Le Chandail -- The Hockey Sweater

Today my son skated the season's first 8:15 – 9:15 hockey practice. I knew it went well when he came off the ice smiling and asked if it had only lasted twenty minutes. What a change from last year, when I found just putting on his equipment challenging.

“Are your skates too tight? Too loose? Can you tell?”

Now, a veteran, I know to bring a thermal cup of coffee to the arena. The snack bar doesn’t open for early morning practices. The heaters over the stands don’t come on during practices either. I actually think they work on a lottery system.

In honour of “the game,” as hockey parents call it, I’m writing about Roch Carrier’s short story, "Le chandail." The National Film Board made an animated film based on this story featuring the art of Marcel Dargis.

I love to show Le Chandail to my French classes. Whether I show it in English, to younger children, or in the original French, it opens a window into Quebecois culture. To start, there is an excellent montage of rural landscapes, done in the styles of various French Canadian painters. For students, however, it’s the story that’s counts and this is one they can relate to.

It’s about rivalry in professional sports. It’s about being a fan and playing on a team. It’s about belonging. It's about heroes. Most of all it’s about being embarrassed by your mother. What kid can’t relate to that?

In the story, the boy has outgrown his hockey sweater. His adoring mother writes away to get him a nice new one from Eaton's department store. Her letter, very personal and directed to Monsieur Eaton himself, is hilarious.

When the package comes back containing a Toronto Maple Leaf hockey sweater, everybody laughs. The boy refuses to wear the sweater because every other boy in town wears the red, white and blue, just like their hero Rocket Richard. His mother does not want to offend Monsieur Eaton, so the boy must wear the sweater to the neighborhood rink.

The other players laugh and don't want him on the ice. Even the priest who officiates the games is against him. After all, Les Canadiens whip Toronto every time.

The charming, unhurried way which this film piles up the comic detail and popular painter Marcel Dargis’ gently satiric impressions of the villagers, draw viewers into a world and a culture that have virtually disappeared.

Today, when we think of French Canadian culture, we think urban. Modern Quebecois theatre, film and music come from a very different place than Roch Carrier’s close-knit village. For many of my students, urban Toronto represents their complete knowledge of Canadian culture. As the past informs the present, this classic film is a compelling introduction to help anglophone children discover another Canadian culture.

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