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Author Roch Carrier surprised 'The Hockey Sweater' still touches Canadian readers

11/20/2014 07:00 EST | Updated 01/20/2015 05:59 EST
MONTREAL - When Roch Carrier wrote "The Hockey Sweater" in a mad rush in 1979 he had no idea it would become one of Canada's iconic stories about childhood and the country's national sport.

The simple story of a small-town Quebec boy who is sent a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead of that of his beloved Montreal Canadiens by a faraway department store has sold more than 300,000 copies.

It has been taken into outer space by Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk and appeared on the back of the Canadian five dollar bill. It has gone from a story read on CBC Radio to part of a short story collection to an illustrated children's book to a 10-minute National Film Board production.

In short, it has become one of the country's best-known and enduring hockey stories.

"I could not imagine anything that happened," Carrier said in an interview this week. "It was a gift from life that is just amazing.

"Almost every day there's happy news coming to me because of that little book. It brought me in touch with an incredible number of people and none of those people ever said anything I didn't enjoy hearing.

"It's not something a marketing company could do. It just happened from people who read the story, remember the story and tell the story to their kids."

Although it was first penned in 1979, it is the English translated version from 1984 with illustrations by Sheldon Cohen that is being celebrated this year with a special release by publisher Tundra Books.

The 30th anniversary edition, released Nov. 15, includes the story with Cohen's sketches, plus a section at the back with comments from Carrier and other prominent Canadians and photos of the central Quebec town of Sainte-Justine where it is set. A DVD of Cohen's NFB film is also included.

The 77-year-old Carrier has told the story many times about how he failed to come up with anything interesting when asked to write an essay on "what Quebec wants" in 1979. With only a day left before he had to go on the air, he instead came up with a true story from his childhood in Sainte-Justine.

It was about an outdoor rink in 1946 jammed with boys all wearing Canadiens jerseys with Maurice (Rocket) Richard's No. 9 on the back. When he outgrows his jersey, the 10-year-old's mother orders another from an Eaton's catalogue, but instead of the red, white and blue, a Leafs jersey is delivered to the door.

And instead of sending it back, his mother makes him wear it. The boy is traumatized.

The story captures the essence of the Toronto-Montreal rivalry that carries on today, although lately fans have been throwing Leafs jerseys onto the Air Canada Centre's ice in protest of the team's recent struggles.

But even many Leafs fans like "The Hockey Sweater."

"In Toronto, they like the book, which is amazing," said Carrier. "Many fans of the book are in Toronto. As people in this country, we have a certain sense of humour, which is very good."

It also illustrates English-French relations in Canada in the days before Quebec's Quiet Revolution, which brought an assertion of French language rights and power in Quebec.

The boy's mother has to order from an English-only catalogue. She makes him wear the sweater because if he doesn't "Monsieur Eaton" will be upset.

"He's English and he's going to be insulted because he likes the Maple Leafs," she tells her son.

At the rink, a priest tells him that just because he's wearing a Leafs jersey "doesn't mean you're going to make the laws around here."

Carrier didn't see "The Hockey Sweater" as any kind of political statement.

"Frankly, I tried to tell a good little story, writing very fast because I had a tight deadline, so I was not thinking of putting it in any kind of political context," he said. "The story was used in many ways to support this or that, but no.

"It is a story of a little boy who belonged to a little group and suddenly, because of his uniform, he doesn't belong any more and is rejected. So what do you do? I prayed. I don't think I'd do that today, but I prayed."

From 2001 to 2013, a line from "The Hockey Sweater" appeared with a picture of kids playing hockey on the back of the five dollar bill.

Carrier said it was fitting that it has been replaced by an astronaut on the newer bills because, as a child, he devoured comic books about space travellers and even built his own pretend spaceship from leftover wood in his father's garage.

"I did not feel bad because I'd had this great privilege," he said. "Years passed and I got an email suddenly from NASA.

"It was from an astronaut (Thirsk) who brought the book into space — six months at the space station. So I was happy to see an astronaut on the five dollar bill. I didn't feel rejected by that."

Carrier is an accomplished, award-winning author who wrote many novels and short stories, but none captured the imagination or brought him more fame than "The Hockey Sweater."

"I would like it if all my books were that popular, but it doesn't happen that way," he said. "I'm positive and perhaps, one day, someone will discover a book I wrote and read it."

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