A genius of his craft
Any serious Montreal Canadiens fan knows, and loves, novelist and and short-story writer Roch Carrier’s timeless 1979 classic The Hockey Sweater.
Carrier’s romantic, autobiographical tale of a young, rural Quebec boy and his love of the Canadiens – and equal distaste for the Toronto Maple Leafs – is, in a way, a love story written for Maurice (Rocket) Richard.
Six years ago, Carrier published Our Life With The Rocket: The Maurice Richard Story. It, too, is a delightful look at one man’s fascination with arguably the most exciting hockey player of all time, certainly the most compelling of his generation.
I had the good fortune in 2001 to sit with Roch to discuss The Hockey Sweater (don’t miss this magnificent tribute at civilization.ca) for a story The Gazette played on the front page of the newspaper that November 20. Our Life With The Rocket is still available in paperback at many bookstores and at amazon.ca. I have read it more than once, been mesmerized by his vision and the nostalgia each time, and said as much in a book review published in October 2001.
If you haven’t read The Hockey Sweater, or seen the magical National Film Board animated short, run, don’t walk, to get copies of both. The short is on YouTube here, but you need a copy for your library.
In the dog days of summer, read on to learn a little about Roch Carrier, truly a genius of his craft, and discover why, thankfully, he will never let us forget the legend of Maurice Richard.
Canadian literary icon Roch Carrier, photographed as a young boy on a winter’s street in his hometown of Sainte-Justine-de-Dorchester, Que., wearing his (gasp) Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. And smiling, no less. It is this sweater that Carrier loathes in his timeless classic The Hockey Sweater, a wonderful book and animated classic from the National Film Board. Roch showed us this photo in a history of Sainte-Justine, and it appeared on the front page of The Gazette. Since then, it has been widely published.
Courtesy Roch Carrier
CARRIER’S ROCKET SOARS
It all began with the beloved Hockey Sweater
It’s at once a beautiful, awful photograph that Roch Carrier says has rarely been published, if at all.
It is 1947 and he is 10 years old, standing between the colossal snowbanks of the main street in the rural Quebec village of Saint-Justine-de-Dorchester, about 280 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
Young Roch is wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater and a broad grin, and now, more than 50 years later, Carrier feels he must apologize for the smile.
“I don’t remember the photo being taken, but it must have been my mother who took it,” Carrier says today. “I can tell you I wasn’t happy wearing that sweater, but any time my mother aimed her little box camera at me, she said: ‘Smile.’ And it seems I did.”
About 25 years down Carrier’s meandering road of life, that Maple Leafs sweater would spawn one of Canada’s most cherished and enduring children’s stories – The Hockey Sweater – and to this day its author is humbled that a mischievous little tale has warmed the hearts of millions.
It is the story of young Roch, whose world and those of his friends revolve around Canadiens’ extraordinary Maurice (Rocket) Richard. Carrier’s mother orders him a new Canadiens sweater by mail through the Eaton’s catalogue, but receives a Maple Leafs jersey by mistake.
The youngster is traumatized, wearing the dreaded blue-and-white like a scarlet letter before he finally prays that God, surely a Canadiens fan, will send him enough moths to devour it.
Carrier has written prolifically for stage and screen; he has authored award-winning novels and short stories, and this autumn has published a new best-seller, this hockey season’s must-read – Our Life With the Rocket.
It is a lovely, poignant quilting of his own life with those of Richard and a province whose Quiet Revolution often used the Rocket as its lightning rod.
He has taught, written a column for The Gazette, run the Theatre du Nouveau Monde and the Canada Council for the Arts, and currently is Canada’s national librarian, responsible for 20 million books and charged with gathering, collecting, protecting and providing access to this nation’s published heritage.
But 64-year-old Roch Carrier unquestionably is best known for The Hockey Sweater, the little story he wrote for CBC radio because he had mortgage payments to make and a family to feed.
He struggled for an answer to the question he was posed by his bosses – “What does Quebec want?” – but when they finally said “write anything” and he happened upon the autobiographical theme of a young boy who felt invincible in his Canadiens sweater, it spilled out of his typewriter in two, maybe three hours.
