The Hockey Sweater

If Hugh McLennan’s Two Solitudes is the Great Canadian Novel, then Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater is the Great Canadian Children’s Story. Both works deal with Canada’s national obsessions: the cultural divide between English and French Canada, and the great sport of ice hockey. The Hockey Sweater is regularly shown as an animated short around Christmas time on the CBC, and the opening lines appeared on the back of the “Canadian Journey” series $5 bill.

In case you don’t know about it, here’s the Coles Notes version, with some photographed illustrations from the book:

In the winter of 1946, all of us boys in the small town of Ste-Justine, Québec, were obsessed with Maurice “Rocket” Richard, number 9 for the Montréal Canadiens. We all wore his sweater when we played, taped our sticks like him, knew all his stats, and even combed our hair like him, which we held in place with a kind of glue.

One day my mother decided that my sweater was too small for me, and wrote away to “Monsieur Eaton” for a new one. A hockey sweater did indeed arrive two weeks later, but it was not a Canadiens’ sweater – it was a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.

My mother refused to insult M. Eaton by sending it back, so I had to wear it when I played hockey.

I was picked last, no one would pass me the puck, and in frustration I broke my stick, and was sent to the church to pray for forgiveness by the priest-cum-referee. There, I prayed that a million moths would come and devour my Maple Leafs sweater.

Whether the mix-up with the sweater was accidental or deliberate is an issue in Canadian literary criticism. The narrator’s mother eschewed the order forms for the T. Eaton Co. catalogue because “they were written in English and she did not understand a single word of it.” Instead, she wrote a letter “as she always did” in French, in her “fine schoolteacher’s hand,” making a polite request, and including some chit-chat about how her son is growing up so quickly. Was the reply thus an insult to someone was wasn’t following the rules, and who had expected that this Anglophone company operate in French? Or was it a case whereby someone tried to read the letter, saw that it was asking for something to do with hockey, and sent what he thought they were asking for – or was it some other situation not attributable to malice but to stupidity? (Although note that she did ask specifically for a Canadiens’ sweater – it wasn’t just a misunderstanding about what “hockey sweater” she was asking for – and she had written letters before, and presumably had had goods delivered satisfactorily.)

But whatever the cause, the company certainly screwed up, and in a culturally insensitive way. The boy’s mother refused to send it back because, as she explained:

If you don’t keep this sweater which fits you perfectly I’ll have to write to Monsieur Eaton and explain that you don’t want to wear the Toronto sweater. Monsieur Eaton understands French perfectly, but he’s English and he’s going to be insulted because he likes the Maple Leafs. If he’s insulted, do you think he’ll be in a hurry to answer us? Spring will come before you play a single game, just because you don’t want to wear that nice blue sweater.

She is an interesting figure. She doesn’t want her neighbours thinking that her family is poor and can’t afford new clothes, and believes that the English-Canadian T. Eaton Co. is the only place good enough to acquire them. Yet she has an attitude toward this commercial enterprise of deference and personal connection – she actually writes to the president of the company, and refuses to return the wrong sweater lest it offend him! (I assume that she is not just spinning a yarn to her boy because she can’t be bothered to return it – she wrote to “M. Eaton” in the first place, and clearly thinks of him as a patron of sorts.) It seems an odd combination of snobbery and naïveté.

Thus, one can see how Roch Carrier is criticizing this strain of French Canadian culture, the “respectable” people who convey their respectability through the consumption of Anglophone goods or the admiration of powerful Anglophone figures. (Or, at the very least, he is criticizing parents who refuse to take their kids’ social lives seriously – it might seem trivial to you, but it is a big deal to your kid, and for good reason.) At the same time, Carrier seemingly criticizes the cultural uniformity and religiously-sanctioned xenophobia that pervaded French Canada, given how everyone dressed the same, and how the main character really did lose caste for wearing the sweater of the rival team, both in the eyes of his peers and in the eyes of his priest. (This was also an element in Two Solitudes, if I’m not misremembering.)

Now, if this story is autobiographical, it would be interesting to know what actually transpired in Ste-Justine in the winter of 1946. A photograph on Wikipedia shows Carrier as a boy, wearing his Maple Leafs sweater and not looking particularly embarrassed. Was it really that gauche? I would also be curious to know about the T. Eaton Co. in the 1940s. According to Wikipedia, they printed their catalogues in French, customers could order in French, and they had a policy of “goods satisfactory or money refunded.” What was the reaction of the company when The Hockey Sweater was first published in 1979, I wonder? (Unfortunately, it is no longer with us, and so has no one to defend it.)*

For all its delightfulness, The Hockey Sweater is a rather pessimistic book.

