The Rocket's hockey sweater


1959 Stanley Cup finals Maurice Richard Montreal Canadiens' game jersey. This jersey was worn by The Rocket towards the end of his career and during a five-year Stanley Cup winning streak. Richard was known to be a fierce competitor, and this jersey has the scars to prove it, with 15 to 20 repair spots, as well as sweat stains around the neck and armpits. CMC 2002.81.44
Photo: Claude and Stephane Juteau; photo montage by Harry Foster.

The hockey sweater that once belonged to the legendary Maurice "The Rocket" Richard of the Montreal Canadiens recalls the days when professional hockey began supplying national heroes – days when we longed to buy a piece of that magic from the pages of a mail order catalogue. The marketing power of mail order catalogues was arguably an integral part of the process which gave hockey such prominence in the Canadian psyche.

1959 Stanley Cup championship photograph

This color photograph dates from the 1959 season and features Maurice Richard holding the Stanley Cup after his fourth consecutive championship. He is shown wearing the jersey in the Canadian Museum of Civilization's Maurice "Rocket" Richard collection. CMC 2002.H0017 #246.
Photo: Alain Brouillard.

One of the key challenges for hockey, since the creation of the National Hockey League in 1917, has been to maintain public interest in the game – and in a particular team if not home team. It helped that games were soon being broadcast live by radio, and that press stories about individual games and individual players became a frequent feature of newspapers and magazines. The single most powerful means of selling hockey, however, was the introduction of the star system. Beginning in the 1930s, names like King Clancy of the Ottawa Senators (and eventually Toronto), Syl Apps of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and later, Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens became household names. And every kid playing hockey on and off the ice wanted to be just like them.

Mail order catalogue
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Various clothing with the signature of Maurice Richard. Dupuis Frères catalogue, mid-winter 1951-52, rear of order form. National Archives of Canada.

It wasn't long before NHL team sweaters began appearing in the pages of mail order catalogues. Dupuis Frères began featuring Canadiens and Montreal Maroons sweaters as far back as the 1920s, and by the mid-1930s, Eaton's was selling individual numbers to personalize any one of a number of hockey sweaters on offer. Simpson's offered hockey sweaters in just about any combination of team colours. By 1941, Eaton's could confidently state, "Every Canadian boy has his idol in the N.H.L. and wants to have a sweater to represent his favourite team or player."

The relationship between hockey and mail order was mutually beneficial. While helping to boost mail order profits, the sale of hockey sweaters in turn helped to sell the game of hockey to the Canadian public. Players were soon being recruited to endorse catalogue offerings from sticks to skates. These were among the first organized sports endorsements in Canadian history, and although catalogue companies used this marketing ploy less and less after the 1950s, it was a practice which was picked up by the manufacturers themselves – and one which is still going strong today.

1949 Maurice Richard All-Star hockey jersey

This hockey uniform was worn by Maurice "Rocket" Richard during the 1949 All-Star game held in Toronto, Ontario. The Rocket was named eight times to the National Hockey League's first All-Star team and six times to the second. He participated in 13 consecutive NHL All-Star contests. CMC 2002.81.43.
Photo: Claude and Stephane Juteau; photo montage by Harry Foster.

As novelist Roch Carrier recalls in The Hockey Sweater, one of his best-known books:

"I remember very well the winter of 1946. We all wore the same uniform as Maurice Richard... We all combed our hair like Maurice Richard.... We laced our skates like Maurice Richard, we taped our sticks like Maurice Richard. We cut his pictures out of all the newspapers... On the ice... we were five Maurice Richards against five other Maurice Richards... We were ten players all wearing the uniform of the Montreal Canadian, all with the same burning enthusiasm. We all wore the famous number 9 on our backs. How could we forget that?"

There is no doubt that hockey stars like The Rocket earned their celebrity through their feats on the ice. However, there is equally little doubt that, without the early marketing clout of mail order, hockey might never have become a national icon.