By STUART NULMAN

Over 30 years ago, Canadian author Roch Carrier published a short story that struck a chord with readers across the country who regarded the sport of hockey as our truly national sport. And thanks to how Carrier treated such a revered subject matter with such originality and wide-eyed innocence, it has become an iconic piece in the world of Canadian literature.

The story was “The Hockey Sweater”. When it became an acclaimed animated short film that was produced by the NFB during the 80s, it spread the message even further of how an important role hockey played in Canadian culture during the 1940s and 50s, when families and communities gathered around the radio or the TV set every Saturday night to catch their favorite NHL Original Six team in action, not to mention how players like Maurice “The Rocket” Richard were practically worshipped religiously by fans in large cities and small towns alike (and how intense the rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs really was both on and off the ice).

To launch its 10th season, the Segal Centre, in quite a timely fashion, has chosen Roch Carrier’s epic on ice to adapt as a bona fide stage musical that certainly touches the heart of every Montrealer who grew up following the Habs during their glory days, when winning a Stanley Cup championship was almost greeted with a regular sense of expectancy. The end result: the world premiere of “The Hockey Sweater: A Musical”, which has been playing to packed houses at the Segal Centre; the show has been such a major hit, that it is experiencing its own overtime, as the original run has been extended until November 19.

The show takes place in the small Quebec town of Ste. Justine circa 1946, a time when the Canadiens, led by the fire wagon playing of its top scorer Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, are the defending Stanley Cup champions. Young Roch is part of a local hockey team called the “Richards”, in which each young player proudly wears the “bleu-blanc-rouge” Canadiens hockey sweater as their team uniform, as well, they know every fact, accomplishment and statistic – not to mention wear the number 9 on the backs of their sweaters – of the player who inspired the team’s nickname: the Rocket himself, Maurice Richard.

However, when young Roch’s Habs sweater becomes too small and worn out from repeated practices and games, he asks his mother to order by mail a new sweater from the much utilized Eaton’s department store catalogue. When the new sweater finally arrives at the Carrier home, Roch is horrified to discover that Eaton’s mistakenly sent him the wrong hockey sweater. Instead of the expected Montreal Canadiens sweater, it is that of their much fierce and hated rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs!

This puts young Roch in a difficult situation, as he faces the unenviable dilemma of whether he should decide to quit the game entirely, or be brave and continue playing with the Richards, only this time sporting the blue and white sweater of those dreaded Leafs.

“The Hockey Sweater: A Musical” is a lively, uplifting production that portrays the national game of hockey at an innocent time when it was a game, but it was also more than that … it was an encompassing way of life. Jesse Noah Gruman is simply fantastic in the lead role of Young Roch Carrier, and gives a performance that is filled with exuberance, energy and the unique childhood perspective to how hockey played such an important role to growing up in a small Quebec town over 70 years ago. Kudos also goes out to the rest of the young cast who make up the rest of Roch’s teammates, who are a vivid representation of how hockey is more diverse and inclusive these days. And the set design, although simplistic and uncomplicated at the offset, is so well complemented with the rear screen projections that can automatically transform the setting from contemporary Montreal, to an outdoor rink in Ste. Justine during a sub-zero Sunday afternoon, to the interior of the Carrier home on a Saturday night (complete with a genuine console radio), as everyone gathers around to hear the Habs play another game at the Forum on another “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast.

This show is a definite must-see; and with its run extended until November 19, it will give hockey fans from all across Montreal an extra chance to see a soon-to-be iconic stage production adapted from one of the most iconic works of Canadian literature. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 514-739-7944, or go to www.segalcentre.org.

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And in other Segal Centre-related news, last season’s production of “My Name is Asher Lev”, which was based on Chaim Potok’s best selling novel, captured three awards at the fifth annual Montreal English Theatre Awards (METAs), which was held on October 23 at the Rialto Theatre. The awards went to Alex Poch-Goldin (Outstanding Supporting Performance – Actor), Ellen David (Outstanding Supporting Performance – Actress), and Martin Ferland (Outstanding Set Design). As well, the Black Theatre Workshop and Table D’Hote Theatre’s production of “Angelique” (which played at the Segal Centre earlier this year), won the Metas Award for Outstanding PACT Production.