In Frank Orr's and Chrys Goyens' amazing book Maurice Richard: Reluctant Hero Maurice Richard admits the biggest surprise of his life was how many European fans he had in 1959.
"When I went to Czechoslovakia and found out that people there had even heard of me, I was a little shocked," Richard said in the book.
Richard, still a year away from retiring from the Montreal Canadiens, travelled to Prague that year to attend the World Hockey Championships, and later travelled to Moscow. The book claims that more than 20,000 Czech fans gave him a standing ovation, chanting "Rocket! Rocket! Rocket!" over and over again.
That is pretty amazing. Don't forget, this was 1959. Television was still in it's infancy, and forget about the World Wide Web bringing everybody closer together. The European newspapers rarely, if ever, carried a story about the NHL, especially on that side of the Iron Curtain.
In the book Richard offers what he believes is the only explanation as to his overseas fame:
"One official told me that the newsreels in the movie theatres often had sports events in them. A few years earlier, someone had sent me a magazine from Moscow that had more than two million copies printed and there was a story about Henri (Richard, his brother) and me in it."
Richard returned to Europe in 1960, specifically as a guest of the Czechoslovakians for a gymnastics exhibition. Richard was also to visit Rome, Venice, Geneva, Nice and Paris on his fantastic summer vacation.
Interestingly, after the tour ended, the French Ice Hockey Federation suspended all players and referees involved for playing against a former professional!
Now I am not 100% sure what actually happened to the suspended players. France was hosting the Olympics in just a few months, so it is unlikely they would have sabotaged their own team.
In fact, the French made a strange decision of only using players who were under the age of 24. Perhaps this was to done to "hide" the suspensions, speculated hockey historian Jean Patrice Martel.
There was one French national team player at those home Olympics who was older than 24, and that was captain Philippe Lacarrière. It is unclear whether he participated in the matches against Richard.