Video: Henri Richard won Cup a record 11 times as a player
And like all good magicians, he was very good at keeping secrets.
"All I ever had in my mind [as a youngster] was playing with the Montreal Canadiens and thinking about playing with my brother Maurice," Henri Richard said. "I wanted to play hockey because Maurice was playing hockey. But I never said it to anybody. When I was in school, they used to ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I never said, 'A hockey player.' I always said, 'A plumber' or something like that."
Plumbing's loss was hockey's gain, and you can ask anyone who had a chance to see Henri Richard play over his 20 years with the Montreal Canadiens. Fourteen years younger and three inches shorter than Maurice, aka "Rocket," the 5-foot-7-inch, 160-pound Henri acquired his own nickname, "Pocket Rocket," and his own acclaim, being the only player in history to be on 11 Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Games: 1,256 | Goals: 358 | Assists: 688 | Points: 1,046
If he wasn't the legendary, steely-eyed goal machine that "Rocket" was - and really, who was? - "Pocket Rocket" was nonetheless a stickhandling and playmaking virtuoso, and as relentless a forechecker as anybody in the league.
"I have been blessed with a lot of great stars over the years," former Montreal general manager Frank Selke once said. "But game in, and game out, Henri Richard may have been the most valuable player I ever had."
Even Toe Blake, the legendary Canadiens coach, acknowledged that while Maurice may have been the greatest big-moment goal-scorer he had ever seen, Henri was the better all-around player.
Born in Montreal, the younger Richard had plenty of doubters along the way, among them Elmer Lach, the Canadiens' Hall of Fame center, who coached him in juniors and, according to Richard, told him he would never make it in the NHL because of his size. Undeterred, Richard believed that his sublime skating skills, deft stick-handling and commitment to hard work when the other team had the puck would be powerful equalizers, and Richard's performance with the Montreal Junior Canadiens between 1953 and 1955 proved that out. He led the Quebec Junior Hockey League with 109 points in 1953-54, racking up 56 goals and 53 assists in 54 games. He was invited to camp with the Canadiens in 1955, and Blake was mesmerized at the way the kid played.
"At the start of training camp we had no idea what we had," Blake said. "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."
As the Canadiens expected, Henri Richard was tested regularly in that rookie season, but their fears that he would need protection turned out to be completely unfounded. In a six-team league in which there was no place to hide and grudge matches played out regularly, Henri didn't need protection from his brother or anybody else. Years later, in a memorable game against the Boston Bruins, he won three fights against three different opponents, and fought a fourth to a draw.
When opponents trash-talked and taunted him, saying he was only in the League because of Maurice, well, Henri made it a point to deliver a quick counterargument, not only not backing down, but having an immediate impact as a 19-year-old Canadiens rookie, putting up 19 goals and 21 assists and playing a key supporting role in the first of five straight Cup winners.
The numbers were great, but the more enduring rush was having a chance to place with his brother.
"There were a lot of people who told me that playing with Maurice was going to add a lot of pressure but I never felt any pressure," Henri said. "I never thought about my brother Maurice being a big star. It was normal for me. I was only 19 when I came up and Montreal had a lot of great players; it wasn't just Maurice. [Jean] Beliveau was there. Boom Geoffrion and Doug Harvey were there. Jacques Plante was in the net. It was always a great thrill."
Winning the Stanley Cup in each of your first five years in the NHL will spoil you, but even when the streak ended, Richard, just entering his prime, became more and more of a force, leading the League in assists for the second time and being named to either the First or Second All-Star Team for the fourth time in 1962-63. He had long since accepted that he and Maurice had the same genes, but very different games, and that was OK. He and Maurice never talked about hockey away from the rink. They had different roles, different agendas.
And that was OK, too.
"My brother's biggest thrills came when he scored many goals," Henri said. "I am most satisfied when I play in a close game and do not have any goals scored against me. Sometimes people have asked me whether it helped or hurt having Maurice as an older brother. It was not easy, because many people expected me to be as spectacular as Maurice. But I believe it also helped me as well as hurt me. Don't forget, Maurice was a great scorer, and he could get goals that many other players could not get. That helped my passing because I knew that he would always be near the net waiting for a shot. But Maurice never gave me any advice. I never asked him for it and he never really offered it."
The Canadiens won the Cup again in 1965, and a year later, Henri scored the championship-clinching goal in overtime in Game 6 of the Final against the Detroit Red Wings. He was part of four more Cup-winning teams, including the 1972-73 Canadiens, whom he captained to a victory in six games against the Chicago Black Hawks. Richard was 36 then, and not the force he was when he was younger, but still had an intuitive understanding of what it took to win, embodying all the qualities a team leader needed.
"Henri was definitely a leader, even before he became captain," Beliveau said. "His leadership came from his determination on the ice and the fact that he was a team player."
For his part, Henri Richard, never in a rush to draw attention to himself, always pointed to the vast array of talent that surrounded him. From "Rocket" to Beliveau to Geoffrion to Guy Lafleur, the French-Canadian assembly line kept churning out all-time greats.
"I was in the right place at the right time," Richard said.
Maurice finished his fabled career with 544 goals, and a singular standing as a Canadiens icon. Henri, the undersized brother who wasn't supposed to make it, played more seasons (20 to 18) and more games (1,256 to 978), scored more points (1,046 to 965) and won three more Stanley Cups. He left the game as one of the last legendary players of the Canadiens' Original Six glory years, before handing off the leadership mantle to the likes of Lafleur. Henri Richard wasn't the foreboding, powerful presence that his brother was, but that was never his mission.
"He's the most inspirational player they have," Philadelphia Flyers forward Terry Crisp said of Henri Richard. "You nail him to the beam and he comes back and kills you."
Henri Richard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979, and his No. 16 will never be worn by another Montreal Canadiens player. Nor, in all likelihood, will another Canadien, or any other player, match his mark of playing for 11 Stanley Cup champions. For a kid who just wanted to play with his big brother, and told his friends he wanted to be a plumber, it was a pretty good run.
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