“You cannot just sit down and say you’ll write this,” Carrier said yesterday, on a whirlwind Montreal tour to promote his new book. “It simply happens. I do not claim any credit for it.
“I could complain that I wrote that great novel and people won’t talk about it. They will one day, but for now they love The Hockey Sweater.
“I’m very naive about it, but it’s a gift. The number of nice comments I get from people who would never have talked to me – you put some words on paper and 30 years later people care about what you did? It’s wonderful.”
The Hockey Sweater became a beloved, even magical National Film Board animated short, narrated by Carrier in a beautifully clipped English that every so often puts the accent on the wrong syllable.
“This is per-SE-cution!” he rails at the young cure for banishing him from the ice, apparently for no reason other than his Maple Leafs sweater in a sea Richard’s red-and-white No. 9s.
Since the children’s tale was published as Le Chandail in a collection of French short stories in the early 1970s, Carrier’s life has been linked with the Rocket, one of the greatest players in hockey. Yet he never saw his idol play in person, a university student too poor to buy a ticket to a game at the Forum. His one attempt in 1958 was detoured when he followed a pretty classmate, Marie, off a streetcar into a foreign film.
“When you’re young and girls are beautiful, you’re stupid,” Carrier said, laughing. “Well, maybe not stupid, but you’re so alive. And as boys we had played in the streets and on the rinks of Sainte-Justine just like the Rocket, so it’s as though we had seen him play.”
The author met Richard maybe four times, the first at the premiere of the animated short. But the taciturn Rocket clearly was impressed, requesting copies for his grandchildren. Later he autographed a few books for Carrier and 20 years ago surprised him with a No. 9 Canadiens jersey, which Carrier gleefully tugged over his head yesterday for a photo on Molson Centre ice.
“It’s a long way from my village street to centre ice in Montreal,” he said. “My friends would be so jealous: the worst player in the village, at centre ice in the Molson Centre!”
Carrier finished the French version of his latest book on May 27, 2000, the day Richard died of cancer. But he would not say publicly how deeply he was affected by the death, not wishing to be seen promoting his own work on the back of this profound sadness.
In fact, on the day of Richard’s funeral, Carrier was in Prince Edward Island, delivering a scheduled speech though he remembers a large part of his heart being in Notre Dame Basilica.
A generation of children have learned to imitate his accent; Carrier is delighted that the soundtrack at a grade-school screening might be drowned out by mimicking students. He is presented Canadiens and Maple Leafs sweaters at every turn, and better yet, the jerseys of small-town teams.
“Now I sign the book for grandparents and their grandchildren. Often parents-to-be will ask me to sign a copy for their baby. My little message is: ‘I still don’t know your name, but one day you’ll be reading this book, and all I can say is, welcome to this planet.’ “
That he would touch the consciousness of a people and choke up the mighty Rocket himself was something Carrier never expected.
“Maurice’s son paid me a nice compliment at a statue unveiling in Hull last September,” he said without elaboration, eyes quickly welling with tears at the memory.
“When Maurice first spoke after the screening of The Hockey Sweater, he said to me: ‘You should write my life, it would be more interesting than this little story.’ I think, now, that maybe that’s what I’ve done.”
Our Life With the Rocket
The Maurice Richard Story
By Roch Carrier
Translated by Sheila Fischman
(Reviewed by Dave Stubbs, The Gazette)
His life inspired authors, singers and film-makers, playwrights, painters and poets. He galvanized the resolve of a people locked in a struggle to carve out their identity during a turbulent time in Quebec – not because he wanted to, but because he wasn’t given the choice.
“I’m only a hockey player,” Maurice (Rocket) Richard forever pleaded, these his only words unheard.
The phenomenon of Rocket Richard has been the life’s work of sociologists and political scientists, tavern fodder for more than a generation of Quebecers.
When Richard died of cancer on May 27, 2000, tears were spilled well beyond the political borders that could not contain his immense talent.
