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Monday January 21, 2013

'The great one has left us'

In a radio and television career that spanned six decades, 'He was the French voice of Canada in sports.'

MONTREAL -- Just as professional hockey players returned to the ice, legendary sports commentator Richard Garneau hung up his skates.

The Radio-Canada sportscaster that generations of Quebeckers listened to religiously every Saturday night as he described hockey games on television died Sunday morning at Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital. He was 82.

Mr. Garneau underwent cardiac surgery in early January. There were complications during the procedure, and he emerged weakened from a five-day-long coma. His son, Stéphane Garneau, who frequently teased his father on the Saturday morning radio show where both men shared a microphone, kept trying to awaken him by telling him that the NHL lockout was over.

Mr. Garneau's radio and television career spanned six decades. Until the very end, he was as passionate about sports as any young hockey player. In the minutes before his surgery, he was obsessed with finding out who had won the world junior hockey championship, as he had no Internet access at the hospital's intensive care unit, his son told Radio-Canada listeners.

The Quebec City-born commentator, who studied drama, earned praise for his rigorous work and his impeccable command of the French language. Mr. Garneau narrated the Montreal Canadians' glory years. The hockey team won nine Stanley Cups when he was at the helm of the long-lasting Soirée du Hockey, from 1967 to 1990.

"He was the French voice of Canada in sports," said Geoff Molson, president and CEO of the Canadians hockey club. The team will pay a tribute to this member of the Hockey Hall of Fame at Montreal's Bell Centre before Tuesday's game against the Florida Panthers.

"As the spiritual son of [host] René Lecavalier, he invented the language of hockey in French," said Philippe Cantin, a sports columnist at La Presse newspaper.

Yet his true passion was not hockey but the non-professional sports that make up the Olympics. "In the 60s and 70s, he showed to Quebeckers who watched hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer that there were other sports worthy of attention," explained Mr. Cantin.

This consummate traveller covered 23 Games, from Rome to the massacre-tarnished Munich, from the hometown Montreal Games to the recent Olympics in London. No other sports journalist has accomplished this feat. "With his unbelievable talent, he gave nobility to Olympic coverage," said Marcel Aubut, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

On the plane to London last summer, Mr. Garneau told his friend Mr. Aubut that he was intent on making the trip to Sochi, Russia, and to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the next two Olympic Games will be held. For this tireless reporter, it was unimaginable to watch the Games on television.

"He never lost his sense of marvel when witnessing heroic sporting feats," said René Pothier, a Radio-Canada sports anchor who covered a dozen Olympic Games alongside him.

Track and field were his favourite events. He loved high jump, discus, as well as all races from sprinting to long-distance running. He presided at one point over the Quebec Federation of Athletics and he himself ran marathons until his damaged knees forced him to quit jogging.

Quebeckers had an enduring love for this tall and handsome television commentator they viewed as the gentleman of sportscasters - he was elected Canada's best-looking man in a 1967 contest organized by feminist TV host Lise Payette.

"He believed that you always had to be true to yourself, and he was as authentic on TV as in life, said Mr. Pothier."

On Quebec airwaves on Sunday, there was an outpouring of affection for the man who earned five Gémeaux Awards for best work in French television and who was inducted into the Order of Canada and the National Order of Quebec.

"The great one has left us," said Mr. Aubut.

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