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Radio raconteur Ron Fournier rules the French-language sports airwaves

Ron Fournier after a Montreal Canadiens hockey game at the Bell Centre in Montreal, QC. Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017.

Johany Jutras/Johany Jutras

Ron is ready to take your calls, sports fans, but there are ground rules – and they are subject to change without notice.

On this night, in the minutes after a 5-1 Montreal Canadiens win over the Calgary Flames, there are three rules: Don't disparage the refs, don't insist on bringing up far-fetched trade rumours – and for the love of everything holy, do not, under any circumstance, sing.

There's only one person here with a licence to warble.

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That would be Ron – Mr. Ronald Fournier, the one-time junior hockey goalie, former NHL referee and reigning monarch of French-language sports radio in Quebec and beyond. He is also far more than just a voice on the radio; you might say Fournier is something of a cultural institution – the raconteur as entertainer and social critic.

His program – Bonsoir les sportifs, which he has hosted for almost 30 years – isn't just about jokes, fourth-liners and the power play. Fournier didn't become the longest-tenured radio personality English-Canadians have never heard of without depth and texture. In his home province, he is as instantly identifiable and as synonymous with hockey as any Habs player.

He is, well, Ron. And there's no one else quite like him.

Exactly when the man started breaking into song on his show is unclear. Suffice to say that his uncle Rodolphe, an amateur opera singer, made a living for a time serenading restaurant patrons and it left an impression. According to Fournier, it all began one night 20 or so years ago when a caller with a discernible Russian accent phoned in. So Fournier broke out the old Soviet national anthem.

"I did it cold," he said. "He was surprised."

Of course colleagues recall similar impromptu renditions at office Christmas parties, where Fournier has been known to grab the mike.

Anyway, over the past decade he has turned his attention to Habs-centric ditties, the first of which was an improvised bit of musical doggerel on goalie Carey Price. (He has since updated the Price tune, basing it on a song by La Compagnie Créole, the 1970s Caribbean pop band.)

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His follow-up, a Max Pacioretty number – set to a cornball whatsa-matta-you melody borrowed from a local Italian restaurant chain – set a higher comic bar.

"Of course I've heard it," Pacioretty said recently. "And I've met him a few times at golf tournaments and things. Funny guy."

The music thing has taken on a life of its own, and now the resources of both his workplace and entourage have been brought to bear on his subjects. The songs about Alex Radulov (with apologies to disco artist Tina Charles' I Love to Love, it's called I Love to Radu-love), Paul Byron, Shea Weber and now-Ottawa Senators goalie Mike Condon (set to Hands Up, from the old Club Med commercials) have something approximating proper production values.

In Ron's world, you have to earn your tune.

His latest is a whisky-voiced Alex Galchenyuk track set to joual troubadour Plume Latraverse's Si vous payez l'cognac.

"My wife, Chantale, is the one who does the lyrics – although she doesn't really watch hockey, so I help with the references," Fournier said with a laugh.

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Ron has Don Cherry's showmanship and iconoclasm, minus the grating, reactionary bombast. He has Rick Mercer's zaniness and ease with man-on-the-street encounters, but with an added dash of Robin Williams' propensity to wax operatic at any moment.

He is a storyteller with a contact list to rival any hockey insider's.

The Québécois country music group Les Cowboys Fringants has memorialized him in song. He is frequently imitated and occasionally lampooned on comedy shows. He even had a small role in the opening moments of the hit 2006 film Bon Cop Bad Cop. (So did Mercer, in fact, as a Cherry-esque character. Fournier played himself – a voice on the radio.)

It's basically impossible to do justice in English to Fournier's staccato delivery, sotto voce asides and polite, yet flirting-with-unhinged patter. He is a veritable catchphrase factory – from the onomatopoeic "po-ppy, po-ppy, po-ppy," his version of "pas pire" or "not bad," the stock response to callers asking how he's doing (everyone asks how he's doing), to the rat-a-tat "byebyebyebyebye" when cutting short questioners. He also uses this in real life when signing off phone conversations. Fournier is a character, not in character.

Setting up straw men is also a favoured device; he often assigns the role to himself.

In a recent show focusing on whether an NHL dressing room could handle an openly gay player, his opening stance was that "hockey is a virile sport, a man's sport, a sport where guys have hair all over" – in essence, a sport hostile to the LGBTQ community. By the end of the discussion, which featured regular callers, gay athletes, well-known sports media and business personalities and a lengthy, meandering tangent about the civil rights movement of the 20th century, he had comprehensively demolished the rhetorical position.

"I think the only way things ever get better is when we talk about it," he said, quietly, to one caller.

It's a typical enough moment for Bonsoir les sportifs, which operates on a shoestring. Until this season Fournier worked alone, save for a studio technician; now the show has a part-time researcher, a producer with all-sports network RDS.

