Maurice "Rocket" Richard (born 1921) was one of the greatest hockey players in the history of the game. For 18 seasons, he struck fear into the hearts of his opponents, terrorizing them with his hard hitting and goal scoring. His 50 goals in 50 games during the 1944-45 season, created a record that stood for 36 years. Richard led the Montreal Canadiens to eight Stanley Cup championships, including five consecutive victories from 1956 to 1960.
Richard was born on August 4, 1921 in the Bordeaux section of Montreal. He began to play hockey soon after he learned to walk. As a child, he skated on a rink built by his father in the yard behind their house. Richard worked his way through the minor leagues, as many young hockey players who dream of playing in the National Hockey League (NHL) have done. He sometimes played for several teams at one time, while he also studied at Montreal Technical School to become a machinist. When he was 18 years old and playing for the Paquette junior team, he scored 133 of the team's 144 goals during the season.
In 1940, when Richard was 19 years old, he became a player on the farm club team of the Montreal Canadiens, in the Senior Hockey League of Quebec. He was on his way to the NHL and, to prove it, he scored two goals in his first game in the Senior League. However, in the third period of this game, he went down with a broken wrist and had to sit on the bench for the rest of the season. Despite that setback, he earned a tryout with the parent club, and joined the Montreal Canadiens for the 1942-43 season.
As a "Hab," the nickname used by Canadien fans for the Montreal team members, Richard scored five goals and collected six assists in his first 16 games. Despite this impressive start, he suffered a broken ankle and many feared that Richard might be injury-prone. However, coach Dick Irvin had faith in Richard, and kept him on the disabled list.
On the "Punch Line"
Returning for the 1943-44 season, Richard scored 32 goals in 46 games. He was naturally left-handed, but could shoot from either side. Therefore, he was put on the right wing of one of the most famous front lines in hockey history, the so-called "Punch Line." This line had Richard on the right, Elmer Lach at center, and "Toe" Blake on the left side. He won the title as the top scorer in the league, making 50 goals in the first 50 games and earning 73 points. With Blake's 67 points, the Canadiens had the highest scoring line in hockey that season.
Richard, who was known to have a quick temper on the ice, continued his scoring streak. By 1945 he was well known as "The Rocket." "From the blue line to the net, he was unequalled," said referee Bill Chadwick, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "He possessed Herculean strength, and I once saw him score with a defenseman on his back," continued Chadwick. Many said he looked like "a small ox on skates." Richard was a small player in a big man's game, standing less than six feet tall and weighing only 180 pounds. Even at this size, many of the other teams in the NHL assigned two players to guard him.
Richard had a powerful drive to win. For 18 seasons, he struck fear into the hearts of his opponents, terrorizing them with his hard hitting and goal scoring. His 50 goals in 50 games during the 1944-45 season, created a record that stood for 36 years. He led his team to eight Stanley Cup championships, including five consecutive victories from 1956 to 1960. Richard led the NHL in scoring five times and had 544 regular-season goals. He finished his career with 82 playoff goals, scoring five goals in one playoff game.
In one game against the Boston Bruins, Richard was hit so hard that he lay motionless on the ice, blood pouring from his head. Fans thought he was dead, as the Canadiens' medical staff rushed him off the ice. The score was 1-1. Soon a dazed Richard was back on the bench, half-blind from blood running into his eyes. Suddenly he skated back into the game, grabbed the puck and raced up the ice. Bruin players tried to defend against the bloody, glassy-eyed Richard, but he closed in on Bruin goalie, Jim Henry, and managed to flip the puck into the goal.
An Official is Struck
In a 1955 game between the Canadiens and the Boston Bruins, Richard was certain that Hal Laycoe had fouled him, so he hit Laycoe several times with his stick. Officials generally jump in and separate the players, one or both are sent to the penalty box, and the game goes on. When Cliff Thompson tried to stop the fight, Richard hit him, knocking him to the ice.
In hockey, players are allowed to hit each other, but never is a player allowed to hit an official. NHL president, Clarence Campbell, suspended Richard after an official hearing between all of those involved. However, this was not an ordinary one or two game suspension. Campbell removed Richard from the team for the rest of the season, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.
All of Canada was shocked. Montreal was especially upset, since hockey fans believed they needed "The Rocket" to win the coveted cup. Richard, himself, was stunned. He spoke to fans on a radio show, asking them to be calm. Hockey was a national passion, and Richard was one of the great heroes of the game. Many fans wondered how Campbell could do such a thing. His office was overwhelmed with calls, letters, and telegrams. Fans took up petitions and submitted them to the Canadian government in the hope that a politician could convince Campbell to change his mind and lift the suspension. Richard had been working on an all-time scoring title, and needed to be in the games to win it. Of even greater importance, the Stanley Cup finals were coming. None of the politicians wanted to get involved.
A Full Scale Riot
After suspending Richard, Campbell attended the next game at Montreal and was attacked by a fan. It took a squad of police to restore order in the rink. The fans grew restless, then angry, and someone threw a smoke bomb onto the ice. Violence exploded in the grandstands, and soon debris was showered onto the ice. Tear gas bombs were exploded and the crowd turned into an angry mob. Campbell was rushed out of the arena. When officials decided to forfeit the game, pandemonium broke out. Fans poured out onto the streets in a violent mood. They started smashing windows in the Forum, the ice arena where the Canadiens played. Gunshots rang out, stores were looted, and a full scale riot was underway.
Eventually, fans calmed down and left the area. It was the worst riot in Montreal history, with more than $100,000 in damage to the main shopping area of the city. Campbell did not back down. The suspension was not lifted. Richard did not play for the rest of the season and failed to win the scoring title that year.
Richard ended his playing career in 1960, at the age of 39. He became a front office official for the Canadiens and continued his popular Sunday column in Le Journal de Montreal newspaper. Richard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961. This is an honor usually granted to a player at least five years after he has retired. Richard was selected as an immortal of the game only nine months after he retired. In 1997, the city of Montreal unveiled a statue of Richard in front of the Maurice Richard Arena.
Further Reading on Maurice Richard
Olney, Ross R., This Game Called Hockey, Dodd Mead, 1978
Olney, Ross R., Superchampions of Ice Hockey, Clarion Books, 1982
Classic Sports Legends, Rocket Richard, http: //www.classicsports.com/cp/HallofFame/RocketRichard.htm, (May 10, 1999).
Richard's Biography, http: //www.nhl.com/teampage/mon/rbio.htm, (May 10, 1999).