Hockey has been blessed with the very best down the middle during the past five decades. I have watched Wayne Gretzky from the first moment he and the Edmonton Oilers joined the NHL. Who has done as much for the game since he burst upon it with numbers that are unlikely ever to be matched?
What's there to be said about Mario Lemieux, who overcame terrible adversity to become what he meant to hockey? Phil Esposito was a giant talent whose numbers have been eclipsed by Gretzky but who will live forever in our minds as the player who made it happen in the 1972 series with the Soviets.
Bobby Clarke was the leader in Philadelphia. Jean Beliveau brought grace to the position, but listen to Canadiens GM Frank Selke Sr., whose teams won five consecutive Stanley Cups, when he was asked one day to comment on Henri Richard.
"I have been blessed with some of the greatest players in NHL history," Selke said, "but game in, game out, Henri Richard may have been the most valuable player I've ever had."
Think about it -- what he was saying was that Henri, a member of a record 11 Stanley Cup teams, "may have been" more valuable than Beliveau and more valuable than his older brother, Maurice, and meant more to the team than Bernie Geoffrion, Jacques Plante and even Doug Harvey.
Nobody -- not Selke, not coach Toe Blake, not any of the elite players on the Canadiens dynasty of the 1950s -- had any idea what they were getting when Henri was invited to training camp before the start of the 1955-56 season. The game plan wasn't to keep him with the team, if only because hardly anybody ever went directly from junior hockey to this special team.
He was too young, too small. Furthermore, the mere idea of carrying the Richard name would be too heavy a cross to bear for the kid. So, invite him to training camp, let him play with the big boys for a little while -- and then ship him out.
A funny thing happened during training camp, however.
"Sometimes he'd infuriate me," Blake once told me. "He'd be out on the ice controlling the puck. His linemates would come off the ice and I knew exactly where to look for Henri -- on the ice!"
Blake continued: "I wouldn't start comparing him with somebody like Beliveau. But I know this -- when Richard was on the ice, nobody else had the puck.
"At the start of training camp we had no idea what we had. At the end, we couldn't send him back. The only thing we had to find out was how this little guy would react to the rough stuff. We didn't want a situation where Maurice would have to ride shotgun for him."
Henri was tested early and often, as Canadiens management had feared. What they quickly discovered was that this Richard didn't want, nor did he need, help from his older brother. He was fearless. He was a Richard.
You should know that in the six-team NHL, bench-clearing brawls were the rule rather than the exception. Teams met 14 times during the regular season, often on back-to-back nights. The benches cleared in Boston one night, and there was young Richard in the middle of it, taking on four Bruins, one after the other. He won the first three fights, including one over Jack Bionda, who towered over him.
An exhausted Richard fought to a draw in a fourth against Fern Flaman, who was among the NHL's best and most feared fighters. Years later, Flaman told me, "In all the years I played in the League, there was only one player I hated -- Henri Richard!"
Richard shrugged when he was told about it the next day.
"In all the years I played in the League, I was never afraid of Flaman!"
For 20 seasons, during which he scored 358 goals and 688 assists in 1,256 regular-season games, Henri played with a vigor born out of what appeared to be desperation. He would skate toward an opponent, duck low and start moving beyond him, leaving a defender with one of two options -- drag him down and risk a penalty, or let him pass.
"He's the most inspirational player they have. You nail him to the beam and he comes back and kills you. He didn't surprise me, because I've seen him do it before."
-- Philadelphia Flyers forward Terry Crisp, on Henri Richard
Honesty often is a word used loosely when linked with athletes. Henri's integrity to the organization, to the people around him, to the game and to himself was non-negotiable. Others with more talent have been far less successful. Others surely have brought a bigger physical presence to the arena, had better shots and greater strengths. A few -- though not many -- even might have had more speed. Cases can be made for names long forgotten in terms of feet, inches, accuracy and toughness, but has anybody ever invented a measuring stick to assess the size of a guy's heart?
Henri was getting long in the tooth when he led the Canadiens past Philadelphia in a punishing five-game playoff series. He was 37 and he poked fun at his tired legs and at the crow's-feet developing in bunches around his eyes, but he was the leader.
"He's the most inspirational player they have," Flyers forward Terry Crisp told me. "You nail him to the beam and he comes back and kills you. He didn't surprise me, because I've seen him do it before."
Richard died a little each time he fell into a prolonged slump, which is why he and Serge Savard once were involved in an ugly scene. Henri still was looking for his first goal midway through the season when the Canadiens won a 9-1 laugher against the Canucks in Vancouver. Nobody in the Canadiens room was laughing, however. It seems that many of them were distressed over a story that had appeared in a Montreal newspaper that morning. The players felt the story infringed on their private lives.
"Let's keep the room closed," Jacques Laperriere suggested. Richard disagreed. "Let 'em in. We can't keep reporters out. They've got a job to do."
"If you like them so much," Savard said, "why don't you sleep with them?"
Richard and Savard exchanged more words, where upon Henri rose to his feet and walked toward him. Then, without warning, he slapped Savard's face. The color rose in the defenseman's cheeks, but he didn't retaliate.
"What would have been accomplished if I had?" Savard mentioned the next day. "I was mad about the story in the paper. If somebody wants to criticize me for playing badly, they can be as tough and as hard as they want. That's their job, but that's where it stops."
Henri was his own man on and off the ice, armed with a quick temper, who never hesitated to tell it like it is. If he was unhappy with constituted authority, he never hesitated to let it be known. What he couldn't handle was not playing, like the time more than a dozen years into his career. He had missed some games with an injury. A young player named Jacques Lemaire was brought in as a replacement, played well, and was still playing well when Richard recovered.
Management was reluctant to make a change. So Richard sat ... and simmered. The game was less than an hour away on this night when GM Sam Pollock convened a hastily called press conference at the Forum. His face was beet red. He was nervous. Finally: "Uh ... I just want to announce that Henri Richard isn't here tonight. We don't know why."
Pollock knew the reason for Richard's absence -- he couldn't handle the idea of sitting on the bench. He wanted time to think about it, about where he was going and what to do about it.
"I'd rather pick garbage than sit on the bench," he told reporters the next day. One week later, properly contrite, he was back.
"I'll wait for my chance to play," he said. "I still have a lot of years left."
In time, the problem was resolved. He was to remain with the Canadiens until the end of the 1974-75 season, long enough to add four more Stanley Cups to his previous collection of seven.
Reprinted with permission from the Montreal Gazette, this Red Fisher column originally ran in early 2005. For more insights about the Canadiens, check out the Gazette's hockey blog, www.habsinsideout.com.