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This article was published 3/5/2009 (3273 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Cultural History of Maurice Richard
By Benoît Melançon
Greystone Books, 304 pages, $30
Reviewed by Kevin Prokosh
The May release of this deep-thinking hockey tome was likely timed to coincide with a lengthy Montreal Canadiens run to the Stanley Cup in the team’s centennial year.
Mon dieu! Les Habitants, Maurice Richard’s one and only team, were brutally swept out of the NHL playoffs in four straight losses to the hated Boston Bruins. The Rocket, A Cultural History of Maurice Richard serves only as a reminder of better days for Canadiens fans.
Even this Fred A. Reed translation of Quebecer Benoît Melançon’s 2006 book, Les yeux de Maurice Richard, will do little to alleviate the pain and disappointment of no storybook ending to the Canadiens’ 100th season.
Like the 2008-09 team, The Rocket starts off promisingly. It features a foreword by heavyweight Ontario journalist Roy McGregor, who was the last person to see Richard lying in state in the Molson Centre in 2000.
In his introduction, Melançon, a professor of literature at the University of Montreal, plainly lays out his game plan: “This is not a fan’s book, not a hockey lover’s book,” he writes, “and not a biography of Maurice Richard,”
Rather his objective is cultural history. His thesis is that Richard, the right-winger who dominated the game of hockey from 1942 to 1960, has been a touchstone in Quebec and Canada for everything from politics to songs, from advertising to visual art.
Richard’s national status is with us daily. He speaks indirectly from the back of the Canadian $5 bill. It features the first sentence of Quebec writer Roch Carrier’s iconic short story The Hockey Sweater, which is all about Richard’s No. 9 jersey.
Melançon’s book is impressive in its exhaustive detail and breadth of information about all things Richard. It reads, however, like an academic thesis, more intent on showing off its many supporting examples than entertaining the reader with the kind of artistic flair so natural to its subject.
There is no flow to the writing. Reading it is like trying to skate on soft ice — it’s slow and no fun.
The book succeeds better as a Rocket encyclopedia for Habaholics to scan for nuggets of trivia. Who knew, for example, that Richard was an honorary citizen of Winnipeg? Or that his nickname was given him by his English teammates?
Or that after Elmer Lach scored the Cup-winning goal in 1953, he broke his linemate Richard’s nose when he leaped into his arms?
The best part of the book is a 74-page examination of “the Riot.” This seminal event took place at the Montreal Forum in 1955 after then-NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the final three games of the season and the playoffs for punching a linesman.
The Riot, some say, gave birth to Quebec nationalism, which flowered in the ’60s. In fact, one newspaper editorialist compared Richard’s treatment to that of Manitoba founder Louis Riel’s at the hands of the Canadian government.
The Rocket never takes off but it still manages to score a lot of points by convincingly proving how tightly Richard is woven into the fabric of Quebec society.
Free Press theatre critic Kevin Prokosh, a Montreal native, only saw Richard stickhandle through Grecian Formula hair colouring commercials on television.