have to build on our loss,'” mimicked Fisher of the athletes. “I find that too many athletes today have nothing to say, unlike the athletes that I covered in the early years. Now it seems to me that the athletes all belong to the same library because they all read the same book and say the same thing. It’s one clichÃ© piled upon another.”
Another thing Fisher feels is missing from today’s sports journalism is fairness, and allowing an athlete’s personal life to remain personal. According to Fisher, a lot of sports reporting these days involves petty details that have nothing to do with the game.
“You know, off-ice things that involve athletes. I never dealt in rumors and still don’t, that’s what I’m saying,” he advocated.
The internet has no doubt made it easy for inaccurate information to spread at a fast pace, and Fisher is concerned with how journalism is becoming too dependent on the Internet and technology. Over the years, the medium of reporting that he made a living out of has taken a serious hit. He noted sadly that print journalism is a dying breed. When Fisher first started writing for the Montreal Star and traveling with the Habs, he used to file his stories via Western Union, carting a heavy typewriter along with him to every destination.
Yet, Fisher is thankful for what the Internet did for data transfer, acknowledging that technology can also provide some great advancements.
“What has been great in the industry is how quickly you can file stuff and how easily you can get it to your people,” he reasoned.
Many readers feel Fisher’s writing is cynical and snarky, but after over 50 years of faithfully covering the hockey beat, he may have earned the right to a slightly assuming tone. His humor and lightheartedness may be lost in print, but it isn’t lost in person or in the rich history of the bleu, blanc et rouge.