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Bruins anthem singer Rancourt retiring

Boston Herald

January 19. 2018 2:31AM
Local legend Rene Rancourt sings the national anthem prior to the start of the UNH hockey playoff game against Merrimack College Sunday night in North Andover, Mass.. (JOSH GIBNEY/UNION LEADER)

An era is coming to an end for the Bruins, who Wednesday announced that Rene Rancourt, who has been singing the national anthem before home games for more than 40 years, will retire after this season.

Introduced as always as, “A Garden legend,” Rancourt received a thunderous ovation from the sellout crowd before singing the Canadian and U.S. anthems before the B’s and Habs faced off Wednesday night. Finishing with his usual flourish, he provided several extra fist pumps.

Afterward, he chatted with reporters in the press box about his decision to walk away.

“Mother Nature is calling,” said the Lewiston, Maine, native. “I’ve been trying to act very young. I’m fooling a few people. But Mother Nature can’t be fooled. I’m 78. Maybe I started to think of retirement at 68, so I’m a little bit late.”

Rancourt recalled the unlikely circumstances that led him to the Garden ice during the 1975-76 season.

“I would never have gone to a hockey game,” he said. “I’m an opera singer. I was at Boston University, way deep into opera and the Boston Conservatory. I never would think to go to a hockey game. What is that?

“But I sang at Fenway Park one day and the famous organist there, John Kiley, said, ‘Can you sing for the Bruins?’ I said, ‘Where do they play? They said North Station.

“When I saw the fan reaction, it was a far cry from the grand old opera, I’ll tell you. It was unbelievable. I said, ‘These are my people.’ It was a completely new experience in my life. When I saw that fan reaction, that was it, I was sunk from that moment on. I kept showing up, whether they wanted me there or not.”

Rancourt has always been a fan favorite, and often hears from fans on the street.

“It’s great,” he said. “You’re walking down the street deep in thought and you hear, ‘Oh, Canada...’ — he sings in his standard dramatic voice — and I’ll turn and sing, ‘Don’t quit your day job now.’

“It’s wonderful, the fan reaction. They take their hockey very, very serious. It took me time to learn that, but I did.

“Every time I sing the anthem I imagine that it’s for the last time — (Wednesday night) it was almost for the last time — and I try to give it all I can, prepare as much as possible. Each year the preparation becomes longer and longer. So I had to make the decision. It was a tough one.

“They tell me that I will miss it grandly. Forty years, times 40 home games is somewhere around 1,600, not counting the playoffs. In the old days we seemed to be in the playoffs a lot more than we are now.”

He recalls the Bruins game days after the Boston Marathon bombing as the pinnacle of his career. That night, he began the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but quickly stopped singing — letting the sellout crowd belt out the song with tremendous emotion in an all-time Boston sports moment.

“Nothing comes close to that, the marathon bombing game, where the Bruins just happened to be the only professional sports team playing right afterwards,” said Rancourt. “I think it was two days after. I was petrified to get out there. I had planned to stop singing in the middle of it.

“I was very, very afraid of doing that. The reaction is something I will never, ever forget. That’s my proudest memory. (The fans singing) started building more and more. It was very, very exciting — the highest moment of my singing career and I didn’t hardly sing a note.”

He’ll be long remembered for that night — and all 1,600 others.