God is a hockey parent.
That might be a bit of a stretch – we will, after all, be talking about a work of fiction in a moment – but Roch Carrier is here to say it’s true and, as so many believe, God will provide.
Carrier was 10 in 1947, which means he will turn 77 in May, and he needed a new hockey stick.
The little hardware store in Sainte-Justine, Que., had sticks on sale for 69 cents (today, a Bauer Nexus 1000 composite retails for $299) and his parents told him he had to earn the money if he was going to buy one.
“The priest paid me 10 cents a mass to serve,” the former national librarian of Canada says with a chuckle. Seven masses later, he had his new stick.
But it was something else he received that winter that would forever change Carrier, forever link him with the national game, and it was something he absolutely despised: a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater – when he had asked for, prayed for, a Montreal Canadiens sweater like all the other children on the outdoor rink at Sainte-Justine were wearing.
A mix-up in the Eaton’s shipping department led to the best-known, most-honoured short story this country has known.
And it all came about by accident, out of sheer desperation.
When the 1970s opened, Carrier was considered one of Quebec’s hottest new writers. His novel, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, had been translated into English and been well-received in both the country’s official languages.
It was a time of great political turmoil – the October Crisis of 1970 had rattled the national nerve – and CBC’s morning radio show was asking the obvious question: “What does Quebec want?” Carrier was approached and agreed to write an essay on the touchy topic.
“I was a young novelist,” Carrier remembers. “I had published my first novel and it had been well-received and suddenly I was somebody – a young writer. And the guys from CBC wanted this bright young writer to answer the question.”
For two weeks he tried, and failed. “I was, in my mind, this bright young writer and the stuff was looking like some article in Le Devoir – just flat prose,” he says. “So Friday afternoon, I phoned to say, no, I cannot do it. And they told me, ‘We have a time slot for you on Monday, so write whatever you want.’”
He had the weekend – but he didn’t have a clue what to write. He just knew it had to be about the country and about being part of this cold, improbable nation of two solitudes.
“I was thinking about identity,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘When was it in my life that I was me, Roch, and not my father’s son, and not my big brother’s little brother – but just me?’ It came just clear to me that it was when I got my skates and my pads and my sweater and I stood up on the carpet in the kitchen and I was taller than my mom. I wanted to write about that.”
He wrote Le chandail de hockey in a marathon two days. Sheila Fischman translated it into The Hockey Sweater and the story took off from its first telling.
“The reaction,” Carrier recalls, “was unbelievable.”
The book, lovingly illustrated by Sheldon Cohen, became a bestseller. (Tundra Books will bring out a special commemorative issue this year that will include several pages of tributes.)
A quotation from the book found its way to the back of the Canadian $5 bill. The story was turned into a popular animated NFB film and today exists as a musical presentation – score by Abigail Richardson – that has involved the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and, most recently, National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. (This week alone, with Ottawa-area schools coming to the NAC to see The Hockey Sweater performed, some 10,000 people will have seen it. Overall, the performance has been staged 20 times.)
Carrier, whose softly accented English is its own musical instrument, narrates the performance, conductor Alain Trudel oversees Richardson’s score and Ken Dryden, the Hockey Hall of Fame goalie and former Liberal cabinet minister, acts as “host.”
Dryden is a serendipitous choice, a Toronto kid who grew up dreaming about playing for the Maple Leafs and ended up wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Canadiens. Carrier was a Quebec kid who dreamed of playing for the Habs and ended up having to wear the hated sweater of the Leafs.
There is even a photograph of a 10-year-old Carrier wearing that despised sweater his mother, whom he adored, forced him to wear so that “Monsieur Eaton,” an Anglais who surely cheered for the Leafs, would not be insulted.
“People often ask me why I am smiling in that photograph,” Carrier says. “My answer is simple. My mother was holding the camera and she says, ‘Smile.’”
Carrier says the sweater was a special, and costly, gift and he could not refuse to wear it. The family had no sense of being poor, but there were six children (“We were a small family”) and such matters as new hockey equipment, even a 69-cent hockey stick, were considered significant purchases.
The cost of the game today concerns him.
“One youngster told me that his father paid $150 for his stick,” he says. “The game is missing that kind of ‘easiness.’ It should be more ‘easy.’ Now, I see the kids come into the arena with the dad and the mom, and they need an SUV to carry a big bag.
“We are making the game less accessible to the number of kids.”
The national game, he laments, has become “our national business, too.”
And yet the simplicity of The Hockey Sweater – free skating on an outdoor rink, minimal equipment, no driving necessary – endures, even if it is something that exists largely in memory and imagination.
Dryden, who is himself a successful author, thinks he knows where the magic lies and why the tale still resonates with Canadians.
“It’s such a simple story that he tells in such a simple way,” Dryden says. “There’s nothing wasted about it. It’s very straightforward. It evokes a place of growing up. It evokes the kinds of deep feelings that a kid is going to have. It evokes a child’s relationship with his mother.
“And it all leads up to such a perfect punchline. The story follows every step perfectly to that moment – and yet I’m not ready for it.
“It’s exactly what it should be.”
Carrier has written many books since. He has won awards and honours for his writing, and yet it is this remarkably short and simple story for which he is best known and will likely be forever known.
“I don’t know,” he says when asked about the book’s lasting power. “I try to not think too much about that. I consider it to have been such a privilege that this story has got me in touch with so many people.
“I mean, here I am sitting next to Ken Dryden – and I was the worst player in my village.”
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