The Canadiens teams I've watched win 17 of their 24 Stanley Cups during the last half-century were blessed with most of the best of the best. You know their names, and if you visited a seventh-floor boardroom at the Bell Centre, you would see them in living color. Jean Beliveau is there. Toe Blake is there, and so are goaltenders named Plante, Dryden and Roy. Guy Lafleur and Doug Harvey are there.
And, of course, Maurice Richard is there. His best years already were behind him when I started covering the Canadiens at the start of the 1955-56 season. By then, after 13 NHL seasons, he had lost a step. He carried weight he found increasingly difficult to lose. He frequently was hurt. But now and then in his last five seasons, he became The Rocket.
On those nights, there was no finer sight anywhere.
What I'm really saying is that the Richard of the last five seasons of his career was not among the 10 best Canadiens I've seen during the past 49 years. His teammates knew it. His opponents knew it, and Richard knew it. But any mention of the Canadiens' top 10 all-stars can't be made without a salute to The Rocket, and no better example of it goes back to the night the hockey cathedral in which he became an icon closed. He stood on the Montreal Forum ice under the harsh, white television lights, tears streaming down his face as the noise grew and grew, minute after minute for 10, 11 minutes, until there was no longer just noise in the place, but thunder engulfing it.
Now and then, he would raise an arm, plead to the people -- his people. "Enough," he seemed to be saying to them on this March 11, 1996 night. "Enough! I was only a hockey player."
Richard, who died at age 79 after a battle of more than two years with inoperable stomach cancer, was much more than a hockey player. He was the first National Hockey League player to score 50 goals in a 50-game season (1945) among his 544 goals in 978 regular-season games.
He was the most intense athlete the game has seen.
He was everything that personified greatness. Richard's eye-snapping career numbers don't begin to describe what he meant to hockey in general and the Canadiens in particular. Winning at any cost was what he was all about. He was prepared to pay the price for every goal he scored, and no price was too high.
Richard scored important goals, lifting spectators out of their seats everywhere in the six-team NHL, because he was as much The Rocket on the road as he was in Montreal. At any moment, anywhere, he could erupt with another big goal.
"I first saw him in 1942," Ken Reardon, a former teammate who went on to become a Canadiens vice-president, told an interviewer. "I was playing for an army team. I see this guy skating at me with wild, bloody hair the way he had it then, eyes just outside the nut house. 'I'll take this guy,' I said to myself. He went around me like a hoop around a barrel."
The Richard legend wasn't supposed to develop as quickly as it did. The fact is some hockey people felt it would never happen. His bones were as brittle as peppermint sticks, some people said. Injury-prone, they muttered. The problems started when he was invited to the Canadiens Seniors' training camp in 1940. He made the team, scored 2 goals in the first regular-season game, and then caught his skate in a rut in the third period. His ankle snapped and Richard missed the rest of the season.
The following season he played well for the first 20 games, suffered a broken wrist in his 21st and missed the rest of the regular season, but returned to score 6 goals in four playoff games.
The 1942-43 season was his first with the NHL Canadiens, but he fractured his right ankle. Three major injuries in three years. Maybe his critics were right. Maybe he was too brittle to play in the NHL. His stunning 50-in-50 season erased those fears, though, and was remarkable in many ways. He failed to score in only 16 games that season. At no time did he go more than two games without scoring. His best streak was during a nine-game stretch between Jan. 20 and Feb. 10 when he scored 14 goals. His worst came in the last 13 games of the season when he scored only seven.
It has been suggested, and there's a valid argument for it, that Richard's passion for winning was the start of the French-English "thing" in Quebec. If he had been "only a hockey player," his suspension for the final week of the 1954-55 regular season and the playoffs after getting involved in a savage, stick-swinging duel with Boston defenseman Hal Laycoe would have been little more than a hiccup in NHL history and, by extension, the province of Quebec.
Instead, it fanned the flames of a cultural revolution that went far beyond Richard the player. He meant everything to his people, on and off the ice. When he and the Canadiens won, they won. When the Canadiens lost, they lost.
When the perception was that he was treated harshly by constituted authority, it was they, his people, who felt the pain and the anger. What made Richard the icon he was, was the way he scored his goals. From the blue line in, there was nobody as fierce, or as intense. There was nobody as strong, swooping in on the goaltender, often with another player or players clinging to his back.
Big goals were all he was about, and there was none bigger than the one he scored against the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of their 1952 semifinal. Early in the second period of this pivotal game at the Forum, Richard was knocked out in a collision with Bruins forward Leo Labine. Six stitches were needed to close an ugly gash over his eye. The team's medical staff felt he was through for the night, but after spending the rest of the period and most of the third in the clinic, there he was, sitting alongside linemate Elmer Lach.
The score, Lach told him, was 1-1. Four minutes remained in regulation time when Richard returned to the ice. Defenseman Butch Bouchard started the play that would become, to some people, the Rocket's greatest goal. Richard took the pass deep in the Canadiens' zone, skated the length of the ice, wheeled around defenseman Bill Quackenbush, swept in on goaltender Sugar Jim Henry and scored.
The next day, newspapers across Canada carried a memorable photograph of Richard, blood streaming from his left eye, and Henry -- his right eye blackened after being struck with a puck in Game 6 of the series -- shaking hands. The Canadiens were to become hockey's greatest dynasty -- five consecutive Stanley Cups, all with Richard as its captain -- during the first five seasons I covered the team.
He wasn't the Richard of old when the Canadiens embarked on the marvelous adventure that would produce five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1956 through 1960, but he was with them. He still was the flag-bearer for a culture, for his people. Anything less than winning was unacceptable and remained that way until he scored what turned out to be the final goal of his career in the 1960 Stanley Cup Final against the Maple Leafs. It was his 34th goal in Stanley Cup Final series. It also was the only goal he scored in the playoffs that season, one in which the Canadiens allowed only 11 goals in sweeps of Chicago and Toronto. (Jacques Plante posted three shutouts.)
Richard got his goal in the third game, a 5-2 victory at Toronto. It was the last of his career. He reported to training camp several months later, scored 4 goals during a morning practice and later in the day was asked to report to general manager Frank Selke.
I happened to be sitting outside Selke's second-floor office when a grim-faced Richard, accompanied by an adviser, strode in. Thirty minutes later, Richard stormed out.
"What's happening?" he was asked.
"They want me to retire," he snapped.
He kept on walking.
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.