This hockey season is—finally—reaching its beach-weather finale, but that doesn’t mean we have to forget the great game until the fall. Even the most committed non-fan will find plenty to think about and enjoy in The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard, the award-winning, newly translated study by Montreal-based literature professor Benoí®t Melaní§on.
As Melaní§on discusses in this interview, there’s a lot more to the fiery Canadiens forward of yesteryear than mind-boggling highlights and stats. Richard is among the most revered figures in Canadian history (just check the back of the five-dollar bill in your pocket for proof), and Melaní§on’s richly illustrated inventory of the Rocket saga explains why.
At the centre of the book and the conversation below are such epoch-making events as the Montreal riot touched off by Richard’s suspension from the 1955 playoffs, and the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, which transformed every level of Quebec society. Richard was in the middle of it all, and over the ensuing decades, until his death in 2000, he acted as a kind of mirror for the nation’s changing hopes and ideals. Indeed, as Melaní§on shows, he does to the present day.
Georgia Straight: The Rocket will often be shelved in the sports sections of bookstores and libraries. Is that the right place for it?
Benoí®t Melaní§on: No, it should be placed, I guess, among the history books. If you have a very big library or bookstore, you may even have a section about cultural studies, which would fit it even better. There is a sports dimension, of course, to what I write in the book, but I think it can attract other readers, as well. I mean, you don’t have to be a sports fan to grasp or at least appreciate what I’m writing.
It’s more about the stories we tell ourselves about one hero, who happens to be a sports hero. This is the biggest compliment that I have—it comes from people who don’t have any interest in hockey: “I read your book and I got hooked.”
So it’s really about stories, and those stories happen to be about a sports hero, but it’s just part of the story and not all of the story. If it was just about one hockey player, I don’t think we would still talk about Maurice Richard today.
GS: As you argue in the book, great players from the past such as Gordie Howe have become legends of the game, but Richard has become something else, a kind of myth that transcends the sport. Why Richard?
BM: There are many reasons for that, because the reasons change over time. There were reasons why he was such an icon in the ’40s. Today’s reasons are different. When he came first with Montreal [the Montreal Canadiens] in 1942, the context was great for him. The Canadiens weren’t very good and, especially, had no great francophone star. So when he came in in 1942, nobody expected him to be good, and he was very, very good.”¦So there was this sports void in Montreal, if you will—people were waiting for a star to happen, and Maurice Richard was that star.
But there was also, at the same time in French Quebec, this social void. There were no business people you could identify with in the 1940s and 1950s. There were no great cultural figures with whom you could identify. So Maurice Richard came at a time when people were looking for figures who succeed in any area of society, and he was the one who succeeded right away—as it happens, playing hockey. So in the ’40s and ’50s he was right away the success story”¦.
Then he transformed himself—or he was transformed, actually—into someone who was a forerunner to the Quiet Revolution. Nobody thought that in the ’60s, actually. People after the Quiet Revolution of the ’60s tried to make a story of what had happened in 1960, and they started looking for events or figures from the past who could explain why things changed so rapidly in 1960. And there were not that many figures you could find, and one of those figures was Maurice Richard. I’m not very convinced by the direct link people make at times between the riot of 1955 and the Quiet Revolution. But it’s obvious that, in the way we tell the story of the Quiet Revolution, Maurice Richard fits in there perfectly.
And this is getting bigger and bigger over time. I did a small research, every five years from 1960 on, just to see what people would say on March 17, the anniversary of the riot. There was nothing in 1960. And it’s even more bizarre: there’s this section in the sports pages about the great events in the past that happened on this day, and they would tell about a baseball game from 1940—not a word about the riot. In 1965 there were seven lines, in 1970 there was maybe half a page. And then, the closer we get to today, the bigger the story gets. Now everybody thinks there’s a direct link between the riot and the Quiet Revolution. In 1995, there were five or six pages in newspapers in Montreal about the riot. So it’s getting bigger and bigger, and the link is more and more stressed over time”¦.
