An unexpected surprise awaited me when I arrived at the Hotel Méridien in downtown Montreal on a hot July afternoon in 1976.
I had just arrived from Halifax to cover the Summer Olympics for the next three weeks for the Chronicle Herald. The brand new Méridien had opened its doors a few days earlier to serve as a base for outside media.
I arrived at my assigned room, wearing shorts and a golf shirt, when I discovered a large envelope on the dresser. The royal crest in the upper left corner is what caught my eye. I opened it as fast as I could.
The official invitation said it all.
“The Master of the House is ordered by Her Majesty to invite Mr. Hugh Townsend to a reception to be given by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on board HM Yacht ‘Britannia’ in Montreal on Sunday July 18, 1976, at 5.00 pm”
I checked my watch. I had barely two hours to get there.
I went from shorts to the best clothes I had brought. Five minutes later, I jumped into a taxi at the hotel entrance.
Interestingly, the Britannia was moored between a Soviet freighter and HMCS Ottawa.
I would have been pretty stupid if I thought I was the only guest arriving. I took a few steps and joined the long line. As we progressed, I felt a surge of pride as I prepared for the biggest moment of my journalism career.
I stepped in as my introduction to the Queen and Prince Philip signaled the opportunity to reach out to Her Majesty.
I was there, face to face with the Queen. Our meeting lasted 15 seconds, maybe 20.
I walked over and shook hands with Prince Philip. I was surprised when he started a brief conversation with me. You see, only two days earlier, back in Halifax, I had met the royal couple for the first time. This was part of a function for the Nova Scotia sports contingent and members of the media traveling to the Games.
So there I was, on the Britannia, about to move into the reception area, when Prince Philip smiled and pointed to the Nova Scotia pin on my sports jacket.
“Ah, my friend from Nova Scotia,” he said with a smile.
It was brief – at least at that time.
A few minutes later, when the receiving line was completed, I saw the Duke approaching me.
I think he actually recognized my brooch.
He asked me what sporting events I was going to cover, if I had already participated in the previous Olympics. He told me to enjoy everything. Yes, it was brief, but it was unforgettable.
He had gone to talk to someone else.
I had a conversation with two Toronto journalists who enjoyed the same status as me. I knew I wouldn’t argue with Royalty again.
But do you know something?
Over time, as the Olympics went on their schedule, as I returned to Nova Scotia and my daily routines at the athletic department, I began to realize that those minutes with a member of the royal family were quite exciting .
The thing is, that quick conversation makes more sense to me now than it did right after it happened 46 years ago.
When you go about your business, attend sporting events of all kinds, when you have lunch with people at a Tim Hortons or in a fancy restaurant, you do not evoke such a memory. Would anyone else really care?
Heck, in this business, you meet so many celebrities. It’s part of the job, part of covering the sports scene.
I was lucky in that regard, that’s for sure.
But last Thursday afternoon, I had a column ready for this week’s Advocate. Nothing major, just a topic that I think readers would be interested in.
I was sitting in front of the TV, the volume low enough not to interfere with my reading. The dogs were at my feet, waiting for their supper.
Just then I saw a British flag being lowered.
I had listened to the news earlier, particularly about the Queen’s illness and the summoning of members of her family to Balmoral Castle, the summer residence she loved so much. I didn’t need to add two and two to figure out what had happened.
The Queen’s wonderful 70-year reign has come to an end.
My thoughts began to go back even further than the 1976 Olympics and my hour or so on the royal yacht.
I remembered the morning of 1947 when, at the age of nine, I listened with my family to the royal wedding in London.
I also remembered, the day in 1952, at 13, listening to the radio next to my bed before getting up to go to school, hearing that King George VI had died.
I remembered how I realized that the young and beautiful Princess Elizabeth was suddenly our new queen.
God Save the Queenour seventh grade class sang together that day.
As I mentioned earlier, someone in my position, writing about sports for almost 70 years, meets a lot of superstars, a lot of Hall of Famers. Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Hull, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Sandy Koufax, Muhammad Ali, George Chuvalo, Russ Jackson – the list goes on. I have met them all.
But last Thursday afternoon, the biggest and most talented athletes in the world could be put aside for now.
We had just lost our queen, a very remarkable person, a star, a member of the Hall of Fame, perhaps the best monarch in the world.
That is why my thoughts – without any desire – passed in an instant to that afternoon in 1976 aboard the Britannia, to what was truly the proudest and most exciting occasion I have ever experienced in this job.