You might have thought that while growing up in Lewiston, Maine, and performing the national anthem at Boston Bruins games for over 40 years, Rene Rancourt played a bit of hockey along the way.
Not even a whiff.
“Oh, when I was quite young I wanted to be a hockey player,” Rancourt explained. So he took to the ice. Once. “I got hit hard and never put on skates again. I became a singer instead.”
This will be the 78-year-old’s final season at the Boston Garden. The Bruins and their fans will honor Rancourt on April 8, the last game of the regular season.
“The Bruins were my family. 2018 is a good time to end on a high note,” said Rancourt, who has lived in Natick for 30 years. “The hockey fans have been generous, even when I performed under the weather. I’ve always tried to give it 110 per cent.”
Music always filled Rancourt’s childhood home. His parents, Bernadette and Leon, loved singing, so Rene didn’t have to search for encouragement.
He was 12 when he sang in the church choir. “I was the loudest, so they put me in the front row,” he recalled. “I could sing louder than the entire choir.” At 15, he began singing the national anthem at high school games.
“I never had any fear of performing for crowds. It was natural for me. I was a big-mouth. My parents and I would sit on a park bench and I’d sing to people walking by. My parents thought I was showing off.”
Indeed, Rancourt is no shrinking violet. “I’m outgoing,” he said. He met his future wife, Maria, when they studied at Boston Conservatory. Eventually they formed “a society orchestra, a wedding band. We fronted the band,” he said. “It paid the bills.” Still does.
Only once in four decades has Rancourt missed singing the anthem before a Bruins game. “I had a bad cold, so Maria sang it. The next game some fans said ‘Hey Rene we missed you at the last game, but your daughter was wonderful.’” Maria is 11 years younger than her husband.
Rancourt’s celebrity as the anthem singer took off in 1975, a season in which the Red Sox played Cincinnati in the World Series. Renowned contralto Kate Smith was scheduled to sing the anthem at Fenway Park before Game 6. Yes, the Carlton Fisk game!
“She called in sick,” Rancourt recalled. John Kiley, the legendary Fenway Park organist, suggested the Red Sox call Rancourt.
The short notice didn’t faze him one bit. In fact, it proved to be a career boost. Kiley also played the organ at Bruins’ games at the old Boston Garden. So Rancourt debuted there and was a hit. “I had no plans to keep doing that. I just kept showing up at the Garden.”
But he didn’t give up the wedding band work. Many times Rancourt would double-dip, singing the anthem at the Garden in his trademark tuxedo before heading to a wedding wearing the same tux. “Talk about stress,” he said.
In 1996, the National Hockey League All-Star Game was at the new Garden, and TV star Kelsey Grammer had been hired to sing the anthem.
“About one o’clock in the afternoon of the game I get a call from the league saying Grammer couldn’t make it,” said longtime Bruins executive Nate Greenberg. “So I called Rene. I told him we had a problem.”
“I was driving to Albany to visit my in-laws,” Rancourt recalled.
“He turned around, came back and sang the anthem,” said Greenberg.
Rancourt estimates he’s sung the anthem 1,600 times at the Garden. Neither he nor Greenberg can imagine any NHL anthem singer coming close to that body of work. Whenever the Bruins hosted a team from north of the border, Rancourt belted out “O Canada.”
He frequently visits nursing homes and hospitals, charming patients with a song, a smile, and jokes. This is where you get Rancourt the total entertainer, effervescent, opera-trained, always upbeat.
Truth be told, Rancourt’s professional singing debut was a disaster. “I was 16 and was supposed to sing at a 10 a.m. wedding at the church. You know, ‘Ave Maria’ and all that. Well, I overslept. When I got to the church they were taking pictures on the steps. The ceremony went on without me,” he recalled.
“I never got over it. The father of the bride gave me a look like ‘you ruined my daughter’s wedding!’ It was my first professional engagement. I was going to be paid $25.”
It was a lesson he never forgot, as he gave his all to the crowds at the Garden for over four decades.
During one memorable pregrame ceremony, just after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, Rancourt paused midway through the national anthem and the fans finished it from there. The moment was electric.
His trademark, the way he finishes the anthem with fist-pumping flair, is legendary. He got the idea from ex-Bruin Randy Burridge, who used it after scoring a goal. The fans love it.
Rancourt has already planned his final performance for April 8.
“The first pump will be to the Bruins bench. The second to my family in the stands, the third to the fans and the final one will be my goodbye, sprinkled with tears,” he said.
“And I’ll walk into the sunset.”
Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.