I never saw the Rocket play. But I loved the team he made famous. On the morning of his funeral, the area around The Forum was pretty dead. I had expected something: traffic, crowds. This, after all, was the building that the Rocket had immortalized: the citadel to hockey when hockey mattered. But there were only construction workers gutting the building, turning it into a giant cineplex. My bus driver—he’s been the same guy who’s been taking me to work, every morning, for months; he plays serious baseball and goes to places like Columbia and Cuba on his holidays; not your average guy—said that he too had expected the entourage to start from the Forum, but heard that the new Molson Centre had been given the honour. The Forum was like a jazz club, where players and fans cared passionately about every riff, every mood, every slight change. With its passing, something essential seemed to go out of hockey. I walked east on Ste. Catherine past Fort, St. Marc, St. Mathieu, Guy, MacKay, Bishop, Crescent St., to Mountain- the street that runs down to the Molson Centre.
At Mountain and Ste. Catherine, crowds of spectators and well-wishers started to form, stretching east through the guts of the city. I was undecided where the best vantage point might be: Stanley St. had a certain significance. I headed there. I hoped to run into somebody. Most of my friends are die-hard Canadiens fans. But the day of the funeral was a working day for people with regular-type jobs, and I saw nobody.
Ten o’clock and the crowds had started to grow: groups of office workers enjoying the sun, being able to be part of something significant. I realized the Stanley street corner had only a nominal significance. The Stanley Tavern, half a block up the street, would have been meaningful. I had been an itinerant regular there as a first-year university student. On one occasion my thesis adviser joined me for a drink. He was tall and thin and distant, somewhat like the Michael Redgrave character in The Browning Version. I was in awe of this professor, and quite surprised when he accepted to go for a jar. I was further surprised when he told me he sometimes went to the Forum to watch the Canadians play. I was under the impression that a serious scholar could not possibly care tuppence about hockey, the game that I and my rambunctious friends got drunk on. The Novo Rex, not the Stanley, was our bar of choice. Saturday night was always special: bière en fût, barman O’Reilly fussing and bossing us like we were family; the Bear becoming serious to the point of fanaticism, if someone wasn’t paying attention. Pit with the dregs, Joe doing his bit to empty the glasses. All of us screaming support and heckling at the TV. The Novo Rex. Hockey Night in Canada.
In 1972, I remember cutting short a trip to Chicago, rushing back with my friend Petros Psaras to see the first Russia-Canada game; and being a bit vexed on arrival at the Rex to find the media mafia with lights and camera, setting up to record fan reactions. How dare they intrude on our love-in. But invasion of privacy thoughts soon disappeared. Facing the television screen—“watching history once again being made,” quipped David Kerr—I was lost in the embrace of fans of okay beer and great hockey. This was what it was all about.
On the day of Rocket’s funeral I strolled back along Ste. Catherine St., still hopeful of running into somebody. So many had moved away. Leo was in T.O. Kenny O’Reilly had passed on. Lenny had turned his life around. Craig Cottle…? Rondo…? Billy…? Was Herman Carter back in Mexico? He had a premonition that we’d win the Stanley Cup in ’86; came home from Mexico by Greyhound. And arrived in time for the parade. Where were John…? Terry…? Vic…? Zonker…? Sue…? Barry Paul…? Billy Johnston…? Patty More…? And so many more. Bake & Jake; Frank Mica. And Big Al, who told me his name was Alfie Show. Some had just dropped out entirely, or gone crazy, or stopped drinking, or died. But it was morning and sunny and hot—a festival expectant mood in this city of many moods—and time to be getting on with it.
I went down Mountain towards the Molson Centre like my bus driver suggested. A group of office workers on the opposite sidewalk were razing a relaxed motor-cycle cop. And just as he got the signal and revved up, I found myself in front of the O’Blitz. The O’Blitz Tavern- the Novo Rex that was! I hadn’t planned it, but this was exactly where I should have headed all along: the most significant and logical spot for me to watch the passing of a legend. With lights blinking, the funeral’s lead limousine nudged up the incline, crossing René Levesque boulevard slowly. Some people began clapping and then others and the clapping continued along the line, and the hearse proceeded up Mountain. And then it was gone. There was a kind of silence. I stood alone, realizing that part of my life had passed too. I didn’t go into the refurbished tavern. Everything was changed.
Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard, 1921-2000
Tribute from Vol. 2 No. 2
The Rocket was someone who did what he did so well that an idol of wider values was created after him. A shy man, he would ignore a sea of live television cameras while doing what he did best. He was known to injure his own teammates during ‘practice’ because he didn’t know what that word meant. He never understood his fame, thinking that all he did was work his hardest like anyone else– never realizing that without people like him, it wouldn’t be easy to feel like working hard was worth it. If heroes have just one purpose in society, it’s to inspire, just like that.
Few Canadian heroes since television have been communicated through oral culture as vividly as the Rocket. As one friend pointed out, “Oral history is the only thing that can explain why all these young people, who weren’t even born when he was playing hockey, are so concerned about him dying.”
I myself first heard about the Richard Riots (which occurred after he got suspended from the playoffs) from my own dad long before I ever read about them. And when I went to see the Rocket lay in state at Center Ice, there were a great many teenagers and children lined up beside me– as well as people saying they drove from Boston or Halifax, or flew from Calgary, to see him. That day, over 115 000 people filed past to pay their respects.
If it seems strange to eulogize a sports hero in Fish Piss, keep in mind that this was not just a sports hero, but the definition of “hero” to Montrealers, Quebecers and a great many Canadians. He set scoring records which stood for generations, and to this day no one, including Gretzky, has broken his most exciting records: most championship-winning goals; most game-winning goals in playoff overtime; most goals in a game in the finals; and most career goals in the finals. Even Babe Ruth’s most exciting records have fallen by now.
The Rocket was one of the last great sports heroes to receive his dues in respect instead of in U.S. dollars. And in a hundred years, I bet you the children who filed past his casket at center ice will be telling their own grandchildren that they saw the Rocket.