Walking in Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau, Quebec, most Canadians aren’t surprised to see a bronze statue of a giant hockey player. After all, hockey is Canada’s game, a unifying force across the country, and Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was one of the game’s greatest players.

Richard dominated the NHL in the 1940s and ’50s, playing for his hometown Montréal Canadiens, and increased international recognition of a young Canada on the world stage. His records and achievements are legendary: scoring 50 goals in 50 games, winning eight Stanley Cups, being fast-tracked to the Hockey Hall of Fame. His image appeared on everything from magazine covers to cereal boxes. His famous number 9 jersey was retired within a month of his leaving the game in 1960.

His life has been chronicled in books, television and film. The Hockey Sweater, the children’s book written by Roch Carrier, is about a child trying to obtain a number 9 “Habs” jersey. Richard’s legacy reverberates more than 50 years after his retirement.

It’s no wonder that Maurice Richard remains a national icon. A quick peek at Canadian popular culture reveals hockey as a defining aspect of our lives in fields as diverse as music, literature and advertising. Canadians follow their organized teams, from the NHL to minor leagues to the local peewee teams. Olympic hockey, both men’s and women’s competitions, can bring entire cities to a complete standstill.

But more than that, Canadians regularly lace up and take to the ice for community shinny games. Turn over a five dollar bill and there we are, parents and children, on a frozen pond. Even when the snow and ice are gone, street hockey — with the familiar cry of “car!” — takes over summer evenings.

When the Montréal Forum closed in 1996, Richard’s appearance at the closing ceremonies resulted in a 16-minute standing ovation, the longest ever recorded in that city. During the ovation, while fans chanted his nickname over and over, he closed his eyes and mouthed the words, “thank you.” Four years later, at his funeral, more than 115,000 people visited, as his body lay in state at the Molson Centre in Montréal, including the Governor General and the Prime Minister of Canada.

The following year, the larger-than-life bronze statue of Richard was erected in Gatineau, created by Au Coeur du Bronze. Richard, without helmet as was typical of his era, races toward the viewer, ready to shoot the puck, his penetrating gaze part of his terrifying reputation as one of the most determined goal scorers of all time. The words “Never Give Up!” are etched in the statue’s base, reminding us of Richard’s place in Canadian history, and the role of hockey in our national psyche.
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