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April 21, 2006

Rocket Richard

The Stare.

The stare was Rocket Richard's trademark. When he came at a goalie with his eyes lit up, the opposition was terrified. Glenn Hall once was quoted sharing his memories of Rocket Richard - "What I remember most about the Rocket were his eyes. When he came flying toward you with the puck on his stick, his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine. It was terrifying."

One of the games greatest goal scorers, he recorded a then-NHL record with 544 regular season goals. That record stood until 1963 when it was surpassed by Gordie Howe. He was also the first to score 50 goals in one season, and the only player to have reached that figure in a 50 game season.

Rocket Richard did everything by instinct and brute strength. He would run, not glide, down the ice and cut fearlessly to the slot. Some describe him as the greatest opportunist the game has ever known. He was probably the greatest goal scorer from the blue line in.

Richard's fierce temper and dedication were also hallmarks of his. He got into frequent scraps with players and officials. His suspension by NHL president Clarence Campbell in 1955 for attacking a Boston player with his stick and punching a linesman precipitated the now famous riot in the Montreal Forum.

Winning at all costs best sums up Richard's approach to hockey.

In a playoff game, the Bruins Leo Labine knocked Richard unconscious and doctors said he was done for the series. Richard refused to be hospitalized and returned to the game as the teams battled. Rocket Richard scored the game winning goal.

But the legend of Rocket Richard almost never came into fruition. Early in his career he missed a lot of time with various ailments such as a broken wrist and badly sprained ankle. Too injury prone they said. The Canadiens supposedly came close to trading the young firecracker, reportedly to the New York Rangers. Thankfully they didn't!

In addition Maurice initially started on the left wing, where he struggled in comparison to what he would do on the right wing. Once he changed sides, he began achieving great success. However his early accomplishments came during the second World War.

"He was a wartime hockey player," onetime Canadiens general manager Frank Selke once told a reporter. "When the boys come back, they said, they'll look after Maurice. Nobody looked after Maurice. He looked after himself. When the boys come back, they said, they'll catch up with him. The only thing that caught up with Maurice is time."

Even in these tough early days, you could tell Maurice was special. The local media had dubbed him The Comet. Later teammate Ray Getliffe, in an intra-squad match during a practice, was wowed by Richard and compared him to a rocket. The name stuck.

Things really turned around in 1943-44. Perhaps it was the switch to the right wing, or perhaps a superstitious switch in number. Richard asked coach Dick Irvin Sr. if he could change his number from 15 to nine to mark the occasion of the birth of his first daughter - 9lb Huguette. Richard scored 32 goals -- the fourth-highest total in Canadiens history at that time -- in his first full season. Combined with rookie Bill Durnan in goal, the Canadiens re-emerged as a top team. Richard added 12 more goals in the playoffs and the Canadiens took their first Stanley Cup since 1931. In one game in the final series against Toronto, Richard scored all Montreal's goals in a 5-1 victory

50 Goals in 50 Games

1944-45 was the Rocket's greatest season. Richard raced through the 50 game schedule at an incredible goal-per-game pace, becoming the first player to score the magical 50 goal total. He is the only player to do it in a 50 game schedule.

Rocket's amazing drive for 50 goals in 50 games is considered to be perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of hockey. Critics argue that the League at that point was watered down by the World War, but it remains among the greatest achievements in professional sports.

The eyes of the world were focused in on Rocket as he chased down what once seemed unthinkable. In game number 48 he scored goal number 49. In the 49th game Montreal easily defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, yet somehow Rocket was blanked. That left him only one last chance to make 50 in 50. The final game of the season was in Boston at the dreaded Boston Garden. Montreal won 4-2 and Rocket managed to hit the twine behind Bruin goalie Harvey Bennett for his 50th goal that season! That amazing feat would not be equaled until 1980 when Mike Bossy would score 50 goals in the first 50 games of an 80 game schedule.

