by Michel Laprise
translated by Peter McCambridge
Quebec Sports Books, 2017
In Michel Laprise’s Stealing Lord Stanley’s Cup, the action comes thick and fast, like a not-especially-bright but speedy rookie tearing down the ice, like a Detroit Red Wings breakaway, like… well, fill in your favourite hockey simile here.
It is April 1962. Bob Vilandré can’t bear the thought of the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup in three days’ time, taking it away from its rightful place in Montreal and into the hands of the “maudits Anglais.” He comes up with a half-baked plan to steal the cup, while Gerry, the bartender he shares his scheme with, decides it will never work: he’ll have to come up with a strategy of his own to get his hands on the trophy.
Laprise’s plan was clearly to make history come alive, to lift the statistics and the players from the 1961-1962 National Hockey League season off the page and bring them to life, all while treating readers to lesser-known facts about the Stanley Cup along the way—and he doesn’t disappoint. The novel is heavy on atmosphere without being overly literary, the emphasis put squarely on the action, once the scene has been set:
“Beneath a putrid cloud of cigarette, pipe, and cigar smoke, the atmosphere inside Chicago Stadium was electric. Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final would soon be underway.”
In Gerry, the reader has a fly on the Stanley Cup locker-room wall, and a seat in the stands with Bob. We are treated to a good-natured romp as between them the two, almost in spite of themselves, manage to smuggle the trophy out of the locker room and north to Montreal. The reaction of the NHL follows, with a flashback to the Forum Riot of 1955 and the hated Clarence Campbell—”a symbol of oppression for all French Canadians” and “the enemy of Quebecers everywhere”—putting in an appearance on the way to plenty more twists and turns between then and the final page.
Bob knocked back enough beer to last a lifetime over the course of the 1961-1962 NHL season. With every game the Canadiens played, empties piled up by his armchair, dead soldiers waiting to be collected by his wife the next morning. More than a few times he dozed off before the end of the game, safe in the knowledge that the Habs were on their way to victory.
He spent the evening of April 8, 1962, listening to Game 6 of the series between the Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that had finished 23 points below them in the standings, as he thought back to key moments from the previous few months in the wonderful world of professional hockey…
An injury to Jean Béliveau’s knee and trading Doug Harvey, the best defenceman in their history, to the New York Rangers hadn’t stopped the Habs finishing first in the league. The Blackhawks’ Bobby Hull had become the third player, after Maurice Richard and Bernie Geoffrion, to score 50 goals in the regular season. And fans in Detroit had been lucky enough to see Gordie Howe’s 500th career goal.
Bob couldn’t stand Howe. Truth be told, he hated anyone who didn’t play for Montreal.
The man who had proudly cheered on the Habs for over 40 years was dozing now. His head bobbed around as his ears picked up the words of the radio announcer.
“Glenn Hall blanks the Canadiens. Chicago wins it, 2-0, and eliminates Montreal in six games! The Blackhawks are going back to the Stanley Cup Final!”
Bob bounded out of an old armchair that was as red as his nose and put on his shoes.
“And where are you off to?” his wife asked.
“Outta here. I need some air. Need to see people. It’s terrible, just terrible,” he replied. He shook his head, stunned and incredulous.
Sad, frustrated, and jacketless, Bob walked out of his apartment and off toward his favourite tavern on Sainte-Catherine. The night was dark and chilly. He needed a drink.
As he pushed the door open, thick cigarette smoke slipped outside as quickly as a defenceman getting out of the way of a Boom Boom Geoffrion shot. Even in the half-light, he spotted a free seat at the bar. It was his seat. It had been his for way too long, if you asked his wife.
*This article originally reviewed the novel when it came out in French. The review and extract have both been updated to mark the novel's publication in English.