Once upon a time there was a great champion – strong, skilled, determined, fierce. He was feared and respected by allies and adversaries alike. Young boys idolized him, as he won victories and earned honors. He left the arena to applause. And then he got a job selling widgets on TV. The boys who had admired him, now grown men, wonder what happened to their hero.
In 1955 Sports Illustrated somehow convinced celebrated author and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner to report on a hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens. In the resulting article, “An Innocent at Rinkside,” Faulkner famously described Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard as exhibiting “the passionate glittering fatal alien quality of snakes.” Faulkner’s resonant description of Richard as a creature of primal athletic drive and animalistic determination is a far cry from the picture painted only 11 years later in a Heathkit radio advertisement in the October 1966 edition of Saturday Night magazine. The ad depicted Richard several years into retirement from hockey and seemingly occupied by a new hobby: assembling his own Heathkit radio. As the first paragraph of ad copy puts it,
“The last time this man was so pleased with himself was on March 23, 1944. That was the night Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard scored five goals in one NHL playoff game. This time he has just finished building a 30-watt solid-state stereo receiver. By himself.”
I showed this ad and several others during a conference presentation a few years ago on hockey-themed advertising in the NHL’s Original Six era. During question period one of my fellow hockey scholars, Brian Kennedy, professed his disdain for the Heathkit ad in particular. Wasn’t there something sad, even pathetic, he asked, about seeing Rocket Richard reduced to hawking radios? Surely scoring five goals in a playoff game outstrips the accomplishment of assembling one’s own radio. How can these things even be registered on the same scale? Richard is the man whose suspension for hitting a linesman incited riots in the streets of Montreal. He’s the player whose fire and intensity (it has been argued) inspired Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. The Rocket led his team to an unprecedented five consecutive Stanley Cups. He was the first NHL player to score 500 goals. And now we’re asked to believe that his incredible passion and intensity have been satisfactorily channeled, in retirement, into assembling some stupid radio?
It’s well known that the Rocket had no qualms about lending his name to a wide variety of products (see Benoit Melançon’s cultural history on Richard for a seemingly exhaustive catalogue of Rocket-approved goods). In this way he could certainly be said to foreshadow today’s endorsement-driven hockey celebrities. But something about the Heathkit ad in particular struck Kennedy as being too much. Although his comment resonated with me – who doesn’t hate seeing greatness diminished? – the sentiment didn’t really hit home until the beginning of last year’s NHL season, when Canadian hockey broadcasts started carrying ads featuring Mark Messier promoting the new NHL GameCentre subscription service (see the ads here and here).
Like Richard for the generation of Quebecois kids growing up in the 1940s and 50s, Messier was a larger-than-life figure for me during my formative years. I was an ardent Edmonton Oilers fan during the dynasty years of the mid-1980s, and I cheered for Messier more out of awe or fear than the kind of affectionate devotion I felt for Wayne Gretzky or Jari Kurri. On the ice Messier was tough and dirty, lots of elbows and cheap shots from behind. If I had to summarize how I felt about Messier back then, I don’t think I could do better than to borrow Faulkner’s enigmatic description of Richard: like the Rocket, Messier conjured “the passionate glittering fatal alien quality of snakes.”
Messier projected levels of intensity that, at a young age, I perceived to be borderline psychotic (although I wouldn’t have used those words at the time). Hockey cards all depicted him as stoic, serious, or scowling, and the only time he ever seemed to be happy was when he was hoisting the Stanley Cup. Messier did this six times throughout his career, the last of which was with the New York Rangers in 1994. By this point in Messier’s career I was a sports-playing teenager myself. I remember being awestruck by his audacity, self-confidence, and determination when he publicly guaranteed a Rangers victory in Game 6 of the final series. I couldn’t even imagine guaranteeing victory in a game of pickup hockey. But there was Messier, like Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series, calling his shot and then delivering on the biggest stage imaginable. Messier scored a hat trick in that sixth game, with the Rangers gaining the series-equalizing win, and then he scored the deciding goal in the final game of the series.
