Why “The Hockey Sweater” Is Canada’s Answer to A Christmas Story

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 31 2013 8:00 AM

Why “The Hockey Sweater” Is Canada’s Answer to A Christmas Story

hockey_sweater
A still from the 1980 animated version of "The Hockey Sweater"

National Film Board of Canada/YouTube

When the Toronto Maple Leafs face off against the Detroit Red Wings before the largest crowd ever assembled for an NHL game, all eyes will be on the jerseys. Amid the avalanche of promotional tie-ins for the annual Winter Classic, it’s always the retro jerseys (or “throwbacks,” to use an already tired expression) that catch the fair-weather fan’s eye and spark sales at souvenir stands. For this year’s customized look, Toronto reached back to the 1930s for inspiration, resulting in additional piping and a scruffier leaf on the crest; Detroit’s more genteel winged wheel evokes the sheen of the 1920s.

Devout hockey fans, particularly those north of the border, are acutely aware of the subtleties of knit-picking jerseys, sometimes down to the use of the word itself. In The Greatest Jerseys of All Time, a collector’s edition published by The Hockey News in 2009, essayist Ken Campbell, still seething that his employer prints the Americanized spellings of words like “centre” and “misdemeanour,” reserves his most potent criticism for uniforms. “Jerseys?” Campbell writes. “Since when do hockey players wear jerseys? The fact is, hockey players have been wearing sweaters since the days they played outside and clubbed each other over the head with crooked tree limbs.” True, sweaters were borne of necessity—they were made from wool, the only natural material that kept players warm when wet—back when the game was played outdoors and referees used handbells to stop play instead of whistles. Modern jerseys are made of synthetic materials like polyester, so “sweater” seems a bit steeped in nostalgia. The Montreal Canadiens were the last team to wear wool sweaters, in the 1970–1 season, a decade after Maurice “Rocket” Richard, their firebrand leader (and one-time newspaper columnist who, like Campbell, vented his views in the press), had retired.

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Nowhere is hockey iconography explored more elegiacally than in Roch Carrier’s short story “The Hockey Sweater.” Considered a national treasure since its publication in 1979, Carrier’s tale transports the reader to the carefree winter of 1946, when he lived in a small village in Quebec, skating alongside childhood friends, all of whom emulate the great Rocket Richard (pronounced REE-shard). The boys comb their hair like Richard and use “hair glue” to keep it in place. They save Richard newspaper clippings and pore over his statistics. But most importantly, they all wear the mandatory “costume”: Richard’s red and blue Canadiens sweater “with the famous number 9 on our backs.” In time, Carrier outgrows his sweater. His mother, fearing the family will look poor if he’s seen in threadbare clothing, orders a replacement from the Eaton’s catalogue. When the package arrives Carrier discovers, to his horror, that his francophone mother, who fumbled her way through the English-language catalogue, accidentally ordered “the blue and white sweater of the Toronto Maple Leafs.” Unfazed by his tears of protest, Carrier’s mother insists he give the sweater a try. His first public appearance wearing the colors of Montreal’s archrivals draws the ire of his compatriots, as feared.

The Canadiens uniforms are perhaps the most iconic in all of North American sports, anchored by a simple C-shaped crest that has outlasted those of its ancestors—the Wanderers, the Maroons—to become the predominant symbol of the city that gave rise to the NHL. (This season, the Canadiens added another layer of mystique when they became the first professional team to include all accents and diacritical marks in players’ surnames on their uniforms. It was a decision based more in accuracy than defiance, the team’s equipment manager insists.)

Because Carrier so gracefully renders the allure of childhood allegiances to teams and idols, his story remains stitched into the fabric of Canadian culture, a story passed down through generations. When new Canadian $5 notes were issued in 2001, a quote from “The Hockey Sweater” appeared on the back of the bill: “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.” The quote, presented bilingually in French and English, appears beside an image of pint-sized pond skaters, including a boy in a sweater emblazoned with No. 9, no doubt a shout-out to Richard.

Like polyester replacing wool, cotton bills have been replaced by polymer, primarily to thwart counterfeiters. When the new $5 bills were issued in November, Carrier’s popular hockey scene was replaced by an image of an astronaut spacewalking beside the Canadarm2 robotic arm, the country’s greatest contribution to the International Space Station. Some feel as if the treasurer ordered the wrong replacement from the Eaton’s catalog, though it’s worth noting that the first Canadian in outer space, Marc Garneau, brought a hockey stick and puck along with him on the journey. Maybe there’s a puck in that spacesuit? Besides, the hockey galaxy knows no bounds.

I travel to Canada frequently to visit in-laws in Edmonton, and I’ve grown accustomed to navigating this same hockey-crazed terrain. Touching down last week for Christmas, my first encounter at the airport was with 20 or so silver-faced mannequins in Oilers jerseys lining the rink-shaped luggage carousel. The mock scoreboard nearby displayed the Oilers’ permanent edge against the dreaded provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames, though the Battle of Alberta, like the Canadiens-Leafs rivalry, has somewhat fizzled over time. In the intermission report of a low-scoring snooze between the Oilers and Flames on Dec. 27, commentators moaned about the lack of fireworks. Meanwhile, millions of Canadians were banding together to watch the World Juniors tournament, cheering on the hometown boys a world away. Adding a festive twist, a cartoon in the Edmonton Sun depicted the North Pole’s primary resident unwinding in front of a TV broadcasting the tournament, offering further evidence that Santa Claus is actually Canadian.   

Before returning to the States the next afternoon, my family drifted into the duty-free shop at the airport. While my son ogled an autographed Wayne Gretzky jersey, the crown jewel of the store, I purchased what might be the most unabashedly nationalistic product ever made: a life-sized glass ice skate filled with Canadian whiskey. Later, as my wife stuffed my son and his octopus arms brimming with Christmas knickknacks into a seat while boarding, I delicately positioned my precious cargo in the overhead compartment, realizing I was morphing into the dad from A Christmas Story who selfishly fawns over his leg-shaped lamp while his wife does all the work.

In retrospect, Jean Shepard’s cautionary tale about obsessing over bizarre keepsakes—a leg lamp, an eyeball-popping BB gun—is perhaps the closest American analogue to Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater.” In the end, both stories are about family togetherness, even when symbols of affection go awry. In what is perhaps the most poetic conclusion to a story about mothers and sons, the boy in “The Hockey Sweater,” who at no point defies his mother’s foolish miscalculation by condemning the sweater to the trashcan, instead secretly pines for divine intervention, praying to God to send, “right away, a hundred million moths that would eat my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.”

But don’t just take my word for it. Before tuning in to watch the Leafs at the Winter Classic, pour yourself some whisky from a glass skate and enjoy the majesty of Carrier’s prose, as narrated by the author himself in a fantastic animated short created by the esteemed National Film Board of Canada. The film’s outsized heart fits all.