No matter that this province had tried to claim the Rocket as its exclusive property.
It was an entire country that mourned during his nationally televised funeral at Notre Dame Basilica, celebrated before the powerful in dark suits and the common folk, in the balconies, wearing Canadiens sweaters.
Now comes Roch Carrier’s Our Life With the Rocket: The Maurice Richard Story, the elegantly translated version of last winter’s Le Rocket. It’s unlikely you’ll find a more poignant, more loving biography of any professional athlete.
“He’s half wild horse, half well-disciplined soldier … with a face as rough as a stone in a Gaspe field and the piercing eyes of someone who has the gift of seeing things invisible to others,” Carrier writes of his rugged hero.
The Rocket scored 626 goals with the Canadiens from 1942-60, an astonishing number of them highlight-reel quality. It’s commonly said there’s never been a player, of any era, who’s had a better nose for the net from the blueline to the goal. He was a member of eight Stanley Cup champions, the first to score 50 goals in 50 games, an eight-time first all-star and winner of the 1947 Hart Trophy, awarded to the man considered most valuable to his team.
It is a disservice to Carrier’s prolific talent to suggest that he is best loved for a children’s short story he wrote decades ago, but this might be the case. His gentle tale The Hockey Sweater tells of young Roch growing up during the 1940s in rural Sainte-Justine, Que., worshipping the ice on which the Rocket skated while Roch himself was stricken with the accidental receipt of a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.
In that story, a youthful Carrier moans: “The Toronto team was always being beaten by the Canadiens.” But now the author admits to this historical error, though with a clever caveat: “Isn’t truth our memory of facts? And aren’t facts the memory we have of them?”
From his earliest recollections, Carrier is profoundly moved by Richard, who debuted in the NHL when the writer was only 5. Through the years he is stirred both by this legend’s reckless, unfathomable talent, and by the enormous influence he has on a province, through the years of war, the corruption of the Duplessis regime, the infamous Richard Riot of 1955.
This riot, a spontaneous uprising against the Rocket’s playoff suspension by then-National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell, proved a flashpoint in the bitter struggle of French Canadians to escape an anglophone vice-grip.
But throughout this social history, no matter how scarred the political landscape he travels, Carrier’s love of Richard shines with a pure, lyrical light. Early on, he writes: “I’ll remember that delightful shiver of the soul a child experiences when he puts on skates. … To write about the Rocket I want to remember the emotions I felt as a child.”
And he does this magnificently in recalling his own street-hockey games: “Night is spreading over the village. Windows glow with a yellowish light. We haven’t noticed that the day is over. … Shouts of triumph, insults, the clatter of sticks as they meet. … Our mothers, shivering in their open doorways, call us to come in and do our homework. It’s pointless. When we’re playing hockey we don’t hear our mothers.
“Maurice Richard also played hockey on the street. … He too didn’t hear his mother calling.”
He describes the results when Quebec’s two grand religions – Catholicism and hockey – collide head-on: “For the priests in our seminary who preach love thy neighbour on Sunday, it’s a real treat when the Rocket sends his fist into the face of another Christian. That violence isn’t shameful; it’s noble.”
This lovely narrative has been exquisitely translated by award-winning Sheila Fischman, who in the past has brought the work of Carrier and other French authors to English readers.
Here she has a compelling manuscript at hand, for unlike so many sports biographies, Carrier does not rely on the strung-together fawning of others, contained in tiresome paragraphs of sugary quote. His is a highly personal remembrance, one man’s scrapbook illustrating how the greatest player of his generation shaped the days and the dreams of a young boy, then later the philosophies of an adolescent and an adult who grew to become a keener student of politics and literature than of hockey.
On May 27, 2000, as he was literally typing the final period on his manuscript, Carrier’s ringing telephone brought him news that was not wholly unexpected, but numbingly sad nonetheless – Rocket Richard had succumbed to cancer.
“I know what I’m thinking,” he writes of his emotions at that moment, having just concluded more than two years’ work on his book. “We have been, we will be better men because the Rocket crossed through our childhood.”