Richard and the Canadiens didn't sip from the Stanley Cup that season, but they did the following year. Richard "slumped" down to 27 goals but erupted for a league high 7 playoff goals in 9 games as the Habs won their second Cup under Richard's firepower.

Despite twice leading the NHL in goal scoring in the regular season and some fine playoff performances, the Habs failed to win another Cup until 1952-53. By this time the Habs were just establishing themselves as the most dominant team in NHL history, and were just a couple years way from a 5 year reign as Cup champions.

The Infamous Richard Riot

Perhaps the Canadiens could have won a Cup in 1954-55 that would have been the first of 6 in a row, but they suffered a daunting blow when the NHL unthinkably suspended their most dynamic superstar for the rest of the regular season and playoffs. Years later, the infamous 'Richard Riots' are stuff of legend in hockey history.

A common tactic that teams used to keep him off the score sheet was to simply sucker him into a fight. Richard was not one to back down to anyone, and sometimes he let his anger get the best of him. He was suspended numerous times by NHL President Clarence Campbell for violent slashing penalties and abusive behavior towards referees.

His most memorable suspension, and one of the most traumatic incidents in NHL history occurred in Montreal in 1955. The "Richard Riot" came about after an incident on March 13, in a game between Richard's Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. Boston defenseman Hal Laycoe cut Richard over the eye with a high stick and drew a delayed penalty. Once the play was stopped, Richard showed the referee that he was cut and promptly went after Laycoe, hitting him with his stick. Richard was pulled off of the Bruins defenseman twice, but he broke free, picked up another stick off the ice and started attacking Laycoe again. Linesman Cliff Thompson finally was able to pin Richard down on the ice. When they let Richard back on his feet, he was still mad as hell and wanted a piece of anyone he could find. Unfortunately, Thompson was the closest one around. Richard struck him twice before anyone could intervene.

President Clarence Campbell had given Richard many suspensions and fines in the past for actions such as this, but this time it seemed as if he said enough was enough. Campbell suspended the Rocket for the remainder of the regular season and all of the playoffs.

Fans in Montreal were shocked by Campbell's decision. The suspension was thought of as an extreme blow to the team's chances of taking the Stanley Cup away from the Detroit Red Wings. Canadiens supporters threatened both the league offices and Campbell himself. However, Campbell was a stubborn man who was not intimidated easily. Despite pleas by both the mayor and police not to attend, Campbell showed up at his usual seat for the next Montreal home game. He was bombarded with rotten fruit and vegetables throughout the early portion of the game, and by the time Detroit took a 4-1 lead, the crowd had enough. A group of fans started to make their way towards Campbell's section. The police had to step in and try to keep the peace. All of a sudden, someone threw tear gas right next to the president's seat and all hell broke loose. The fire marshal announced that the game must be stopped for fear of a disastrous fire, and Campbell announced that the game was to be forfeited to the Red Wings. A mob of angry fans took off down St. Catherine Street, throwing stones, breaking store windows and looting shops. Over 60 people were arrested during the melee, and Richard had to plead for calm on Montreal radio stations in order for people to settle down.

This was one of the most severe penalties ever handed out in the NHL, and it was especially painful for Richard. At the time he was leading the league in points and was a shoo-in to win the Art Ross Trophy. The Art Ross was the one trophy that Richard desperately wanted in his career, but, because of his suspension, he lost probably his best chance to win it. Finally, on the last day of the regular season, Richard's teammate Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion moved ahead of him in the scoring race, taking the Art Ross from the Rocket by a single point. The fans actually booed Geoffrion for surpassing the Rocket.

The next year, the Canadiens began their record string of five consecutive Stanley Cups, but the torch was already being passed from Richard to the next great Canadiens star -- Jean Beliveau.

Richard was injured for most of his last three seasons. The injuries slowed the Rocket so that he was no longer able to accelerate on skates as he once did.
Perhaps sensing that the Habs dynastic reign would be coming to an end, Richard made the tough decision to retire following the 1960 Cup victory. By this point he wasn't the warrior he once was, but was still number one in the hearts of the fans.

