March 17, 2013

Great Moments In Hockey History: Rocket Richard Riot



St. Patrick's Day, 1955 will be a day Montreal will never forget.

NHL president Clarence Campbell had suspended the great Maurice (The Rocket) Richard for the rest of the regular season and the entire playoffs. Rightfully so, though Montreal fans certainly disagreed. 

A few days earlier Richard became incensed at Boston Bruin's Hal Laycoe - a former teammate and a tennis buddy of Richard's. Laycoe had high-sticked Richard, and the Rocket retaliated with ballistic stick swinging duel. Richard lumberjacked Laycoe several times - including at least once to the face - eventually breaking his old wooden stick over a fallen Laycoe. When linesman Cliff Thompson tried to intervene, Richard struck him down, too, landing multiple punches.

Boston police tried to get involved, but they were unable to arrest Richard as his teammates stood in their way. Eventually Boston Bruins management was able to convince the police that this was a matter for the NHL to handle. Richard was never arrested.

The suspension likely cost Richard what would have been his only NHL scoring title, and very possibly cost the Canadiens the Stanley Cup. Fans all across Quebec were irate, and it quickly escalated to an English vs French movement. In fact many Canadian and Quebecois historians believe this all launched Quebec's "Quiet Revolution" and the whole separatist movement in the province over the next few decades.

It was NHL president Clarence Campbell who suspended the Rocket, and it was no long before he was receiving threatening calls. But Campbell refused the advice of Montreal police not to attend the March 17th game against visiting Detroit. The fans in the Montreal Forum were very hostile towards Campbell, with another 10,000 gathered outside of the building.

Fans approached Campbell with distant insults and threats all night. Garbage was thrown his way.One fan fired a tomato his way, splattering both Campbell and his female companion. Another fan actually suck punched Campbell, but he refused to leave.

Then all hell broke lose as a tear gas bomb we set off near ice level. The building was evacuated. Detroit, ahead 4-1, was awarded the game by result of forfeiture. 

The night was still young in Montreal and soon all pandemonium broke out outside of the arena. The crowd smashed windows along Ste-Catherine Street. Stores were looted, newsstands were set on fire and cars were vandalized. The undermanned police could not control the crowds. The police enlisted the help of the Rocket himself. He helped police to calm to crowds through a plea in a radio address.

The riot resulted in 37 injuries (including 12 police officers), over 100 arrests and approximately $100,000 (approximately $1 million in today's dollars) in property damage.

From the Montreal Gazette, March 18, 1955 - Mob violence took command of Montreal's west end last night as hockey fans by the thousands started a riot over the suspension of Maurice (The Rocket) Richard that has no parallel in Montreal's long and stormy hockey history. Full Story.

You can also check out New York Times coverage from 1955

Also, check out these YouTube videos.

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