August 4, 2021 marks the centenary of the birth of Maurice Richard. More than just a sportsman, this famous hockey player played a role as decisive (if not more) in French-Canadian society of his time as on the ice for the Club de hockey Canadien.
Born in 1979, I did not have the chance to see the one we nicknamed the Rocket evolve on the ice. He played in the NHL from 1942 to 1960. Like thousands of Quebecers, however, I heard about his sporting exploits from my father and my grandfather. I quickly understood that within the Montreal Canadiens dynasty, Maurice Richard held a special place and had something more …
There was his record of 50 goals in 50 games, his eight Stanley Cups or the famous evening of April 8, 1952! That night, in Game 7 of the playoffs against Boston, Maurice scored the game-winning goal bloodied and half-conscious, after being struck down by a violent bodycheck to the forehead. Against the advice of the doctor, he insisted on returning to the game at the end of the third period and managed to give the victory to his team and to explode with joy the crowd of the Forum and the hundreds of thousands of French Canadians who followed the game on the radio.
Maurice had spent long minutes trembling crying after the game. Driven by an inner strength, he had just accomplished the kind of feats achieved by the heroes of Greek mythology! However, it is a French-Canadian mythology in need of heroes in which he participated …
A national hero
To fully understand the importance of Maurice Richard’s exploits, we must remember the historical context in which French Canadians evolved in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, it is necessary to highlight the fact that at the time of the Rocket, the Canadians of French origin constitute a people which still suffers the consequences of its colonization nearly 200 years earlier!
The British Conquest of 1760 had a major impact on the approximately 60,000 inhabitants of French origin who remained here and on their descendants. Had it not been for their stubbornness and resilience, the French speakers in America would have disappeared within a few generations.
So much so that, against all odds, French Canadians are still present in the years 1940-1950 and form the majority of the population of Quebec (around 81% in 1950). On the other hand, the colonial status of Francophones has created a state of affairs in which they are subordinated to the Anglo-Saxon element of Quebec and Canada, which pulls the strings of finance and dominates in key sectors of society.
The fate of Francophones is generally that of a “small” people, condemned to become farmers, loggers or workers in factories belonging to the elite of the Anglo-Saxon minority. Félix Leclerc describes this alienation well in Angry lark : “I have a stripped son, as was his father, water carrier, sawyer, tenant and unemployed, in his own country”!
Thus, by being the best of his discipline and by accumulating sporting exploits, Maurice Richard contributed, of course with others, to undo this colonized mentality among many of his compatriots.
Straighten the spine
It’s easy to forget these days, but the Canadiens team was named that way in 1909 to represent the French-speaking population. In the countryside and working-class towns of Quebec, hockey is a popular sport practiced en masse by young French Canadians, who one day dream of wearing the tricolor uniform.
Each goal, each record or each punch of Maurice Richard are thus victories for the French-Canadian people, who gain in pride and calmly straighten the spine.
This is largely the reason why when Maurice was suspended for the end of the season and the playoffs by Clarence Campbell in 1955, there was a riot at the Forum and in the streets of Montreal. Silently accepting Richard’s fate was once again to bow down to the English boss. For many French Canadians, usually docile and resilient, this was too much!
In the aftermath of the riot, in the To have to, André Laurendeau clearly identified the root causes of this event: “French-Canadian nationalism seems to have taken refuge in hockey. The crowd which proclaimed its anger last Thursday evening was not animated only by the taste for sport or the feeling of an injustice committed against its idol. It was a frustrated people, protesting against fate. The lot was called, Thursday, Mr. Campbell; but this one embodied all the real or imaginary adversaries that this small people met. “
Despite himself, by his success on the ice, Maurice Richard had become the standard-bearer of a whole awakening people …
Symbolic end of career
Maurice Richard played his last professional hockey game in April 1960. Two months later, Jean Lesage’s “thunder team” seized power in Quebec and embodied the political and economic control of Quebecers. An era was ending for Maurice Richard, but a new era was dawning for all Quebecers, eager to emancipate themselves.
During the 1962 electoral campaign, where the slogan was “Masters in our house”, René Lévesque well embodied the new spirit of the time: “There must be a way of not being just spectators, carriers of water. and sawyers. We came here something like 300 years ago, there should be a way we feel at home here! ”
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Rocket showed French Canadians that they too were capable of excelling and being the best. In the 1960s, with their backs straightened, they were about to demonstrate that they had understood the lesson …