QUEBEC CITY – It’s all about the eyes.
Without actor Roy Dupuis’s ability to conjure up the intense, coal-black stare that was Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s on-ice trademark, the 2005 movie The Rocket just wouldn’t have worked. But remarkably, despite taking on the role in his early 40’s, Dupuis succeeds in conveying the timeless passion of the legendary Montreal Canadiens right wing in his 1940’s and 1950’s heyday. This 124-minute flick is one of the best sports movies ever made.
And as the province of Quebec hosts the IIHF World Championship for the first time ever, the recently released DVD version from Palm Pictures also offers a potent reminder of just how much hockey has always meant to French-Canadians, especially back then.
Imagine a world without 24-hour sports TV channels, radio talk shows, and Internet message boards, where millions of fans were nonetheless completely consumed with the exploits of their hockey hero. That was reality for the “Rocket,” whose 544 regular-season goals and 82 playoff tallies were treated like cultural touchstones for Quebeckers, struggling to find their voice under the Anglo-dominated corporate establishment and the conservative reign of Premier Maurice Duplessis. In this staunchly Catholic milieu, Richard was an icon, central to the culture, arguably as popular as the Pope.
Directed by Charles Binamé, the movie’s narrative is framed by the 1955 Richard Riot, which ravaged downtown Montreal after NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended the forward for the rest of the season and playoffs after a stick-swinging incident with Boston’s Hal Laycoe. But we also see Richard at his best, skating in slo-mo with “Babe” Siebert draped over his back to score a legendary goal, or powering bloody-faced toward Boston goalie “Sugar Jim” Henry to notch the OT winner in the 1952 semi-finals.
In starkly lit scenes, the director reveals the fascinating contradictions of Richard’s personality. We see the thought-to-be-too-fragile prospect, who ultimately played 978 NHL games and won eight Stanley Cups, having his future debated by Frank Selke (Tony Calabretta) and Dick Irvin (Stephen McHattie). We witness the famously taciturn Richard venting his frustrations with officials and league executives in a weekly newspaper column.
Attention to period detail makes The Rocket captivating, from the ubiquitous fedoras on coaches and journalists to the noise and clutter of a Quebec factory machinist’s life. Even the casting of Sean Avery as Bob “Killer” Dill, the New York Rangers goon who miserably failed in an attempt to intimidate Richard, is perfect.
The last word on the man himself goes to Mike Ricci, who plays Richard’s linemate Elmer Lach here. “His legend will never die,” says Ricci in an accompanying DVD documentary.
Indeed, The Rocket demonstrates that the spirit, style, and passion you bring to the game of hockey can be just as important and memorable in the big picture as the raw results. And that’s something we’ve witnessed time and again at the IIHF World Championship, from the amazing 1987 Tre Kronor goal versus the Soviets where all five Swedish skaters touched the puck to Rick Nash’s clinching breakaway versus Finland last year.