Richard ended his career of 18 years playing 978 games, scoring 544 goals, assisting on 421 more for 965 points. He also accumulated 1285 penalty minutes and 8 Stanley Cup rings. He had a then-record 82 playoff goals in 133 games, plus 126 points and another 188 PIM. The 14 time all star also won one Hart Trophy.

He was only a hockey player often preached Richard. However he was for more than that as the Riot attests. He was an absolute hero to French Canadiens in particular. Some suggest it is more than just coincidence that tension between French and English in Quebec coincided with Richard's presence. Not that he ever did anything to promote or deny any Quebecois movement - he was very careful not to get involved - but he remained the hero. And many Quebecois would employ a similar fierce pride and win at all costs attitude in their political endeavors/

"He carried the flag for an entire population -- and that's pretty heavy," the Gazette's Red Fisher said. "He felt he had to live up to that responsibility and he did it the way he knew how -- by scoring goals and responding to every challenge on the ice."

Richard always remained number one with the fans, and likely always will be. In 1995, some 35 years after he last played and in front of a sold-out stadium of fans - many of whom too young to have ever seen Richard play - gave Richard the longest standing ovation in hockey history. It was a sad day as the Canadiens were closing the Cathedral of Hockey - The Montreal Forum. In typical Habs class, they brought out all the old legends in a torch passing ceremony - to symbolize the passing of greatness from the old building to the new one. A tearful Richard stole the show.

A couple of years later Richard came down with an inoperable form of cancer of the abdomen.

The scare moved the Canadiens outgoing president Ronald Corey, who grew up idolizing the Rocket, to push for the creation of the Maurice Richard Trophy for the league's top goal-scorer. The trophy was granted, forever immortalizing Richard.

On May 27th, 2000, Rocket Richard lost his battle with cancer. The celebration of his life that shortly followed was unmatched in Canada, and in very few places around the world. A state funeral was held for a hockey player. Tens of thousands of people - one estimate had over 50000 a day - lined up to pay their respects to Richard at center ice of the Montreal Molson Center - the new Forum. The actual funeral was broadcast nationwide and throughout the world. It was eerily similar to the passing of Princess Diana just a short time earlier.

He was just a hockey player, but no one hockey player meant so much to so many people on such a personal level.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Incredible article on an incredible hockey legend. My father Calum "baldy" MacKay had the priviledge of playing with and even rooming with the Rocket. The stories I heard until my father's passing, just a year after the Rockets, were incredible. I go to the "New Forum" at least 2 times a year and get to converse with all the legends. There is no organization in sports like the Habs. I am treated with so much respect every time I go there. Players like Mr. Jean Belleveau and the alumni president Rejean Houle are nothing short of amazing to alumni members and their families. It is the highlight of my fall and spring. The emotion in that building for every game is like nothing else in sports. I urge every sports fan whether a Hab fan or not to visit Montreal for a game at least once.

Anonymous said...

Incredible article on an incredible hockey legend. My father Calum "baldy" MacKay had the priviledge of playing with and even rooming with the Rocket. The stories I heard until my father's passing, just a year after the Rockets, were incredible. I go to the "New Forum" at least 2 times a year and get to converse with all the legends. There is no organization in sports like the Habs. I am treated with so much respect every time I go there. Players like Mr. Jean Belleveau and the alumni president Rejean Houle are nothing short of amazing to alumni members and their families. It is the highlight of my fall and spring. The emotion in that building for every game is like nothing else in sports. I urge every sports fan whether a Hab fan or not to visit Montreal for a game at least once.
Rich MacKay
PS. It is no coincidence that my father called me Richard.

Anonymous said...

Anyone born after 1960 can't appreciate what Rocket meant to hockey in the 50's and before. He was the force that launched hockey into the modern age. In 1957 as a kid I watched him score 4 goals in a playoff game against the Bruins. I was a Habs fan from that day on.

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