When Greystone Books and author Benoit Melancon released The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard in 2009, my first thought was "Wow, another Rocket Richard book?" Over the years has there been any other player so well documented in print? There have been some excellent works, but how many more books can there be that genuinely offer something new?
My early fears were quickly dismissed, as Melancon's book is definitely worthy of a place on any hockey fan's book shelf. In fact, the book has received international critical acclaim in both academic and popular circles.
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The book was first published in French only and released in Quebec back in 2006, almost unbeknown to the rest of Canada. The English version was translated by Fred A. Reed. There is a moving foreword by the eloquent Roy MacGregor and a touching afterword by the elegant Jean Beliveau.
Though the book is proving to be popular in academic settings, it is very much an enjoyable read. It would appeal to those interested more in Canadian culture than strictly hockey.
The book is an interesting blend of a few different forms. It is not a true biography, nor is it an academic dissertation. Even the glossy photos are different in this book. There are very few of Richard the hockey player, but rather of Richard as seen in newspapers and magazines, paintings and statues.
The text reads with a nice personal feel, yet it has a certain distance to it. It turns out the author is actually too young to have seen Maurice Richard play hockey. Instead he grew up with, and therefore making him an excellent candidate to explore, Rocket Richard the myth.
As such, there is a lot to learn about Rocket Richard courtesy of this book. That is because the beauty of Rocket Richard very much lies in perceptions and assumptions, myths and legends. As Melancon correctly suggests, "The Rocket of the Quebeckers and that of the Canadians are not the same."
The book is divided into three main sections. "The Icon" opens the book, and is an entertaining examination of Richard's rise to greatness on the ice and off of it. "The Riot" deals with the infamous 1955 suspension and resulting mayhem in a more academic tone. Finally "A Myth" is probably the most interesting and educational, tying together why exactly Rocket Richard truly was larger than life.
It is an excellent book, an early candidate as 2009's must read hockey book of the year.