Our Life with The Rocket: The Maurice Richard Story By Roch Carrier Translated by Sheila Fischman Penguin/Viking, 304 pages, $35
About 20 years ago, Roch Carrier published his perfect little book, The Hockey Sweater. In it, he told the story of a young boy in a small Quebec village shaped, its adults believed, by winter and the Catholic church; according to the boy and his friends, by imagination and hockey. And at the centre of their imagination was Rocket Richard. All the boys in the village combed their hair like Richard, taped their sticks like Richard; they all wore his bleu, blanc et rouge Canadiens sweater with his number 9 on the back. A very gentle story turns very complicated when the central character simply grows out of his sweater.
A letter from the boy's mother to "Monsieur Eaton" in Toronto requesting a new Canadiens sweater has disastrous results. In an adult world where, for a kid, one sweater is as good as another, instead of a red one Monsieur Eaton sends along a blue one. It is hard to imagine a more horrific scene than when the young boy, knowing entirely the fate that awaits him, is about to join his friends at the village's outdoor rink -- in his blue Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. It is also hard to imagine a story that better captures the divide between the child's world and the adult's, and between the English-Canadian and French-Canadian experience. What could Monsieur Eaton have been thinking?
Roch Carrier is the author of such acclaimed fiction for adults as La Guerre, Yes Sir! In The Hockey Sweater,he demonstrates the remarkable ability to leave his adult existence and write inside the skin of the child. His choice of words, his enthusiasms, his use of exaggeration, his sensibilities and thoughts are unerring. He offers nothing that gives away his present stage of life. Moreover, in collaboration with his frequent translator, Sheila Fischman, Carrier writes as if in his second language, without the range of idioms or vocabulary one might expect -- in the simple, direct, stripped-away style of a child.
In Our Life with the Rocket,he attempts much the same. The book is a personal memoir, not a biography of Richard. Carrier grew up with the Rocket. He was five years old, about the age of first recollection, when Richard was beginning his career with the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. Carrier was 23, a poet, living in Montreal "in a little room with flowered wallpaper . . . surrounded by books . . . [and]in love" when Richard retired in 1960, after the Canadiens had won a still-record fifth consecutive Stanley Cup. By this time, Carrier didn't much need the Rocket. As for Richard, overweight and again injury-prone as he had been in his earlier years, the Canadiens didn't much need him either. Our Life with the Rocket is about those 18 years between, the formative years for Carrier and for the generation of Quebecois who grew up with him.
Carrier takes us into that world and allows us to experience it with him. He is a generous companion. He likes life. He sees good in people and things. He reacts to the frailty he cannot fail to notice with gentle, poking humour. In his village life there is no television. Few people have cars. He has never been out into the world to see for himself. He depends on those who have travelled for him, the priests and teachers and authors of the books they give him, and they offer a darker view. He learns that the Quebecois are a "small people," "hewers of wood and drawers of water" -- he tells us again and again -- dominated by the church or government or by corporate offices, by "bosses," somewhere else. He learns that in the world beyond the village, some way, somehow, as a Quebecois he will lose.
Then along came the Rocket. He was just like them, poor and powerless in traditional ways, and he loved hockey too. The Canadiens began to win. Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games and became the best player in the world. And through the static of the family radio, whenever he could evade his mother's good sense, Carrier listened. "In places where men get together to smoke," he writes, "where children come to listen in on the grownups, wherever men get together to drink beer, wherever families get together for a meal, wherever schoolchildren take their time before they obey the bell, wherever children go to a rink, the Rocket's goals are recounted like the exploits of long-ago heroes." Richard is a champion! He makes them feel the way they want to feel. The way, deep down, they do feel. We are not a small people. Our destiny is not to lose. We are champions too!
It is the way children think, and to the adult Carrier's great credit, he is not embarrassed by that. He doesn't edit his childhood self. To the adult reader, at times, it can seem too much. Nobody is that good and decent and strong. Nobody is that noble. But heroes are. And this was an easier time to be a hero. This was before TV. Very few people ever actually saw Richard play. Carrier didn't either, until in his early 20s, when the Rocket was well past his peak and almost retired. He and the great majority of Quebecois only saw him in newspapers, in words shared with family and friends, and especially, heard him on the radio. Radio was perfect for heroes. Radio was live. Radio games offered an unknowable result. Radio meant lying in the darkness and, to the words of an excited storyteller, painting pictures of everything you heard. It meant using your own imagination. There has never been a bad game played on radio.
And in Carrier's world, if there had been, the Rocket wouldn't have played it. Anything Richard did wrong (and there wasn't much), only made him more nobly human, and when he did undo the wrong, only more heroic. Carrier is very good at setting the social context around Richard. He offers shiveringly real portraits of the few anglos who penetrated village life: Prime Minister MacKenzie King and his role in the fight over wartime conscription; Donald Gordon, who in spite of protest and petition, as president of Canadian National Railway, decides to name the CNR's new hotel in Montreal, The Queen Elizabeth Hotel ("It would be an insult to Her Majesty not to use her name after obtaining her gracious permission," Carrier writes, explaining Gordon's thinking); and Clarence Campbell, the patrician, Oxford-trained Rhodes Scholar who as President of the NHL-- and headmaster, unable to tolerate Richard's intemperate behaviour, suspends him for the final two games of the 1955 regular season and for the playoffs, taking away Richard's best chance at winning the scoring title he never did win, and the Canadiens' chance at the Stanley Cup.
At times, I hoped Carrier would offer more about the people and events of Richard's time, but to do so, having no similar childhood memories of them, he'd have needed to take on more fully an adult's voice. And that is not his intention. Instead, Carrier offers us a lot of games, a lot of goals, a lot of years, a lot of heroic deeds; too many in the hands of a merely skilled writer, but not in his.
The book ends with a brief note as Richard is near death in May, 2000, but really it ends when Richard retires in 1960. Carrier purposely has frozen his impression of Richard in time, in the 18-year career he shared with him, because it is that impression which has shaped his life. History can be revised. The impact of that history is forever.
Two years ago, I was in Boston when the Bruins' Dave Andreychuk scored his 545th goal to pass Rocket Richard on the all-time scoring list. Eighty players now have scored 50 goals or more in a season. But if the Rocket's deeds themselves have been surpassed, the impact of those deeds has not -- nor will it be. Wayne Gretzky may have been a better player; Rocket Richard is the far more important historical figure.
Our Life with the Rocket is a coming-of-age story, for RochCarrier and his generation of Quebecois. In his book, we experience the world from inside a child's skin. We feel the pride when someone emerges who fights back, and wins. We see the stirrings of Quebec nationalism, which only a few years later would blossom when Carrier and his generation reached the age of adult power. In Our Life with the Rocket, we see where all that came from. Ken Dryden is president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and author of, among other books, The Game and Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada . He also has his name engraved on six Stanley Cups as a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he also won five Vezina Trophies.