There’s also another thing that works quite well with Maurice Richard: the fact that he stood away from politics. He wouldn’t endorse any political party very clearly. So people could invest in him whatever they wished. You could say, "Well, he’s a strong federalist. It’s obvious. He describes himself as a French-Canadian—this is the traditional way of describing oneself in Quebec." But others would say, “He was so badly treated by the anglophones, and especially around the time of the riot, that he came to stand for the Quebec sovereigntist movement.” And people would invest in that, and he would shy away from any of this political content.
So in a way, he was some kind of empty vessel, and you would fill it with your own values. And that really helped him, in a sense. He never stood up for anything politically very strongly, so people could say, “He’s my hero because he represented this,” and the next guy would say, “He’s my hero because he represented exactly the opposite.” So that really helps.
A HUMAN-SIZE MYTH
GS: His stature in Quebec is easy to understand, but it’s harder to see immediately why he turned into a nationwide myth, given that he was from the minority francophone community.
BM: Actually, comparisons are great to understand this. One is Gordie Howe, the other one is Wayne Gretzky. Gordie Howe was playing in Detroit, so right away you have something, you know—he’s Canadian, of course, but he plays south of the border”¦.
The other thing that helps Maurice Richard in that matter is that he was so spectacular, which was not the case with Gordie Howe. Gordie Howe was probably a better overall hockey player, but he would not galvanize crowds like Maurice Richard would. You would see—and this is very important, in my mind, when you think about Maurice Richard—that he always had to fight hard to succeed. So you could identify. We have to remember, he was not that big, and when he had all these exploits in the 1940s, he was five-foot-ten and about 180 pounds. So he was the next guy—you could identify with him. And it was hard for him to get something. You could say, “Well, I’m not as good as he is, of course, but if I put enough effort in what I do, maybe I could succeed as he does.”
Gordie Howe was bigger than Richard was—he was one of the biggest players of his time, physically, and things seemed to come to him more smoothly. You wouldn’t see the effort the same way as you would see with Maurice Richard.
GS: And the same goes for Gretzky?
BM: Exactly. Gretzky was so outstanding as a player, there was no way you could identify with his kind of play. What is his record—two hundred and some points in one season? Well, you can’t say, “I could be that good.” You just stand back in awe and say, “Wow, that’s incredible.”
And there’s one more thing that helped the myth of Maurice Richard: the riot. You have this one cataclysmic event where people have to take stands. People have to say, “He’s my hero even though he did such-and-such,” and there is nothing of that sort in the career of Gordie Howe. And what happened in the career of Wayne Gretzky was not his responsibility—the trade of 1988. He was just a pawn in a bigger game, you know? So there is nothing that would attract attention so strongly.
You have this very big event, and then you can start building stories—and this is what’s incredible about Maurice Richard, because everybody has a story to tell about him. It’s not everybody who has a story to tell about Gordie Howe. You know him, you know his record, you know where he stands in the history of the league. You have all this information about him—but you don’t have your own personal story”¦.
So to have these strong feelings about an icon like Maurice Richard, you have to have this huge event that would say, “This is the turning point.” He was a very great hockey player, very successful—but then he changed. Everything changed around him in 1955, because of the riot. You don’t have that with Gordie Howe, you don’t have that with Gretzky. You don’t have that many sports events that important. And people will still recall today the importance of the riot—they reinvent the importance of the riot. There’s no other player who was involved in something as big in his career.
THE ROCKET BREAKS THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
GS: The Richard myth ties in with all sorts of aspects of the relationship between Quebec and rest of Canada—but it’s always interesting that the riot might be part of his appeal in the rest of Canada. He may have been vilified at the time, but it’s just made him a more powerful figure, rather than a divisive one.
