Video: Maurice Richard remains cultural icon in Montreal
From the day he first pulled on a Montreal Canadiens sweater in 1942, becoming the most fearsome forward of his generation after a few broken bones slowed his start, Richard would maintain, "I'm just a hockey player." But to French-Canadians, and to the province of Quebec that claimed him as their own and used him as a rallying cry during a time of political need, the Rocket was very much more than just a gifted goal-scorer and the spark that ignited his team.
Richard, who died from cancer on May 27, 2000, remains an icon in his native province, nearly as large in death as he was during the prime of his life.
Books, miniseries, documentaries and a critically acclaimed film have been produced about the Rocket, who has been celebrated with statues. Since 1999, the NHL's leading goal-scorer has been annually awarded the Maurice Richard Trophy. There have been hockey teams named in his honor; the Canadiens' American Hockey League affiliate will be renamed the Laval Rocket when it moves from St. John's, Newfoundland to north of Montreal for the 2017-18 season.
Games: 978 | Goals: 544 | Assists: 421 | Points: 965
Richard's impact on hockey and on Quebec society has been the subject of university study and theses, not surprising considering this man existed for a people as a cultural necessity as much as a hockey player.
In his 2009 book, "The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard," author Benoit Menancon wrote, "A toddler of the 1950s wanted Maurice Richard overalls to wear, his mother would serve him Maurice Richard soup, his father would buy a Maurice Richard transistor radio; this same toddler, now grown into adulthood, could have a glass of Maurice Richard wine."
Perhaps more than any other player, Richard transcended the game in which he was a bona fide superstar. All of this was built on his otherworldly talent as a fire-breathing, left-shooting right wing who often is described as hockey's most dangerous player of all time, from the blue line in.
Most famously, in 1952 Richard had what might be the greatest goal in NHL history, coming out of the Canadiens locker room with a concussion to score the winning goal against the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs semifinal round.
"What I remember most about the Rocket were his eyes," said former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Glenn Hall, a fellow Hall of Famer. "When he came flying toward you with the puck on his stick, his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine."
William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning American novelist writing about hockey for Sports Illustrated in 1955, said Richard had "something of the passionate glittering fatal alien quality of snakes."
The same year, Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan considered the Rocket's intensity in a Saturday Night magazine profile:
"Every great player must expect to be marked closely, but for 10 years, the Rocket has been systematically heckled by rival coaches who knew intuitively that nobody can be more easily taken advantage of than a genius. Richard can stand any amount of roughness that comes naturally with the game, but after a night in which he has been cynically tripped, slashed, held, boarded and verbally insulted by lesser men, he is apt to go wild. His rage is curiously impersonal - an explosion against frustration itself."
It was this boiling blood that in some ways would define Richard's career. After punching a linesman while being restrained during a March melee against the Bruins on March 13, 1955, Richard was suspended by NHL President Clarence Campbell for the final three games of the regular season and all of the playoffs.
The ban would cost the Rocket his best shot at winning what would have been his only NHL scoring title, which he lost that season by a point to teammate Bernie Geoffrion. Enraged fans turned on Campbell in the Montreal Forum on March 17, an uprising of French-Canadians not just against the suspension but more broadly against the English-speaking power brokers of the day. The Canadiens forfeited the game against the Detroit Red Wings when a released tear-gas canister forced evacuation of the building, the ensuing riot spilling into Montreal streets in an event that would forever change the axis of Quebec politics.
Perhaps no one has better described the glorious talent of the Rocket, the brilliant right wing with center Elmer Lach and left wing Toe Blake on the legendary "Punch Line" of the 1940s, than sportswriter Trent Frayne.
"Richard scored goals from all angles and positions," Frayne wrote in a late 1950s article. "Sometimes he scored them while lying flat on his back, with at least one defender clutching his stick, another hacking at his ankles and a third plucking thoughtfully at his sweater.
"He was at his peak for the dozen years from 1945 to 1957 when there was a revolution in hockey's cultural standards - a liberalizing process encouraging the referees to ignore all but the most flagrant violations of the written rules and [which], in turn, encourages poor or indifferent players to cut good or great players down to size by slamming them bodily into the sides of the rinks, massaging their ribs with fibre-padded elbows, inserting the crooked blades of hockey sticks between their legs or under their armpits and generally impeding what used to be considered their lawful progress.
