The author of the most famous story in Canadian hockey history was so busy racing to meet a book deadline that he had little time to keep up with the amazing story unfolding in his own city.
On Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in overtime. The win gave the Canadiens victory in the semi-final series, meaning the team will now go on to play in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1993.
That, of course, was the last time a Canadian team won hockey’s holy grail.
“This morning, when I heard that the Canadiens had won the game,” Roch Carrier, the 84-year-old author of The Hockey Sweater, said Friday, “I thought of my days as a kid going to school, walking in the snow, dancing, jumping after a victory.
“We, as much as the players, had won the game!”
That pretty much captured the mood around Centre Bell as the final whistle blew on the Canadiens’ fourth victory of the third round. With no packed rink possible during the pandemic, the streets instead were packed with thousands of fans delirious over such unexpected success.
A team that couldn’t possibly beat the Toronto Maple Leafs came back from being down three games to one to win Round 1. A team not expected to challenge the Winnipeg Jets swept them in four straight to claim Round 2. A team judged hopeless against the mighty Golden Knights had just created welcome hope in a city, and through much of the country, where hope and good news have been on lockdown for many months.
“As an old man,” Carrier said, “I thought, of course, about Maurice Richard, the champion. And then I thought about the man who was telling me later, when I was a young writer, how he was preparing himself for the challenge, playing in advance the game in his head and preparing himself to be ready to answer to any attack.”
Maurice (Rocket) Richard, of course, was so long the face of the franchise that has won 24 Stanley Cups and will now challenge for a 25th.
Essentially, the 2021 Montreal Canadiens have come this far by doing precisely that: answering any attack. If there has been one continuous theme throughout their triumphant three rounds, it has been that the star attackers on the other side have regularly fizzled under intense checking.
“I got skunked this series,” said a dismal Mark Stone, the Golden Knights captain and leader who did not have a single point in the six games. “That can’t happen.”
But it did, just as it happened to Auston Matthews in the Toronto series and Mark Scheifele of the Jets. They didn’t exactly get skunked, but they sort of, er, stunk.
For Carrier, the opening-round victory over Toronto had to bring a smile of satisfaction, life imitating art. His 1979 short story The Hockey Sweater was originally published under the title Une abominable feuille d’érable sur la glace – An Abominable Maple Leaf on the Ice. The story became iconic after the National Film Board produced an animated film version, retitled The Hockey Sweater. For many years, Carrier’s words were featured on the back of the Canadian $5 bill.
“The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons,” the story begins. “We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating-rink – but our real life was the skating-rink …”
It’s about a boy obsessed with Rocket Richard, as most young Quebec players were at the time. He, like other boys in the village, wore Montreal Canadiens hockey sweaters with Richard’s familiar No. 9 on the back. They even combed their hair in the Rocket’s style.
The boy outgrows his No. 9 Canadiens sweater. His mother orders a new one from the Eaton’s catalogue – only to have the mail-order operation deliver a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater instead. The boy prays to God “to send me, right away, a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.”
There were no Winnipeg Jets sweaters back then and certainly no Vegas Golden Knights sweaters. Nor are there today – as they are no longer made of wool and are called “jerseys.”
Today’s story is obviously different, yet there are parts and characters within this tale that might well have been invented in the fertile imagination of Roch Carrier.
There is the interim head coach, Dominique Ducharme, who tested positive for the coronavirus and had to be isolated. Then there is the interim interim head coach, Luke Richardson, who acts and speaks as if he has been an NHL head coach since the days of the Rocket.
There is the general manager, Marc Bergevin, and his “lucky” red suit.
There is talk around Montreal that finally – finally – the storied ghosts and gods of the old Forum, Richard foremost among them, have found their way down to the Bell Centre.
There is the 5-foot-7, 162-pound pipsqueak, 20-year-old Cole Caufield, who wasn’t even dressed for the first two games of the playoffs but has emerged a hero, at least momentarily, as electrifying as the Rocket himself. There are the other kids, Nick Suzuki, 21, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 20, who are playing like 25-year-old veterans, 25 being the age of Thursday’s overtime hero, Artturi Lehkonen. Also playing like 25-year-olds at the top of their game are Corey Perry, 36, Eric Staal, 36, Shea Weber, 35, Jeff Petry, 33, and, of course, 33-year-old goaltender Carey Price.
There is a refreshing cockiness to the 2021 Canadiens. After Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner told reporters he had earlier stopped young Caufield on a breakaway because he knew he would either go “five hole” between the pads or up high, and guessed right on five hole, Caufield scored a beauty in Game 6 by going high.
“It’s good that he opened his mouth,” snickered the youngster, who looks more like a Grade 6 valedictorian than a rising NHL star.
Perhaps the cockiness comes from having proved so many wrong, the team seeming to take inspiration and energy from those who, round after round, dismissed their chances.
As the boy’s mother says to her son in The Hockey Sweater, “If you make up your mind about things before you try, my boy, you won’t go very far in this life.”
The 2021 Montreal Canadiens have already gone further, much further, than anyone expected – perhaps even themselves.
Just how far they’ll go remains a chapter now to be written.