NHL.com's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" will run every Tuesday through the 2017-18 regular season. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.
The latest edition features Boston Bruins anthem singer Rene Rancourt.
BOSTON -- An era soon will end in this city with iconic singer Rene Rancourt set to retire at the end of the season after having performed the national anthems for the Boston Bruins for more than four decades.
A born showman with an operatic background, Rancourt, 78, is legendary for his crowd-stoking fist pump, boyish enthusiasm and pronounced tenor vibrato. Close your eyes and you'll hear a little of Bert Lahr's classic, over-the-top Cowardly Lion singing "If I were the king of the forest …" from "The Wizard of Oz" -- and that is soaring show-business praise.
Rancourt's vocal cords landed him a partial scholarship at Boston University, and in 1969 he won a singing contest on radio and later tour with a GI show. He first sang on a huge, live stage as an emergency anthem fill-in for the Boston Red Sox, performing before Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, then signed on as a Bruins regular the following year.
The Bruins will honor Rancourt at TD Garden before their regular-season finale against the Florida Panthers on April 8, but he'll perform as long as the Bruins are alive in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Don Cherry, a former Bruins coach and a fixture for years on the "Coach's Corner" segment on "Hockey Night in Canada," knows another showman when he sees one.
Video: Rene Rancourt performs The Star-Spangled Banner
"There is nobody in any sport who gives it his all like Rene does with his fist pump," Cherry said of Rancourt's goal-celebrating "Stump Pump" gesture, which he picked up from former Bruins forward Randy Burridge. "Rene is going to be a tough act to follow. Nobody puts on a show like he does."
Rancourt has seen too many memorable moments to count, but he said his most dramatic was the Bruins-Buffalo Sabres game on April 17, 2013. It was the first sporting event in the city following the tragic Boston Marathon bombing. Rancourt began "The Star-Spangled Banner," then lowered his microphone and led the TD Garden crowd in an emotional a capella rendition.
Just off the ice following a recent Bruins game, his adrenaline still flowing, Rancourt sat behind a black drape at rinkside with NHL.com. No matter what the Wizard of Oz blustered, we paid much attention "to the man behind the curtain."
Here are Five Questions With … Rene Rancourt:
Three-part question to begin, without giving you a chance to warm up: How many bow ties do you own, are they all pre-tied and what's your favorite?
"About 25, they're all pre-tied, and they are in many themes for when I have to make appearances -- St. Patrick's Day, Christmas, a patriotic Fourth of July tie with an American flag vest. For a while, I was tying my own. I had about 15 of them but I got lazy and said to myself, 'Who was I kidding? This is too much aggravation.' To be politically correct, I'd have to say my favorite is the Boston Bruins' black and gold. But when I'm a crasher at wedding receptions, with my flag vest and red tie, I make it a real patriotic event when I sing the national anthem. 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is my most requested song. The second-most requested is 'O Canada.' In Boston, they might boo the Montreal Canadiens, but they really love the anthem."
A few words in 'O Canada' were recently changed and you have them taped in your hand on this two-anthem night as a cue, with the Calgary Flames in town. Jim Cornelison sings 'O Canada' bilingually at Chicago Blackhawks games. I've heard your French and it's pretty good. No thought of singing in French and English when the Canadiens come to Boston?
(Laughs) "My French isn't very good. I'm from Lewiston, Maine (about 240 miles southeast of the Quebec border) and of course we spoke French as children. But I haven't spoken it in over 50 years. I'd have no problem performing 'O Canada' in French. I always joke, 'Can you do it? Are you kidding? I wrote it!' (Immediately booms out the first few bars in French) That's my split personality. But it was long ago established that I'd stay away from the French words when the Canadiens were in town, which was thought to give the opponent an unnecessary advantage (laughs). My favorite anthem singer of all time is the Canadiens' late, great Roger Doucet. I was once on a radio station's conference call with Roger on the other end of the line. I told Roger that I'd written a poem for him, and I recited it: 'The Canadiens can get it in the net/But their greatest threat is Roger Doucet!' He got a big laugh out of it. He was revered, a real star in Montreal."
Another three-part question: When do you get in 'the zone' to begin preparing mentally and physically to perform pregame, do you sing in the shower, and if so, do you have a go-to song?
"All day. That's why I'm retiring. I find it very difficult to sacrifice the whole day preparing and warming up and being psychologically correct for the anthem at night. It's been more and more difficult to get to that point. I eat right, vocalize, exercise, I do stretching, drink tea with lemon. I have my own 'vocalese.' (Singing an arpeggio) 'I love money oh yes I do …' Do I sing in the shower? (laughs) I don't know that song, do you? No, never. The occasional note, but I realize it's never correct. The shower has echo-y acoustics, which leads you to think that you're a good singer. A go-to song? Um… (singing) 'O sole mio…' and then I go into Italian: 'sta 'nfronte a te!' Oh, that gets me going. To me, the greatest tenor in the world today is Placido Domingo, from the Metropolitan Opera. He's the greatest artist because he's an orchestral and operatic conductor as well as a leading tenor and teacher. There was a trio some time ago called The Three Tenors: Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti. For years, Pavarotti's performances were quite miraculous."
It takes an excellent range for a singer to perform 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' What is the most difficult passage in the anthem to get right, for breathing, phrasing, or projection?
(Singing) "'And the rocket's red glare…' (holding the last note for a few seconds) … that's in the middle of a sentence, and you have to keep going, '… the bombs bursting in air…' and you can't stop on that hopefully wonderful note. Sometimes I'm a little tired and I'll stick in another breath. We're only human. The acoustics are different in TD Garden than they were in old Boston Garden. But once we moved here, with the $800,000 sound system, I wasn't thinking about the old Garden. I've been enjoying the sound system. You're only as good as that."
Is it more difficult doing your legendary fist pump wearing the boulder that is your 2011 Bruins Stanley Cup ring? Also, once you take your retirement at season's end, how do you want hockey fans to remember your four decades of singing the anthems here?
"Yes it is. As time has gone on, I think I've gained a little weight and it's harder to put the ring on. Ironically, you can't really wear it because it's so heavy and it gets in the way. I wear it to games and when I crash weddings. Kids love to see it, you saw two who rode the Zambonis before the game come to have a photo taken with me and I make sure the ring is always in the photo. The ring is better known than I am (laughs). I always say, 'The ring is real. I'm fake.' Fans sing to me every day, more often as the years have rolled on and I've been more noticed. Joe Blow from across the street will yell, 'Rene, nice to see you!' and he'll sing, 'O Canada,' and I'll answer (singing), 'Don't quit your day job now…' I'd like to be remembered for having really appreciated the importance of the moment and for having tried to give it more than 100 percent, to try to give it something extra. That's where the fist pump came in. I realized early that the pump is what the heart does. That's where it comes from.