BM: This is, for me, the biggest discovery I made in the book, this English side to Maurice Richard. There are very good poems about Maurice Richard in French, but they’re better in English. I mean, there is this incredible poem by Al Purdy that I quote in the book: “He made Quebec Canadian.” I mean, when you read a verse like that, you say, “Well, this is way more important than just, you know, the sports figure for francophone fans in Montreal.””¦
So there are poems, there are plays, there are novels, there are all kinds of cultural artifacts about Maurice Richard in English. And this is really striking for someone like me, who was raised thinking, “This is your francophone hero.” He’s not—he’s a Canadian hero. He has different meanings whether you are French or English, of course. But as I was saying earlier, people have stories about Maurice Richard—they have stories in French, but they have stories in English. I’m giving a good number of interviews for this book, and people call me from Calgary and say, “Well, before we go on the air, I have to tell you this story that happened to me when I first met Maurice Richard. I was listening to him when I was young—I was listening to the radio. My father would say such-and-such.” So this is really what the book is about. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves and we transmit from one generation to the other.
GS: Is part of this mythologizing just plain old nostalgia? And if so, nostalgia for what?
BM: Once again, it’s because we cannot identify with today’s stars the way we could. We know too many things about them. It’s too difficult to say, “He’s like me.” You just stand back and say, “Well, he’s great in Montreal this year. He’ll maybe be great in Vancouver next year, and then somewhere else. So I will invest some affection for the time he’s playing for us, but the day he leaves, that’s over.”
This is the most common image—mercenaries. They come in for the money, take the money, play, leave. This was not at all Maurice Richard or [former Montreal Canadiens captain Jean] Béliveau. I mean, you still see Béliveau at the Bell Centre [arena in Montreal]. He’s still around. He still lives in the same house he’s had for a number of years, still has the same wife. There is stability there, and this is what we long for. We long for that stability from the past that has disappeared from the sports world, as well as from the rest of our lives.
GS: In the book you reflect on the fact that his nickname was the combination of what would eventually become the two official national languages: “Le Rocket”. What’s the future of his myth in an increasingly multicultural Canada?
BM: What is very striking—and this I take from a graduate student here in Montreal who works on the Internet forums about the Canadiens, she’s done sociological research on Canadiens fans on the Internet—is that, for newcomers to Montreal, to recognize Richard as a great hero from the past is a way to get included. You come from far away, you don’t share the same experiences, you don’t share the same language, but you come to realize that if you want to be included, you have to find a certain number of common cultural figures from the past to identify with. And Maurice Richard is one of those figures.
There are people who describe hockey games in Pashtun in Montreal, young guys on-line, and they say, “We do this because this is our team, and we have our heroes from the past and Maurice Richard is one of those.” So this is how I think it fits in the multicultural aspect of Quebec society today. You say, of course, he represents something that was not at all multicultural: he was white, Catholic, he spoke only French when he first came with the Canadiens. But then, at the same time, if he is really that hero from the past, you have to make a place for him in your personal history. You have to make him fit in the story you tell yourself about how you become a Canadian.
GS: The whole thing seems to be getting more complex over time.
BM: Here is one little thing I just discovered, and I find it quite interesting”¦.How many songs are there that mention the name of Maurice Richard? I had a few in my book, and I’ve found more since—I’m at 31. How many Canadians are named in 31 songs? None, other than Maurice Richard. I’ve been working mostly on francophone songs. I have about 22 in French and eight or 10 in English, but I haven’t searched all the songs in English yet. So I guess I would find many more. So not only do we have at least 30 songs, but there are probably 40 or 50 that mention Maurice Richard. And there’s no one else in Canadian history who’s been sung so often. It must mean something”¦.
This comes back exactly to your first question. It’s complicated, so this is why it’s interesting. And this is why I think it’s not only a sports book. It implies so many questions of race, culture, language, religion—it brings all these questions together. So you can, you know, pull on Maurice Richard and have all these strings come out, about different aspects of Canadian society.