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‘The Hockey Sweater’ Is All You Need To Know About Leafs-Habs

Image: The Sweater/National Film Board

I suppose it’s the wrong time of year for Roch Carrier, who opens his most famous work by evoking winter. The snow is long thawed. The days are gloriously long now. I am, at the moment, wearing a muscle tank. But the Montreal Canadiens play the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight—their first playoff meeting since 1979—so I’m thinking of Carrier, a literary giant of Quebec, and of the charming sports story he wrote that same year.

That masterpiece, The Hockey Sweater, captured enough hearts in Canada to earn its first line a place on the five-dollar bill for many years. It draws from Carrier’s own boyhood in a small Quebec village, where children “lived in three places—the school, the church and the skating-rink.” (How such a culturally specific piece of literature made its way across the border to whatever classroom or library I first read it in, I don’t know.) A 1980 short film adaptation commissioned by the National Film Board and narrated by Carrier has taken on classic status of its own. I promise watching it will be the sweetest 10 minutes of your day. 

More than anything, our narrator, a young Roch Carrier, loves Maurice Richard, the Canadiens star and beloved symbol of French Canada. “We laced our skates like Maurice Richard, we taped our sticks like Maurice Richard. We cut all his pictures out of the papers. Truly, we knew everything about him.” When a referee blows the whistle, the children at the local skating rink become “five Maurice Richards” taking the puck away from “five other Maurice Richards.” Carrier wears Richard’s sweater—“the famous number 9”—until it’s so torn and small his mother worries the neighbors will think them poor.

Her giddy son hovers over her shoulder as she thumbs through a catalogue and writes to Mr. Eaton, the owner of the real-life Eaton’s department store, to order a new sweater. (Later, I’d see the name “Eaton’s” again in one of the Anne of Green Gables books I devoured in elementary school. Nosy Mrs. Lynde grouses that local children read the catalogue more raptly than they do the scriptures.) The sweater arrives. “That day I had one of the greatest disappointments of my life,” Carrier says. His mother pulls a bright blue Toronto Maple Leafs sweater from the box. In the short film version, Carrier practically cowers from it. 

Unmoved by Carrier’s distress and afraid to upset the anglophone Mr. Eaton, Carrier’s mother insists he keep the sweater. “Maurice Richard would never put it on his back,” Carrier says, weeping. She reminds him, “You aren’t Maurice Richard.” So he skulks over to the rink, where the other boys gawk at him and the sweater. As he gets ready to play, the coach demotes him to the second line. Well into the game, he still hasn’t seen the ice. When he tries coming on to replace an injured player, the referee calls a penalty on him, and Carrier snaps.

Right about now, if you’re accustomed to a certain kind of children’s story, you steel yourself for The Lesson. The chance for moral betterment, cozy resolution—in what form will it come? Might Carrier realize the silliness of sports rivalries? Or make a new friend who likes the Leafs? No, The Lesson never arrives. I’m not sure what it says about my character that I consider this one of The Hockey Sweater‘s best qualities.

What happens instead is this: Young Carrier breaks his stick against the ice in frustration. The church’s vicar sees this and, in a little joke about life under the yoke of English Canada, tells Carrier that just because he wears a Leafs sweater does not mean he makes the laws around here. He sends Carrier to the church to ask God’s forgiveness for the outburst. Carrier, in his blue sweater, asks God not for forgiveness, but for a huge swarm of sweater-eating moths. The story ends there; no one has been brought together. Now may be a good time to mention the story’s original name, Une abominable feuille d’érable sur la glace—“feuille d’érable” is maple leaf; “sur la glace” means on the ice; and I’ll let you figure out “abominable.” 

Carrier, now 84, has insisted he never meant to send a real message with it. “I tried to tell a good little story, writing very fast because I had a tight deadline, so I was not thinking of putting it in any kind of political context,” he said in a 2014 interview. Maybe he didn’t need to; the Canadiens exist in a fraught political context anyway. In The Game, Ken Dryden’s meditation on his years with the Canadiens dynasty of the ‘70s, linguistic tensions reveal themselves in “incidents” between certain coaches and players. Just a week and a half ago, in the pages of the Montreal Gazette and La Presse, columnists mourned the death of an astonishing tradition: For the first time in the 112-year history of Les Habitants, the team had iced a lineup without a player from Quebec.

And by the time he wrote The Hockey Sweater, Carrier had already addressed conflict between French and English Canadians in his work in more direct, shocking ways. A few weeks ago, in the throes of a Canadiana kick, I picked up La Guerre, Yes Sir!, a short and funny novel of his translated by the esteemed Sheila Fischman. (Sorry, Monsieur Carrier, I’m one of those maudits anglais.) It begins with Joseph, a Quebecois who chops his hand off with an axe to avoid conscription in the Canadian army. Another book, Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 Two Solitudes, the ur-novel of Anglo-French relations in Canada, presents the relationship as a series of tragic misunderstandings. There are shades of that tragedy in The Hockey Sweater: The reason Carrier’s mother writes in the order directly to Mr. Eaton is that she’s flustered by the order form in English.

But what kind of good, boorish American would I be if I didn’t look past the Canadian political nuance? I love this story for how well it renders childhood and all its depth of feeling. We might remember our youths as carefree, but that’s not quite right. Everything verges on catastrophe; the wrong sweater, the bad haircut, all powerful enough to ruin your life. On the other side of that coin is the wonderful capacity to imagine. “We were five Maurice Richards”—what a perfect phrase. How often was that me? Dreamy, excitable, finding my joys in even the long, long winters. The smaller you are, the bigger the world’s stakes can seem.