Excerpt from a 1990 interview with Rene Rancourt, “Oh, Rene, Can You Sing,” Yankee Magazine, January 1990.
It’s 6:25 in the press room behind Section 47 of the Boston Garden, 65 minutes before face-off. Hardened hockey-beat reporters sit on hard plastic chairs, sip soft drinks, and deal cards; others scribble self-consciously in their notebooks in between bites of fast food, young writers up from Providence, down from Concord. Off toward a corner, Rene Rancourt begins to talk and breathe more slowly. For a second he closes his intense hazel eyes. “It’s good to be a little nervous,” he says. “It means you’re alive.”
He is nervous because soon, as he has since 1976, Rene Rancourt will open the game for the Boston Bruins by singing what he says “feels like the most difficult song in the English language, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.'” If a Canadian opponent is in town, Rene, an operatic tenor and bandleader will also perform (in French) “Oh, Canada,” just as he’ll sing the Russian anthem for Soviet exhibition games. Around the entire National Hockey League—indeed anyplace where national anthems are sung—no one does Rene’s job any better.
At seven o’ clock Rene Rancourt finishes his final cup of coffee and begins to focus on the task at hand. “You have to be prepared,” he says. “The song is so difficult that any little thing wrong with you really shows up. It’s amplified.” As Boston’s first and only professional national anthem singer, Rene figures his voice has opened over 600 games (at the time of this writing). He says he hasn’t gotten it exactly right—yet.
He is a short man, lean, with auburn-colored hair and a pencil-thin mustache, and he moves and speaks with the flair of an actor. Since he was born in Lewiston, Maine, of French Canadian parents, the origin of his deep accent is unmistakeable. When there are people around to talk to, he needs real discipline to turn his thoughts inward.
Fifteen minutes later, his quiet time complete, Rene rises from his seat. “Go get ’em, Rene,” says a Garden usher and the singer winks back as he smiles. He will hear the same encouraging words a dozen times before he performs.
Descending from the press box to the ice, Rene walks against the crowd and belts out the first bar of the anthem against the walls of the concrete stairwell. “If I hear it ring, that means I’m on,” he explains. “If I don’t, well, I know I’m flat, but it’s too late to do anything about it…”
“You’re howling tonight, Rene!” shouts one passerby. “Oh, Canada!” mockingly sings another. “Don’t quit your day job,” jokes Rene in return and the group splits up in laughter.
Two minutes before tonight’s game, Rene quickly steps out from between the players’ benches and onto the ice. All eyes in the garden, except Rene’s, turn to the giant American flag hung directly over the scoreboard at center ice. He concentrates instead on a blue and white neon sign over the opposite runway. “Oh, say can you see…” booms from the microphone and shakes the Garden. Rene’s hands sweeping theatrically before him. Rene ends his song with his trademark salute to the crowd. “I’m also saluting the people watching on TV,” Rene says. “I’m killing two birds with one stone.” Then Rene disappears from the ice and heads toward his seat in the press box. “That’s about as close as I’ve come,” he says, beaming, “to hitting it right on.”
Though the Boston Bruins are winning, Rene leaves the game with just over seven minutes remaining in the second period—a calculated time that allows him to listen to the final period on the drive back to his home in Natick. As he leaves the press box, a vendor shakes his head. “You really sang it tonight, Rene!” Rene smiles. Farther on, three teenagers time his approach perfectly and belt out their own version of “Oh, Canada.” They break into laughter almost immediately, knowing the line that is about to follow.
“Don’t quit your day job,” Rene Rancourt shouts as he heads for the garage.