The Hockey Sweater – Roch Carrier’s All-Canadian Story for All Ages
Is the color of your hockey jersey so very important?
If you’re a young child who gets a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey sweater instead of the Montreal Canadiens jersey you’ve longed for, YES, it matters very much.
You see, team allegiance is everything. In much of Canada, ice hockey is more than a sport — hockey is a religion. And especially so in rural Quebec, back in the 1950s.
Roch Carrier’s autobiographical story Le Chandail de Hockey / The Hockey Sweater is a much-loved classic of Canadian children’s literature that tells of our deep-rooted passion for ice hockey as a nation, almost to the point of religion, and gently reminds us that the dreams of childhood are far from small to the child who dreams them.
More than a Sport
Ice Hockey is a Memory, a Passion, and a Canadian Dream
The Hockey Sweater is a story about the sport that defines a nation, and the golden age of the NHL when hockey players were heroes. It’s about loyalty, too. And above all, it’s about fitting in… being accepted… belonging to a team.
Some say that the story is a metaphor, too, for the perennial tension between the “two solitudes” of the francophone and anglophone cultures in Canada.
But above all, to me The Hockey Sweater is about a more innocent time, when the world was as small as the span of ice between the boards, and as wide as the reaches of our imagination.
The Hockey Sweater: Animated Short Film, Narrated by Roch Carrier
Author and Hockey Fan
Born on May 13, 1937, Roch Carrier grew up in rural Québec, Canada — in the village of Sainte-Justine, which serves as the setting for The Hockey Sweater, just as the main character is based on the author’s own 10-year-old self.
I’ve heard Carrier say in interviews that everyone seems to want to talk with him only about this classic children’s book — even now, after all these years — although he has many other notable titles to his credit, including the well-known La Guerre, Yes Sir!, a dark novel set in World War I, which was adapted as a stage play.
Roch Carrier has been awarded the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour (for Prayers of a Very Wise Child) and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian literature.
In the eyes of a Montreal Canadiens fan, an equal or perhaps an even greater honour — Roch Carrier was given Maurice Richard’s famous Number 9 hockey sweater by the “Rocket” himself, in a ceremony at the Montreal Forum in 1984.
Our real life was on the skating rink…. On our backs, we all wore the famous number 9.Roch Carrier
Maurice “Rocket” Richard
It is hard to fully appreciate The Hockey Sweater — and why it mattered so very much to the young Roch Carrier that he should have a Montreal Canadiens hockey sweater — without knowing something of the story of Rocket Richard, the legendary Number 9.
Against all odds — French-Canadians were a disrespected minority in the 1940s; Richard was physically small for a pro hockey player and came from a blue-collar background; and corruption was rampant in the old 6-team league we look back upon now with nostalgia — Maurice “Rocket” Richard fought his way to the the top.
It wasn’t luck, and it wasn’t even some extraordinary talent.
It was sheer will power and determination.
He led the Canadiens to unprecedented greatness on the ice, became the first NHL player to score 50 goals in 50 games, and inspired his nation to dream big.
It’s the stuff of which legends are made.
Remembering the Rocket
Roy Dupuis stars as Maurice “Rocket” Richard in this powerful biographical film of the young working-class Quebecois who dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League.
More than just one man’s story, The Rocket gives us a glimpse of Canadian cultural history, together with a gloves-off look at the so-called “golden age” of the NHL.
You won’t need to love hockey to appreciate this film, but hockey lovers will revel in it.
Roch Carrier, author of The Hockey Sweater, was just one of many thousands of young Canadians, of both linguistic groups, who idolized Rocket Richard as a hockey player and felt a strong affection for him as a man.
In 1955, when The Rocket was benched for fighting, angry Montreal fans went on a rampage now known as the Richard Riot. More than a hometown hero, he was every francophone working man’s hope for a brighter future and equal opportunity in a country struggling to reconcile a turbulent past in a bilingual dream.
Years later, in 1996, Richard walked onto the ice at the last game at the old Montreal Forum and the place erupted in cheers. The hometown crowd of diehard Canadiens fans gave The Rocket a roaring ovation that lasted for a full 6 minutes.
I was there.
And I am not ashamed to admit, I wasn’t the only fan in the stands that day who had to wipe away a tear.
When he died in 2000, at the age of 78, Joseph-Henri-Maurice “Rocket” Richard was given a state funeral — the first Canadian athlete to be so honoured. The streets were lined with Montrealers, many in Canadiens hockey sweaters, who came to watch the cortege pass by and to say good-bye.
And that, my friends, is why the young boy Roch in The Hockey Sweater was not simply a “spoiled brat” to make such a fuss over his after-school uniform.
When he rankled at having to wear the wrong team’s sweater — to wear the blue and white Leafs jersey instead of the red of the Canadiens — it was because it felt to him like a betrayal of his hockey hero. More than that, he felt it somewhere in the depths of his childish heart as a betrayal of his values of loyalty to the home team.
And as adults, re-reading the story and looking in from the broader historical view, we can see it too almost as a betrayal of his Quebecois cultural heritage, however much it was against his will.
Hockey at the Symphony
Can high-brow music and the rough sport of ice hockey make a match?
It would seem so!
Story, animated short film, children’s book… now, in its most recent incarnation, The Hockey Sweater has taken to the concert stage. Composed by Abigail Richardson and commissioned by the National Arts Centre orchestra, The Hockey Sweater (musical version) was first performed in May 2012 by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alain Trudel, hosted by hockey legend Ken Dryden and narrated by the author, Roch Carrier.
Host of The Hockey Sweater’s musical debut
The choice of Ken Dryden as host for the Toronto Symphony’s performance of The Hockey Sweater was apt indeed.
If any Canadiens hockey player has rivaled the respect and affection that was given to Rocket Richard, it is probably Ken Dryden.
As a rookie goalie with only six NHL games to his credit, Dryden was in the crease for the Habs throughout the 1970-71 playoffs for the Stanley Cup win and picked up the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP. The next year he was named top rookie and his career stats speak for themselves.
It was a shock to Canadiens fans, indeed to all hockey fans, when he retired from playing NHL hockey in 1979.
Ken Dryden was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.
From practicing lawyer, to best-selling author, to federal politician, Ken Dryden has filled a number of roles since retiring from play. Perhaps the most surprising career choice — but I think one that makes him such a very appropriate host for a performance of The Hockey Sweater — was the former Canadien’s 1997-2004 term as president of his old team’s arch rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Story Plays On
As for the concert edition of the children’s classic book, the link between hockey and Canadian culture is as strong as ever, some 35 years after the book was first published.
In 2015, the symphony orchestra of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and the city’s hockey team are coming together for a special performance to be narrated by Saskatoon’s mayor, Don Atchison, himself a former hockey goaltender.
Do your children know the story of The Hockey Sweater?
The original version, which was written in French, and the English language edition, which was translated by Sheila Fischman, both feature the vivid and nostalgic illustrations of Sheldon Cohen.
The Hockey Sweater is available as a hardcover book as well as a paperback. I recommend springing for the hardcover if you can – so it’ll stand up to many bedtime story readings, to be passed along and shared with your grandkids when their turn comes.
Photo credit (top): Roch Carrier as a child, aged 10 years, wears the Toronto Maple Leafs jersey that inspired his classic children’s story. The photograph was taken about 1947 by the author’s mother in his hometown of Sainte-Justine-de-Dorchester, Quebec, Canada. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Carrier’s family, and is available from Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons.