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Canadiens-Maple Leafs playoff series has 'Hockey Sweater' author excited

Iconic story was published in 1979, last time Montreal played Toronto in postseason

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

It is a remarkable, perfect coincidence.

The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs last met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April 1979, only a few months before Canadian author Roch Carrier published his iconic story "The Hockey Sweater," developed from a 1978 radio essay that he'd typed in a few hours, crushed by deadline.

No single piece of literature has better bridged Canada's linguistic and cultural divide or more simply defined the historic, complex rivalry between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs than Carrier's charming autobiographical tale. The story, translated from its original French by Sheila Fischman, was brought to life in 1980 by animator Sheldon Cohen in an award-winning 10-minute short, in English and French, for the National Film Board of Canada.

The Hockey Sweater

Now, having just submitted his latest novel to his publisher, Carrier, who turned 84 on May 13, is eager to settle in front of his television to watch the Stanley Cup First Round matchup between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs. The best-of-7 series begins Thursday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto (7:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN, TVAS, SN).

Gently massaged into a young readers book in 1984, "The Hockey Sweater" -- "Le Chandail de Hockey" in French -- is Carrier's memory of a young boy growing up in 1947 rural Ste-Justine, Quebec, eagerly awaiting a replacement for his threadbare Canadiens sweater. Instead, 10-year-old Roch, who worships Montreal legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard, is sent a Maple Leafs sweater by a Toronto-headquartered department store.

Humiliated by this turn of events, mocked by his friends, the blue and white-clad Carrier finally loses his temper on the village rink and is ordered off the ice, sent to the church by the referee, a young priest, to ask God's forgiveness. Instead, shaking hands with an apparition of the Rocket, Carrier prays for "a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater."

"The Hockey Sweater" and its animated short have spanned generations, in Canada and beyond, its enduring popularity still a marvel to its author. The story is as timeless as a Montreal-Toronto game, the rivalry dating to the 1917 birth of the NHL.

"It's a privilege," Carrier says today. "This book is still finding new readers around the world, new editions are published, one after another. … I never just sat down and said, 'I'll write this.' I cannot claim any credit for it."

Roch Carrier, 10, is horrified to receive a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. At right, a Canadiens sweater worn by Maurice "Rocket" Richard in 1959-60, his final season.

A symphonic score was composed for the story a decade ago, Carrier a few times reading/performing the book with orchestral accompaniment; from 2002-12, the first two sentences of "The Hockey Sweater," in English and French, appeared on Canada's $5 banknote, amid a hockey scene:

"The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places -- the school the church and the skating-rink -- but our real life was on the skating-rink."

Hardly a day goes by that Carrier doesn't hear from someone who has bonded with his words. The author of dozens of serious, important books and countless short stories and essays, a renowned playwright and the former National Librarian of Canada, he admits and embraces the fact he is best known for "The Hockey Sweater."

Roch Carrier, having changed from his Canadiens jersey to one of the Maple Leafs, waves to the Roy Thomson Hall audience during an April 2017 performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

"A woman in Montreal asked me to send a copy of the book to a women's group in the U.S. who have some kind of radio program about hockey," he said. "Requests come from all over. People sometimes arrive at my door."

The Rocket loved the story, the two men growing close before and after its publication. Carrier recalls being invited with Richard to Toronto by then-Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard to have lunch with the team.

"The Rocket and I were walking to Maple Leaf Gardens from our hotel," he said. "We were stopped on the street, people lining up to get his autograph. Many didn't have a pencil, nor did the Rocket, so he turned to me and said, 'Roch, you're a writer, you must have a pencil?' Which of course I did.

"Rocket signed many autographs that day. In his hotel room, he was getting gifts from Maple Leafs fans -- imagine that? -- who knew where he was staying. He received cake, drawings, a painting."

"The Hockey Sweater" plays in March 2017 at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, in front of a puck-shaped No. 9 seat.

In May 2000, Carrier had just put the final punctuation mark on the manuscript of his book, "Our Life With The Rocket," a love letter to and about Richard, when he took a call telling him of the latter's death.

His book's final words: "We have been, we will be better men because the Rocket crossed through our childhood."

Now, Carrier will tune to a playoff series between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, teams that in many ways defined his youth and much of his life that has followed. Forty-two years after publishing his classic story, Original Six opponents meeting once more, he will enjoy two iconic sweaters on the same sheet of playoff ice and again remember his friend, the Rocket.

Photos: Jag Gundhu, Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Tundra Books/Bank of Canada/Sheldon Cohen; Dave Stubbs

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