December 11, 1998 Halifax Herald

Maurice "The Rocket" Richard: great Canadian

Featured in the November 9 issue of MacLean's Magazine was an excerpt from Canada on Ice, 50 years of hockey, written by Sidney Katz, entitled "The Richard Riot." The article brought back memories of the outstanding hockey that I saw played, both live and on TV, by the man I believe to be the greatest hockey player of all time, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.

Although a resident of Boston during most of the 1950s, a time when Richard was in top form and the NHL had just six teams, I only managed to see him play live at the Boston Gardens on two occasions. This feat was just short of a miracle. During those days, it was easier to walk on water than to get into the Gardens when the Montreal Canadiens came to town. This, and the respect and awe that the team elicited from the Boston press and fans, made this then-young Canadian puff up with pride!

Montreal's drawing power in Boston was matched in all of that era's NHL cities; the team consistently filled arenas to overflowing (a record yet unmatched). The games were electric and rarely disappointed enthusiasts. The home team, fired up by the thought of overcoming Montreal's winning reputation, gave its all to beat them. But the big draw was The Rocket who, in a crunch, and despite the best efforts put out by the opposition to stop him, seemed able to score at will. He made it all look so easy!

The Canadiens's management deemed Richard priceless (all quotes are from the "Richard Riot"): "Canadiens were once offered $135,000 for him, the highest value ever placed on a hockey player. Frank Selke, Canadien managing director, refused saying. "I'd sooner sell half the forum." And opposing teams feared him: "Opposing teams fully recognize Richard's talent and use rugged methods to stop him. One-and sometimes two-players are specifically detailed to nettle him. They regularly hang on to him, put hockey sticks between his legs, body check him and board him harder than necessary. Once he skated 20 feet with two men on his shoulders to score a goal."

Richard had a temper and opposing players used racial slurs to try to goad him into losing it: "Insp. William Minogue, who, as police officer in charge of the Forum, is regularly at rink side during games, frequently hears opposing players calling Richard "French pea soup" or "dirty French bastard" as they skate past. If these taunts result in a fight, both Richard and his provoker are sent to the penalty bench. Opposing teams consider this a good bargain."

The March 17, 1955, Forum Riot was caused by a penalty infraction which emphasized how much opposing players feared and respected Richard's superb talent: At the Boston Garden on March 13, the Bruins leading 4 to 2, with six minutes left in the game, received a penalty. In a bid to score, the Canadiens pulled their goalie and sent six men up the ice. Richard was skating across the blue line when he was high-sticked in the face by Hal Laycoe. The stick inflicted a wound that required 5 stitches to close.

After play was stopped, Richard lost his temper. He retaliated against Laycoe and got into a tussle with linesman Cliff Thompson, bruising Thompson's face and blackening his eye. As punishment for his outburst, league President, Clarence Campbell, on the afternoon of March 17th., suspended him for the rest of the season and for the playoffs. I thought at the time, as did many people, especially Canadiens fans, that the punishment - because Richard was badly provoked - was excessive. I haven't altered that opinion. It also punished the entire team and Montreal. In all likelihood, it cost the Canadiens the 1955 Stanley Cup.

That night at the Forum, with Campbell and Richard in attendance, all hell broke out and later spilled out onto the streets of Montreal. Richard described the goings on at the Forum as a disgrace: "He was aghast at what had happened. ‘This is terrible, awful,’ he said. ‘People might have been killed.’ The next day at 7 p.m., Richard, in an attempt to calm the city, made this statement before a battery of microphones:

"Because I always try so hard to win and had my troubles in Boston, I was suspended. At playoff time, it hurts not to be in the game with the boys. However, I want to do what is good for the people of Montreal and the team. So that no further harm will be done, I would like to ask everyone to get behind the team and to help the boys win from the Rangers and Detroit. I will take my punishment and come back next year to help the club and younger players to win the cup." Thus ended the disorder.

Unlike Orr, Howe, Gretzky and other English-speaking Canadian hockey players. Richard has not received much positive coverage in the English-language media. In fact, I believe that the English media have consistently leaned over backwards to try to belittle his outstanding accomplishments. It’s time to begin to remedy this situation and honour Richard for what he is, an outstanding Canadian. In Nova Scotia, we could start by renaming the nameless Metro Centre the "Rocket Richard Entertainment Centre."

On October 22, 1998 Richard, whose impeccable personal lifestyle is a role model for all Canadians, was invested as a Companion to the Order of Canada. A fitting honour for a great Canadien!

Daniel N. Paul


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