Register Tuesday | June 19 | 2018

The Rocket’s Red Glare

Maurice Richard earns our tears and cheers in this Quebec biopic

Yeah, I cried. So what?

Maurice Richard, like Ray and Walk the Line, may be a fairly standard biopic, but this life story of "The Rocket" offers reality and fantasy in such effective proportions-not to mention a true-life happy ending (the Habs win the Cup, of course!)-that it earned my tears.

In the film, Roy Dupuis portrays a mid-career Maurice Richard who is faced with some tough calls. He fights conflicting desires in order to do what he loves and, in some cases, to cause a stir in the name of what's right. Richard grew up in Quebec in the early twentieth century, and it was a world filled with conflict and oppression-the Anglos ran the joint, and the Frenchies were the grunts. It was Richard's decision to stand up to the anglophones that brought tears to my eyes-more than the goals, more than the glory and more than the fights (there were some nice fights, though). The rest of the world might underestimate the political strength of a hockey player (or any sports hero, for that matter) but in Quebec in the 1950s, he was tha shiznit. It is not inconceivable that one could trace the current separatist movement back through Lucien Bouchard, the FLQ crisis, the Quiet Revolution, and arrive at the Rocket Riot.

The film underlines these tensions in various ways. Stephen McHattie, playing Habs coach Dick Irvin, pushes Richard's buttons by ragging on him in English and deliberately hurling racial slurs at him-all in the name of getting the Rocket fired up to play hockey. When the team travels by train to Boston, New York or Toronto, francophone and anglophone players are segregated, if not officially. Yet the film goes deeper with these conflicts; it manages to reveal the complexity of these situations by showing different sorts of tensions at different times. The linguistic divide, for example, does not seem to exist within the team itself. When the Habs win the Stanley Cup, Irvin reads a congratulatory speech in French and gets a nod of approval from his star. In the battle of good versus evil, the sides are not always French versus English, or Little Guy versus Big Boss Man-in the film, for example, underpaid French and English players unite against the rich owners.

Again, I cannot speak to the reality of this aspect of Maurice Richard, but I do know that in the real sports world, the ties that are made in the dressing room are often the ones that bind. Despite the stereotypical impression we have of the locker room-a misogynist, racist, homophobic enclave-these differences are often forgotten in a team environment (well, the racist ones, anyway-men and women don't yet share locker rooms, and homosexuality in sport is still as taboo as it gets). Part of the reason the Rocket was able to stand up to the anglophone elite of the NHL was because his anglophone teammates were behind him as much as the francophones.

Sports heroes are often dismissed as insignificant, or as mere shills for the hot brand of the day, but they actually hold real power because people listen and look up to them. When Irvin tells Richard, "You're a hockey player-play hockey," he's missing the point that a hockey player means so much more to people than simply how he or she performs on the ice.

As I write this, Scott Niedermayer of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks is faced with a tough choice (although, granted, not as tough as Richard's). He needs knee surgery. His choice is whether he should play at the 2006 Olympics for Canada (thereby risking further injury to his knee, potentially sacrificing his career and costing the Ducks millions of dollars) or have surgery before the Games (thereby missing the chance to represent his country at a defining cultural moment). The choice he makes will either vindicate or disappoint his fans, depending on whether they think it is loyalty to the country or to the employer that is more important.

Richard clearly believed that loyalty to his community was more important than his career-though, of course, the two were tightly connected. His articles in the Montreal weekly paper, Samedi-Dimanche, criticized the NHL leadership and put his career in jeopardy. He stopped writing because he knew that he could do more for francophones by continuing his career as a player.

How much of this film was sensationalised, I don't know-it claims to be historically accurate-but the portrayal of a man who sticks to his guns, wants to win and cares about his family is hard to knock. Just like Richard himself.

John Lofranco takes breaks from rigorous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco.