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The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard, by Benoît Melançon

In 1955, the new weekly magazine Sports Illustrated decided to buy some literary bragging rights. It commissioned William Faulkner, winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature, to attend a New York Rangers hockey game, and report what he saw. The piece, An Innocent at Rinkside , offered the Mississippi native's reflections on the speed, fluidity and obscure - to a novice, at least - logic of the sport.

The Rangers were hosting the Montreal Canadiens that night. Faulkner singled out two Habs for special notice. Swift young Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion caught his attention. So did mercurial veteran Maurice Richard.

The Rocket, as a matter of fact, summoned from the novelist the kind of analogy more likely to be found in one of his books. Richard's relentless motion and perpetual attack mode put William Faulkner to mind of the "glittering fatal alien quality of snakes."

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  • The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard, by Benoît Melançon, translated by Fred A. Reed, GreyStone, 204 pages, $29.95

A hockey player as a glittering snake? For Benoît Melançon, the image has a "disconcerting power" and transcends sportswriter clichés. A Montreal literature professor, the author of The Rocket is welcoming of all interpretations of the late, great athlete.

"This is not a fan's book," he notes in the introduction, "nor a hockey lover's book - and not a biography of Maurice Richard." Instead, it is both a cultural history of Canada's most potent sports icon and an examination of the phenomenon.

The original French title, Les yeux de Maurice Richard , or The Eyes of Maurice Richard, is itself a gesture toward the iconographic. Richard's dark eyes blazed in the heat of action, or when his temper boiled over and he went seeking brawling justice. Indeed, opposition players found them to be of disconcerting power. French Canadians saw in the eyes the pride and tenacity of their tribe.

In its own charming and playful manner, The Rocket is just as relentless. The handsome illustrated volume, ably translated by Fred Reed, shows no quit as a scrupulous record of the Richard commercial industry from its early days, during his playing career, right up until near his death in May, 2000.

If there is an item of Rocket-ania that Melançon hasn't turned up, whether a poster for Vitalis hair conditioner or a can of "9 Maurice Richard Condensed Tomato Soup," the object must be buried at the bottom of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Critics of the mercantile instincts of a Wayne Gretzky, for instance, will be humbled by how hard Richard was sold, and sold himself, decades earlier.

Of equal import is the assembly of images. On-ice photos of the winger, such as the indelible 1952 snap of a bloodied Rocket shaking hands with an opponent who appears to be bowing before him, make up only a small part of the book's rich visual argument. Melançon considers everything from comics to magazine covers, public statuary to an abstract painting by Jean-Paul Riopelle.

Movies and radio broadcasts, novels, biographies and books for kids, poems and popular songs devoted to Richard are also analyzed. The author's occasional slide into cultural-studies-speak can be forgiven in the light of so much evidence of a man being transformed, steadily and purposefully, into a myth.

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It is enough to make any theorist giddy, in particular in Canada, where few citizens, no matter the broader political or social implications of their lives, are allowed to put on such airs.

Most audacious is Melançon's juxtaposition of a 1955 photo of the Rocket, taken for another U.S. sports magazine, with Giordano's 17th-century painting The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian . The "purely visual coincidences" include the position of the shoulders and how the eyes have rolled upward, the way Sebastian "has an arrow in his side" while Richard "holds fast to his stick."

Photo gallerySee images from The Rocket

The comparison, surely, is going too far. The Rocket would agree, while simultaneously noting that this image of Richard-as-martyr was plastered on walls around the Montreal Forum on March 17, 1955. The day before, he had been suspended by league president Clarence Campbell for the rest of the season and the playoffs, after a string of violent outbursts, including breaking his stick on an opponent's back and attacking a linesman.

The suspension, and Campbell's decision to attend a Montreal home game that evening, triggered first a disturbance inside the rink and then rioting in the streets around it. Demonstrators held up picket signs proclaiming, "Richard is being persecuted," and, "Injustice against French Canada."

By the autumn, Maurice Richard was back on the Forum ice, his "martyrdom" suffered and survived. He would go on to lead the Canadiens to an unprecedented five straight Stanley Cups before retiring in 1960. An emboldened French Quebec, too, having suffered at the hands of various overlords, would shortly be emerging. "The mythical figure ..." Melançon writes, "is a narrative that must be approached on several levels."

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"The Richard Riot," as the events of March came to be known, is believed by many in Quebec to have kicked-started the narrative of that collective awakening. True or not, and The Rocket doesn't neglect the views of Richard-as-icon naysayers, the story is compelling. His struggle was their struggle. His fiery eyes reflected their spirit, now unstoppable.

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's most recent book is Join the Revolution , Comrade.

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