BORN: Montreal, Quebec • 4 August 1921
To GRASP THE ENDURING SIGNIFICANCE OF THE LIFE of Maurice “Rocket” Richard, one must understand a little about his longtime employer, Le Club de Hockey Canadien. Known as the Montreal Canadiens, this now-legendary hockey team was founded in 1909 so that French Canadians might compete against the English-speaking Montreal Wanderers of the National Hockey Association.
These early years of the century were momentous ones for hockey: surging crowds and professionalization were turning the ice game into big business. In 1917 the best teams in Canada and the United States, including the Canadiens, formed an elite professional association, and the new National Hockey League ushered in the era of big-time hockey.
The Canadiens performed indifferently at the beginning. By 1942 the team had won four Stanley Cups; a respectable record to be sure, but hardly a sign that the Canadiens would ever be the most successful team in their own city, let alone the entire league. What sustained the club when local rivals the Wanderers and the Maroons went bankrupt was its Frenchness.
The Canadiens’ stars were not alwaysfrangais, but most of their supporters were. The team went out of its way to secure the services of French players, and local sons Newsy Lalonde and Georges Vezina became revered stars. Accordingly, the French identity of the team—an island in a sea of English-Canadian and American clubs—was assured.
It was entirely predictable that Montreal-born fran¬ cophone Maurice Richard would play for the Canadiens when he joined the NHL in 1942. He was barely noticed at first, but in the 1943-44 season he became a formidable goal scorer and led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup. A year later his scoring prowess became the stuff of legend when he smashed the single-season goals record with fifty in fifty games.
From then on, the goals came in bunches for Richard. But more amazing than all the goals was the way he scored them. There was a glorious excitement to the way the Rocket played the game. As a goal-scorer, he was an artist: his trade¬ mark charge from the right wing to the net, when blazing speed and dazzling stick-work blended to make a goal a thing of beauty, left fans and defenders in awe.
His was a sublime talent, and it was combined with a passionate ferocity: no one ever doubted that the Rocket wanted to win every game more than anybody else. His glowering, black- eyed stare was proof of that. When on-ice pushes led to shoves, Richard would fight all comers, and always give at least as good as he got. He was fierce, proud, and dominating,capable of altering the outcome of a game single-handedly.
But it was not a goal that boosted the Rocket from the ranks of ordinary hockey stars to the singular status of Canadian legend. Instead, it was an ugly brawl that erupted in a game in Boston on 13 March 1955. Naturally, accounts of the incident vary, but there is little doubt that the Rocket lost his temper in frightening fashion: all agreed that Richard cracked more than one stick across a Bruin’s back and then slugged a linesman who was trying to subdue him.
Richard was thrown out of that game, but the real penalty came a few days later when NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended him for the remaining three games of the regular season and the entire playoffs. This was a staggering blow to the team and its fans. Montreal’s Stanley Cup chances hinged on the Rocket and, nearly as important, the Canadiens’ leader was on the verge of the NHL scoring championship.
The entire city was outraged and Campbell’s life was threatened. On 17 March, as the team prepared for a home game the day the suspension was announced, raucous demonstrations against the decision were held in front of the Montreal Forum. As the match began at 8:30 p.m., fury was thick in the air. When Campbell himself arrived at the game mid-way through the first period, the rage boiled over: spec¬ tators attempted to attack him, and, finally, in circumstances that remain unclear, a tear gas canister went off within a few feet of the league president.
Police quickly evacuated the building, and the game was forfeited to the visitors. Choking fans from inside left the rink and met the crowds who were milling outside. Then the rioting began. Everything that was not nailed down was tossed at the Forum. Police cars and buses were attacked and destroyed and order was not restored until early the next morning.
The city awoke to find its main streets a river of broken glass. The mayor blamed Campbell for inciting disorder, but a shaken Richard went on radio and television to urge calm. Though bitter frustration remained, the violence was over. That spring, the exiled Richard lost the scoring championship, and the Canadiens lost the Stanley Cup.
The league, and perhaps even the country, would never be the same. A Quebec player playing for a Montreal team had been suspended by the English-speaking president of an English-speaking league—whatever the facts of the case, this was the only thing that really mattered. For millions of French Canadians, the Richard Riot was proof of something that many suspected all along: to be French Canadian in North America meant a raw deal.
Some historians would later date the beginning of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution to that winter’s night in 1955.From then on, Rocket Richard was the Canadiens; at once he symbolized their greatness but also their otherness. He and his mates turned their bitterness towards the league into unprecedented success and, from 1956 to 1960, the Canadiens won an amazing five consecutive Stanley Cups, a feat not equalled before or since.
Richard continued to score the most goals, the most important goals, and the most memorable goals for Montreal. He retired a hero in 1960.After Richard, the team continued to win: Stanley Cup championships in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s made the Canadiens perhaps the most successful professional sports franchise on the continent.
No team has won more champi¬ onships. And today, the Montreal Canadiens and the Rocket, the greatest team and its greatest star, are so united in popular memory that they are virtually inseparable. They remain cultural icons, emblematic of the spirit and success of Canada’s game, but also of the gulf that has and always will separate some of us from les autres.