Rancourt has been singing and fist pumping for the Bruins since the 1975-76 season. Now, at age 76, he may be facing the end of his career.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Most Bostonians remember Game 6 of the 1975 World Series solely for Carlton Fisk's dramatic walk-off home run in the 12th inning, and for good reason: history is written by the winners, and few individuals could claim to usurp Fisk as the hero of that fateful evening.
But Rene Rancourt remembers Game 6 differently.
Just hours before the first pitch, famed singer Kate Smith had fallen ill. Rancourt, an opera singer who had been bouncing around odd jobs, was subbed in last minute to sing the national anthem. Despite his nerves, he knocked the anthem out of the proverbial park.
"One of the greatest thrills of my life was to sing in the World Series, because they generally hire very famous singers at the World Series," Rancourt, now 76, recalled.
Rancourt wasn't even remotely famous in Boston then. He'd sung at Fenway Park a few times after long-time Boston Red Sox organist John Kiley had heard him on the radio. After his enthusiastic yet precise rendition for Game 6, and on the recommendation of Kiley, Rancourt got a gig performing the national anthem for the big, bad Bruins at the Boston Garden. And he hasn't left the team since.
"I knew practically nothing about hockey," Rancourt says, laughing. "I didn't even know where the Boston Garden was."
As the primary anthem singer for the Bruins, Rancourt and his dramatic renditions have become a staple of games, first at the Boston Garden and then at the TD Garden. There's an old-timey swagger to his delivery, complete with his trademark salute and fist-pumps after the end. It's all part and parcel of the game experience at one of the more raucous buildings in the NHL, and few other teams employ anthem singers with the same sort of regularity. But now, more than 40 years after delivering his first "Star-Spangled Banner" for the Bruins, Rancourt is preparing for his final salute.
Rancourt can barely remember his first time singing for the Bruins in the 1975-76 season.
"It's just a blur," says Rancourt, who doesn't shy away from hamming up stories for effect. "Like going to Mars."
It is strange, however, that Rancourt wouldn't remember the exact date given the keen attention to detail he tries to display at Bruins games. Rancourt is an opera singer at heart; the fist-pumping and saluting didn't come to him immediately. Instead, in those early years he would focus on diction. It was less about the performance and more about getting the anthem right.
"The best compliment you could pay me is 'I really appreciate your diction and the way you get your words out in your performance,'" he says. "If I try to focus on the words, it is bound to affect a more dramatic presentation. People respond to that." Fans of the black and gold were no exception.
As Rancourt continued opening for Bruins games, he developed his other two trademark moves: his fist-pumps and his salute, both delivered after he finishes the anthem. The "Stump pump," he says, is an homage to former Bruin Randy "Stump" Burridge, who shares Rancourt's smallish stature. The salute is not inspired by veterans, contrary to popular belief. While Rancourt did indeed serve in the U.S. Army, the salute was born after he received a call from an elderly lady early in his career. She told him that she subscribed to cable TV just to watch him sing the anthem and that she turned off the game after he was finished.
Rancourt can now understand her reasoning, all these years later. He admits that he's been leaving Bruins games earlier and earlier, usually sometime in the first period. He then makes the 30-minute drive home and watches the rest of the game with his wife.
The games are starting to wear on Rancourt. While he's sung at most Bruins home games since the mid-seventies, he admits that his time watching is just as important as the time spent on the carpet in front of the Bruins faithful.
"To be able to sit at home and listen to another singer is something I enjoy," he says.
The retirement discussion is one that Rancourt has daily, whether it's with his wife or with himself.
"Maybe next year," he says quietly, showing no interest in discussing an exact retirement date.
In 40 years of singing the national anthem for the Bruins, Rancourt has never had a contract. He simply shows up at the beginning of every season unless he hears otherwise. He supplements his income by singing at weddings, often for Bruins fans.
Rancourt is part of a dying breed. The NHL's need to justify rising ticket prices can often lead to pop singers performing anthems while they promote their latest release. Yet Rancourt and other anthem-singing staples such as Jim Cornelison at the United Center in Chicago are part of the total package: they are one element of an identity deeply entrenched in fans, a sense of belonging and comfort that comes from going to home games. It's an identity that's passed down from generation to generation.
"Personally, I love Rene Rancourt—sort of picked up that love from my dad," says Sarah Connors, manager at SB Nation's Boston Bruins site Stanley Cup of Chowder. "Every time we go to a game together, the first thing we get excited about is 'Is Rene singing tonight?'"
Connors calls Rancourt an "institution" and adds that games that start with Stump pumps are "always going to start more raucously than games with a generic yet pleasant-voiced singer."
Being generic doesn't offend, however. As the NHL continues to move away from staples of its past, be it fighting or high-scoring games, Rancourt, too, might find himself a relic before long. He just hopes that his legacy inspires enthusiastic performances by future voices on the ice.
"A lot of times you hear the national anthem sung, it's done so in a very rote way," says Rancourt. "People sometimes just give a minimum of energy and just get through it."
At 76, he considers himself lucky but not bulletproof. The years are catching up with Rancourt. A Bruins representative told VICE that he hadn't heard of any plans for next season. If this season is indeed Rancourt's last, and the Bruins determine that a younger voice is more in order, the last thing Rancourt would do is harbor any ill will.
"Sometimes I hear a tremendous anthem singer and I'm the first person in line to go shake that person's hand," he says. "There's no jealousy involved."