Maurice Richard: Blood on the ice

Blood on the ice

Dupuis as Rocket Richard: "He was a complex man, Maurice"

Rocket biopic colours history

Maurice Richard bled Canadiens red. And in the much anticipated eponymous biopic of the Habs legend from director Charles Binamé (Séraphin), there are long, loving shots of his rich crimson staining the crisp white of the Forum ice and la sainte flanelle alike.

The red stands out because Maurice Richard is a dark and moody film, part sports-idol biography, part political documentary of 1940s and ’50s Montreal. History buffs will love the grainy black-and-white period shots of the city and its tramways, newspaper hawkers and the sea of fedoras crowding Ste-Catherine Street.

The politics of the time are equally black and white. We are introduced to the future Rocket (or "la comète" as he was initially known) as a doe-eyed 17-year-old rushing from his grinding job at a machine shop to the championship game at an outdoor rink because his evil anglophone boss kept him late as punishment for not stooling on a union activist.

Political issues pursued Richard throughout his career. Fuelled by the passion they watched Richard display on ice, the downtrodden Canadiens Français – yet to be Québécois – projected their hopes and dreams onto the Rocket, who was torn between his desire to play hockey, pur et simple, and the pressure to give voice to an emerging nationalism. Maurice Richard, the film, is equally torn between these poles.

The movie works best when it simply tells the story of how the legend of the Rocket was born, from his first kiss to (barely) making the big club, to being named third, second and first star after a five-goal game.

Richard, as played by Roy Dupuis, is famously mute, preferring to let his play speak for him. Asked in English by a reporter for his reaction after surpassing Roy Malone’s NHL single-season scoring record (44), Richard responds with a story-killing quote: "It is good."

Later, on the train back to Montreal, Richard is teased by teammates about his horrible English interview skills. He suffers a telling blow from Habs defenceman Butch Bouchard (Patrice Robitaille): "He’s no better in French."

Richard finally chose to speak out against the bigotry of the league and its commissioner, Clarence Campbell, and as a result Richard became a lightning rod. At this juncture, Habs coach Dick Irvin Sr. (Stephen McHattie, of TV’s Cold Case) plays a vital role. He exploits the "Frenchie" epithets of the anglophone press to inspire his players, especially Richard. But when the political fires burn too hot, he counsels his star player to cool down and apologize for blasting Campbell in print: "You’re a hockey player. Play hockey!"

The pressure of being a target both on the ice and off is almost too much for Richard, and Binamé’s lens zooms in close on his emotional struggles. Conversely, he treats the famous Richard riot, which in the film occurs shortly after Richard has a locker-room breakdown, almost as an afterthought. The focus here is sharp when it stays tight and personal; it gets fuzzier on the wide-angle sociological portrayal of cultural and political ferment.

More than 50 years later, language still bedevils this city, and Habs hockey still fires us up – that’s why Richard is such a durable symbol. His state funeral at the Montreal Forum five years ago testifies to this. He was always more than a simple hockey player, whether he willingly accepted this expanded public role or not.

Maurice Richard poured his heart out for this city, in French and English. His passion added Habs red to the mid-20th century, which history, all too often, imagines in black and white. (Lyle Stewart)

Maurice Richard

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Roy on the Rocket

In this province, Roy Dupuis is as iconic as you get. He’s the personification of maleness in more Quebec films than I can list. He’s perceived as a brooder, a deep dude, a silent type who only rarely comes out of his shell. The choice couldn’t have been more astute, then, to cast Dupuis as Richard, the only man in Quebec history to outdo him both in acclaim and intensity.

Roy Dupuis He was a complex man, Maurice. It’s a film that is important to me. It has historical importance, but also personal importance, since I knew Maurice Richard.

Hour I didn’t realize you’d known him…

Dupuis Yes, I’d met him during the shooting of the television series [in which I also played him], and we’d pretty much become buddies. We really liked each other. It was a beautiful encounter.

Hour Was the political aspect of his statement important to you? In other words, are you proud to have worked on a film that made that statement?

Dupuis Well, it certainly is part of the character – you can’t talk about Maurice without talking about what he represented for his people. Maurice was a public figure. Maurice was an icon, a man who practically involuntarily participated in the awakening of a people. He was also a product of that people, who had himself lived its injustices, and it’s clear that it’s something that was very much part of his character. He’s someone who always fought injustice, on the level of hockey, because that was his domain, but at the same time what I find beautiful and important about the story is that it goes beyond sport.

Hour Do you think it will also go beyond Quebec? Do you think people in English Canada might be defensive about the statement the film makes?

Dupuis It certainly risks provoking reactions, but you can say what you want, it’s part of reality – in my mind, it’s fair. That was the situation for the little French Canadians at the time. They weren’t masters of their own domain. They weren’t bosses of their own domain; their bosses were the anglos.

Hour Have you ever experienced that yourself, in your own life?

Dupuis Not really… I lived a bit in Northern Ontario, but then again, you’re in Ontario, so it’s normal. But I’ve never really believed in a bilingual Canada. Bilingual Canada, in fact, is Quebec [laughs]. For the rest, sure, there are francophones here and there, but it’s a bit of an illusion. Anyway, they can refute all they want, I think that everything that’s in the film is fair.

Hour In fact, most of the big moments in the film are inspired from archives, from moments captured on film and on screens all over the country. What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role?

Dupuis Most of my work was grasping the energy of that man, understanding it and feeling it. He’s someone I think I grasped pretty fast, pretty easily. I also had access to all sorts of archival footage, written documents, photographs.

When I was approached for the TV series a while ago, before he died, I didn’t know Maurice Richard. He wasn’t a hero of mine – I’m not at all of that generation. So you see that that’s the importance of making a film like this, to show the impact that this man had on the history of Quebec, mainly, and on hockey for English Canada. Because you see it in the film, that he was loved in English Canada as a great hockey player. But for French Canadians, there was a whole other dimension – the one of an injustice, of a frustration, that resulted in the Quiet Revolution. (Isa Tousignant)

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