"In consequence, modern hockey has produced many teams which stand out above their rivals but few individual players who stand out above the other individuals. For almost a decade, Richard has towered over them all, both as a goal scorer and as a piece of property."
Richard retired in 1960 as Canadiens captain, following the team's unmatched string of five consecutive Stanley Cup championships, having won the Cup eight times. Five years before he hung up his skates, the Rocket's younger brother, Henri, joined the Canadiens. The so-called "Pocket Rocket" went on to become captain and win 11 Stanley Cup titles, a feat unmatched.
Rocket Richard ended his career with an NHL-leading 544 regular-season goals, that record being broken in 1963 by his legendary rival, Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings.
The argument constantly raged when fans compared the Rocket with Detroit's Mr. Hockey. Howe was the more complete player, by far, but if you needed a goal, against all odds at a critical time, you would have wanted Richard on the ice.
The Rocket made the NHL First or Second All-Star Team 14 times. He won the Hart Trophy in 1946-47 as the NHL's most valuable player. Five times he was the League's leading goal-scorer. He was the first man to score 50 goals in 50 games, in 1944-45, and to reach 500 goals.
There were ridiculous accomplishments along the way. One of the most famous came on Dec. 28, 1944, the night the Rocket tried to beg off a home game against Boston after having spent the entire day moving from one Montreal address to another. Coach Dick Irvin convinced his exhausted star to lace up and just give it his best, so Richard went out and scored five goals and assisted on three more in a 9-1 win.
Richard achieved all he did from modest beginnings. He was a better baseball player than hockey player growing up in the north end of Montreal. The oldest of eight siblings, raised during the Great Depression, he played his first organized hockey for a parish team, falling so deeply in love with the game that as a schoolboy, he sometimes would skate six days a week on a half dozen teams, then practice the seventh day on the backyard rink with his father.
The Rocket -- as he would be nicknamed by teammates, then the press -- would never see a game at the Montreal Forum before he played there, his family unable to afford a ticket. But Richard would almost singlehandedly fill the building for years with his keen nose for the net and his tenacious drive to get there.
Like Howie Morenz 63 years before him, the Rocket would lie in state in Montreal's hockey arena - Morenz in the Forum, Richard in the Bell Centre - where tens of thousands of fans filed past to pay their final respects.
"Maurice Richard will forever be the man who defined and then embodied the purest hockey tradition," then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said upon Richard's death. "What really set him apart, and what his fans loved most about him, was his extraordinary intensity. He played with great feeling and flair and pursued victory like none other. The combination of passion and skill are what made him such a phenomenal player."
The great Jean Beliveau, who in 1961 would take over for Doug Harvey and serve as Canadiens captain for the next decade, perhaps best knew the Rocket, a hockey giant whose impossibly big skates Beliveau would more than fill with a very different style of play.
"When I first arrived in Montreal, the Canadiens may have been managed by Frank Selke, but they were really Joseph Henri Maurice Richard's team," Beliveau wrote in his 1994 autobiography "My Life in Hockey."
"The Rocket was the heart and soul of the Canadiens, an inspiration to us all, especially to younger French-Canadians who were rising through the ranks. He was man and myth, larger than life in some ways, yet most ordinary human in others. …
"The timing of his contribution, from the war years through to 1960, coincided with that period in Quebec when a tidal wave of change was sweeping aside more than 300 years of history.
"As players, however, we saw Maurice in simpler, more immediate terms. He embodied something which would rub off on many of his teammates, something which would carry us to five straight championships by the end of the decade. Quite simply, Maurice Richard hated to lose with every fibre of his being. Everyone picked up on this - his teammates, his opponents, the media, and the hockey public at large."
Like Beliveau after him, Richard put his individual statistics second to his team. He viewed his intangibles as things more important than his deadly aim with the puck, making him one of the greatest players of all time, and a 1961 Hall of Fame inductee.
"What counted above all is that I worked hard," he said in one his final interviews. "I set a good example. I helped other players, I went out with them. And when anyone didn't want to go to a banquet or ceremony of some sort, I went in his place."
To this day, the Rocket's aura still burns radiantly around the Canadiens. In fable and in reality, he remains an incandescent figure on and off Montreal ice.
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