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Myth and mystery of No. 9

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Myth and mystery of No. 9

A slick move by the department of Heritage and Culture leads to Rocket Richard exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization



CanWest News Service

February 7, 2005



Maxime Richard admires the original jersey of his great grandfather, former Canadiens' great Maurice (Rocket) Richard, on display as part of an exhibit at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau.

A 7-year-old boy, who happens to wear No. 9 for his novice hockey team, walks into the Rocket Richard exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

His eyes grow wide.

No. 9 is everywhere.

In cartoon images. On a small library of books. On the lithe form of Shania Twain. In newspaper clippings, on authentic sweaters, on hockey pucks and sticks - arrow-straight, meticulously taped wooden sticks used in hockey's paleozoic period.

That Joseph Henri Maurice (Rocket) Richard scored 544 regular-season goals with such a stick, and 82 Stanley Cup playoff goals - including six in sudden-death overtime - merely adds to the marvel and the mystique.

In the 1940s and '50s, it must have been impossible not to know the Rocket. There were only two National Hockey League clubs in Canada, Rocket's Montreal Canadiens and the enemy Toronto Maple Leafs. There were few sports entertainment options beyond the Saturday broadcasts of Foster Hewitt and Danny Gallivan.

To children of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Rocket's name lived on, in Quebec culture and then as part of our national fabric; in highlight reels and through Roch Carrier's famous book The Hockey Sweater, a lovely story about a Richard fanatic whose pragmatic mother can't imagine the boy's horror at being made to wear a Leafs sweater that arrives via catalogue by mistake.

But what would a modern 7-year-old, raised on Mighty Ducks and MVP (Most Valuable Primate) movies, with a side dish of electronic hockey games, make of this quaint exhibit of an ancient hockey icon?

His father took him to the museum in Hull to find out. No child should wear No. 9 without understanding what it meant, to hockey players of a certain era and to an infant called Quebec in the years before the Quiet Revolution.

This would be an educational trip and naturally, it was the father who learned the greatest lesson. About a child's willingness to soak up a small taste of sporting history when curators make the artifacts accessible and fun. And, of course, when the subject is The Rocket.

Whose delight is greater, the father's or the son's, when the boy pulls on a headset to listen to a broadcast of one of Richard's "impossible" goals, scored half a century ago?

A booth invites us to tell our own Richard stories - and the boy leaps before the camera to advise any hockey player to wear No. 9 if possible, "because it will bring you luck."

Young attention spans being what they are, father and son sweep through the exhibit nearly as swiftly as a Richard charge to the net. Dad takes advantage of the boy's periodic fascination with a gadget or musical recording to refresh his own sense of the Rocket's legend. So many funny reminders of the man's import. Cans of "Rocket Richard Soup" represent Quebec's wrath when then-NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the 1955 playoffs (get it? No more Campbell's soup for Quebecers).

Also clever, considering the limited technology of the day, was a 1949 Globe & Mail picture of Richard wearing Maple Leafs colours, over the caption: "Wouldn't he look good in a sweater like this?"

Alas, the only Leaf in Richard's life was the sweater of the Verdun Maple Leafs of the late 1930s.

Samples of Richard's "Clipper" fishing line that he sold in the offseason remind us of the Rocket's relatively modest income from the game he played with unequalled passion.

Why did he begin to wear sweater No. 9? It's associated with the birth of his daughter, Huguette. Father and son played the Richard true-and-false game to find out.

In this brief voyage through time, two of Richard's attributes stand out.

Tenacity. Modesty.

What better lessons for our children all these years later?

So fragile was young Richard's body, people tried to talk him into a new line of work when a torn Achilles tendon and a broken ankle sidelined him for months at a time. He fought through the hardships with the same relentless fire that drove him to the net past players bent on crushing him en route.

While it's tempting to call Richard one of the early power forwards, can the description be used of a man who stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 170 pounds? Gordie Howe, another famous No. 9 of the day, outweighed the Rocket by 35 pounds.

Rocket's fame launched him on the popular TV shows of the era - Ed Sullivan, Front Page Challenge (today he would have done Letterman and Leno). See the clips. Note the utter humility.

Richard seemed almost sheepish to be on the same Sullivan stage as fighters Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.

Therein, of course, lies the true connection between Richard and his francophone fans. It wasn't only the goals, the burning eyes, the pride of the Canadiens. Maurice was one of them. A soft-spoken, French Catholic, shy family man.

When he retired in 1960, Richard's parting address was classic Rocket, offering his "deepest gratitude for 18 wonderful years." He even thanked newspaper and broadcast reporters for their kindness. Imagine a similar speech from NFLer Randy Moss 10 years from now.

When he stood on the ice at the old Forum one last time in 1996, the Rocket's eyes watered and his ears rang from an ovation that lasted eight glorious minutes.

When he died four years later, more than 100,000 people filed past his coffin to pay their respects.

What a gift he was to hockey.

What a contrast his story is to the ugly tussle over money between modern NHL owners and players.

What a slick move by the department of Heritage and Culture when it bought these Richard treasures in 2002 for $600,000, so all could enjoy them.

On the way out the door, the boy pulls on a sample No. 9 Canadiens sweater, with the "C" on his chest and "Richard" in bold letters on the back.

He models it in the mirror and beams.

"How do I look?"

Ready to play.

Ottawa Citizen

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I have yet to hop across the river to see the exhibit, but I plan to.

Yet I see why Beliveau is selling off his stuff while he can. Rocket Richard had most of his stuff commandeered as "heritage items" for display in exhibits such as this. The Canadiens even reclaimed some items as their own. But I don't think Jean would have to worry about. Beliveau was a great, great hockey player. Richard, to the people of Quebec, was far more than a hockey player.

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Hey Don, do you know how long the exhibit runs for? I'd make a trip to Ottawa for it...

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