An anthem he'll never forget

BOSTON -- Rene Rancourt has sung countless national anthems at the Garden, both old and new, so it's easy for him to rank the special nights he's had with the mic in hand.

He sang the final anthem at the old Boston Garden. He sang the night Ray Bourque surrendered his No. 7 to Bruins legend Phil Esposito. Rancourt also sang "Auld Land Syne" as Bruins legend Normand Leveille, with the help of Bourque, skated on the old Garden ice as part of the "Last Hurrah."

Then there's Wednesday night.

"These are magical nights. But this, I don't think it will ever be topped," he said.

In an emotional pregame ceremony to honor the victims of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, the arena became silent as a "Boston Strong"-themed video played on the Garden video board, accompanied by the song "Home" by Philip Phillips.

Then, surrounded by the Boston Fire Color Guard, Rancourt began to sing the national anthem. Only a few words in, he motioned for the fans to take over. The reception he received brought goosebumps.

"As you can imagine, a lot of people ask me [to rank them] and the answer has always been easy. I waited 35 years for that Stanley Cup. But now, I must tell you, this tops them all," he said.

How the "Star Spangled Banner" was sung by Rancourt, and everyone inside TD Garden, on Wednesday night, has become the most-talked-about national anthem scene since Whitney Houston performed at the Super Bowl XXV in 1991.

Rancourt has been getting requests from all over the country and Canada to talk about Wednesday's experience.

Rancourt said he could barely hold back his emotion even before he began to sing.

"As an anthem singer, I always try to really think of the meaning of the words so that the anthem doesn't come across cold or phony. The strange thing is, in thinking of the words as I was warming up during the day to get ready for the anthem, I was breaking up, I was starting to tear up," he said.

During his rehearsal earlier in the day, when he uttered "the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air," he said he began to get choked up.

"I thought, 'Boy, I'm actually going to have trouble getting through this thing.' Just then, the phone rings and it's the Bruins' office and they had the idea of stopping it at one point and letting the fans take over.

"I thought, 'Well, this is totally new. In 36 years, I've never done that, it's a whole new experience for me, but I was willing to try it. Sure enough, it worked like a charm. [The fans] piped right in like we had rehearsed it for an hour. It was an amazing, amazing feeling. Ironically, little did the audience realize I did need help."

During the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, Vancouver Canucks anthem singer Mark Donnelly would stop singing during the Canadian national anthem and the fans would pipe in. It was an energetic moment. Prior to a Stanley Cup game in Boston, Rancourt was asked if he ever thought about doing the same thing. At the time, he said he wouldn't.

When the Bruins asked him to do it for Wednesday's rendition, Rancourt wasn't sold right away.

"If I'm going to be totally honest and not sugarcoat it, my automatic reaction is a little bit of, you know, the ego does get in the way. If you didn't have this big ego you wouldn't try to be a singer anyway. It takes a lot of ego just to go stand on that ice anyway because it's a very lonely feeling out there.

"In context with the bombings downtown, the decision was reached much more quickly. … And that's the great thing about what happened, it takes care of all the egos. We're all in this together. Whereas, as a singer you might say, 'Well, if the people are going to sing, why do they need me?' It's kind of natural, being honest. But in view of the bombings, all of that went out the window.

"Actually, it did help me and I did need help and I'm not ashamed to admit it," he added. "Because if you even start thinking of the words a little bit in this context, because of the terrorism, the ego self-destructs because if you've got any feeling at all, you're going to start tearing up and that's not good because you can't cry and sing at the same time. It just doesn't work."

As the 17,565 fans in attendance sang, Rancourt remained on the ice with the mic by his side, singing along with the fans.

"Yes, I sang the whole thing," he said. "I was singing full voice.

On normal game nights, Rancourt is accompanied by Garden organist Ron Poster, but Wednesday night it was all Rancourt.

"I'm used to singing it with the organ and we were doing it a capella," he said.

On Monday, Rancourt was driving to the Garden when his wife called to tell him about the marathon bombings. Not too long after, he was told the game against the Ottawa Senators was postponed.

"I'll never forget that day," he said. "None of us will."

Like professional athletes, Rancourt has his pregame routine. He arrives at the Garden early and is always carrying his tuxedo over his shoulder. He'll eat dinner in the Garden's media room and then he begins to prepare for his performance.

A few minutes before it's time to stand on the rubber carpet at the Zamboni entrance, the Garden's public address announcer Jim Martin will introduce Rancourt as a "Garden legend." The local icon will be standing just bellow the seats, saying a prayer and reviewing the words to the anthem as if he just learned the song.

Even though he has sung it so many times, a few years ago he was performing at what he calls a "prominent" event when he messed up.

"The reason was because I know it so well. I practically wrote the darn thing. I was there when [Francis Scott Key] wrote it," Rancourt said with a laugh. "The reason I messed up the words is because I know it so well that I was able to concentrate on something else other than the anthem. That was bad news. It was a lesson, and the lesson being, you can always learn a lesson no matter how old you are or how experienced you think you are. Since then, I always go over those words, and unfortunately going over the words during the day is when I started breaking up with the emotion. I'm not a robot. I'm human like everybody else, so this crowd sing-along happened at the right time. I'm a very, very lucky guy."

On Wednesday night, he learned another lesson.

"I'm not as brave as I thought I was," he said with a laugh. "I'm a little bit chicken."