Evenings draw fewer listeners than the morning drive, but Fournier has owned his 8:30-to-midnight time slot for decades; fully one-third of Quebecers tuned in at night listen to Ron.

He has also turned an unusual trick in the Quebec media firmament: Not only does his appeal cut across demographic and gender lines, he is as popular in Quebec City and Gatineau and Rimouski as he is in Montreal.

And that popularity extends beyond the province. He regularly gets calls from Europe and from Manitoba and the Maritimes – and even has a following among anglophone Habs fans.

"I probably get between 200 and 300 e-mails and texts a day," he said.

Those days start early and finish late. Fournier is a stickler for preparation and file-keeping – he favours foolscap pages, and his small, memento-strewn office is the only one in the radio station with no desktop computer.

He is a throwback and his advancing age has been incorporated into his shtick.

One recent evening, a few minutes after the Montreal Canadiens were tossed aside 4-1 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, he implored general manager Marc Bergevin to make a trade, saying this is the year to win it all because "let's face it, I'm getting too old to wait."

As the phone lines lit up, he ran his finger down a game sheet from his perch in the Bell Centre press box: "I'm looking for a star of the game on the Montreal side. No, not that guy. Hmm, no, not him either. I know … nope, not him." (Of Finnish rookie Artturi Lehkonen he said, "I love him, I love him, I love him. But not tonight.")

A few nights later, after the Habs-Flames game, he was in grand fettle – and not by accident: Listeners who live and die with each result expect him to reflect their mood after what they've just witnessed. "Did you know I'm a psychologist?" he said to one. "Anyway, I should be."

The show receives calls from all sorts of people. Former Habs captain Guy Carbonneau once phoned in to set him straight on something or other. He was the team's head coach at the time. People often sound giddy at having actually gotten through to speak to the great man.

To think, it's almost entirely the result of happenstance.

Fournier was born on Aug. 3, 1949, and grew up in the north Montreal neighbourhood of Ahuntsic, where the local hockey and baseball associations were run by a fellow named Maurice Richard, who also hailed from the area. (Fournier was friendly with one of his sons.)

He was a decent ballplayer, but a better goaltender.

In his mid-teens he moved to Drummondville to play major junior – the local star at the time was future Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne – but he soon got caught behind goaltender Michel Plasse, who later became a first-overall NHL draft pick.

So it was off to Trois-Rivières, a junior-A team, where he soon found himself losing playing time to a kid named Gilles Gilbert.

"When I got there he told me, 'I think I might be a little better than you,' " Fournier recalled. "And he was right. That was a sign."

Gilbert would go on to play 416 NHL games. Fournier would go on to referee school.

It was a smart move.

In the early 1970s, he joined the NHL officials system, working mostly in the American Hockey League. "In those days you had to wait for [legendary NHL ref] Bruce Hood to die if you were a young guy," he said with a laugh.

So in 1974 he bolted for the upstart World Hockey Association, which had offered to triple his salary. "Maybe the best four years of my professional life," said Fournier, who has more than a few tales from his wild and woolly WHA days, none of which are suitable for a family publication.

But then the league folded and he returned, cap in hand, to the NHL. His peers weren't exactly thrilled to see him back – "I did well at the first training camp, but there were sensitivities, so I had to go back to the minors for a while."

He was soon back in the NHL, where he remained until 1987.

His final divorce from the league came just before the playoffs. The officials list for the postseason was released and his name wasn't on it. So he left, at 37.

"They said, 'Nobody quits on the NHL.' But I did."

At loose ends, he went home to the Laurentians and took a job as a beer rep – "a buddy of mine worked for Labatt. They gave me a brown station wagon, a company credit card and all the beer I could drink."

Around that time came the phone call that would change his life.

Michel Tremblay was the young sports program director at a scrappy Montreal upstart station called CJMS, and since taking up the post the previous fall he'd been looking for an evening host to take on powerhouse CKAC.

"We'd heard that Ron had left the NHL, and I tried to get him to come on the air to talk about it," Tremblay recalled. "We must have talked for an hour. In the end he said no to the interview, but during the conversation I had a flash: This is my guy."

The two had met only once, but Tremblay went to see his boss and urged him to bring Fournier in for a chat.

"Former athletes or sports people having successful on-air careers is a 50-50 deal: Half of it is direct professional sports experience, which they have, half of it is broadcasting, which is my job," Tremblay said. "Ron had most of that second 50 per cent already."

That fall, Fournier made his radio debut. It wasn't auspicious.

For his first show the phone lines were stubbornly, resolutely open. He had exactly one caller – his brother, who at least had the decency to disguise his voice.

Within a few years, Fournier was CKAC's headliner, and when the station went to an all-traffic format, he moved to its 98.5 FM sister station.

Through it all, the people have kept calling.

As long as Ron feels up to the job, it's a safe bet the lines will continue lighting up.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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