The Rocket

The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard

By Byron Rempel

A review of The Rocket: A Cultural History Of Maurice Richard by Benoît Melançon

Published on April 20, 2009

The Rocket: A Cultural History Of Maurice Richard
Benoît Melançon

Greykstone Books
$29.95
paper
304pp
978-1-55365-336-3

Unlike any other hockey player, indeed unlike most sports heroes and legends, Quebec’s Maurice “le Rocket” Richard has shot to the heavens above us, ceased being a man and become a constellation, and there can be read for whatever it is we need in our lives: he has officially become a myth.

He has far surpassed the Canadiens ice that was his habitat from 1942 to 1960. Today, we each carry a bit of the Rocket in our pocket – on the back of our five dollar bill – and personalities as diverse as René Lévesque and Mordecai Richler have claimed him as their own. One of his jerseys, sold at an auction of his personal effects, was compared to “the holy shroud, with reputedly authentic sweat stains.” He has been compared to Icarus, Mercury, Achilles, Hercules, and Samson, and honoured by Jean-Paul Riopelle and Félix Leclerc. The night he scored a goal with a man – maybe two! – hanging off his back, sportscasters predicted that “Les poètes chanteront ce but,” and they were right, hundreds of times over, and with the poets, filmmakers, novelists, painters, advertisers, salesmen, and schoolchildren. At its most omnipotent, the Rocket myth claims to be “the first shot fired in the Quiet Revolution,” the grandfather of the Parti Québécois, and the pedestal upon which was built Bill 101.

That’s a lot for even Saint Maurice to carry on his shoulders. But here comes help: Université de Montréal professor of literature Benoît Melançon’s 2006 book,
, is now translated by the award-winning Fred A. Reed as The Rocket, and not a moment too soon. In this era fascinated with superheroes in film and politics, it’s time English-speaking Canadians took another look at our icons too.

Subtitled “A Cultural History of Maurice Richard,” the book is a risk. There’s a lot of interpretation here: the interpretations of the journalists, artists, and advertisers who used Richard; Melançon’s interpretation of them; and the translator’s interpretation of Melançon’s language – never a trivial thing in Quebec, especially when dealing with mythological figures. As well, collecting and citing so much pop culture (including a plethora of images) in order to make a clear point can easily lead to the opposite effect.

But refreshingly, Melançon has approached the Rocket myth with courage and honesty, and has kept his language simple and direct. He drives to the net, shaking off spurious connections and academic jargon. Under his study, even the martyr-like cover photo holds surprises. Among the vast number of words written about hockey, most serve the same purpose for men as drugstore romance novels do for some women. Here Melançon brings in his tools to take apart the constellation hanging over Quebecers’ heads, and leaves just the right amount of work for the reader to put it back together.

Margaret MacMillan has said that historians are here to challenge deeply held beliefs and myths about the past. That’s Melançon all over. Here’s his warning about the 1955 Riot (he always uses a capital letter when writing about it) that ensued when Richard was banned from the playoffs after striking a referee:

 

It cannot be said often enough: before being transformed into a tragedy … the Riot had been a pretext for celebration. Of Maurice Richard, no less. Of resistance to perceived injustice, without a doubt … Of the struggle against the English? By no means certain.

 

The Rocket, by Melançon’s own admission, is “not a fan’s book, not a hockey lover’s book, and not a biography of Maurice Richard.” It is by turns quirky, joyful, and deadly serious; it is cleanly constructed, sparingly written, and unbound by sentimentalism or hoary cliché. It’s thought-provoking, yes, but also as exciting as sudden-death overtime. mRb

Byron Rempel is the author of "Truth is Naked," an autobiographical exaggeration with commentary on Mennonites.

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