Fast-forward to September 2014 and there was Messier again, smiling overenthusiastically in the GameCentre ads about the fact that people can now stream out-of-market NHL games to their phones. His leather jacket and black t-shirt – no doubt a deliberate costume choice designed to signify toughness – were a pathetic vestige of his former self, throwing into relief the anodyne banality of the ads.[i] Like Rocket Richard, Messier had no reservations about endorsing consumer products during and after his hockey career. But his famous “bet you can’t eat just one” promotions for Lay’s Potato Chips (examples here and here) traded light-heartedly on his tough guy image and therefore seemed somewhat in keeping with my perception of Messier as an undomesticated creature of pure hockey id.
For both Messier and Richard, the specific advertisements in question feel like an affront because they appear to diminish or extinguish their subjects’ intensity. Snakes don’t build radios or smile stupidly about out-of-market streaming services. Even in old age, snakes remain in the wilderness and are animated by instinct, primal motivation, and inexplicable drive. While affable hockey heroes such as Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr seemed to naturally morph into easy-going elder-statesmen of the game, this persona doesn’t fit as comfortably on the Messiers and Richards of the hockey world. Like Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I want Messier to continue being who he always seemed to be, to scowl and promise that “man is not made for defeat.”
There is no doubt that the problem lies with me rather than Messier. Why shouldn’t Messier be able to redefine himself in retirement? Why should on-ice intensity be somehow antithetical to off-ice approachability? And why should deviation from Messier’s persona, more than others, feel like a betrayal? Canadian hockey novels are filled with cautionary tales about players who don’t cope well when their aging bodies can no longer match their competitive drives. Maybe retirement should be about becoming what you’re not –“old men ought to be explorers” and all that, to quote T.S. Eliot from East Coker.[ii] Perhaps on-air beaming about out-of-market streaming is the best thing Messier could do for his own happiness and mental health. Still, as unreasonable as this sounds, I can’t help but feel that only one version is true: that the Messier who promises victory and delivers is the real thing, while the Messier who grins at the camera in his leather jacket is a sad and diminished creature, something akin to an animal in captivity.
Roland Barthes has suggested that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but its destination.” Clearly the image I’ve constructed of Messier flattens his complicated constellation of human traits into a few heightened attributes which – in a far less totalizing way – I admire, aspire to, or somehow need. My perception of Messier as unrelentingly tough and preternaturally determined serves my desire to be this way myself, but only selectively, in the appropriate contexts, when the time is right. Messier himself, on the other hand, needs to remain constant, an unchanging assertion that such focus, tenacity, and grit are possible as a totalized mode of existence.
To be a fan is to read onto our athletic heroes an imagined and oversimplified unity, an artificial order assembled from a few key moments, traits, or attributes. In order to be cogent and compelling, the pieces of this narrative need to add up. When deviations or discrepancies emerge, such as the Heathkit radio and GameCentre ads, individual fans must subjectively account for them using the sentimental and reductionist ledger of their own fandom. In the case of my attitude toward Messier, his entirely reasonable unwillingness to be contained by the narrative I’ve constructed for him leaves me feeling disappointed and somewhat nostalgic. It reminds me, uncomfortably, of some dismal truths of adult life: that everything is complicated and our heroes are all too human.
[i] One of the GameCentre ads involved a family of Vancouver Canucks fans who, thanks to GameCentre, are able to follow their team anywhere as they go about their busy lives (watch the ad here). This ad in particular raised the ire of Vancouverites, who still hold a grudge against Messier for taking the team captaincy from Trevor Linden when he joined the Canucks in 1997. Despite the fact that this is deprecatingly (if subtly) referenced in the GameCentre ad and that Messier has publicly expressed regret for the episode, the Vancouver Sun produced a parody of the GameCentre ad which casts Messier in a negative light.
[ii] Another prominent example of an NHL superstar with a reputation for toughness and thuggery reinventing himself in retirement is Chris Pronger. In an apparent reversal from his days as a player, Pronger, who is still technically under NHL contract but hasn’t played since 2011 due to post-concussion syndrome, raised eyebrows in 2014 by taking a job in the league’s Department of Player Safety.
Michael Buma is author of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels, and his essays about the cultural meaning of sport have appeared in publications such as Aethlon and Canadian Literature.