Dating from the 1850s, regularized in 1879 Montréal by rules adapted from field hockey, lacrosse and rugby, ice hockey of half-a-century ago was graceful, fast and physical, epitomized by the six-team northern North America National Hockey League. Twelve cities represented after 1967, thirty today, European and former U.S. college players alongside a majority of Canadians, it has, say critics, turned into high scoring bloodletting, with players even facing criminal charges for sports mayhem.
For all the heated debate, with every single one of his records surpassed by numerous others, right wing Maurice “Rocket” Richard remains “the Babe Ruth of hockey” and is the dominating subject of Belgian-born Charles Binamé’s “Maurice Richard (The Rocket)”
So stripped in focus is the Ken Scott screen treatment that no hint is breathed of “Pocket Rocket” Henri, a younger brother of less spectacular abilities but a four-time All-Star also elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Not so inflammatory as De Gaulle’s Hôtel de Ville “Vive le Québec libre!” and soft-pedaling its hero’s reputation for hard-nosed play, this hagiography should stir French-Canadian hearts in a country where, officially, New Brunswick is the only bilingual province.
As film, it is one-sided celluloid biography ho-hum, the heeled British-descended majority discriminating in the workplace, housing, language, even on ice, finally firing up the reluctant Maurice (François Langlois-Vallières at 17, Roy Dupuis thereafter) to take a public stand. From the start in jerrybuilt outdoor junior leagues up through superstardom, he and his people face insults and deprivations, so his athletic aspirations weighed against a machinist day job make prospective father-in-law (Michel Barrette) uneasy about the suitor’s adequacy as breadwinner.
But daughter Lucille Norchet (Amélie Richer, when young) has early set her sights on the shy square-jawed young man, and will not be swayed. Cookie-cutter supportive, she (Julie Le Breton, as Mrs. Lucille Richard) will be there for her man, proud, loving, worried, with a few tears.
Fragile from previous broken bones, promptly dismissed by media as well as cigar-chomping Anglo ownership after an early pro injury, he is protected and nurtured by Dick Irvin (Stephen McHattie), shrewd coach of the disappointing Canadiens, familiarly the “Habs.” Five times leading goal-scorer in that era when salaries were smaller, games fewer and assists and penalties secondary statistics, he won only one Hart MVP Trophy and never the Ross for goals plus assists—the latter were padded for Toronto, Boston and Detroit—but ushered in hometown Les Habitants’ N.Y. Yankee-Man U-type dynasty. Three Stanley Cup wins under Irvin and three runners-up followed, before barely introduced also French-Canadian legends Beliveau, Geoffrion, brother Henri and goaltender Plante joined Maurice for five consecutive post-Irvin, pre-armor, -masks and -helmets championships.
The centerpiece is the 1955 province-wide riots. Near the regular season finish, he decks the referee pinning his arms as rival hit man Layco attacks, and league president Campbell (Tedd Dillon) exonerates others while suspending the Montréal star the remainder of the season plus the playoffs. Fans go on the rampage that, says one outside writer, “was the catalyst for the Québec separatist movement,” and the Rocket announces the end of his career.
Cooler heads prevail, just as in the earlier dustup with officials that set this stage. In 1953-54, as yet another printed title tells the audience, at the urging of newsman Paul St-Georges (Benoît Girard), the star opened up in a series of columns laying bare gripes like the sport’s discriminatory practices. Campbell needing to “get me someone who reads French!” slaps a first suspension until the club types an apology to which Richard is persuaded-pressured to put his name.
Of course he comes back both times, playing “his best year[s] ever” into his thirties, the idol of oppressed Québécois-joual speakers. Since he is portrayed as so bland steely silent, and Lucille bland long suffering and her family timid, much of the nationalist sentiment is too easily pawned off onto the shoulders of an occasional unrealized teammate, St-Georges, wise humble barber Tony (Rémy Girard) and a radio CFCF commentator.
Its staged game sequences nothing out of the ordinary, its star straight-jacketed by colorless conception, the film may move Montrealers but will excite few others. To its credit it does avoid summarizing the future—sports-related business success—and closes with a more considered De Gaulleism, ”Maurice Richard is all of Québec standing up.”