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Bruins' singer misses his gig

One man has started more games for the Boston Bruins than anyone else and outlasted stars like Ray Bourque and Cam Neely -- with his tux immaculate and nary a hair out of place.

He's Rene Rancourt, a Natick resident who has sung ''The Star-Spangled Banner" at the opening of Bruins games for nearly 30 years.

But this year, like the players who have been locked out by management in a contract dispute, Rancourt is sitting out the National Hockey League season.

Rancourt said there are holes in his performing schedule that he's never had to fill before. And he misses getting up in front of thousands to belt out the technically difficult anthem.

''It's been bittersweet, because now I've been able to spend much more time with my family," he said of holiday plans uninterrupted this year by trips to North Station.

Rancourt's anthem-singing in Boston actually began at Fenway Park, soon after he won an opera audition competition that was broadcast on the radio and heard by the late John Kiley, who was a longtime Boston Garden and Fenway Park organist.

And the biggest event of his career also took place in Fenway, when he was called to fill in for the late singer Kate Smith, who had canceled her appearance just hours before the dramatic sixth game of the 1975 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox.

Nate Greenberg, assistant to Bruins president Harry Sinden, remembers that Rancourt was hired in 1976 on the strength of his voice. ''We tried a couple of other people, but no one worked out very well.

''The problem was that the sound system in the Boston Garden was horrid, and none of them had voices that carried," Greenberg said. ''It was almost like working without a microphone, because the sound system was so bad. And when Rene came along, he had a booming voice."

While he may also be heard at local youth sports events or kicking off an auto race in New Hampshire, the 60-something Rancourt is in his element when the carpet is rolled onto the ice and, with opposing teams watching, he briefly steps into the spotlight.

The minute-long performances have added up over the years, until his name is readily identified with the black and gold of Boston's hockey tradition. He's the only person named in the punk rock group Dropkick Murphys' ode to Bruins games, a rollicking tune called ''Time to Go."

And he notes that he'll always be part of Bruins trivia as the only national anthem singer to contribute indirectly to a player's injury, when Bruin Bob Joyce separated his shoulder tripping over the carpet placed on the ice for Rancourt.

These days, he's doing more solos at birthday parties and retirement homes than at the FleetCenter. ''In a nursing home, it's not applause that's the stimulus, it's the look in their eyes," he said. At the homes, he has a different repertoire, singing decades-old standards from musicals, songs he and his wife, Maria, used to perform with an orchestra, traveling around the area.

Rancourt thrives on the thunderous applause that signals readiness for the opening puck drop of a NHL game. But even after 30 years of performing it before huge crowds, it's a nerve-racking challenge to sing the national anthem, he said.

''I'm never comfortable singing it," he said. ''If there's anything wrong with you, it will show in the song. I very rarely get it right, and that's why I like it. The challenge is very stimulating. There have been maybe 10 times in my career when I think I sang it really well."

As a classically trained singer, Rancourt dislikes the practice of inviting celebrities to sing the anthem before national sporting events. He considers the anthem a patriotic ode that should be performed with restraint and pride.

''It turns me off when I hear a song stylist interpret their own version of the anthem," he said. ''I can't bear it. It's beyond me how someone has the nerve to get up in front of an audience when they're not really singers. But they do have a lot of nerve, I'll tell you."

He puts his own mark on his performances by pumping his fist at the end of the anthem, a gesture he said he picked up from Bruins player Randy Burridge. And hockey fans generally embrace his style, even hooting and applauding one night in 1991, when Rancourt forgot the words in mid-anthem, covering with Sinatra-style shoo-be-dooing until he regained his footing.

''The better you know the words, the more likely you are to forget them," he said, adding that he now spends several minutes practicing and trying to shut out the crowd's distracting noise before each performance.

On hockey websites, opinions of Rancourt vary. Some are proud of Boston's traditional singer, while others gripe that his showmanship outpaces his talent.

Heather Creegan, Lowell-area author of one Web hockey fan site, soveryobsessed.com, enjoys Rancourt. In the midst of daily ramblings on her site about traveling to cities to watch games, she lamented briefly about a portion of the NHL season that she'll miss this year.

''What really bums me out about this Christmas season is that there will be no Rene Rancourt singing between-the-periods Christmas songs," she wrote on her website last week. In an e-mail, she added, ''He's as much a part of going to hockey games for me as anything else."

Fellow Natick resident Alan Segel can commiserate with Rancourt's unplanned hiatus. As radio host for WBZ-AM's Bruins sportscasts, he's also had to find other things to do to fill the gap created by the player lockout.

''I miss hockey, and I miss hearing Rene Rancourt sing the national anthem," Segel said. ''He and the Bruins are like ice cream and apple pie; you can't have one without the other."

While he enjoys his brief moments in the spotlight, Rancourt doesn't show off a roomful of ego-gratifying Bruins or showbiz memorabilia at his South Natick home. In fact, the only prominently displayed picture portrays him with Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, who sang ''The Star-Spangled Banner" alongside Rancourt's version of the Canadian anthem at Fenway Park's opening day last spring.

''My ego took a jump a mile because he called me by name," Rancourt said of Tyler.

Alison O'Leary Murray may be reached at amurray@globe.com.

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