Pictou Advocate sports

‘Showing us what really matters’


I think I’ve always been inspired by expressions of love, of life, of things we’ve achieved and savoured in this world. But it seems to come with aging.

The older you get, the more you appreciate the experiences you’ve had. It’s happening to me more frequently, often when I’m not expecting it.

The other day, while digging through an old file, I spotted this favourite: “Time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters.”

I have no idea who first said it, but I thank him or her.

You might be wondering why I’m mentioning it here in a sports column. Well, this time the idea arose in a brief conversation I had with a young hockey player from the neighbourhood, a kid about 12 years old.

“Mr. Townsend,” he asked, “who did you want to be like when you were my age? I wanted to be like Sidney Crosby, but I don’t think I can do that.”

The young guy’s comment prompted a reminder of long ago, from the early 1950s when I was about his age. I had no dreams of being a hockey star, no aspirations to be a baseball or football hero.

I just wanted to write sports.

I was lucky. That dream started coming true just when I was reaching high school. To me, my first story in New Glasgow’s Evening News, with my own byline, was more or less my first goal, my first home run.

I never forgot it.

As for who I wanted to be like, that didn’t really begin to materialize until I was reaching my late teens.

His name was Red Fisher.

He was the man, in my mind, who seemed to have the greatest life of anyone in this great country of ours — the hockey writer for the Montreal Star and later the Montreal Gazette. It was a role he maintained for a lifetime. His beat: the Montreal Canadiens.

Years later — in the 1970s — I was sports editor of The Chronicle Herald when the best hockey team in the Maritimes was the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, the farm team of the Canadiens and a club I covered for its 13 years in Halifax.

Back then, NHL meetings were held annually in Montreal and I was sent to report on them.

Those assignments included meals with Canadiens officials like Sam Pollock, Floyd Curry and Scotty Bowman, and getting media credentials to Montreal Expos ball games. The NHL folks were smart enough to hold meetings when the Expos were at home.

I still recall the first time I was there. I met Red Fisher in the flesh. I’d see him each year after that.

In our get-acquainted session, we discovered a particular game, a decade and a half earlier, was something we had in common — though in different ways.

He said his first assignment as the Star’s hockey writer was on St. Patrick’s Day in 1955. He covered the Canadiens that night — the game that became known as the Richard Riot, the game that followed the Rocket’s suspension for the rest of the season.

My association with that ugly night was much less significant. I was listening to the broadcast on my bedroom radio when all hell broke out in the historic Forum.

And so, almost 66 years later, I was telling this to a neighbourhood kid, how a hockey writer, Red Fisher — not Sidney Crosby or Rocket Richard — became my “idol,” my inspiration.

Red had a tremendous career that stretched over seven decades — from the 1950s into the 2010s — a career that was so outstanding that he was inducted into numerous sports halls of fame and saw him named to the Order of Canada.

We lost Red two years ago this week when he passed away at the age of 91. To me, he was the best, the number one in the hockey writing business.

No hockey fan, no matter how young, needs to be reminded about the highlights of stars like the Rocket or Crosby. Their record-shattering achievements are known by any kid who puts on a pair of skates, goes out on the ice and dreams childhood dreams.

Red’s most outstanding highlight? I’d say it was the fact he covered all of Montreal’s Stanley Cup victories in his lifetime. Not one, not a few, but 17 of the franchise’s championship. That’s a huge accomplishment. No other NHL franchise has even won 17 cups.

Imagine a career that meant close association with names like the Rocket, Beliveau, Harvey, Geoffrion, Plante, Cournoyer, Lafleur and Dryden.

I’ve collected many hockey books, most of them about my favourite sports franchise, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet one that has a significant place on my bookshelves is entitled “Red Fisher: Hockey, Heroes, and Me.”

I never tire of reading about what he did.

The late Dick Irvin, a long-time TV analyst, summed up Fisher this way: “Red Fisher has seen hockey’s greatest games and known hockey’s greatest names. His warm, personal and often humorous memoirs give us a unique look at the greatest eras in hockey history.”

I share something with Red — longevity as a writer.

My own newspaper writing started in New Glasgow five months before the newcomer in Montreal was given his initial assignment to cover what became the Richard Riot.

I take some pride in the fact that, so many years later when the year 2020 moved us into another decade, I was writing in my eighth decade, one more than the man whose wonderful work inspired me to keep on typing.

It couldn’t have happened without the passage of time.

Red spent his life in the major league of hockey, while I was happily content being in the farm system.

That reminds me of another saying that inspired us both: “Think positive, be positive and positive things will happen.”

So very, very true.