May 21, 2024

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You are Your Only Limit

Pat Hickey: Turning the page on a remarkable career covering sports icons

7 min read

Montreal Gazette legend shares his favourite memories from 57 years of covering landmark sports events and the athletes who shaped them.

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Anyone who knows me is aware that I am seldom lost for words.

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But I was dumbstruck when the Canadiens and a cohort of colleagues marked my retirement from the newspaper business after nearly 58 years.

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The occasion had all the trappings of an Irish wake with shooters of Jameson whiskey before last Saturday’s Senators-Habs game, and I wasn’t sure how to react when my face appeared on the Bell Centre scoreboard, although I wished I had combed my hair.

“I’ve never seen you look so awkward,” noted The Athletic’s Arpon Basu.

The night, which stretched into the wee hours of the morning at Hurley’s Irish Pub, was the capstone of a career that began at the Montreal Star in 1965. It’s an addition to the list of memorable moments that I’ve been asked to recount repeatedly in the three weeks since I volunteered to leave the Montreal Gazette in hopes that it would save a younger journalist’s job in the wake of layoffs across the Postmedia chain.

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The No. 1 highlight of my career was one of the first NHL games I covered. On Feb. 11, 1971, the late Red Fisher assigned me to cover the Canadiens game against the Minnesota North Stars at the Forum. That was the night Jean Béliveau scored his 500th goal and I made my first appearance on the front page of the Montreal Star.

If that was my most memorable event, Béliveau was my favourite athlete, a man who deserved to be held up as a role model. Over the years, we had many conversations and few of them centred on hockey. For someone whose formal education ended after high school, he was a voracious reader and was eager to discuss social issues, history and religion.

I was a witness to Stanley Cup championships, the opening games of the Summit Series and that famous 1975 New Year’s Eve game at the Forum between the Soviet Red Army and the Canadiens, which I never thought was the greatest game ever played, an opinion shared by Ken Dryden, who gave up three goals on 13 shots.

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I left Montreal in 1975 for the opportunity to cover the 1976 Olympic Games for the Toronto Sun and I covered gold-medal performances from Bruce Jenner, Sugar Ray Leonard, and the 1992 U.S. basketball Dream Team. That was the start of my friendship with Canadian basketball coach Jack Donohue, who provided me with life lessons and the inspiration for my side hustle as a standup comic.

When I wasn’t watching Jean-Luc Brassard and the Quebec Air Force strike Olympic freestyle skiing gold, the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer introduced me to Saku Koivu and I can recall telling Canadiens fans they were going to love the Finnish teenager. His return from cancer ranks as one of my career highlights along with the prolonged ovation accorded a tearful Maurice Richard the night they closed the Forum.

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In Atlanta, I saw Donovan Bailey and Montrealer Bruny Surin sprint to gold at the 1996 Olympics and I was on the other side of Centennial Olympic Park when the bomb went off.

The last Canadiens Stanley Cup win in 1993 provided great memories with its 10 overtime wins and not-so-great memories from the riot that followed the final game.

I’ve shared a tennis court with Henri Richard, drinks with Yvan Cournoyer and Dickie Moore, and once wrote the scripts for the John Ferguson Show, which featured the hard-nosed enforcer covering kids sports.

Montreal Gazette sports columnist Pat Hickey holds up a Montreal Canadiens jersey during a ceremony in his honour prior to covering his final Habs game in Montreal on Feb. 25, 2023.
Montreal Gazette sports columnist Pat Hickey holds up a Montreal Canadiens jersey during a ceremony in his honour prior to covering his final Habs game in Montreal on Feb. 25, 2023. Photo by Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press

I’ve been honoured to share the press box with legendary writers like Red Fisher, Scott Young, Milt Dunnell, James Lawton, Ted Blackman (no one wrote better under deadline) and Elmer Ferguson, who was at the Windsor Hotel when the NHL was created in 1917.

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Harold Atkins took a chance on an inexperienced university dropout in 1965 and Fisher and Ian MacDonald served as my mentors. I’ve tried to pay it forward, welcoming newcomers to the beat. I’ve been in a position to hire people and I was proud to launch the careers of Mike Boone, L. Ian MacDonald, Reuters Southeast Asia bureau chief Scott McDonald, multiple National Newspaper Award winner Kim Bolan and author Michael McKinley, who is the only sports writer I know with a graduate degree from Oxford. When I was at the Toronto Star, I welcomed Catherine Wallace as a part-time sports copy editor and she later became my boss as the managing editor of the Gazette.

I’ll wrap this up by saluting all the people who work to produce what has been called the daily miracle. The ranks are thinning, which makes it all the more miraculous that the survivors turn out a quality product that serves our readers.

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