As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the fourth of seven parts.
I’ve never read Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes. I didn’t have to. I lived it.
During my two years in Montreal, my home was an apartment on the top floor of a highrise at St. Catherine and Fort, in the Anglo enclave near the Montreal Forum.
I spoke only English to the clerk in the nearby English-language bookstore; to the barman in the Irish pub down the street; to the waiters in the upscale restaurants I frequented; to the people in my office; to the other reporters from the English media.
I had a bonjour-au revoir-s’il vous plait-merci vocabulary, just enough to be polite to the Quebecois, who were starting to get restless during my time in Montreal.
While I initially spent most of my workdays on the editing desk at UPI’s Canadian headquarters in Place Victoria, I did catch one hell of a story during my time in the city.
At about 2 a.m. on January 21, 1975, I was awakened by a call from photo chief Gary Bartlett, who told me to get up, get a cab and meet him at a topless joint called the Gargantua Bar Salon on the north side of the city.
“I’ve already been to a bar tonight,” I said. “Now, I need some sleep.”
“Well, this bar is on fire,” he said, “and we hear there are lots of bodies inside.”
Montreal is not the best place to be outdoors on assignment in the middle of the night in January. When I arrived, it looked like the set of an Ice Age movie – icy stalagmites rising from the pavement, frozen solid in seconds as water sprouted from fire hoses.
The ruins of the building were still smoldering. The scent of burning flesh spiced the wind-chill. The spinning lights of police cars and ambulances added an eerie glow to the scene.
As I stood there with my notebook and fast-frozen pen, the body bags kept coming out.
A couple of hours earlier, the bar manager, a waitress and eleven patrons had been in the Gargantua when a gunman – or gunmen – entered. The manager was shot on the spot.
The waitress and the rest were herded into a six-foot by eight-foot cold-storage room, and locked inside. A jukebox was pushed in front of the door to ensure their imprisonment. Then, the place was set afire.
The bar manager died of the gunshot wound; the other twelve of asphyxiation.
By morning, the police had a suspect, Richard “The Cat” Blass, implicated in a double-murder in the same bar a couple of months earlier.
He was known as The Cat because he had survived several shootouts with police and fellow gangsters, once getting out of a burning hotel room after being shot four times in the head. He’d busted out of prison twice. The media were counting his lives and the number was approaching nine.
The police put their most feared and accomplished detective, Sergeant Albert “Kojak” Lisacek, on the case, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later cop who hated bad guys and loved the spotlight.
The tabloids called him Kojak because he looked like the Telly Savalas television character, a big man and a sharp dresser, with a shaved head.
I used to run into him in the convenience store off the lobby of my apartment building, where he once walked in on a robbery, drew his gun, scared off the lowlife, chased him into the street and shot him dead.
Three days after the Gargantua massacre, Kojak and his cohorts crashed through the door of a cabin in the Laurentians at 4 a.m. and shot Blass 23 times, just to make sure he was out of lives.
The cops never proved Blass was responsible for the Gargantua. The case was written off, as many other murders were in the city in those days, as a reglement des comptes, an underworld settling of accounts, a synonym for that wonderful French phrase laissez faire, which, roughly translated, means: the hell with work, let’s go to lunch.
Less than a year into my tenure in Montreal, with no more massacres to cover, I managed to con my way into a position as the only fulltime UPI sportswriter in the country, charged mainly with handling the run-up to the ’76 Montreal Olympics.
But I would also do stories on the Expos, cover World Cup skiing at Mont Ste-Anne, the 1975 Canadian Open golf championship at the Royal Montreal Golf Club, a Grand Prix race at Mosport, and Muhammad Ali’s brief stopover at Dorval airport on his way home from the Rumble in the Jungle.
Growing up a sports nut in New York, I loved baseball, basketball and football, in that order. As a kid, the only reason I went to hockey games was because the tickets for the Rangers at Madison Square Garden were cheap – two bucks for a seat in the end balcony.
But covering the 1974-75 Montreal Canadiens turned out to be one of my most memorable experiences as a sportswriter.
They didn’t win the Stanley Cup in 1975 – they would the next four years – but seemed to be a special collection of great and noble players: Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Serge Savard, and Yvon Cournoyer. I covered their home games in the 1975 playoffs.
For me, the scene in the dressing room after each game at the Montreal Forum was better theater than the play on the ice. Not yet educated in the post-game interview, I had trouble understanding why the reporters were asking players about what had just transpired. Didn’t they watch the game?
On my first visit to the Canadiens’ locker room, I noticed the Anglo reporters only spoke to English-speaking players and the French reporters to their fellow Quebecois.
I found it especially comical that all the English reporters gravitated to Ken Dryden, the self-anointed hockey scholar and lawyer – the Cornell grad had a law degree from McGill – who would expound on the minutiae of goal-tending as if it were a science, not the reflex of sticking out a glove, stick or foot to stop a puck.
Instead of exploring the Zen of Ken, I went to the locker of the great Cournoyer. I waited for the crowd of French-speaking reporters to clear, then moved in and asked him a question, in English. He looked at me like I had descended from Pluto. He wasn’t rude, simply surprised. He answered my questions softly and slowly, as if unsure whether I’d understand his accented English.
“Merci,” I said when we finished.
“You’re welcome,” he said.