Rocket Richard’s greatest momentFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
This week hockey is not disappointing, and it is a good time to remember the heroes.
O happy day! All that was set in motion when Los Angeles fraudster Bruce McNall bought Wayne Gretzky has definitively failed. Gary Bettman, McNall's chosen sidekick, is still presiding as NHL commissioner, but is suffering a much deserved and ongoing humiliation in Arizona, where his administration owns a team that is a ward of the state, making Bettman Phoenix's greatest welfare queen. It was a sweet moment when Bettman was forced to declare in Winnipeg: "We get to be back in [the] place we wish we had not left in 1996." But let us not permit that gifted dissembler to cloud our joy.
In these pleasant days for hockey in Canada, I have been reading about Maurice Richard, subject of a new biography by Charles Foran in the splendid Penguin "Extraordinary Canadians" series. That series, which invites notable Canadian writers to sketch short biographies of figures who shaped our culture, has been a publishing delight these last few years.
Maurice Richard is the only hockey player profiled, for the Rocket was more than a player. He was a repository of the tales we like to tell, true and those we wish to be true, about the game and about ourselves.
Richard has long been seen as the vessel of French-Canadian hopes at a time when the Québécois were living in the "great darkness" of the Duplessis era. That tired tale casts Richard as the harbinger of the rise of Quebec during the Quiet Revolution, wherein the English were chased out of business and the Church chased out of culture.
Foran explains that the story is not so simple, for Richard was not an enemy of the other Maurice – Duplessis – but an ally. He remained a man of the old values; the best of the old Quebec, in fact, with all its lights and shadows, rather than the herald of the new.
There is a story about the Rocket that Foran does not tell, and perhaps never has been published. It speaks of the man, his character and his virtues.
In 1992, for the 125th anniversary of Confederation, the Mulroney government decided to honour distinguished Canadians by having them sworn in as members of Her Majesty's Privy Council for Canada. The Rocket was chosen, and the prime minister's office called to inform him of the honour. He would be invited to Ottawa for Canada Day, to be invested by the Queen at Rideau Hall.
The Rocket was grateful, but declined the invitation. His wife Lucille was frail, and she needed him to look after her. Not to worry, the Prime Minister's Office solicitously replied – nursing care could be arranged for the day to permit Richard to travel from Montreal to Ottawa.
Richard again was grateful, but he explained that the PMO did not understand. It was not that he needed his wife to be taken care of, but that he needed to take care of his wife.
He had met Lucille when both were still young teenagers, and married when he was 21 and she 17. While other young stars – then, as now – chased after the women who chase after hockey players, Richard's heart belonged only to her. Together they raised seven children in a Christian home, and now, in 1992, just months shy of their 50th anniversary, he preferred to remain at her side rather than be decorated by Her Majesty the Queen. A teary-eyed official in the PMO promised that a special ceremony would be held in Montreal for the Rocket, which was later done.
Hockey so often disappoints. Hockey players disappoint. The men who run hockey disappoint, too, whether Clarence Campbell in Richard's day, or Bettman in ours. But this week hockey is not disappointing, and it is a good time to remember the heroes. How many know that one of the greatest hockey players of all time tried three times to enlist in the Canadian forces during the Second World War – a remarkable thing for a French Canadian star at the time – but was turned down for failing the physical?
It would have been Richard 's 90th birthday this summer. Give yourself a present and read again, or for the first time, about the Rocket.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Rocket Richard's greatest moment." National Post, (Canada) June 2, 2011.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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