Carrier’s ‘The Hockey Sweater’ still captivates, 70 years after winter of 1946

Roch Carrier, author of the book "The Hockey Sweater," poses for photos Wednesday, November 19, 2014 in Montreal. Ryan Remiorz/ The Canadian Press

The last time Roch Carrier went skating was 15 years ago, when he fell and broke his kneecap trying out a new pair of blades.

“My wife said, ‘why are you wearing those old skates? They are terrible.’ And she bought me a beautiful pair of skates,” said the Quebec author best known for writing “The Hockey Sweater.”

“And I went to skate and of course I jumped on the ice like a champion, and I did one step and I fell and I broke my kneecap.”

Carrier, now 79, is no longer the spry nine-year-old who combed his hair like Montreal Canadiens star Maurice Richard and whose great childhood trauma – captured in the famous book – was having to wear a blue-and-white Maple Leafs sweater instead of the jersey of his beloved Habs.

Roch Carrier, right, author of the book “The Hockey Sweater,” and illustrator Sheldon Cohen pose for photos Wednesday, November 19, 2014 in Montreal. The iconic Canadian children’s book is marking its 30th anniversary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz.

But his story about a hockey-mad boy in a small Quebec town still captivates readers, 37 years after it was first published and a full 70 years since the winter of 1946, the year in which it is set.

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WATCH BELOW: Author Roch Carrier surprised ‘The Hockey Sweater’ still touches Canadian readers

In the book, the narrator’s mother orders Carrier a Canadiens jersey from Toronto, only to be sent the wrong sweater. She nevertheless insists Carrier wear the top, which mortifies him and leads to friction with his teammates and other residents in his hometown of Sainte-Justine.

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The story has sold more than 300,000 copies and has been adapted into a symphony that has been performed in several Canadian cities, with Carrier’s voice narrating over the music.

In 2017, it will be adapted into a musical that will play at Montreal’s Segal Centre in honour of the city’s 375th anniversary.

And, on a much smaller scale, Carrier is also being celebrated by Sainte-Justine (pop. 1,845), where some locals will put on a theatre piece in February based on a series of short stories Carrier wrote about the town, including “The Hockey Sweater.”

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Stephane Brule, the president of the town’s historical society, said he hopes it will help residents discover more of the works of the community’s most famous resident.

“He’s known here, there are several places that are named after him, but people don’t really know his literature,” he said.

Although Carrier moved away to attend boarding school when he was 12, Sainte-Justine looms large in his stories, especially his most famous one.

Author Roch Carrier poses with a new Canadian five dollar bill during an unveiling ceremony in Montreal, Wednesday, March 27, 2002. Excerpts from Carrier’s book, The Hockey Sweater, appears on a background of various scenes of children at play. (CP PHOTO/Paul Chiasson). CP PHOTO/Paul Chiasson

A line from the story describing the village, located near Quebec’s border with Maine, even graced the Canadian $5 bill from 2001 to 2013.

“The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating rink – but our real life was on the skating rink,” it read.

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Although time has marched on, Brule says in many ways Sainte-Justine is still recognizable as the place in Carrier’s stories.

The population hasn’t grown much, and although the surrounding farms have largely disappeared, he says the church, the school as well as the home that belonged to the Carriers are still there.

The only difference is the hockey rink, which is now a covered arena instead of an outdoor facility.

Carrier, who still returns periodically to visit family, describes the village as “a great place to grow up.”

“It was very isolated in a way, but every small place like that was filled with life,” said Carrier, who now lives in the Montreal area. “People were playing, people were dancing, people were going to mass.”

And, although Canadian life has changed in the last 70 years, he says his story still seems to ring true to many people – at least judging by the reaction he gets when he reads it to children.

He says he always begins by asking them if they’ve ever had to wear something they didn’t want to. “All the hands go up, and I find that’s a good way to begin the story,” he said.

He says he’s very honoured by all the new adaptations of his book, and doesn’t like to over-analyze why it remains so popular.

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“I’m not trying to explain it and I don’t like to speak about it because I don’t want to destroy something that is so magical,” he said.

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