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  • Wednesday, May 31, 2000

    I can't borrow the memories

    Toronto Sun

    I wish I could feel some of the emotions so many Canadians are experiencing over the passing of hockey legend Maurice Richard.

    I wish I could experience just a little of it myself.

    On my television screen, teenagers are crying. On my radio, people in their 20s and 30s are telling stories of what Rocket Richard meant to them. I watch this and hear this and I wonder about the sadness and sincerity of it all -- and how I somehow missed all this.

    How they, in having never seen Richard play, in never experiencing his magic, in not living through his era, can have those deep feelings and connections that I do not feel now.

    Maurice Richard retired from hockey in the spring of 1960 not long after my third birthday. To have seen him play at his best, to have listened to his game on radio or watched him on a black-and-white television, is to be at least 50 years old today, and quite likely older than that.

    In other words, most of us never saw him. Most of us know Richard from his name, from his records, from how others have spoken about him, from blurry video replays that seem so slow, but not from our own experiences.

    To me, the best of memories are the most personal; they come from sights and sounds and smells and tastes and time and circumstance. You hear an old song, it brings with it a feeling. You taste something and it takes you back to something your mother used to make. But as I watch and appreciate the footage and specials and all the news clips about Richard's astounding hockey career, in a way it is like seeing all this for the very first time.

    This may not have been your experience. I grew up in Ontario, as a Maple Leaf fan: This was mine.

    As I watched the news the other night and listened to the voices from Richard's time -- from Red Kelly, Dick Irvin, the play-by-play of Foster Hewitt -- it was not like saying goodbye to a legend. It was almost like being introduced to the stories.

    Sure, the details of 50 goals in 50 games were told before and sure, the footage of the Montreal riot over Richard's suspension in 1955 was familiar, but all the other anecdotes seemed like a new chapter unfolding in a book.

    My own connections with Rocket Richard were scant. There was the television commercial in which he sold Grecian Formula, the stuff that is supposed to take your grey away. There was an oldtimers' game many years ago in Calgary that he refereed in and afterwards when approached by a reporter, didn't want to talk. There was his part, however distant, in the early 1980s, when Mike Bossy became the second player to score 50 goals in 50 games and the season right after that, Wayne Gretzky managed the uncanny, scoring 50 in just 39 games. Richard was the connection to those events, but not the central figure. He didn't want to be the central figure when he wasn't playing. That was never his way.

    Other than those goal chases, my only connection to Richard was through other people's stories. My dad would tell about the legendary strength of Richard, especially after he heard someone like Mario Lemieux or Brett Hull complaining about too much interference in hockey. "Rocket,'' my father said, "wouldn't care who was holding onto him. He could score goals with players holding both of his arms.''

    The way any legend could.

    The hockey legends of my youth were named Jean Beliveau and Davey Keon and Frank Mahovlich and Glenn Hall and Johnny Bower. None of their funerals will be televised coast-to-coast. Each of them, and many others, left behind images I walk with every day. They played hockey and, aside from Beliveau, none of them became a political symbol for an entire generation.

    Rocket Richard scored 50 goals at a time when that number seemed implausible, like Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs. Richard had his miraculous season when a world war was being fought, when diversions were needed more than ever before, when he became a lasting hero to a Quebec audience and a figure of political significance that he was reportedly uncomfortable being.

    The last time I saw Maurice Richard was during the week of the all-star game in Toronto last February. He was at a reception where a stamp was being introduced with his picture on it. Even the other celebrities in attendance, former hockey stars like Bobby Orr, were excited by his presence.

    I watched the way they watched him and I wished that day that I had just one memory of Rocket Richard to hold onto.

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