By Meaghan Brackenbury
Within the zeitgeist of small Canadian towns, hockey culture is present and persistent in every aspect of life. Kids, parents, and community members alike all speak the same sporty language, punctuated by rituals: school days are to be used for studying, weeknights are spent practicing on the rink, and Saturday nights are strictly reserved for the holy grail of professional sports – Hockey Night in Canada. It is this culture that has shaped the minds, hearts, and lives of those who dream about the ice as they sleep.
Roch Carrier’s classic tale “The Hockey Sweater”, first published in 1979 as a children’s book, then reimagined as a popular animated short a year later, illustrated these time-honoured traditions with the same vigour and deference that millions of people across the country exude. The book was written during the 1980s when Francophone-Anglophone tensions were at an all-time high in the country. So, when a fictionalized version of young Carrier, a Montreal Canadians devotee and Maurice “The Rocket” Richard super-fan, gets a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater by accident, the resulting crisis of conscience has had Canadians – young or old, French or English, hockey fan or otherwise – gasping in sympathy for almost 40 years.
The NAC’s staging of the new musical version is nothing short of a festive and incredibly nostalgic celebration of the story, legends, and customs we’ve all come to know so well. From the opening number where a team of kids, all dressed in Habs jerseys and wearing roller blades as “skates’, come roaring onto the stage, to the dreaded scene when 10-year-old Roch opens up his long-awaited package to find a maple leaf, to the final number with the whole town singing and cheering for the sport, the show had the audience clapping and cheering along as the protagonist navigates the challenges of having the wrong sweater. The dialogue was almost tongue in cheek, seemingly winking at the audience and taking full advantage of the story’s familiarity. Simple sets allowed focus to remain on the action, and hockey cards of Richard and background illustrations similar to the book gave it an extra edge of sentimentality.
Far and away, the stars of the show were the eight children who make up the hockey team at the center of the story. Every time they came on stage, the audience fairly melted with delight as they danced, skipped, and skated around the stage. Not only were they all charismatic and spirited, but their immense talent is undeniable. A stand out tune towards the beginning is “We Stick Together”, where the kids sing, dance, and play to the crowd in an incredibly fun number about teamwork that is sure to stick in heads. Wyatt Moss, who plays young Roch, carries the show with exactly the sort of energy and zeal you would expect of a young kid dedicated to the ice, and he effortlessly brings us all along with him through his trials and tribulations as a young fan in the midst of catastrophe.
A pleasant surprise was the purposeful diversification of the cast. While the book showed only young boys on Carrier’s hockey team, the stage rendition included four girls, as well as two children of colour. Young Ginette, played by Jaimie MacLean with impressive vocal chops, even sings a small solo about the conflict she feels between her parents’ wishes for her to be a housewife and her love of the game. These additional narrative nuggets in no way detract from the original story’s iconic status, and instead, they act as a testament to the fact that the wonder of classic tales will not be lost if they are updated to be more inclusive. Indeed, they are now even stronger, touching our heartstrings while challenging any long-standing perspectives we may have had.
The first half of the show, in which most of the storyline from Carrier’s original book is played out, is notably better than the second. Without the source material to prop up the musical numbers and dialogue, the play starts to drag its feet towards the end. Songs started to bleed together instead of delivering the same snappy punch they did at the beginning. However, the insatiable enthusiasm of the cast, the fast-paced choreography, and the spirit of the culminating hockey game keep the optimism and charm from ever drooping too far below an excitable level.
In a second run after the show’s official debut in Montreal last year, “The Hockey Sweater” at the NAC is an incredibly entertaining and engaging show for anyone who has ever laced up their skates on a cold winter’s day with a hockey stick in one hand and a puck in the other. It offers some audience members a chance to skate down memory lane as this classic tale is awash with new life, and it provides others with a doorway into one of this country’s most beloved stories. It also rings with questions of belonging, and the true meaning of sportsmanship and courage in the face of what may seem to be impossible adversity, no matter how big or small. As director Donna Feore says in her note to the audience, “In a musical, when you can no longer speak, you sing, when you can no longer sing, you dance, and now when you dance, you skate too.” This production is sure to leave audiences with a smile on their face and a sudden desire to hit their local rink.
The Hockey Sweater: A Musical
Book and Lyrics by Emil Sher
Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Monro
Based on the original short story “The Hockey Sweater” by Roch Carrier
Directed and Choreographed by Donna Feore
NAC English Theatre Presentation
Featuring: Wyatt Moss, Claire Lautier, Ian Simpson, Richard Jutras, Scott Beaudin, Kate Blackburn, Andréane Bouladier, Omar Forrest, Evangelia Kambites, Brandon Howard Roy, Jaime MacLean, Oliver Neudorf, Zoë Brown, Lucas Kalechstein, Shechinah Mpumlwana, Isabella Stuebing, Liam Wignall
Band: Jonathan Monro, Nick Burgess, Vanessa Marcoux, Beth McKenna, Frédéric Bourgeault, Jason Field, Peter Colantonio
Meaghan Brackenbury is currently a Journalism and Human Rights student at Carleton University in Ottawa, ON. She loves all things reading, writing, and drama related, which makes theatre criticism the perfect fit. In the future, she hopes to continue writing and watching theatre while traveling the globe. You can check out more of Meaghan’s writing here.