Few stories are dearer to the Canadian heart than Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater. The classic children’s story, first published 33 years ago, has come to symbolize our love for The Game, as well as the cultural divide between French and English Canada.
Its place in Canadian history has been enshrined on the back of the $5 bill where its opening lines are proudly displayed in both official languages.
“The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places — the school, the church and the skating rink — but our life was on the skating rink.”
So when Dundas composer Abigail Richardson was commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to write music to the story, she fully understood the gravity of the situation.
Carrier’s story tells of the Leafs-Canadiens rivalry through the eyes of a 10-year-old child growing up in postwar rural Quebec. While Richardson is not a fan of the Maple Leafs or the Canadiens, she knows the meaning of the hockey rivalry.
“When I was a kid growing up in Bragg Creek, Alta., I used to play pond hockey in my figure skates,” Richardson, 35, explains. “I remember the rivalry between Lanny McDonald and Wayne Gretzky. We were Calgary fans, and all my friends would all boo when Gretzky stepped on the ice.”
Richardson, who has lived in Dundas for eight years, spent some six months composing the 25-minute score to The Hockey Sweater.
On May 12, Richardson’s Hockey Sweater will receive its official debut in a TSO performance at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, with Alain Trudel conducting, former Canadiens goaltending great Ken Dryden hosting and the 74-year-old author, Carrier providing the narration.
Several hundred Toronto elementary schoolchildren gathered at Roy Thomson Hall Wednesday for a special preview.
It was a hit. They booed, groaned and cheered at all the appropriate moments, while the teachers laughed at musical jokes only adults would understand.
Richardson’s music expressed the joy of a Quebec boy awaiting a new mail-order hockey jersey and the ultimate humiliation at the discovery that it bore the blue and white insignia of the dreaded Maple Leafs.
“It’s what I was hoping for,” said Richardson, newly appointed composer in residence for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. “My job was to interpret it for them, to bring it to life.”
After the preview, Carrier admitted he was a bit concerned when he heard that the relatively young Dundas composer had been commissioned to provide a symphonic soundtrack to his most important work.
“I didn’t want to have bombastic sport music,” Carrier told The Spectator. “I didn’t want it, and I didn’t get that. (Richardson’s) music is so sublime — structured yet full of subtlety.”
Last summer, Carrier and Richardson met for the first time in Toronto. He listened to some of the themes she was working on and then invited her to his hometown of Sainte-Justine, Que. — the setting for the famous story. He showed her the house where he was raised, the outdoor rink where he played (yes, it still stands) and the church where he prayed for “a hundred million moths” to eat the Maple Leafs jersey. She even played the church’s organ and rang its bells.
“It’s not just a story,” Richardson says. “It’s his life. I couldn’t believe it. All the places are real, just like the illustrations in the book …
“We talked for hours about his life and how he communicates, the pace of his storytelling. By getting to know him and his style, I felt I could replicate it.”
By the reaction of Wednesday’s audience, Richardson did her work well.
“The music added something to the story,” said 10-year-old Liam Boyes of Williamson Road Junior Public School in Toronto’s Beaches. “It added drama and feeling.”