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The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard

by Benoît Melançon; Fred A. Reed, trans.

Originally published in Quebec in 2006, The Rocket is being released in English this year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Montreal Canadiens. However, if you are looking for good ol’ boy dressing room anecdotes and game-related stuff, this is not the place to find them: the book reads like a postgrad thesis. To be fair, the author states at the outset that it is not intended as either a fan book or a biography. Instead, Melançon is interested in probing how Maurice Richard was transformed from hockey player into cultural icon, quasi-religious figure, and myth. The Rocket examines the cultural phenomenon of Maurice Richard in general, and the socio-political significance of the Richard Riot in particular, from all angles and, perhaps not surprisingly, comes to no clear conclusions.

Richard never asked to be a vessel for French Canada’s hopes, dreams, and bottled-up resentments toward English Canada, but that’s what he became when he was suspended by then-NHL president Clarence Campbell for the final three games of the 1954-55 season and all of the playoffs for striking a Boston Bruins player with his stick and then punching a linesman. The suspension enraged Montrealers, who eventually rioted on St. Patrick’s Day at a game attended by Campbell and his fiancée.

By sifting through songs, plays, art, photos, and other cultural artifacts, Melançon offers a studious and at times turgid interpretation of Richard’s NHL career. The book does, however, ask provocative questions about the process of mythology. How would our impression of him have changed if Richard had been born 10 years earlier? Or 10 years later? And what does it say about Canadians (not to mention Canadiens) that we keep and discard facts about our heroes in accordance with our own perceptions and preconceived notions?

Richard was otherworldly on the ice. Melançon’s book shows that the Rocket’s reluctance to be co-opted by some causes, and his eagerness to embrace others, was merely human.