It’s 7:45 p.m. on hockey night in Canada, just a few minutes from game time. The Montreal Forum is filling to its usual capacity crowd as Canadiens’ fans gather to see their heroes battle through the Stanley Cup playoffs. Deep inside the building, another Montreal hero is warming up; in a men’s room, dressed in his tuxedo and scrutinized by Forum staffers making use of the facilities, Roger Doucet is singing O Sole Mio at the top of his lungs, into a hairbrush serving as a hand-held mike.
At 8:05 comes the announcement: “Mesdames et messieurs ... Roger Doucet.” The white-haired, barrel-chested singer steps out onto the Forum ice, fills his lungs and charges into his bilingual, modified version of 0 Canada. The audience joins in and the feeling of togetherness—franco, anglo and Roger—is unnerving.
If Guy Lafleur is the not-so-secret weapon of the Canadiens’ travelling troupe of stickhandling magicians, then Doucet, Forum anthemeer for the last eight years, is the missile X of their arsenal. The way he electrifies his audience is commonly said to be worth at least one goal to the Habs.
A strong nationalist, the 60-year-old Doucet caused a stir during last year’s cup finals when he replaced one of interminable “we stand on guard for thee”s from 0 Canada with “we stand on guard for rights and liberty.” But now, having stuck with his revised version, he keeps getting mail from people who like it.
“Canada isn’t just the land but people, too, and they have rights and liberty,” he explains. “So I decided,
‘Why not say it?’ ”
As long as the Canadiens stayed in the playoffs, Doucet’s seen across Canada on TV coverage of games from the Forum. But his appearances don’t end with the hockey season; he also delivers anthems to get both the Montreal Expos baseball and
Allouette football games under way.
He’s a true hockey fan and sticks around for most of the games, except on Saturdays when he goes straight to a
small Montreal supper club, the Vita Restaurant, where he entertains every weekend. There he has a TV tuned to the game so he can keep an eye on his team.
Thanks to 0 Canada, Doucet is now an instantly recognized celebrity, especially in Quebec. But it was a long haul through 40 years of professional singing. The son of a milkman from Rosemount in east Montreal, he made his first appearances in a church choir at the age of 10. At 18 he moved up to nightclub singing, then four years later, in 1942, joined the army and toured Canada and Europe for five years.
LaterRe studied at the New York College of Music where he met his vivacious wife, Geraldine, a mezzo-soprano. After graduation, he did short stints with various operas in Philadelphia, Toronto and London; but by his mid-40s he was not advancing as quickly as he had hoped. “I finally realized I was too old to make it in the big leagues,” he says.
Then, “par pur hasard" as the singer puts it, the Forum auditioned Doucet in ’71. By the end of this season he will have appeared at well over 500 hockey games, and his decision to throw his lot in with the anthem has worked well in other ways.
In ’76 a friend suggested he do an album of national anthems around the world. “I already knew the Russian and American anthems and as the Canada Cup international hockey tournament in September approached, I thought I’d prepare myself by learning the Czechoslovakian, Finnish and Swedish as well.” A week before the tournament opened, the organizers asked him somewhat tongue-in-cheek if he knew the six anthems. By then he did, and that meant huge, international TV appearances as he opened each game. But thefe was one bad moment, when the Soviets met the Czechoslovakians. “I sang the Russian anthem and I was savoring the reaction when I drew a blank on the Czechoslovakian anthem. There was the intro starting and millions watching via satellite. Luckily, Geraldine who was standing just behind me whispered the first word and I was away.”
An album he made from that year’s preparations, a collection of anthems and national songs called Chants Glorieux in its French edition—Songs of Glory in hlnglish —has sold more than 30,000 copies. Coming soon is a single with a Canadian unity song on one side and a disco scorcher called Kiss Me by the Fire on the other. So far there are no plans for a disco rendition of O Canada.
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