by Jas Faulkner, senior correspondent
author’s note: Stick taps to the nice people at The National Film board of Canada for their assistance and for creating the lovely tribute that follows this article.
It’s late November, which means that for a huge swath of the professional hockey fan base, the honeymoon period is over. Fans have gone from the anticipatory verbal forecheck that is “Summer sucks! Drop the puck!” to the post-faceoff glow that comes when the team is pulled from its figurative virgin vinyl wrapping. Until the turn of the year and the rash of waivers moves and the reassignments that usually follow, there will be a steep decline in the charm quotient between fans and the teams they have sworn to love, cherish and cheer (’til reapportionment or relocation do they part.) By November, it is no longer adorable when hockey talks with its mouth full or tells the same damned story every time the fam gets together. That, my fellow citizens of Pucknation, is when we start to nitpick.
At some point, someone who has not read hockey reportage for the last few years will suddenly notice Those Fans of That Other Team who Just Need To Stop. The most popular target of this kind of ire is Chicago. Anyone who has ever been to a Blackhawks game at the Mad House or seen one on television knows that visiting media and opposing fans make much of the cheering that occurs during the performance of “The Star Spangled Banner”.
Video can’t do it justice. The only reason anyone would not be blown away, breathless, with every follicle standing on end by the last note when hearing this in the flesh is that there is a piece of wood so firmly lodged up your posterior you’ve ceased to be able to truly pay attention and are living to be affronted. If that’s the case, poor you.
Sometimes it’s not about cheering the laundry. It’s about the experience. The next time you can, go to a ‘Hawks game to hear the cheers. Go see the Dallas fans who scream the name of their team every time it occurs in the lyrics. Note the word “red” takes on a meaning and timbre of its own among the Hurricanes and Capitals crowd. Just for a little while, listen without prejudice and allow yourself to be moved by the fan devotion and patriotism.
It is in this spirit that I ask those of you who have taken hockey’s anthem traditions for granted to regard one of the masters of the form. Meet Roger Doucet.
Like many singers with voices that seem to come from somewhere else, he started out as a tot singing in church. This led to tutelage under chanson masters Celine Mourier and Charles Toupin, competitions, and cabaret work as a wunderkind. After a stint singing for the Army, Doucet took to the stage as a variety entertainer and cast member of some well-regarded operas. His career spanned two continents and multiple genres. At fifty-one, these accomplishments guaranteed Doucet a degree of professional immortality in certain circles. On 13 October 1970, he would earn a place in the hearts of hockey fans and the sort of notoriety that would eventually net him membership into the Order of Canada.
It was on that day that Doucet stepped onto the ice of the Forum and sang “O Canada”. His version, delivered in the pitch-perfect tenor that had breathed life into Count Almaviva, Nadir, Romeo, and Fenton, galvanised the Habitants faithful in a way that no anthem singer had ever done before. Doucet’s version, which started out in French and finished in English, was a beau geste intended to unify not only an arena full of people, but a nation that is sometimes divided by it’s struggle for linguistic identity.
Roger Doucet’s rendition of “O Canada” was, like Guy Lafleur’s deadly shot and the Forum itself, a staple of hockey night in Montreal from 1970 until the tenor’s death in 1981. Some have argued that the Canadiens experience was pithed of all the magic when they moved to Bell Centre. The magic isn’t lost, so much as it has inevitably changed. Carey Price is le grande homme sur le glace in Montreal these days, Charles Prevost-Linton sings the anthem and “Ole’ Ole'” has gotten all muscled and techno. Over time the fans in Ontario have made Bell Centre their own in terms of new traditions and material changes that mark the place as the home of the Habs.
Temporal remove mitigates the immediacy of Doucet’s style. One thing time cannot do is remove the place he has in hockey’s history. His contribution lives on in broadcasts of historic games and a tribute created by The National Film Board of Canada. When the next generation of fans hears an arena announcer say “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise…” they may not know the details behind the evolution of that point of pride and civility before the game begins, but they will get a sense of the legacy of someone who brought class, grace, and pride to the pregame ritual.