This is why I was happy to discover recently another children’s book, entitled My Leafs Sweaterby Mike Leonetti, first published in 1998. It is billed as an “homage à” Roch Carrier, but it is perhaps a riposte to him also. The hero of this one is not Maurice Richard, but Darryl Sittler, the 1970s-era Toronto Maple Leaf captain and hockey great.

Note the reproduction of Lawren Harris‘s The Old Stump, Lake Superior on the wall to the right, for that extra dollop of Canadian Content.

Coles Notes summary:

I loved cheering for the Toronto Maple Leafs while watching Hockey Night in Canada, in particular for Daryl Sittler, my favourite player. I had some Leafs memorabilia, but I didn’t have a sweater, so I asked for one for my birthday. My parents demurred, given how expensive they are, but told me that if I behaved myself they’d get me one. Come my birthday, my dad and I went to a sporting goods store, which was sold out of Leaf sweaters, then to a store in the mall, which was also sold out, then to Maple Leaf Gardens itself, which did have them, but they were all too big. Fortunately, there were tickets available for that night’s game, and my dad and I got to see the Leafs and Sittler in person! As it happens, the game was the historic 11-4 Maple Leaf victory over the Boston Bruins on February 7, 1976, in which Sittler tallied 10 points, a record that still stands. So I never got my sweater, but I did have a great story that I could tell my friends, and a memory to last forever.

A friend of mine in college couldn’t understand why you would name a team the “Leafs” – at least they should be the “Leaves,” she thought. But our boy is wise beyond his years:

The Maple Leafs sweater was special. It wasn’t like the others. It didn’t have a lot of strange colours, just blue and white. It didn’t have an animal on it like a seal or a penguin. I just couldn’t picture those animals playing hockey. And I didn’t understand how a flame or a king or a sabre had anything to do with hockey.

But I’d seen maple leaves with my own eyes, frozen in the ice below my skates, trapped there until spring. They had something to do with skating and seeing your breath on a cold day. Maple leaves turning colour meant the start of the hockey season, a sign that winter was coming.

The maple leaf on the sweater stood out because it was simple and true, just like the leaves on the tree in front of our house. I could also see a bid red maple leaf in the middle of the Canadian flag out in front of my school. It meant something to everybody, even to the people who were new to this country.

The section that most clearly references Carrier’s book:

I had a poster of Darryl Sittler and an autographed photo of him on my bedroom wall. I knew how many goals he had scored and how many points and assists he had.** I had a collection of all his hockey cards since he began playing for the Leafs. I had a hockey stick like his, and I even taped it the way he did.

He doesn’t hold his hair in place like Sittler’s with a kind of glue, but it was the 1970s and that sort of thing was out of fashion. “Taping the stick” in a certain way is the clearest reference. (How can you possibly tell how someone tapes his stick, anyway? I can’t think of more than one way myself….)

Dig the Atlanta Flames and antique Los Angeles Kings sweaters.

But the clearest reference to team (and inter-Canadian) rivalry is this exchange in the mall sports store:

“Sold out,” the storekeeper said. He held up a Canadiens sweater. “What about this one?”

I could see there was going to be a problem. Either you loved the Leafs or you didn’t understand.

I folded my arms and looked away. “No,” I said. “It’s not the same.”

I appreciate how the possibility of wearing the rival team’s sweater is not cast as an existential crisis, like it is in Carrier’s book. Even though the Canadiens were a powerhouse in the 1970s, and the Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, I love the self-assurance on display here – his sentiments are pro-Leaf, not anti-Canadien. For the sake of the story, indeed, it could have been any other team’s sweater – and, indeed, all the kid’s friends have different team sweaters on when they play, including a Montréal Canadiens one! It seems that English Canada had a little more tolerance for individuality – a privilege of being the dominant culture, I guess.

* My dad informs me that, in the mid-twentieth century, Eaton’s had a great reputation in most parts of Canada, that their policy of unconditional returns was abused quite frequently – e.g. people would wear their boots all winter, and then return them in the spring claiming they didn’t quite fit. (A friend of mine called this move a “Sears rental” for another department store, also sadly no longer with us.) At the same time, I seem to remember that the apostrophe-s in the company’s name was offensive to Francophones, and I do remember that the bricks-and-mortar store in Montréal was simply labeled “Eaton.”

** “I knew how many goals he had scored and how many points and assists he had.” I assume the author is trying to reproduce a child’s view of things. A player’s points are his goals plus his assists.

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