BOSTON -- Rene Rancourt had a problem. He kept crying when he sang the song. All day he had the problem. He was home in Natick, Mass., and he would go into his favorite place to practice -- that would be the bathroom -- and he would sing the first few lines and he would hit a hard part and the tears would arrive. He could see himself in the mirror.
"Singers are supposed to be dispassionate," he said "You're not supposed to let the words affect you. I'm usually very good that way … but thinking about tonight? I'd get to 'the rockets red glare' and I'd feel myself welling up again.
"This was the most nervous I've ever been about singing that song."
A flamboyant character, dressed in a flamboyant tuxedo, Rancourt has been the principal singer of the national anthem for the Boston Bruins for the past 37 years. His deep, operatic voice has opened for Bruins wins, Bruins losses, Bruins ties, Bruins celebrations, plus a good number of birthdays, bar mitzvahs and weddings on the side. He is a true Boston character, part of the sports fabric of the city.
That was why the idea of singing the national anthem Wednesday night at the TD Garden was so hard. Who could be dispassionate now?
This was the first sporting event in the city -- Bruins versus the Buffalo Sabres -- since the events at the Marathon on Monday.
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"I was thinking, driving in here, how everything has changed," former winger Andy Brickley, now the color man on Bruins telecasts, said. "It's crazy. I was thinking, suppose somehow this team wins the Stanley Cup again? What would happen with the duck boat parade? When we won it the last time, that was one of the great experiences of my life. Going through those crowds. It was a beautiful day, a Saturday, warm, people came out. I had my wife and kids with me on the duck boat. It was terrific.
"What would happen now? Would the parade be the same? How could it be?"
Thoughts like this were everywhere. What next? How will it all work? The pieces of life had been curiously rearranged.
The normal still could be seen as everyone gathered. ("Tickets," the familiar scalpers said outside the Garden. "Who's buying? Who's selling? Tickets.") People dressed in Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara jerseys still drank in the patios in front of the bars on Canal Street on this first truly warm day of the spring. The renegade T-shirt capitalists still sold perennial black-and-gold favorites like "Win Or Lose, We Booze" and "Keep Calm And Pass The Blunt" and "Boston Beatdown," which featured a picture of Milan Lucic pummeling some poor visiting intruder. The arriving crowd was still an excited crowd, the same, everybody hustling, ready to watch a game.
Bomb-sniffing dogs were in the Garden lobby.
No bags were allowed that were carried by spectators. None. No bags Wednesday night. No bags Thursday night when Fleetwood Mac arrives. That had been a radio message all day. No bags.
Cars were examined as people entered the parking garage, every third car searched, one of those now-familiar flat mirror devices slid underneath in another search for bombs.
Swat team stalwarts walked through the lobby with serious-looking automatic weapons.
The game was more than a game. This was a local show of strength, of resilience. This was the first step after bombs and the bad things happened. The local television stations had been filled with bad news for two straight days. Was there anyone who hadn't seen that picture of 8-year-old Martin Richard of Dorchester, one of the three casualties at the Marathon finish? There he was with his 8-year-old's smile, dressed in his Bruins jersey, standing in front of the Bruins as they skated past in warmups. Who didn't think about that?
"Our job is to give the people of our city a little bit of inspiration," winger Brad Marchand said. "It's a sport and it doesn't change anything, but it's what we do for a living and a lot of people pay attention and if we can do something to take their mind off what happened, give them something positive, we should try."
Marchand had started a raffle. He would surrender his luxury box seats for a playoff game as a first prize. Tickets would be available, five bucks apiece, at the Garden. The money would go directly to the Richard family of Dorchester.
"I was trying to think of something," Marchand said. "Shawn Thornton had the idea. I went to the PR department and ran with it."
First responders would be honored at the game. That was different. Eighty of them had been invited. People who ran in the Marathon would be asked to stand and be acknowledged. People who watched the Marathon would be asked to stand. That was different. A new cheer would begin -- "We Are Boston." This would be heard over and over again.
The Bruins would announce a $100,000 donation to a charity to help survivors of the bombings. The entire building would be lit outside in blue and yellow.
"The efforts that have taken place from ownership, management, players and all our associates to put together the proper recognition at tonight's game for those who responded, helped and comforted all those who have been affected by the tragic events of this past Monday have been remarkable," Bruins president Cam Neely said in a statement. "Every member of our organization has assisted in many different ways to make sure we make Boston proud, make our fans proud and show what it means to call Boston home… ."
This was the return to sport. This had to be different.
"People were out, but also still very quiet," coach Claude Julien said, describing his feeling when he showed up at the Garden early for the morning skate around. "It's funny, I got to the corner here and that's when it really hit me and it's a different feeling. At the same time, you're battling with the feeling and you're also knowing what you want to accomplish. You're battling with your inner strength not to let that get the best of you, but give it your best so you can help the people around you."
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The anthem turned out fine. The Bruins decided somewhere during the day that the song should be done in a special way for this special night. Rene Rancourt would only start the singing. The fans would take care of the rest.
"I've never done anything like this, but it's a load off my mind," the singer said. "I'll just sing a little intro lead, then bring in everyone else."
And so it went.
The two teams stood at the blue lines and the four officials stood in the middle, near the spoked B logo at the center of the ice. The house lights went down except for a sequence of blue and yellow ribbons -- the colors of the Boston Marathon -- on the electric signage that runs around the balcony and usually advertises beer and vodka and sour cream dips with cheese. A video was shown on the Jumbotron hanging above the ice, a sequence of images from the horrors of Monday mixed with images of hope and strength. One picture was a close-up of Milton native Keith Yandle's skate, the message "Pray For Boston" written on the boot. The ending of the video was the message "We Are Boston. We Are Strong," which was reduced at the end to "Boston Strong."
A Bruins carpet then was rolled onto the ice from the door where the Zamboni enters and exits. A color guard from the Boston Fire Department came out to a large ovation. Then the flamboyant man in his flamboyant tuxedo came out and he started the song, "Oh, say can you see ..." and waved everyone to join him and everyone did.
Loud and proud.
"This was about a city coming together," Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron said, asked later about his feelings during the anthem after his team lost in a shootout, 3-2, a result that seemed almost incidental. "This wasn't just about hockey tonight. This is something I'll remember for the rest of my life. It's something I hope I never feel again "
The singers this time were not professionals.
They were not dispassionate.
It did not matter if anyone cried.