Now that Montreal has made it into the second round of the NHL playoffs, you might imagine Maurice (Rocket) Richard’s ghost is resting a little easier. You’d be wrong. One look into the menacing eyes on the life-size cut-out of the Rocket that’s now greeting visitors to the Canadian Museum of Civilization leaves no doubt that the legendary forward would accept nothing short of the Stanley Cup. Richard won eight in his 18 seasons with the Canadiens. The Gatineau, Que., museum’s exhibition, “Rocket”Richard: The Legend—The Legacy (running through February 2005), includes plenty of sports memorabilia documenting that record-shattering career, including a display highlighting every single significant goal of the 626 he scored for les glorieux before retiring in 1960.
The real heart of the show, though, is its exploration of Richard’s impact not on the ice, but on Canadian popular culture, especially as a folk hero to French Canadians. As the uproar over the Todd Bertuzzi incident proved, hockey can still spark national debate. Yet it’s hard to imagine an episode today as freighted with meaning as the 1955 Montreal riot after NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for hitting a linesman. The street protests came to be seen as an early sign of the deeper discontent that blossomed into Quebec’s Quiet Revolution a few years later. One post-riot artifact in the museum’s display cases: a can of Rocket Richard tomato soup, marketed as an alternative for those no longer willing to buy the Campbell’s brand (even though the vilified NHL boss had no family link to the famous soup-maker).
Sheldon Posen, the exhibition’s curator, reaches for a baseball analogy to capture the way Richard, who died in 2000, embodied both athletic achievement and cultural significance: “It’s as if Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson were the same guy.” And like Ruth or Robinson for Americans, Richard’s iconic status shows no sign of fading in Canada. His famous No. 9 is worn by a girl playing shinny on the new five dollar bill. Shania Twain sported a midriff-exposing update at last year’s Junos; she loaned it to the museum for the show. The genuine article is on display, too: Rocket’s last game sweater sits in a glass case at the end of the display. He’d had a tear in the left shoulder mended, a tiny final reminder that Maurice Richard played hard. JOHN GEDDES
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