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Richard, Canadiens legend, to have quiet funeral impacted by coronavirus

Farewell for 11-time Cup champion whose life revolved around his family will be limited due to public health concerns

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- The final farewell Monday to Montreal Canadiens legend Henri Richard will be as quiet and private as the man was himself.

A 4½-hour visitation planned by Richard's family at a funeral home north of Montreal was cancelled on Friday because of the Quebec government's limiting the size of indoor public gatherings, regulations introduced in a bid to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

Now a private funeral service for Richard, whose life truly revolved around his family, his hockey career almost an asterisk in his own view, will be attended only by those closest to him. 

The NHL-record 11 Stanley Cup titles won by Richard is one shy of half the 24 won by the Canadiens, the team for which the Hall of Fame center played every one of his 1,438 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games between 1955-56 and 1974-75.

But to understand the man that Richard was, you needed to read the notice published on a Montreal newspaper's obituary page March 11, five days after he died at age 84 following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Video: The Life of Hall of Famer Henri Richard

Roughly the size of a bookmark at just two inches wide and 5½ inches deep, topped by a head and shoulders photo, the 114-word notice mentioned Richard's wife, Lise Villiard, his five children, their four spouses, his 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 

There were details of the planned visitation Monday, a private service that would follow, and where donations could be made in Richard's memory.

There was not a single word about his hockey career.

1955-56 Stanley Cup champion Canadiens, Henri Richard's first of his NHL-record 11. He is third from left in the second row, between his brother Maurice (wearing an A) and Dickie Moore.

To a letter, the obituary notice was faithful to his wishes. A man who was fiercely proud of what he had achieved on the ice, and of his nearly 70-year relationship with the Canadiens organization, Richard often said that his life was all about his family.

"That," said Denis Richard, one of his sons, "is who my father was."

Richard's career and legacy were celebrated at Bell Centre on March 10 before the Canadiens game against the Nashville Predators. A scoreboard video tribute was followed by a moment of silence that symbolically lasted 16 seconds, the number of the sweater he wore his entire career and since 1975 has been hanging, retired, from the ceiling of first the Montreal Forum, now Bell Centre.

On Monday afternoon, family and friends were to gather in Laval, north of Montreal, to bid farewell to a man who on and off the ice was much larger than his 5-foot-7, 160-pound frame. In the end, realities of the day cancelled the visitation.

Henri Richard with his refereeing brother, Maurice, in Canadiens alumni action in the early 1980s.

"I'm sorry we had to restrict the day to family only but we had no choice," Denis Richard said late Friday. "We had to be responsible for the public's health."

The Richards had first hoped to hold Henri's memorial on March 12.

"But then we saw the Canadiens had a game that night [at home against the Buffalo Sabres] and we didn't want to inconvenience people," Denis said.

Neither the family nor anyone else had any idea the NHL that morning would pause its season in a bid to help stem the coronavirus pandemic.

So now the March 16 memorial is accidentally symbolic, being held on a date that matches Richard's sweater number. Coincidentally, it also comes 65 years to the day after his legendary late older brother, Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, was suspended following a bloody March 13 battle on Boston Garden ice, historic consequences soon to follow.

Henri Richard in the mid-1950s in a team portrait and with his brother, Maurice.

Barred from the final three games of the 1954-55 regular season and the entire postseason, Maurice Richard was in the Forum on March 17 for a game against the Detroit Red Wings. He would witness Canadiens fans going on a rampage, touching off the so-called Richard Riot in the arena and in the streets of downtown Montreal, giving birth to a political revolution in Quebec.

Henri Richard would attend his first Canadiens training camp six months later, with Maurice, and on Oct. 12, 1955, at age 19, following an impressive three-game trial, he would sign his first contract. 

It was scrawled in ballpoint pen by frugal general manager Frank Selke on a nearly 2-year-old desk-calendar page, a two-way deal that would pay Richard a $5,000 signing bonus, $7,000 for 1955-56 and $8,000 for 1956-57, $5,000 per season if he was demoted to the Quebec senior league's Montreal Royals. 

He would never play a game in the minors.

Henri Richard (center) between his brother Maurice (left) and Dickie Moore, and his first Canadiens contract, for 1955-56 and 1956-57. 

Some suggest that the mighty Rocket was ready to retire in 1955, worn down by the physical and psychological bruises of the trenches in which he had toiled, long used as a pawn in a politically charged time; he only stayed, some say, to be a caretaker for Henri, almost 15 years his junior.

"That's not true," says Maurice Richard Jr., one of the Rocket's sons. "My father had a lot of good hockey left in him."

Maurice's first game following his return from his infamous suspension would be Oct. 6, 1955, a 2-0 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It would be the first in the NHL for Henri, then barely 150 pounds, one of three games he would play before signing his maiden contract.

Henri's first of 358 NHL goals came on Oct. 15 against the New York Rangers, skating with fellow future Hall of Famers Jean Beliveau and Bert Olmstead.

Henri Richard (right) with his brothers Claude (center), who didn't play in the NHL, and Maurice at training camp in 1959.

Coach Toe Blake was in no hurry to put the Richard brothers on a line, saying he thought "they might be jumpy together. Also, I thought Rock might pass up a lot of scoring chances to feed the puck to Henri."

But on Oct. 22, injuries shuffling his lineup, Blake finally paired them. Henri scored twice, feeding his brother for another goal, in a 6-0 Forum win against the Chicago Black Hawks. Ferocious winger Dickie Moore would complement them perfectly, Henri scoring 40 points (19 goals, 21 assists) in his rookie season.

The brothers were part of the Canadiens' unprecedented run of five consecutive championships from 1956-60, Henri's first five seasons in the NHL, the Rocket's final five.

Most thought that young Henri would fail without the veteran Rocket's guiding hand. But Blake believed that Henri's blazing speed made Maurice an even better player, improving his playmaking skills.

Henri Richard in his Montreal tavern at Christmas of 1960.

A March 1958 Maclean's Magazine feature by Trent Frayne recalled 6-year-old Henri going to the Forum, wedged between his parents to watch Maurice, then a fledgling star. Two years later, during the 1944-45 season, Henri would witness the Rocket become the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals in a season.

By age 6, Henri was spending endless hours on a frozen stream near the family home in Montreal, his first skates a gift from his famous big brother. Four years later, his stick planted in a snowbank, he would be skating with Lise Villiard, the childhood sweetheart he would marry in the spring of 1956.

Barely out of his teens, Henri was sensing Maurice's long shadow, no matter that he was his own man, developing steadily into the better all-around player. Three seasons into his NHL career, he was wondering aloud what kind of legacy he could possibly have next to that of his legendary brother.

"When Maurice is gone, if I don't do so well as he did -- well, I won't do so well as that -- but if I don't do real well, the people, they will remember him and for sure they're going to say something."

With 11 Stanley Cup championships, his No. 16 retired, a Hockey Hall of Fame member who was voted among the 100 Greatest NHL Players in the League's 2017 Centennial year, Henri Richard needn't have worried.

Henri Richard seen from overhead behind a Montreal Forum net during a game against the Chicago Black Hawks.

Photos: HHoF Images, Getty Images, Classic Auctions

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